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Deke Bellavia

"Sports Talk" Co-Host
Weekdays 4-8pm

Twitter: @dekebigchief
Email: bigchief@wwl.com

Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 4: Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Georgia

Arkansas Razorbacks: After leading the Wisconsin Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls, Brett Bielema is not used to winning only three games in a season. Arkansas was 3-9 in 2013, but his second year brings better expectations and likely more wins for the Hogs.

The Arkansas offense will once again focus on rushing the football. RB Alex Collins led the Hogs last season with more than one thousand yards rushing, and he should get more attempts in 2014. RB Jonathan Williams returns after making a splash in 2013, averaging six yards per carry - he could become one of the best RB's in the SEC this year.

At QB, it looks like Brandon Allen can be better than he was a season ago; a better rushing attack can help the junior QB. It's not how many times Allen throws the football, it's how many completions he makes that counts. As a sophomore Allen completed less than 50% of his passes. That has to upgrade this season, or it could mean trouble.

Defensively, the Hogs can't be any worse. Arkansas had to be jealous of A&M's defense last year because the two were in a heated battle to see who was worse. Arkansas finished last, allowing 38 points and 475 yards per game.

Bielema hired former Tampa Bay LB's Coach Robb Smith as defensive coordinator, and he has some talent to work with this season. The leading tackler from a season ago is back in LB Braylon Mitchell, who was among the elite defenders in the league in 2013, averaging eight stops per game. The Arkansas defensive secondary is better with the return of Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines.

Looking at the schedule, it's hard to figure out what three games they can win. The first five games could have Arkansas off to a 1-4 start, and then on the back end there are dates with Alabama, UGA, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri. Simply put, if Arkansas is going to be better this season, they'll have to win a lot of games they are not expected to.

Texas A&M Aggies: They've scored a lot of points and have set all kinds of historical SEC records on offense in the last two years, but the A&M defense has given up more yards over that span than the majority of the 125 FBS schools.

The man dubbed "Johnny Football" is gone, and one has to wonder - can the Aggies keep running track during fall afternoons in the SEC? First things first; if Texas A&M is going to be taken seriously, they have to improve on defense.

The Aggies ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC in all major stats last year, allowing 499 yards and 37 points per game. That won't cut it in the SEC. Hell, that won't cut it anywhere. But look at the bright side - there is nowhere to go but up, right?

The A&M defense has a lot of Louisiana players on their team! Their best defender is DB Deshazor Everett, a former DeRidder star who has become a leader in the Aggies secondary and could be among the elite DB's in the SEC this season. Fellow Louisiana product Noel Ellis is back and should be in the nickel package rotation. The Aggies did kick SEC All-Freshman standout Darrion Claiborne out for off-field issues, and that hurts.

The Aggies D-line gets a boost with the return of Myles Garrett, and look for De'Vante Harris to have a better season this year.

Over on offense, how can they replace "Johnny Football?" Well, you can't. Even more bad news is that they can't replace WR Mike Evans either. This double blow will hurt for quite some time. But Coach Kevin Sumlin is damn good, and he will be efficient on offense, as he always has been. Averaging 38.4 points per game and over 514 yards of offense is not going to happen without Manziel and Evans, but that doesn't mean the Aggies can't be effective this year.

RB Trey Williams returns and the debut of Oregon Transfer Tra Carson should help. Coming out of spring, there was a battle for the QB spot between Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill. Whomever Sumlin goes with will give the Aggies the best shot at being productive.

I don't have to look at the Aggies schedule. The real question is A&M fall to the bottom of the SEC West? I'd bet yes. But even when he was in Houston with the Cougars, Kevin Sumlin was a big winner. Don't count out the Aggies, at least as far as being a bowl caliber team in 2014.

Georgia Bulldogs: The Bulldogs were the favorite to get back to Atlanta in the SEC title game for a third straight season, but the Missouri Tigers shocked everyone, and the Bulldogs fell apart after a big win over LSU.

Still, Coach Mark Richt has a good core of players. Folks in Athens are extremely excited about the return of RB Todd Gurley. Many CFB analysts claim that Gruley is the best RB in the nation. He missed three games last season and still had 10 TD's and close to one thousand yards rushing. Gurley is the premiere back in the SEC and he could very well eclipse 1,500 yards this year.

Fellow RB Keith Marshall is quite the compliment to Gurley, and the two of them make will make the best RB tandem in the SEC. Defensive units will sweat preparing for them.

Right now, it looks like Hutson Mason will be the Bulldogs' starting QB. Hutson will have experience back at WR's in the form of Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. The UGA offense may not be as good as last season's unit that averaged 37 points per game, but they will still be very efficient.

