The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.
Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.
Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn
Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?
The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.
This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?
Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?
There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.
Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read
Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
That’s what the coaches, players and fans alike had to be asking themselves when Alabama and Auburn both fell behind in the first half against a pair of FCS programs Saturday. No offense to Western Carolina and Samford, both of whom have winning records, but there’s no reason the two SEC powerhouses shouldn’t have been up at least three scores by the end of the first quarter.
Instead, the Catamounts took the opening kickoff, went 75 yards and scored first on the Crimson Tide in their place. They became the first team all season to score multiple offensive touchdowns in the first half against Alabama’s defense.
“We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there today, so I didn’t do a very good job,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I really thought our guys practiced pretty well all week and didn’t look at this game as if ... they really tried to keep focus. They tried to keep the momentum of what we’ve been doing.
“But when we went out there for pregame warm-ups [Saturday], I was really surprised that we didn’t have a little more energy and a little more juice than we did. We had to play our way into it.”
It was worse at Auburn where the Tigers had just 23 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a Heisman Trophy candidate at one time, was sacked twice and threw an interception in those first 15 minutes. The first score didn’t come until midway through the second quarter, and it was Samford who reached the end zone.
“We just weren’t really playing at the beginning of the game,” Marshall told reporters afterwards. “But as the game got going, we got to playing football. It was early; it was an emotional game for the seniors, but we found a way to overcome it.”
Both Alabama and Auburn found a way to overcome their sluggish starts as each won by at least three touchdowns. Now, the attention can finally turn to each other.
It’s officially Iron Bowl week, the week fans look forward to all season and the week that couldn’t come fast enough for Alabama players who were a part of last year’s game. How often do they think about the famous field goal return for a touchdown in the final second?
“Three hundred sixty-five,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “The whole year, ever since after that game, it’s been in the back of our minds. And we know we’ve got to come out and fight them. They’re a good ballclub, no doubt about it, so we have to come out and do the things that we’ve got to do to beat them.”
“We’re still reliving it,” added safety Landon Collins. “It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it just breaks our heart every time. That one second took our whole chance away of winning anything. It’s going to be in my head constantly throughout this week when we’re getting prepared to play them.”
The play is remembered in a positive light at Auburn. It made Chris Davis, who returned the missed field goal 109 yards, a legend on the Plains. It won an ESPY over the summer for “Best Play.” And now it’s shown before every home game to pump up the crowd.
But the Auburn coaches and players aren’t dwelling on what happened last year. They’re focused this year’s game.
“We're not going to bring it up or talk about it because it can't help us this year," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "It’s one of those things you've got to deal with. Both sides have to deal with it because it's kind of what comes with the week, just normal distractions and things that are out there.
“I don't think it will bother our guys. That was last year. This year is completely different and we're going to have to play even better this year."
The rest of us should anticipate seeing the “kick-six” a time or two this week in preparation of Saturday’s game. That’s good news for Auburn fans, who will have no problem reliving the play. Alabama fans, meanwhile, might want to wait until Saturday to turn on their TVs.
But the Iron Bowl is finally here, and everybody can agree that that's a good thing.
We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.
There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.
The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.
From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.
But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.
Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.
Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...
The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.
Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.
Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.
South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.
Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.
The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.
The Gators got some good news on that front when they learned that quarterback Treon Harris, who injured his knee Saturday against Eastern Kentucky, should be able to practice this week and start against the Seminoles.
FSU might not be the juggernaut it was last season, but not much has been able to slow down the Seminoles. Not even the game officials.
Beating FSU would be a poetic ending for Will Muschamp in his final season as Florida’s head coach, who had to work to keep the team together after the news broke that he will not return in 2015.
Razorbacks playing spoiler: Bret Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks are suddenly the darlings of the SEC following back-to-back shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss that ended a two-year conference losing streak. Some are already discussing the Hogs as potential SEC contenders in 2015, but they still have work to do this season. They could play spoiler again with a win this weekend at Missouri. The Tigers must win to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game. Otherwise Georgia will be the Eastern Division team in Atlanta. Missouri believes it has come into its own in the second half of the season, and it’s hard to argue with a team that’s riding a five-game winning streak. In fact, the Tigers seem to be handling the underdog role fairly well.
Rocky road for Auburn: Coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson made their weekly visits with reporters on Sunday night and acknowledged they’ll have their work cut out when Auburn visits No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. For one thing, they’re not entirely sure whether all of their most valuable personnel will be available. Johnson said that team sack leader DaVonte Lambert probably will not play after suffering a leg injury against Samford over the weekend. On the offensive side, Lashlee said Duke Williams is still day to day, but he’s optimistic that the star receiver will be able to play. On a separate note, Lashlee said he had a laugh afterward over Samford -- where he coached in 2011 -- using play-calling placards that featured pictures of him in Saturday’s game.
Around the SEC:
" Oxford, Mississippi, is bracing for a massive crowd for Saturday’s Ole Miss-Mississippi State game -- a matchup that could be the most pivotal game in Egg Bowl history.
" The Baton Rouge Advocate’s Ross Dellenger examines LSU’s issues at quarterback and the parallels between this season and 2008, Les Miles’ least successful season as the Tigers’ coach to this point.
" Looking toward the future, a number of young reserves got a chance to shine in Alabama’s win against Western Carolina on Saturday.
" Arkansas coach Bielema said running back Korliss Marshall will likely not return to the Razorbacks' program.
" By the numbers, rivals Georgia and Georgia Tech appear to be closely matched.
