There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."
video

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert handicaps the chances any program catches No. 1 Alabama in the 2015 ESPN class rankings.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day

With the College Football Playoff finally here, we will be meticulously dissecting every game with any team anyone thinks could find itself in this year's final four.

People have voiced their concern about a playoff taking away the importance of every game. You guys can be scared, but I'm not. Games will still be big, and will affect the playoff. All that's happening now is that some early games might not end the season for some teams.

Oh, what a crime!

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and his Tigers face five key games this season that could alter their playoff hopes.
And honestly, we've seen teams lose in the middle of the season and still make it to the BCS national title game (I see you Alabama), so I think this is getting blown way out of proportion.

SEC teams vying for a playoff spot -- or two -- could likely get away with one loss, but you can never be too careful with the human element. Winning is still the goal.

There are going to be quite a few games that impact the playoff this season. Here are the top 10 games involving SEC teams that will affect the playoff (in order of appearance):

1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30: If Wisconsin is going to push itself past Big Ten favorites Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers need to start off fast with a win against LSU. The Tigers have questions on both sides of the ball, but people will be salivating over seeing the matchup between Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and LSU's incredibly athletic front seven. These are the games LSU coach Les Miles thrives in, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated.

2. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: A lot of people think the winner of this game will head back to Atlanta. The winner will also have a clearer path to the playoff and could serve as an early elimination game. Last season, we saw 71 points, 990 yards and just one turnover in the Bulldogs' thrilling win in Athens. This time, the game is in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have won two straight against the Dawgs.

3. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4: Even though Auburn lost this game last season, it changed the dynamic of the team's season. The fight and comeback they had in the second half injected an incredible amount of confidence into an Auburn team that ran all the way to the final BCS title game. Could this game have the same affect for either squad in 2014? With the upcoming schedules both of these teams have, a loss here could throw off their playoff plans.

4. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4: A lot of folks already have this game circled as the conference's first big upset of the season. And why not? Alabama might be the SEC favorite, but it's far from perfect and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback against an Ole Miss defense that has a fierce two-deep. A win for Ole Miss, which has its highest expectations in years, would propel the Rebels into the thick of playoff talk.

5. South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25: Another game involving the defending SEC champs, and this one will be very important for both teams. Each should be right at or near the top of their respective divisions just before the final month of the season, meaning this game is important for both the playoff and the SEC. Expect a lot of points with two teams that averaged more than 30 points a game last season and have some defensive unknowns. You want to enter November controlling your own destiny.

6. Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1: If both of are undefeated when the Tigers arrive in the Grove, this game will have major playoff implications. Even if they aren't, the SEC Western Division will still be on the line, and we all know the eventual SEC champion will be an almost lock to make it in the playoff. The playoff picture will be much clearer when these two meet, and as the season ticks down, you want to control your own destiny.

7. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: Of course this game will affect the playoff. It's Alabama-LSU! Ever since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, this game has been decided by less than 10 points six times. However, Alabama has won the past two by 21 points. Both of these teams will know a whole lot more about each other at this point in the season, and while Alabama could be at the top of the polls, LSU's young talent could become dangerous.

8. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 15: If South Carolina is going to make the playoff, the Gamecocks will need to win this game. We can't quite put our finger on Florida, but a loss to a bad Florida team isn't getting you any playoff love. But what if Florida is a contender in the East? Well, the division could be on the line, and it's going to be very hard for any team not playing in its conference title game to make the playoff.

9. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 15: We all know how last season's game ended. One bat down, and Auburn's Cinderella story is short-lived. You know the Dawgs have this game circled on their calendar. It's another game that could have SEC title implications, and of course that means it will affect the playoff with the season winding down. A loss for Auburn would likely end its playoff chances, while a win for a Georgia team in the East hunt would do wonders.

10. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The Iron Bowl changed the landscape of the BCS title game last season and we have no reason to believe it won't have an impact on this year's College Football Playoff. Remember the “Kick Six?” Well, you better believe Alabama does. The Crimson Tide gets its archrival at home this year and Saban is 8-1 at Alabama in revenge games. The loser of this game will be without bragging rights and a playoff spot.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.

SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
8:00
AM ET
1. Kentucky settled its quarterback race on Monday when coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomore Patrick Towles will be the Wildcats' starter. It's a nice story, because Towles redshirted last season and competed for the starting job twice before and lost. Instead of transferring, Towles continued to work and battled his way to the top of the depth chart. Not an easy thing to do in the winner-starts-loser-transfers trend that seems to be increasing among college football quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Towles was even able to fend off highly-regarded true freshman Drew Barker, a prize recruit in the Wildcats' 2014 class. No word yet from Stoops whether Barker will redshirt this season, but regardless, former Wildcat great Tim Couch has sage advice for the young Barker: "It’s how you handle that year that is really going to determine the rest of your career."

2. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks are wearing knee braces in hopes of preventing injuries. It's not common to see healthy quarterbacks who haven't had knee injuries wear them and Vanderbilt's signal-callers did not engage in this practice in the 16 years that head trainer Tom Bossung has been there. After losing two quarterbacks to knee injuries last season, though, the Commodores decided to make the move. They're different from the offensive linemen's knee braces, but thumbs up to the Commodores training staff on the move. While it may not prevent all knee injuries, the decision to do it moving forward should help. It has become so common among offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend among quarterbacks across the nation.

3. Alabama brought in its fourth motivational speaker of fall camp, welcoming former Fresno State basketball star Chris Herren to campus on Monday. Herren got a positive response from the Crimson Tide players. Preceding Herren in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during training camp was former NFL player and current league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, former NBA star Antoine Walker and well-renowned motivational speaker Eric Thomas. This is certainly not uncommon; plenty of programs bring in guest speakers or motivational speakers to get messages across to players. Still, it's beneficial because when you recruit at the level Alabama does, you bring in dozens of highly-regarded players who have been told often how good they are. Getting messages from people who have been through ups and downs like Herren or Walker or someone like Vincent who has played at the highest level of football as these players undoubtedly hope to, they can impart valuable wisdom and provide a different voice other than the coaches who are barking at them every day. Sometimes that different voice can have an effect.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day
 

Games that will test playoff hopes

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
4:27
PM ET

Got your four teams picked for the inaugural College Football Playoff?

Beware before you turn in your final list, because teams always come out of nowhere. For instance, Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri all finished in the top five of the final polls last season -- and weren't even ranked to start the season.

Conversely, the team starting the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll hasn't finished higher than No. 7 the past four years.

None of us has a crystal ball, but we do have a road map of sorts -- the games that will shape who gets in and who gets left out this season when the selection committee unveils the first football version of the Final Four.

Here are 10 games to mark on your calendar:

LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Aug. 30

Right out of the gate, we get a game between two teams just outside the top 10 in the preseason polls who are talented enough to state their case come selection time for the College Football Playoff. And check out Wisconsin's schedule. If Melvin Gordon and the Badgers can get past the Tigers in the opener, the only other nationally ranked team (in the preseason) they face is Nebraska at home on Nov. 15. They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season.

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6


(Read full post)


Now that the AP preaseason poll is out, we know exactly who will make up the College Football Playoff.

If only it were that easy.

History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss could be a threat to sneak out of the West.
As we dive into this poll, you'll see that most of the team everyone is talking about to be in the playoff at season's end are right at the top of the poll -- Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Only four teams can make it into the playoff, but most people have some sort of combination of these teams.

Good luck with that.

According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."

In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.

The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.

Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.

So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).

Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.

Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.

There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:

  • Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
  • Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
  • Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
  • LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.

Flying under the radar?

Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.
video

Chris Low and Cary Chow break down the latest in a handful of quarterback competitions in the SEC.

Drive Through: August 18th

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
12:14
PM ET


video

Your one stop shop for all things college football. Cary Chow is joined by Matt Fortuna and Tom VanHaaren to discuss the latest news surrounding Notre Dame, and Chris Low joins the show to talk SEC quarterback races.

Will Jake Coker live up to the hype? 

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
12:08
PM ET
Jacob Coker 140806AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha HuntJake Coker, who didn't arrive at Alabama until May, will beat out Blake Sims.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -– it all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Will Jake Coker start for Alabama Week 1 against West Virginia?

Based on conversations with several coaches and those who know Nick Saban well, I made Coker my No. 1 breakout player in a file that was published a couple of weeks back.

Am I regretting that now that Saban has said Blake Sims and Coker are essentially in a dead heat in Tide camp? Is it time to alter expectations for Coker?

Heck, no. Here’s why.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Best of luck to the defensive coordinators tasked with devising game plans for Alabama this season. Sure, there’s no more AJ McCarron to deal with under center. That has to be a relief. But there’s more to the offense than the quarterback, and they know that. The receivers, the running backs, the tight ends -- those are the ones they have to worry about. And at each level of the Crimson Tide's offense, there’s a mismatch waiting to keep those coordinatorss up at night.