The Bulldogs defense left a lot to be desired a year ago. Numbers can sometimes be misleading, and to me, that was the case in a year ago. Georgia was the 5th best defense in the SEC last season allowing on average 389 yards per game - but was was troubling was the 32 points per game the unit surrendered each week.

Mark Richt hired a new coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt's last two seasons coaching saw him win national titles with Alabama as DB's coach in 2012, and last season he was with Florida State. Pruitt is expected to have an immediate impact on the Bulldogs defense. UGA did record 33 sacks last season, and should have another consistent pass rush in 2014.

The Bulldogs have some solid players back on defense including sophomore Leonard Floyd, who had a great freshman season recording 9.5 tackles for a loss to go along with 6.5 sacks. He should be even better in 2014. LB Jordan Jenkins returns after having four sacks last season, and you can expect ILB Ramik Wilson to pick up where he left off with four sacks in 2013. The Bulldogs have a very sound group of LB's on their roster.

In the defensive backfield, look for Josh Harvey-Clemons to be among the elite DB's in the SEC. As a sophomore in 2013, Harvey-Clemons had 50 tackles. The Bulldogs secondary should be able to improve on their interception total from a season ago which ranked last in the SEC with just two picks.

The first seven games of the season are brutal, with a season-opening game against rival and ACC power Clemson followed by an open date, and then an SEC tilt versus South Carolina. Troy, Tennesse, Vandy, Missouri and Arkansas follow with no slouches in that stretch. I expect UGA to be among the contenders in the SEC East this season, and a return trip to Atlanta is not out of the question.

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Deke: NFC South training camp preview

As the Who Dat Nation no doubt knows, Saints training camp starts this week! As the Black and Gold head out to West Virginia, let's take a quick look at how the other teams in the NFC South are shaping up.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons will hold camp at Flowery Branch, GA with the youngsters reporting on July 22 and the vets on the 24th. The Dirty Birds were 4-12 last season - I don't expect that to be the case this year. Atlanta has been the #1 seed in the NFC two times in three seasons ('10 & '12) and they know how to win close games. Losing Sean Weatherspoon hurts bad, TE Tony Gonzales is gone and there are some questions about the O-line, but with Ryan at QB and WR's White and Jones back, I think ATL will be back to contend in the South this season.

Carolina Panthers: The defending division champs will hold training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC beginning July 24th. The Panthers face an uphill climb from last season's 12-4 record. With QB Cam Newton coming off surgery and not having time to work with an entire new core of WR's, one has to wonder how long it will take to get a decent chemistry established. Carolina has a lot of new faces, and lost a key franchise player in WR Steve Smith. Their young O-Line will be tested as well. Ron Rivera parlayed a hot seat position going into 2013 into an extension going into 2014, and should be happy, because if there is one team in the NFC that is a candidate from going from first to worst it's these Cats!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa will hold camp at home inside One Buccaneer Place. Rookies report on July 21 and vets July 24. Sean Payton went 10-6 and earned the #2 seed in 2006, and Mike Smith had Atlanta at 11-5 and in the playoffs in 2008. Both coaches did that in their first season as head coach in the NFL, and I think Lovie Smith can do it in 2014. Smith is a respected coach that has a genuine relationship with his players, and has more overall talent taking over the Bucs than he did for the Bears. Smith has good RB's, game breaking WR's, a Pro-Bowl caliber player in each phase of his defense, and they are better at QB. I think Tampa Bay can win 10 games and become the best longshot to make the playoffs in 2014. I'm laying a few ducks on the Bucs!

New Orleans Saints: New Orleans reports to the Greenbrier for training camp this Thursday and practice starts Friday. The Saints started the season 5-0 and then limped down the stretch, going 6-5 in their last 11 games. New Orleans could have stayed at home for their first post-season came in 2013, but squandered that opportunity on multiple occasions. But something great came from that missed chance as the Saints won a game on the road in the post season against Philly. When looking at the New Orleans roster, I don't see any glaring weaknesses. The Saints have a lot of hype about them going into the season, and I'm banking that they'll live up to it! Are you?
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Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 3: Kentucky and Mississippi State

As SEC Media Days continue this week, let's take a look at two more teams. How will the Wildcats and the Bulldogs fare in 2014?

Kentucky Wildcats: After a dismal 2-10 record in the first year under Coach Mark Stoops, there is nowhere to go but up for the Cats from Lexington. Other than hanging tough against Alabama for the first half of the game, the Wildcats truly had nothing to brag about. Kentucky was a bad football team in 2013.

