When Ragland set foot on Alabama’s practice field for the first time, he continued to impress. He didn’t look like a freshman, his legs as thick as tree trunks. Considering his background, his build and his athleticism, he was someone you circled on the roster to watch.
That was three years ago.
There were glimpses of Ragland’s potential during those first two years on campus, but concrete evidence was hard to come by. While Yeldon, Cooper and Collins emerged as stars, Ragland wondered whether he would ever regain the confidence he possessed as one of the most sought after high school athletes in the country.
Turning to Collins this season, he expressed doubt. Johnson and Mosley were gone and a starting job was all but guaranteed to him, but all he could feel was uncertainty.
"I’ve been out for years," he told Collins.
"Brother, just ball," the All-SEC safety responded. "You’ve been doing it for how many years? All you have to do is go out there, play your game and just ball."
It wasn’t a quick process, but Ragland eventually found his footing. The anxiety he felt dissipated, and he started playing in a way that lived up to his high billing as a freshman: fast, physical, aggressive.
Through seven games, he trails only Collins for the team lead in tackles. He has made five stops behind the line of scrimmage, defended three passes and recovered two fumbles. Against Texas A&M on Saturday, he made one of the plays of the game, leaping high into the air for his first career interception.
"The first game for me I overthought everything," Ragland said. "Because I hadn’t played in a couple of years, everything was fast. But as the weeks went on, everything started slowing down for me and I could see it."
He no longer needs the safeties to tell him what to do, he said. Reading the line of scrimmage and the quarterback’s eyes, he is seeing things before they happen.
Playing fast and confident again, he is a big reason Alabama’s defense ranks third in the nation, giving up 262.1 yards per game.
"Reggie has gotten better and better with every game," Saban said prior to Alabama’s 14-13 win against Arkansas two weeks ago. "I think he’s another one of those guys that didn't have a whole lot of experience before, so as you play and as you gain experience, you realize what it takes to play well.
"You've got to prepare what you've got to look at, how you've got to understand your game plan. You understand that every mental error you make has a consequence in the game. You really focus on paying attention to detail, doing the little things right. You become a lot better, more efficient player and Reggie has certainly done that."
Living by Saban’s words -- "Relax, let loose and have fun" -- Ragland has become a rising star in the SEC.
If the rest of Alabama’s former four- and five-star athletes learn to play the same way, watch out.
"If everybody can get together, the sky’s the limit for us," Ragland said.
He should know.
We've had this conversation before. Earlier this season, particularly after his 10-catch, 201-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida, Cooper's name began to emerge as one deserving of Heisman Trophy candidacy.
Well, in case you forgot about Cooper after two less productive weeks (one in which he was hampered by an injury), he reminded us all on Saturday why he is the standard in the league at his position.
Cooper was dominant in Alabama's 59-0 win against Texas A&M: eight catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns. The Aggies had no answers for Cooper, whom quarterback Blake Sims looked toward early and often in the game. He's big, fast, physical and extremely productive. He has been outstanding this season, with five games of at least 130 receiving yards and 908 receiving yards total, which ranks fourth in the country.
So while Prescott (whose team was off last weekend) remains the league's premier option currently and we continue to await word on what will happen with suspended Georgia running back Todd Gurley, perhaps we should keep a closer eye on Cooper moving forward.
Here are three other players to keep an eye on:
- Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss: Wallace wasn't pristine this week (13-of-28, 199 yards), but he was still turnover-free and threw two touchdowns to guide the Rebels to a win over Tennessee. He is averaging 290.7 offensive yards per game in SEC play, while throwing nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in Ole Miss' four conference wins. He is third in the league in passer rating (163.0) and second in passing yards (1,899) and touchdown passes (17).
- Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were off this week but Robinson has no doubt been an excellent weapon to pair with Prescott this season. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and yards per carry (7.0) and tied for second with eight rushing touchdowns.
- Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: We don't know when Gurley will come back as he has missed the last two games, suspended by Georgia while it investigates allegation whether he profited from signing autographs. Even though he sat the last two games, he still leads the SEC in rushing yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (eight). The longer he's out, the more his chances are hindered, but for now, we'll keep him in the watch.
Even five years later, his one-and-done tenure with the Vols still irks UT fans, who have suffered through a horrific 7-28 SEC stretch since Kiffin's bravado and high hopes left for Los Angeles. And does it help that their hated former coach is now the offensive coordinator at UT's most ancient rival, Alabama? No. No, it doesn't.
So with Kiffin's Crimson Tide coming to Knoxville this weekend in his first appearance back at Neyland Stadium, you knew things were going to get a little zany. And so far, we have not been disappointed.
Let's start with the Tennessee State House race pitting incumbent Gloria Johnson against challenger Eddie Smith. Kiffin is so unpopular in this East Tennessee district that he's being used in a direct mail ad that compares him to Johnson.
Surely you didn't expect Rep. Johnson, a UT grad, to let such treachery go by without a response. So she did what any self-respecting politician in this Vol-crazy area would do -- got a much more popular former Tennessee coach to give her an endorsement. Enter Vols legend Johnny Majors, who finished runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy and was head coach of his alma mater from 1977-92.
Oh, but that's not all. As Kiffin gets set to return to Knoxville, he's also facing an accusation that he skipped town in January 2010 before paying a $14 haircut debt.