Let’s start with O.J. Howard. How do you cover that guy? His numbers as a true freshmen weren’t overwhelming -- 14 receptions, 269 yards, two touchdowns -- but that belies his athleticism and potential as a pass-catcher. For instance, his average of 19.2 yards per catch led Alabama last season. He’s 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and moves like a receiver. You can’t put a linebacker on him. He’ll make one move and leave them in the dust. You can’t put an undersized DB on him, either. He’ll push them around and create the space he needs to get open.

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard's combination of size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and speed make him particularly difficult to defend.
"Having a guy like that," coach Nick Saban said, "really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense.”

Said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: “O.J. is really extremely talented .... We’re working more with him about speed and his ability to do everything.”

Don’t focus too much on Howard, though. If you chip him at the line of scrimmage with an extra linebacker, you might miss on whoever pops out of the backfield behind him.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are mismatches in their own right. Yeldon, on the one hand, is a one-cut back who will chip away until he’s hit 100 yards and a couple touchdowns. Henry, meanwhile, is simply no fun to tackle. Running backs aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and run like that. Oklahoma’s defense had trouble getting a hand on him, and when they did they couldn’t bring him down.

But it’s not Yeldon or Henry who poses the biggest schematic challenge. The third back, Kenyan Drake, is the one you’ll have trouble accounting for. He’s Alabama’s change-up, except he throws you off with acceleration. His speed is uncanny, as evidenced by his 7.54 yards per carry average (fifth nationally among qualifying backs). Once he hits the hole and gets to the second level of the defense, he’s gone. And when you look at him in the context of Kiffin’s offense -- a shifty back with speed and the ability to catch the football -- there’s one obvious comparison to make: Reggie Bush. In each of Alabama’s last two scrimmages, Drake has taken to the role of receiver, leading the team in receptions with a combined seven catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.

“Drake is like a cat to me, very slippery runner,” said wideout Amari Cooper at SEC media days. “You can’t turn your head when he’s running the ball because he can make the big play at any time.”

Cooper should know. He’s the team’s most consistently explosive offensive weapon. The junior from South Florida isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he has that certain knack for getting open. As a freshman, he became the first rookie receiver in Alabama history to reach 1,000 yards. In spite of dealing with an assortment of nagging injuries last season, he caught 45 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns. In his final two games against Auburn and Oklahoma, he accounted for 327 total yards of offense.

As Saban put it: “He’s pretty hard to stop unless you put two guys on him.”

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Saban said this spring. "He’s got great speed. He’s got really good hands. He’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.”

On paper, Alabama’s skill players have the potential to be among the best in the SEC. When you have to account for the tight end, running back and receiver, it puts defensive coordinators in a bind. But even so, there’s still the question of how it all comes together. Without a strong offensive line, they won’t matter. Without a serviceable quarterback, there won’t be anyone to get them the football.

The good news for Alabama is that whether it’s Blake Sims or Jake Coker who ends up under center, he’ll have plenty of firepower to work with.

The season of second chances

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
10:49
AM ET

Dorial Green-BeckhamAP Photo/Sue OgrockiOklahoma coach Bob Stoops felt he knew enough about Dorial Green-Beckham to bring him in.

After receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow left the Washington program following his arrest for being involved in a fight during a Super Bowl celebration for the Seattle Seahawks, it didn't take long for other FBS programs to line up for his services.

In fact, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was so upset about not landing Stringfellow, who was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault and one count of third-degree malicious mischief, that he all but accused Ole Miss' coaches of improper recruiting.

Former Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed in April after he was accused (but never charged) with pushing an 18-year-old female student down four stairs. He had previously been arrested twice on marijuana-related charges. Despite Green-Beckham's troubled past, Oklahoma accepted him as a transfer in July and has even appealed to the NCAA for a waiver to allow him to play this season.


(Read full post)


Frank Beamer says it has never crossed his mind. Al Golden wasn’t sure if it was already happening at the high school level.

They’re not the only two college coaches who didn’t know what to think when asked about prep quarterbacks who -- before stepping on campus -- were already equipping themselves to use the graduate transfer rule in a worst-case scenario.

"You know, I've never thought of that,” Beamer said. “I'm not saying that that's not possible.”