Tweet of the day
There's a reason why the coaches of the College Football Playoff contenders are wound tighter than a fire hose these days.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher would rather grow arm-hair curtains than face Florida and Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks.
Alabama's Nick Saban gets Auburn in the Iron Bowl this week and, if the Tide win, gets Missouri or Georgia in the SEC championship game. Fun.
Baylor's Art Briles has to make the short trip to Arlington for a matchup against Texas Tech, and then play Kansas State in the regular-season finale.
TCU's Gary Patterson has to travel to Austin to play the suddenly dangerous Texas Longhorns, followed by a home game against not-so-dangerous Iowa State.
Ohio State's Urban Meyer meets desperate Michigan at the Horseshoe, and then plays either Wisconsin or Minnesota in the Big Ten championship game.
Oregon's Mark Helfrich takes his team to Corvallis for the Civil War (Arizona State can tell Helfrich all about the Beavers), and then faces UCLA, Arizona or ASU in the Pac-12 championship game.
Mississippi State's Dan Mullen has to survive the Egg Bowl in Oxford, and then hope for the best (an Alabama loss to Auburn, which would mean the Bulldogs would face either Mizzou or UGA in the SEC championship game).
And UCLA's Jim Mora, who runs Saban-Meyer-Fisher intense, has to beat Stanford at Pasadena, and then Oregon to have any chance at reaching the four-team playoff.
This is when roster depth matters. When avoiding injuries matters. When talent, coaching and luck matter.
The gap between the Seminoles and the Crimson Tide narrowed after another close call by Florida State, which beat Boston College 20-17 on a field goal in the waning seconds.
Florida State received 37 first-place votes and 1,458 points, down six first-place votes and 18 points from last week. Alabama has 21 first-place votes 1,445 points. No. 3 Oregon received two first-place votes, one more than last week.
Edward Aschoff, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
With only two weeks remaining until the playoff committee's final rankings, contenders are running out of chances to win their way into the four-team field.
Although it's not a prediction of the committee's top 25, the Playoff Forecast will use the ESPN Football Power Index and human logic (i.e., the eye test) to determine which teams are best positioned when the committee announces the playoff teams on Dec. 7. These rankings take into account perceived team strength (including injuries), remaining schedule difficulty (including prospective conference championship games) and the current selection committee rankings.
1. Oregon Ducks
FPI's chance of winning out: 59.9 percent
FPI's chance of winning the conference: 66.6 percent
Although Oregon has no more home games, I feel slightly better about its chance to win out than the other two teams that seem to control their playoff destinies (Florida State and Alabama). The Ducks are at Oregon State this week, and their likely Pac-12 title game opponent is UCLA, whom they dominated at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11. But the Bruins have played much better of late and could pose a threat to Oregon if they can first clinch the South with a win over Stanford on Friday. FPI gives the Ducks a 64 percent chance to win if they play UCLA again.
Each Sunday during the season, ESPN.com will highlight four storylines that had an impact on the College Football Playoff race.
Jameis Winston moved an official and, eventually, the Eagles out of the way, driving the Seminoles 66 yards to put Roberto Aguayo in position for a 26-yard game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining.
Baylor, Ohio State, UCLA look to impress
Three teams sitting just outside the top four vamped for the selection committee: No. 7 Baylor eased past Oklahoma State 49-28, No. 6 Ohio State clinched the Big Ten's East Division title with a 42-27 win over Indiana and No. 9 UCLA defeated No. 19 USC 38-20.
Three of top four cruise
- If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
- Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
- Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
- Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
- Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.
On what was largely a ho-hum Saturday, many of the country's top teams didn't dominate their games against what were supposed to be overmatched opponents.
No. 1 Alabama led FCS opponent Western Carolina 17-14 early in the second quarter of a 48-14 victory.
No. 3 Florida State needed a field goal with three seconds left to beat Boston College 20-17 in the rain at home.
No. 6 Ohio State trailed Indiana deep into the third quarter of a 42-27 win.
And No. 8 Ole Miss was blown out by Arkansas in an ugly 30-0 loss.
At this point, with only two weeks left in the regular season, does it really matter how good a team looks while winning? Isn't it all about just winning?
Defending national champion Florida State has made its living by winning ugly this season. The Seminoles' victory over Boston College was their sixth this season in which they trailed or were tied in the second half. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only Northern Illinois in 2013 won more such games (seven) among the 30 FBS teams that started 11-0 in the past 10 seasons.
So will FSU's latest closer-than-expected victory bolster its playoff résumé?
"Why wouldn't it?" FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We're undefeated. We're undefeated. We finish every game. Everybody else in the country has not finished at least one game. We've finished every one of them. Isn't that the object?"
It used to be. But now the object seems to be more about how you look in winning. The Seminoles dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the rankings over the past couple of weeks, and they haven't even been ranked No. 1 by the selection committee, despite being the only remaining unbeaten team from a Power 5 conference and having won a school-record 27 consecutive games.
"Well, you know, we were downgraded every time we blew someone out last year, so think of the irony of that," FSU quarterback Jameis Winston
Two Weeks Left And We Still Know Nothing
Final Eastern Kentucky 3 Florida 52 Final Charleston Southern 9 10 Georgia 55 Final South Alabama 12 South Carolina 37 Final 8 Ole Miss 0 Arkansas 30 Final Western Carolina 14 1 Alabama 48 Final Samford 7 14 Auburn 31 Final 20 Missouri 29 Tennessee 21 Final Vanderbilt 0 4 Mississippi State 51