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T.J. Yeldon run for 1 yd for a TD (Adam Griffith KICK)
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Blake Sims pass complete to Amari Cooper for 30 yds to the Tenn 1 for a 1ST down
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Blake Sims pass complete to Amari Cooper for 41 yds for a TD (Adam Griffith KICK)
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Blake Sims pass complete to Amari Cooper for 21 yds to the Tenn 41 for a 1ST down
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(A. Griffith MISSED)
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Blake Sims pass complete to Amari Cooper for 80 yds for a TD
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Nathan Peterman sacked by Xzavier Dickson for a loss of 8 yards to the Alab 46

Who is the best in the West?

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
10:55
AM ET


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Greg and Booger break down the SEC West on SEC Now
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Lane Kiffin makes his return to Knoxville Saturday night (7:30 ET/ESPN) to face Tennessee.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't look at his feet.

Study nothing but his eyes. How they calmly scan left to right. How they read blockers and study the defense.

T.J. Yeldon will fool you.

On this day, Texas A&M thinks it has Alabama's junior running back figured out. He's hemmed in on all sides. The Aggie defense watches Yeldon plodding behind the line, figuring sooner or later he'll get dragged down for a loss.

But Yeldon doesn't fall. He's waiting, watching. And as soon as a hole opens up, he makes one cut and he's gone. He finishes with 114 yards and two touchdowns.

He's Houdini. Tighten the straightjacket and marvel at how he slips free.

A quiet thinker, a deliberate runner, Yeldon defies the usual style of running backs in that he's neither particularly fast nor powerful. Instead, he's an amalgam of things, a veteran with poise few possess.

As former Alabama great Shaun Alexander is quick to point out, Yeldon isn't Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson or Eddie Lacy. He's not a runaway freight train like Derrick Henry or a bolt of lightning like Kenyan Drake. He is, as Alexander explains, "A confusing monster."

"You come off of Mark and Trent and Lacy, and then comes T.J.," Alexander said. "You say, 'Is he going to be big? Have a nice spin move? Break a few tackles? Or is he going to be a shift guy who makes you miss? Who is he going to be?' Well, he's that guy that can do all the things those Bama running backs can do, it just doesn't look the same, so it almost can make you miss how talented he is.

"He dominates the game and it's done so smooth, almost like it's effortless."

For nearly three years we've watched Yeldon run. During his first college game against Michigan he rushed for 111 yards. Thirteen times since then he's surpassed the century mark. He's become so reliable he's almost been forgotten.

If he averages 109.3 yards over the next six games, he'll break Alexander's school record of 3,565 career rushing yards.

If you can't appreciate Yeldon's brilliance with your own eyes, let us open them for you.

video Vision

Asked what separates Yeldon from other backs, Jalston Fowler said it was simple.

"It's his vision," the fullback answered. "He sees the field really well."

Sometimes it doesn't look like there's a hole to be found.

"You pull up the film and see how he makes these cuts and things and you want to know, how did he see that?" said linebacker Denzel Devall. "I know if I was running the ball I'd never see the hole. I'd probably just bounce it outside or run it up on somebody."

Said Yeldon: "It's something you work on. I watch film a lot and look at the blocking schemes and make my cuts from there."

Mike Vickery saw that point of emphasis when he served as Yeldon's offensive coordinator at Daphne High in South Alabama.

"His football IQ is off the charts," he said. "The more he played, the more things slowed down.

"By the time he left, he not only knew everything he was supposed to do, he knew what the quarterback was supposed to do, he knew the blocking schemes up front, he knew the routes and what every receiver is supposed to do."

video Patience

It's part of who he is.

Reserved and soft-spoken, Yeldon doesn't make a spectacle of himself.

"He's a very introverted guy," Vickery said. "But that does have something to do with being able to mentally see things and have the vision of things before they happen and all the things that play out in his mind."

Alexander figured that was the case. It explains how Yeldon can be so patient running the football.

"That's personality," he said. "Like the guy that says, 'I'm coming here to hit!' or 'I'm going to level somebody on every play!' Well, another guy might say, 'I'm going to sit here and see my way through.' I think before the game starts that person already has that.