This offseason, Beamer and Golden have taken advantage of the graduate transfer rule. It's a rule that -- for the most part -- allows players who have graduated early from college but have not exhausted their eligibility to transfer to another school without sitting out a year. Virginia Tech brought in Michael Brewer (Texas Tech), and Golden signed Jake Heaps (Kansas). Boston College coach Steve Addazio also brought in a graduate quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and even Alabama, which grabbed Jacob Coker from Florida State, made use of the rule made famous by Russell Wilson when he left NC State for Wisconsin in 2011.

[+] EnlargeBlake Barnett
Tom Hauck for Student SportsAlabama 2015 QB commitment Blake Barnett plans to graduate in three years, giving him the option of transferring without penalty as early as possible if things don't work out with the Crimson Tide.
A large contingency of coaches either haven’t put much thought into the idea of high school quarterbacks preparing for Plan B or don’t believe college football has reached that point -- “I think it's looking too far down the road,” Addazio said -- but the truth is the latest cycle of prep stars are acutely aware of all their options. It’s manifested itself after an offseason in which nine FBS quarterbacks, according to a list compiled by CBSSports.com’s Jeremy Fowler, are eligible to play immediately at their new schools, thanks to their use of the graduate transfer rule.

Blake Barnett is a five-star Alabama commitment. The No. 2 quarterback nationally in the ESPN 300 is possibly in line to be one of the sport’s upcoming superstars. His father, Lance, said his son is prepared to compete for the Crimson Tide’s starting job in 2015 as a freshman and is not intimidated by the Tide’s collection of elite high school signal-callers.

But the Barnetts also understand only one quarterback per team is on the field at a time, so graduating in three years is the plan for Barnett.

“The faster he can get his degree, the better off he is,” Lance said. “God forbid you have to transfer, or you can go to the NFL, or he can work on his master’s. ... You always have to prepare for situations that come your way down the road. Hopefully, [transferring] is a situation he doesn’t see himself in. ... Get your degree as soon as possible, and worry after that. You’re not penalized then.”

Ricky Town is one of two 2015 quarterback commits to USC. His father, Rick, said his son “loves USC, and you couldn’t pry him away,” but he is keeping an eye out for his son’s best interests long-term. The Towns envision Ricky graduating from USC in three years, which gives him the same three options: NFL, master’s degree or transfer.

Rick said he first became aware of the graduate transfer rule within the past year when he read reports that Coker was looking to transfer using the graduate rule. Coincidentally, Coker announced he was transferring to Alabama days before Town flipped from the Tide to the Trojans.

“You always plan ahead and explore more exit strategies, and the more avenues you have the better,” the elder Town said. “You don’t think you’ll transfer in three years -- you set up for it, but it’s not a goal. It’s a bailout strategy if, for whatever reason, things don’t go according to plan. It’s a business. That’s the bottom line.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had two quarterbacks transfer over a nine-month period, Coker among them. The national championship-winning coach was in favor of both players transferring and said it was in their best interest with Jameis Winston entrenched as the Seminoles’ starter.

Fisher said he is not for or against the graduate transfer rule -- it depends on each player’s circumstance. He did say, however, he wishes more quarterbacks allowed the carousel to do a full revolution before they opt off the ride.

“I think it’s better to have patience -- I really do,” he said. “We’re quick to jump.”

But coaches are, in a way, opening their programs to graduate transfers at quarterback with how the position has been recruited recently. Of the top five quarterbacks in the ESPN 300, each could be January enrollees. Rick Town said his family began preparations for early enrollment after the second game of Ricky’s sophomore season. Blake Barnett didn’t begin thinking about enrolling early until Division I attention starting pouring in, but he’s made up for lost time and will take two classes at Alabama during the spring semester.

Most players take classes during the summer as well, and the NCAA passed legislation in October that allows coaches to implement eight weeks of mandatory summer workouts. Between early enrollment and the summer credits, quarterbacks are often on track for graduation after three years.

“Then you still have those two full years of eligibility,” Rick Town said.

Steele: Projected SEC standings

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
9:44
AM ET
With the season less than two weeks away, Phil Steele takes a crack at projecting the final standings for the SEC, along with records for each team.

Click here Insider for the full rundown of Steele's thoughts on who will finish where and why, but here's a sample: He likes Alabama in the West and Georgia in the East.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Can Any 2015 Class Catch Alabama?
National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert handicaps the chances any program catches No. 1 Alabama in the 2015 ESPN class rankings.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31