The Cats ranked at the bottom, or close to it, in all major stats last season. If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about an offense that was an SEC worst at 14.8 points per game scoring average, it should be that the Wildcats welcome back 4 of 5 O-linemen.

UK also welcomes back leading rusher Jojo Kemp. Kemp showed signs of being a workhorse by rushing for nearly 500 yards last season. And this season RB Braylon Heard gets his shot after transferring from Nebraska. The Cats leading WR's, Javes Blue and Ryan Timmons, should help boost the UK offense as well.

Things were not much better defense last year... the Wildcats allowed 36.4 points per game on average, as well as giving up 466 yards per game. I guess the good news is that 8 of 11 starters are back. The strength of the defense looks to be upfront with the return of D-linemen Za'Darius Williamson and Alvin Dupree. The Wildcats went to the JUCO ranks to bring in some instant help to their defensive backfield, which was one of the worst in the country last season.

Kentucky only won two games in 2013, and other than close games against South Carolina and Mississippi State, they didn't come close in any other contest. UK could be an improved team in 2014, but I wouldn't recommend looking for anything above four wins.

Mississippi State Bulldogs: Entering their final game of the regular season with a disappointing 5-6 record, the Bulldogs rallied on Turkey Night to beat rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, and followed that up with a blowout win over Rice. The thought of seven wins will not satisfy Bulldogs fans - they want more!

Coach Dan Mullen could very well have his best team to date going into this season. The offense has experience in all areas and the defense welcomes back eight starters from last season's unit. Is this the season the Bulldogs are taken seriously?

Right now, they look to be a much better team. On offense, QB Dak Prescott returns after having a nice showing in 2013. The SEC's 7th leading rusher averaged nearly 90 yards per game last year - the problem was that Prescott led MSU in rushing. The Bulldogs need someone to step up and get more production from the RB spot; Josh Robinson is in the mix, and averaged six yards per carry last year. And RB Ashton Shumpert is expected to be better this season too.

WR Jameon Lewis is back after hauling in 42 grabs for 483 yards last season. The Bulldogs will look to score more this season after averaging 22.4 points per game in 2013 and MSU finished 9th in total offense in the conference.

The MSU defense was not bad at all in 2013! And with eight starters back this year, the Bulldogs should be even better. The Bulldogs allowed 29.6 points per game and they were 8th in total defense in the SEC. But the brightest numbers for the MSU D came in the form of interceptions (12), 3rd down Defense (34.7 % conversions allowed) and turnovers (+5.) That turnover margin was 3rd in the SEC!

Benardrick McKinney led MSU in tackles last season during his sophomore year and folks are excited about how much better he can be in 2014. The Bulldogs defensive backfield has some fire power in the form of Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love.

Looking at the schedule, I think MSU should be 3-0 when they head to Baton Rouge to take on LSU on September 20th. The Tigers have flat-out owned Mississippi State, and a win in Baton Rouge could very well be the shot in the arm MSU needs to call a signature win. If it happens they could have another very good season. But until they beat LSU, not many will give them a chance to do so.
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Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 2: South Carolina and Tennessee

People sometimes ask me how come I know so much about college football. My response is that I read, look, listen and watch. Not to follow the nation's toughest conference is flat out dumb. But hey, to each his own! Today was day two of SEC Media Days, so let's take a look at two more teams.

READ MORE: Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 1: Florida, Auburn and Vandy

South Carolina Gamecocks: When he first took over at South Carolina, Coach Steve Spurrier was more of a sound bite than anything else, but in the past three seasons, his Gamecocks have become one of the best programs in the nation.

South Carolina is coming off their impressive third 11-win season, and no other team in the SEC East has a better record over that span. Entering the 2014 season, the Gamecocks look to be as solid as any club in the Eastern Division.

On offense, the team does have to replace a solid QB in Conner Shaw, but the return of RB Miles Davis makes things a little easier. Davis rushed for over 1,000 yards and 11 TD's in 2013, averaging a whopping 6 six yards per rush, and he could be even better in 2014.

Dylan Thompson will take over at QB with some quality experience; he threw for over 700 yards and four TD's last season. Expect him to hook up with WR's Pharoh Cooper and Shaq Roland when he looks to pass the ball.

Even though SC does not have as much talent on offense as some other teams in the league, Spurrier is still sharp as a tack when it comes to game planning and play calling.

The difference for the Gamecocks the last few years has been an improved defensive unit. ​The last two seasons their strength was along their defensive front, but now the power looks to be in the middle of the defense at linebacker.