"A lot of guys are so anxious to make the big play that they don't understand patience is a part of it. T.J. understands that the big plays have to come over time instead of trying to stress it to happen."

It drives some fans nuts the way Yeldon doesn't lurch toward the line of scrimmage, but often times that's ill-advised. Though he's not thought of as explosive, Yeldon has 25 career rushes for 20-plus yards, which ranks sixth among active running backs.

"He's good at hiding behind the guards and tackles, and then he'll pop up out the ground on you," Devall said.

Said defensive back Jarrick Williams: "You just see him explode through the hole and go, 'Whoa, where did he come from?' It's really shocking."

video Total Package

If Yeldon is so appreciated by his peers, why is he so overlooked by others?

"I have to start all over like a freshman again because I had a bad year last year," Yeldon said heading into this season. Keep in mind that last season he became the first Alabama back ever to rush for 1,000 yards his first two seasons. "I'm just ready to prove I belong at the top."

If today's opinion makers don't see it, history is sure to put Yeldon in rarified air.

"It's hard for me to see [Yeldon] and not compare him to the whole group: the Bobby Humphreys, the Johnny Mussos," Alexander said. "Because he's one of us. He's one of the elite."

For now, Alexander hopes people appreciate Yeldon's worth.

If not at Alabama, then in the NFL.

He'll challenge the idea that the feature back is dead, Alexander said.

"He will allow people to think, 'Well, if you want to you can,'" the former NFL All-Pro and MVP said. "That's what's going to make him a great steal because he will open up the coaches' eyes wherever he goes to that, 'You know what? We can use this guy all day and in any situation.'"

He may not wow you with any one skill, but Yeldon is the complete package.

"It's special what he does," Alexander said. "He just gets it done."

How the SEC West became so dominant

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:30
AM ET
The SEC West has been the center of power in the conference for several years now, but never has the gap been greater than now. By placing a historic four teams in the top five of the AP poll, the West is stronger than ever. That's due in large part to the rise of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, while the likes of Alabama and Auburn remain strong. How has it gotten to this point? Here are five key decisions -- coaching hires, recruiting classes and more -- that made the SEC West what it is today.

Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn
Auburn fans might blame Gene Chizik for the program’s collapse in 2012, but give him credit for what he accomplished. And more importantly, give him credit for hiring Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2009. If not for that hire, Malzahn would likely not be the Tigers' coach today. In turn, the Tigers wouldn’t have executed one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history last season, nearly winning a national championship, and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be top five in the polls this fall. People questioned athletic director Jay Jacobs when he brought Malzahn back to Auburn, but the former high school coach has always been a winner. He’s proving that now. -- Greg Ostendorf

Mullen builds up Mississippi State
He wasn't kind or understanding about the low expectations and the low sense of worth he felt around Mississippi State. Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida, took over as the head coach in Starkville, Mississippi, determined to break down that imaginary wall separating State from becoming a contender.

It started with simply reaching bowl games, but after six seasons, it's turned into championship aspirations. Mullen and his staff have developed overlooked talents into NFL prospects. If you don't think so, just look at QB Dak Prescott or linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Neither was highly sought after in high school, but now they're among the best in the country. -- Alex Scarborough

Hugh Freeze and his 2013 recruiting class
The hire of Hugh Freeze didn’t exactly set off fireworks in Oxford, Mississippi, but he made waves throughout the conference when he took an Ole Miss team that had lost 16 consecutive SEC games to two consecutive bowl wins. But what really had people buzzing was that historic 2013 recruiting class. Freeze signed the No. 1 player in the country, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and receiver (Laquon Treadwell).