That's according to the owner of the Western Plaza Barber Shop, Rusty Manis, who isn't seriously seeking payment from Alabama's offensive coordinator -- but is nevertheless having some fun with it with this week. Check out this dramatized report from the local NBC affiliate.
The glare of the Golden Dome can be blinding, even from SEC locales.
So we'll get this out there from the top: I'm not blinded, just realistic.
Notre Dame has the most compelling case to bump a one-loss SEC team that doesn't win the league title when the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils its final picks on Dec. 7.
And the way the Irish played Saturday night in a down-to-the-wire (err, down-to-the-official's-call) 31-27 loss on the road to Florida State, they should be a serious threat.
Notre Dame still has some work to do to make this more than just lively conversation, but it's clear that Brian Kelly's club is for real.
I know what's coming next from SEC junkies: The last time Notre Dame tangled with an SEC foe, it had all the drama of Mariano Rivera coming in to pitch the final inning of the Little League World Series.
Alabama obliterated Notre Dame 42-14 two years ago in the BCS National Championship. That Notre Dame team, too, had navigated its way unscathed through a schedule full of big names before stepping in over its head against the Crimson Tide.
That was then, though, and this is now. All that's supposed to matter is a team's body of work this season.
But we're entering a brand-new world with a selection committee, and that element could be a game-changer. Computers aren't making these decisions. Humans are.
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We'll just have to look forward to Week 9 for some better SEC entertainment.
Game of the week: No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU
Now this should be fun. Night games at Tiger Stadium usually are. Two straight wins have LSU feeling good and back in the rankings. The Tigers are also back on the fringes of the SEC West race and could throw a giant wrench into the Magnolia State love-fest by upsetting the Rebels. The jury is still out on LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, who didn't have to do much to beat Florida (110 yards passing) or Kentucky (120 yards passing). The Ole Miss defense, however, promises to give the Tigers their toughest test of the season. This unit is operating at peak performance at just the right time for a visit to Baton Rouge. The Rebs allowed zero rushing yards -- ZERO! -- to Tennessee last Saturday and have given up just six touchdowns in seven games this season. It should be a brawl in the Bayou.
Player under pressure: Maty Mauk, Missouri
The Tigers' gunslinging quarterback has been humbled and harnessed in his last two games -- a disastrous 34-0 home loss to Georgia in which he had five turnovers, and a goofy 42-13 win at Florida in which he was 6-of-18 passing for 20 yards and an interception. Mauk's and Missouri's seasons are nearing a crossroads. After playing what he called the worst game of his life against UGA, Mauk overcame a shaky start at Florida and played in control while the Gators self-destructed. The good news for the Tigers offense is that Mauk & Co. will have a solid chance to work out their issues against Vanderbilt, which will bring one of the worst defenses in the SEC (allowing 415.9 yards a game) to Columbia, Mo.
Coach under the microscope: Lane Kiffin, Alabama
The Tide's offensive coordinator might not have circled the third Saturday in October on his calendar, but you can bet 100,000 ticket-holding Volunteers fans sure did. In 2009 Kiffin coached his one and only season at Tennessee. He was full of promises, bravado and hot air. Other than some solid recruiting, the highlights of his 7-6 season were wins over Georgia and South Carolina and a near-miss at Alabama. Who can forget Bama's Terrance "Mount" Cody swatting away two Tennessee field goals in a 12-10 victory? Well, other than Kiffin? Now that he's back in the SEC, patrolling the Alabama sideline and steering its inconsistent offense, the vitriol is sure to reach a fever pitch on Saturday. Hundreds of students rioted when news broke of Kiffin's sudden departure in 2009. How are they going to treat his return?
Storyline to watch: Division dominance
The SEC West is a powerhouse. The East is a house of cards. So the story goes, and it doesn't seem likely to deviate with No. 1 Mississippi State visiting Kentucky and South Carolina traveling to No. 5 Auburn. The East has lost six of seven cross-division games so far this season, most of them with lopsided results. The much-improved Wildcats were riding high at 5-1 before being thrashed by LSU. Now they'll have to contend with Dak Prescott and his steamrolling MSU offense. South Carolina has the worst defense in the SEC and might need a miracle on the Plains to keep up with Auburn's offense. Don't look for the division script to flip this week.
Intriguing matchup: LSU offense vs. Ole Miss defense
As previously described in our game of the week entry, LSU can't expect much from its quarterback in Saturday's matchup against the fearsome Rebels defense. It gives Ole Miss a tremendous advantage to be able to stack the box against the run, but LSU has the horses to give the Rebel defense its toughest test of the season. Tigers senior RB Terrance Magee is coming off a career game with 220 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He makes a fine pairing with freshman stud Leonard Fournette, LSU's leading rusher with 544 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. If the Tigers can establish the run against Ole Miss it could open up some play-action passing or at least give Jennings a chance to take some shots with the very capable Travin Dural, a sophomore wide receiver with 26 catches, 665 yards and seven touchdowns. It all starts in the trenches.
SEC Weekend Wrap: Oct. 21
12:00 PM ET UAB Arkansas 3:30 PM ET 1 Mississippi State Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt Missouri 7:15 PM ET 3 Ole Miss 24 LSU 7:30 PM ET South Carolina 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 4 Alabama Tennessee