Returning to lead the way are Kaiwan Lewis and Skai Moore. The rest of the defense features a lot of new faces and younger players that have talent but need some playing time. The Gamecocks were 3rd in the SEC in total defense and they allowed only 22 points per game, which put them at 4th in the SEC.

The Gamecocks became one of the best 3rd down defensive teams by allowing opposing offenses to convert only 34.7 percent of the time.

Man, as far as their schedule, it doesn't start tougher for anyone than SC. They'll open with A&M, followed by a date with East Carolina, UGA, Vandy and then defending East champs Missouri. If the Gamecocks can come out of that stretch 4-2 they will be OK. Good thing for them that the first three games are at home.

Another 11 win season is more than likely the goal, but to reach 11 wins this season may perhaps be the best job the ole ball coach has done at South Carolina.

Tennessee Volunteers: People started singing Rocky Top again last season, and it was due to the respectable season that Butch Jones mustered up in his first season as coach of UT. The sleeping giant in Knoxville woke up last year - and now he might even walk upright! I don't have to tell you how much tradition and support the Tennessee program has. And when the Vols are winning, their program is as good as any.

Now winning and winning big is something that has not happened since Phillip Fulmer was in charge, but the dog days of Lane and Derrick are over. Butch Jones is the man and I think he's going to make the Vols faithful proud once again.

The Vols were much better than their 5-7 record indicated a season ago; they could have easily been 7-5. More importantly, you could see that the hard play in the Vols was consistent, and even in some blowout losses, the team did not quit.

On offense, it's amazing that the Vols were able to win five games with an scoring average of 18 points per game. This unit can't be any worse in 2014. QB Justin Woorley is back, and he or Joshua Dobbs could be the top signal caller. The Vols have the luxury of having some pretty good WR's with players like Marquez North and Von Pearson back. North showed signs of being a solid player for UT during his freshman season a year ago.

On defense, Tennessee welcomes back the SEC's second leading tackler in LB A.J Johnson, who had 81 stops a season ago, averaging a shade over 10 tackles per game. DB Brian Randolph is back after picking up 34 solo stops last season and four interceptions to his credit. Incoming freshman Emmanuel Mosley could start, as he was one of the nation's most sought-after recruits a year ago. The Vols could get many new faces on the field quicker than not with the country's 5th-best recruiting class coming on campus.

ennessee has two winnable games against Utah State and Arkansas State the first two weeks of the season, but then brutal road trips to Oklahoma to face the Sooners, followed by a trip to Georgia to play the Bulldogs.

Picking five wins for the Vols is a hard feat with so much unknown right now, but with the job that Butch Jones has done in a short amount of time, patience may be the key. With more experience from some of the nation's best freshman forthcoming and more stockpiled recruiting classes in the fold I can see these Vols becoming a power in the East once again. But it will take some time.
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Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 1: Florida, Auburn and Vandy

Today, the nation's toughest conference began their annual week of media days, where coaches from every SEC school address the media. Today, I'll take a look at what officials from Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt had to say.

Florida Gators: This is it for Head Coach Will Muschamp. After an embarrassing 4-8 season in 2013, Muschamp must show significant improvement or he will be out of a job come November. After a 3-1 start, the Gators lost their last seven games of the year including a 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, in which Georgia Southern did not attempt a pass. Ouch!

Anyone that has followed the Gators will tell you that Muschamp's defensive units have not been bad in his tenure, but his offense stinks! Florida failed to reach a bowl for the first time since 1990. If they don't want to miss out on the post-season this year, then new OC Kurt Roper will have to turn around an offense that ranked as one of the worst in all of college football last season.

The Gators are going to have several new faces along their O-line, but have good depth at the RB position. RB's Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones and Mack Brown give Florida talent, speed and options. Unless Roper can piece together a consistent passing attack, the Florida offense will see defenses stack the line and challenge them to throw the football.

Like I said, defense is an area the the Gators have excelled in under Will Muschamp. It's hard to believe that a team that had an 4-8 record owned the second best defense in the nation's toughest league a year ago. Perhaps the strength of the UF defense is in their backfield. CB's Dante Fowler and Vernon Harreaves are two of the best in the nation, and both could be potential top flight Draft picks soon. Seven of their best tacklers are returning, and there are otherwise no glaring weaknesses on this defensive unit.

After the first three games of the season, I can only tell you that four wins are likely for Florida. Week four of the season begins a dangerous stretch with games against Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FSU. Other than a gimmie against Eastern Kentucky, I can't guarantee anything.

Is this a Gators program that finished the regular season 11-1 and was a hair away from playing in the national title game? Or is this a Gators team that is a 4-8 club like their record indicated a season ago? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. If things get rocky early on, the chance for a change will be far greater than not.

Auburn Tigers: Going to the National Championship in your first year as head coach ain't too damn bad! The Tigers completed one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in the history of sports as they advanced to the BCS Title Game a season ago.

Head Coach Gus Mulzhan is getting praised all over, and his Tigers are now one of the elite teams in college football. With QB Nick Marshall and WR Sammie Coats, the Tigers could once again find themselves in the SEC Title hunt.

Auburn will be able to once again move the ball, and they excel at getting opponents into track meet-style games.

Ellis Johnson's defense did not have bragging-type numbers a season ago, but the Tigers looked solid in red zone defense, and came up with big defensive plays and turnovers throughout the season. Auburn should have a more consistent defense in 2014.

The back half of the schedule is brutal, with games against South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. That makes the task of getting back to Atlanta much tougher this season, especially meeting Georgia and Alabama being on the road.

An early October showdown with the lone team to beat the Tigers in the regular season in 2013 could be huge; that came at the hands of the LSU Tigers. But this season, that match-up will be in Auburn and not in Baton Rouge.

Vanderbilt Commodores: How will the Commodores be now that James Franklin is no longer there? Franklin made the Commodores a legit threat in the SEC East, and over the course of the last four seasons, Vanderbilt had one of the best divisional records of any school in the Eastern Division.

Vanderbilt had swagger and they won some big games, but now, new Coach Derrick Mason has the job of maintaing the success that Franklin built in Music City, USA. The Commodores schedule sets them up to get off to another good start.

In my opinion, five of the first seven games are winnable contests. The first four games of the season are at home, with wins more than likely coming against Temple in the season opener and when Vandy hosts UMass in week three.

The Commodores home games against Ole Miss in week two and South Carolina in week four are crucial. If Vanderbilt can spilt those games they will be in good shape to return to a bowl again in 2014.

Vanderbilt seemingly always has a sound defense, but replacing three of the units top four tacklers from a year ago will be a daunting task. Offensively, they'll have a new QB under center this season, but do return the majority of their O-Line in 2014.

History tells us that the battles against the Rebels and Gamecocks will be hard fought, and I would not be surprised if Vanderbilt wins both of those games. If Vanderbilt can get by Ole Miss and South Carolina they would be 5-0 before they hit the road to take on Kentucky and Georgia.

I could see the Commodores winning eight games this season. But with an improved UK team and a much better team in rival Tennessee, not reaching the eight-win total would not be shocking. With so many key players to replace from last season's 9-4 team, a six-win season is a more realistic goal for Vanderbilt.
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Deke: Top 5 college football teams for 2014

Everyone has their own predictions when it comes to college football, and I've jotted down who I think are the top five teams entering the 2014. It's hard to place an SEC Team atop of the poll simply due to the toughness of the conference, and how hard it is to get through the entire season without a loss and then play in a title game that features another title-contending team. So here is my pre-season CFB Top 5!

1. Florida State Seminoles – The 'Noles are loaded. Heisman QB Jamies Winston is back along with a ton of speed and talented offensive weapons. But the FSU defense is what makes them tops in the nation. DE Mario Edwards is a big time pro prospect. The 'Noles schedule is not as tough as other top contenders, and that should be the difference in them making it back to the title game this season. Watch out for those rival Hurricanes late in the season.

2. Oklahoma Sooners – How much better can Sooners QB Trevor Knight look? After throwing for over 300 yards and four TD's in the Sooners' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, folks out in Oklahoma think these Sooners can make it to the four-team playoff. I'm here to tell you this team has a chance to be very good. WR Sterling Sheppard is a legit threat, and defensively, OU should be much better with the return of All Big XII DL Charles Tapper and the 2013 conference freshman of the year in DB Dominique Alexander. Many national experts claim the OU LB's are arguably the best in the nation with Erick Striker leading the pack. The schedule is favorable and the Sooners should land in the four team playoff this January.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide – RTR! After looking near flawless in their first 11 games, the wheels came off of the bus against Auburn and Oklahoma. Still, the Tide are a machine, and the machine will roll again in 2014. Alabama does have tough road games against Ole Miss and LSU, but outside of those dates, they should be OK. RB's TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake are the truth and is WR Amari Cooper. But who's going to get them the ball? Whenever you have to replace a veteran leader like AJ McCarron, it's a hard thing to do. Blake Sims is a talented player but has no experience. And incoming QB Jacob Coker has not taken a snap on campus. Regardless, the Tide's Defense will be stout enough to allow the offense to gel. DL A'Shawn Robinson looked salty in the Crimson Tide's A-Day Spring Game. And JC transfers Jarran Allen and D.J. Pettway are big time SEC players. I fully expect the Tide to be a title contender again this season. What else is new?

4. Auburn Tigers – From 3-9 to 12-2 you would have to say that 2013 was an incredible turn around for the Tigers that almost won it all. Now with a boat load of talent back, Auburn should make another run in the SEC and be among the nation's elite teams this season. Auburn will have an unstoppable offense and their defense should be improved this year as well. QB Nick Marshall had a huge season in which he became arguably the best dual threat QB in CFB. WR Sammie Coats became a go to guy for Marshall, and D'haquille Williams will be an instant playmaker for the Tigers offense this season. The Auburn defense was bad last season from a stats standpoint. But their red zone play and ability to create turnovers was pretty good. Coordinator Ellis Johnson will have his defense much improved this season. Keep an eye on Montravius Adams, as he is the leader on the Tigers defensive front. The schedule is still tough with road dates at Georgia and Alabama and home dates against LSU and South Carolina. But with an electric offense, the Tigers should be in every game they play this season.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes – QB Braxton Miller is back and another undefeated regular season seems high possible for the Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes from Columbus. But replacing RB Carlos Hyde is no easy task for Meyer. Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon are home run hitters with game breaking ability. The Buckeyes Offense does not have to be as good as a year ago when they averaged a massive 511 yards per game. Defensively the Buckeyes need to get better. OSU gave up 24 points per game in 2013 and the Buckeyes got gashed in their last two games against Michigan State and Clemson. Other than a road trip to Happy Valley to face the PSU Ninty Lions and a early November trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State, the Buckeyes should be in shape to be in line for a playoff berth this post season.
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Deke: LeBron goes home - I am down with the King!

Websites crashed, Twitter blew up (and is still blowing up) and the once 150-1 odds for the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the 2015 NBA championship shrank down to 3-1. Yes, very few people in the world can ever and will ever matter as much as LeBron James.

Four years ago he was bashed, beat down and called everything in the book and then some, but somehow none of that matters anymore. After days and weeks of speculation the greatest basketball player on the planet told the world he's "coming home."

In the history of sports very few athletes have been able to swing the pendulum like Mr. James has and does. And now with his return to his home state of Ohio, LeBron James shows the world sometimes in life we do things that are not pleasing to others…that may rile the masse…but we learn, mature then make them right.

READ MORE: King James returning to Cleveland

Some will chime in and call James the same thing they did four years ago…a traitor. The only difference--now Miami is the city being dissed as Cleveland once was. Some will reserve judgment and see how James fairs in C-Town during his second stint. Then there are those, who like me, who believe you can make mistakes, acknowledge those mistakes, then finally correct them.

James is the best player in the world, a much more mature man and most importantly a great father. Yes, I'm thick skinned and I know I'll get called a "kisser," but I'm down with the King and have no problem saying it.

Folks, it's okay to make mistakes, mess up and do things that are not cool to others. But how you respond, react then adjust is what counts most. LeBron James did nothing illegal when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. What he did was unpopular and made people down right hate him. But again, how many times in life have you made a "decision" that was not popular…then raised over three million dollars for those less fortunate?

Right now James really does wield the power of a king… numbers don't lie. Check this out. When LeBron James informed Sports Illustrated he was returning to Cleveland, the Cavaliers instantly became the (3-1) favorite to the 2015 NBA Title. Folks, this is a Cavilers team that missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. And now with one man's decision, they are the favorite to win it all. Who else carries that kind of weight?

When James last played for the Cavs, ticket prices averaged $195 dollars. When James left, prices plummeted to $51 dollars. Reckon he has value? And I don't even have to mention how much the Cavs franchise stands to gain this week alone on jersey sales.

The city that has been dogged and hailed as a bad luck sports town, now has two of the most polarizing sports figures in the world. The Browns have Johnny Football and the Cavs now see the return of the King. Man, it must be buzzing in C-Town right now, huh?

How exciting to be witness to another chapter in the ever so drama filled Lebron James book of life. I'll leave you all with this…Miami did nothing wrong here. Miami was not home. Northeast Ohio is home for LeBron James. And now the King is going to the place where there is no other place like, home!

I'm down… are you?
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Deke: Fast starts led to big things in Sean Payton era

They say numbers don't lie. That statement could not be more true, than when it comes to the New Orleans Saints success under Coach Sean Payton. And when you dig a little deeper inside the numbers, the obvious becomes crystal clear.

As he enters his ninth season as head coach of the Black & Gold, Sean Payton looks to have one of his better teams. In eight seasons, Payton led the Saints to the NFL playoffs five times, including winning the Lombardi trophy in 2009.

When you look at Coach Payton's success, patterns become apparent. For example, the first four games of the season have been the indicator about how good…or not…the Saints will be.

In 2007, 2008, and 2012 the Saints did not make the playoffs. Sure, there are many reasons why the Black & Gold stayed home after the regular season, but it was largely due to a poor start in each of those three seasons.

In 2007 the Saints started the season a dismal 0-4, 2-2 in 2008, and 0-4 in 2012. When the Saints have gone to the post season, those first four games have been wins - far more so than not.

In Payton's first season, the Saints came out of the gate a surprising 3-1. In 2009 the Saints were 4-0. They were 3-1 in 2010 and 2011, and the Black & Gold went 4-0 through their first four games in 2013.

So under Payton, the Saints have started the season either 3-1 or 4-0 in years in which New Orleans made the playoffs. On the flip side, in seasons where the Saints have not made the playoffs they kicked off the season either 0-4 or 2-2.

Is a fast start pivotal to the team's success?

Coach Payton thinks so, "I think every one of us sees the statistics of teams that start two, three, four-and-0 versus the other way around, and the percentages obviously tilt, marrying each other. I think it goes a long way." The Saints head coach continued, "I will say this: in 2006, it was critical because we were a decent team, but all of the sudden playing with some confidence after a couple of road wins and winning at home. Obviously in 2009 we carried that momentum for a large part of the season."

Coach Payton expanded on the importance of a hot start, "Each year is different. In 2011 we lost week one in a tough loss, and I think you try to come away from it and say, 'Hey, we just played a good football team.' I think it was the Super Bowl Champion (Packers) the year before. You lay out the schedule – we're not even at the point where we discuss the schedule yet, we will be in training camp – and you focus on your first challenge. Going on the road versus Atlanta is a big challenge. You really try to focus in on the next game. A fast start, though, is something that you're looking for. Each week, you're trying – especially in the beginning of the season – to improve and you're in a race to improve against the other teams."

Back in 2006 the Saints' hot 3-1 start led them to a 10-6 record, the NFC South Title and the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. In 2009 the Saints started 4-0, won the NFC South and captured the #1 seed en-route to winning the club's first Super Bowl title.

In 2010 and 2011 the Saints were 3-1 after four games with the Black & Gold landing the #5 seed in 2010, and the #3 seed in 2011. And last season's 4-0 start helped the Saints earn another post season berth as the team was seeded 6th in the NFC.

So, if history taught us anything, it points out that the Saints need a good start. And if the Saints don't have a good season in 2014, we may very well look back and point to how the team's record was after the first four games. And if that record is 0-4 or 2-2, then it more than likely won't be good. At least that's what history says!
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Deke: Graham deal should get done sooner than later

Now that the ruling is in, a long term deal to keep TE Jimmy Graham in a Saints uniform should get done, and soon. I have no reason to believe otherwise. Graham will probably become the highest paid tight end in the NFL.

For those who were upset that Graham tested the waters to see if he could be classified as a WR, my words to you would be 'don't take it personally.' It was all a matter of business. Now with that hurdle cleared and out of the way, it's time to focus on what can be controlled.

READ MORE: Complete text of Burbank's Jimmy Graham ruling

What can be controlled is making sure that the leader in touchdown receptions in 2013 remains in Black and Gold. Graham is a pass catcher. WR's, TE's and RB's are all players that catch the football.

Graham hauled in a league best 16 TD's in 2013 and he has quickly become one of the most difficult to defend pass catchers in the game today. So now the Saints have until July 15 to iron out a long term deal for Graham. I'm betting that the deal will get done, sooner than later!

READ MORE: Kristian: Graham needs to go back to negotiating table

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Deke: Top five takeaways from Saints mini-camp

The New Orleans Saints will open training camp at the end of July in West Virginia, but there was plently to see at the three day mini-camp. With the help of our resident pros Hokie Gajan and Bobby Hebert, we jotted down the top five takeaways from this week.
1) The wide receivers battle will be competitive. I think it's safe to say that the Saints are OK when it comes to having a veteran presence as leaders of their WR's.  Guys like Marques Colston and Robert Meachum have been in the league for a long time, and both are coming off good mini-camp outings.  

Kenny Stills and top draft pick Brandin Cooks are good to go as far as making the team.  But what about the rest of the players at this position? Should make a nice storyline as we approach training camp. 
#88 Nick Toon, who many feel needs a good camp to stay on the team, has been impressive in OTA's and mini-camp.  Here is what Coach Payton had to say about Toon when asked if he's looking for better production from the WR this season:
“Yes, I would say so. Part of that was what was ahead of him a year ago. It was hard to get him on the field. We felt like he had a real good training camp. I would expect him to play a bigger role for our offense this season. I thought he played real well in his opportunities last year in training camp, and he’s doing well here in this offseason. His progress is important to us. With the loss of a number of players, particularly Lance Moore, I think you’ll see more snaps for him and more opportunities.”
#14 Andy Tanner will certainly not go quietly, as he will catch just about everything thrown his way.  #13 Joe Morgan has the one thing that you just can't coach, and that is blazing speed.  But can Morgan get healthy enough to make another good showing?

READ MORE: Steve: Could Travaris Cadet be the next Darren Sproles?

#15 Seantavius Jones, #16 Brandon Coleman, #18 Charles Hawkins and #19 Steve Hull round out the entire group of Saints WR's currently on the roster.  Jones has made some plays at times and has drawn the attention of the media at practices. Coleman's biggest thing going for him is his 6'6" body size.  The 225-lb beast from Rutgers looks the part, but I think he has dropped the ball too much. I've not really noticed anything real good or bad from #19 Steve Hull.  
The one player that could continue to make a push is Charles Hawkins.  "He's a fast player and he's doing some good things out there right now," said Saints Color Analyst Hokie Gajan.  Gajan said that Hawkins has to not only do well on the field, but he and the other younger players must be able to be as sharp as possible in the meeting rooms and play a part on special teams in order to have a shot to make the roster.

Coach Sean Payton was also asked about the Hawkins' plays at mini-camp
. “He’s a guy that came here as a free agent and from a small school. He ran well. You saw it when we worked him out and you see it periodically in these drills. It’s all the other little things you see in playing the position, formations, splits, alignments, route depths, some of those things are the key for him. He has the ability to get up the field. He can separate quickly. But it’s also all the other things in playing the position.”
Regardless of which players make up the 2014 WR squad for the Saints, I feel like they have the potential to be a very dangerous group.  The right mixture of size, speed, youth and veteran leadership is all evident in this group of players - and I've not even mentioned the names Graham and Watson yet either!  
2) Better O-Line?  The Saints have four of five starters back on their O-Line this season, and the lone new face will be at center.  Veteran Jonathan Goodwin is in a battle with Tim Lelito for the starting job. Coach Payton and his staff have built a solid franchise in picking the best players to make the roster. If Tim Lelito wins out, he would have had the best camp and gives the Saints the best player at the center position. But holding off a veteran player that has been to four straight NFC Title Games and two Super Bowls is going to be very difficult to do.  
With Strief and Armstead anchoring down the tackle spots, and Evans and Grubbs at the guards, the Saints look to once again have a complete O-Line.  The Saints will look to rush the ball at a more consistent level this season, and it all starts with the big guys in the trenches.  

READ MORE: Drew Brees reflects on mini-camp, clears up Graham comments
3) A legit backup QB battle! 
As the Saints get ready for West Virginia, it looks like there is a serious battle to see who will be the backup to Drew Brees.  Veteran QB Luke McCown and former Tulane standout Ryan Griffin are the two vying for that job.
“He’s doing it right now, both he and Luke (McCown) are competing. Ryan showed enough progress last year. I know that would certainly be a goal of his this year."  That is what Coach Sean Payton said when asked if Griffin was in competing for the backup QB job.  Griffin and McCown have both made plays during OTA's and mini-camp.  And the battle to see who is next in line behind Drew Brees could very well last until the final preseason game is played.  
4) Take-it-away defense! From the end of last season until the beginning of the 2014 season, the Saints have said that creating more turnovers is a must, and something that the club is working on each day.
There was not one practice that happened in which the defense did not at the very least jar the ball out, pick off a pass or scoop up a fumble.  Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan has said that the Saints are doing everything, from watching film on players that are better at taking the ball away, to doing drills in order to get better themselves.
I feel very confident that the Saints Defense will improve in the takeaway area this season.  

5) We're ahead of schedule. Both Bobby and Hokie think that the Saints are on schedule as far as implementing their play book and getting the work in prior to training camp.
In fact, both former Black and Gold greats have said that they think the Saints may be ahead of schedule.  "When you look at the way the defense was blitzing and the piping in of crowd noise, those are things that we have not seen done this early in prior years under Coach Payton," said Bobby Hebert.
With a little over a month left before the start of camp takes place up in West Virginia, the Saints will look to get back WR Joe Morgan and new addition in Safety Jairus Byrd.
The Saints have a few more OTA's and then they will break for the remainder of June and part of July before players report to the Greenbrier on Thursday July 24.  
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