That class put the Rebels on the map in early February of 2013, and its on-field contribution has been tremendous, with those three becoming stars in the SEC and tight end Evan Engram transforming into one of the league’s best at his position. As a result, Ole Miss is 7-0 and looking for a playoff berth. -- Edward Aschoff

Dominance on the recruiting trail
Alabama’s run over the past four years has been nothing short of amazing. The Crimson Tide are on pace for their fourth consecutive recruiting title and currently have 21 2015 commitments, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300. The reputation of the SEC West alone is a compelling recruiting pitch to the top prospects in the country, and Alabama is at the forefront of the dominant division. LSU and Auburn have also done very well, and Mississippi and Mississippi State have made huge strides under Freeze and Mullen, respectively. -- Derek Tyson

Texas A&M joins as Manziel, Sumlin enter
Many felt Texas A&M would take it on the chin upon entering the conference in 2012. The Aggies didn't exactly light it up in their final Big 12 season (7-6), and there were a ton of question marks. Enter Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin. Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, Sumlin leveraged the team's success to consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, and the Aggies went 20-6 in their first two SEC seasons, including an 11-2 debut in 2012 that included a win over eventual champion Alabama. Some of the struggles expected in Year 1 seem to be surfacing now, though, as the Aggies endure a three-game losing streak. -- Sam Khan Jr.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
9:00
AM ET
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There are again some big games around the SEC this weekend. The Ole Miss at LSU game looks to be loaded with big-time visitors. Tennessee is sure to bring in several high-profile recruits for its game against rival Alabama and Auburn is hoping to reel in a few top prospects for its game against South Carolina. Here’s a closer look at some of the top visitors in the SEC this weekend.

Alabama at Tennessee

Sometimes a millimeter can make the difference between winning and losing. Just ask Georgia.

But a lot of us were guilty of writing off the Bulldogs when they came out on the wrong side of that fourth-down measurement Sept. 13 in their 38-35 loss to South Carolina.

[+] EnlargeDamian Swann
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsThough certainly not an easy one, Georgia appears to have the most manageable path out of the SEC to the College Football Playoff.
All they've done since is reel off five straight wins, the last two on the road with Todd Gurley, the best player in the country, watching from home while suspended.

And while we're all mesmerized with how stout the West has been, the dirty little secret as we enter the final week of October is that Georgia has the most manageable path of any of the SEC teams to the College Football Playoff.

Notice I didn't say the easiest path, because there is no such thing in this league.

But there's also a reason ESPN's Football Power Index projections give Georgia a 43 percent chance of winning the SEC championship. The next closest team is Ole Miss at 26 percent followed by Mississippi State (17 percent), Alabama (8 percent) and Auburn (4 percent).

Think about it, especially if Gurley returns for the November stretch. The Dawgs would essentially have two games against ranked teams standing in their way -- at home against Auburn on Nov. 15 and then possibly the SEC championship game Dec. 6.

Now compare that against the grind the four West teams face.

Auburn still has to play at Ole Miss on Nov. 1, at Georgia on Nov. 15, at Alabama on Nov. 29 and then potentially the SEC championship game. Clearly, the Tigers have the toughest path.

The other three don't have cakewalks, either.

After playing Saturday at Tennessee, Alabama still has to play at LSU on Nov. 8 and then faces Mississippi State at home on Nov. 15, Auburn at home on Nov. 29 and then the SEC championship game if they get by.

Ole Miss travels to LSU on Saturday and then returns home to face Auburn on Nov. 1, travels to Arkansas on Nov. 22, comes back home to play Mississippi State on Nov. 29 and would then have the SEC championship game.

Mississippi State, which plays Saturday at Kentucky, probably has the second toughest road behind Auburn. The Bulldogs have to play at Alabama on Nov. 15 and at Ole Miss on Nov. 29 before perhaps ending with the SEC championship game.

The bottom line: Georgia's hitting its stride at the right time, getting its players back and getting a lot better on defense.

Mark Richt and his staff have done a terrific job keeping this team pointed in the right direction despite the early struggles on defense and the suspension of Gurley.

In the end, the Dawgs just might have their day.

Stroll down memory Lane



Tennessee fans still haven't forgiven Lane Kiffin for leaving them high and dry for USC after only one season in Knoxville, but what they really ought to be mad at him about is his role in what's been an abysmal stretch of quarterback play for the Vols.

Kiffin returns Saturday to Neyland Stadium as Alabama's offensive coordinator and does so with Tennessee senior quarterback Justin Worley struggling just to stay in one piece. Worley has already been sacked 29 times this season and is currently nursing a shoulder injury that's kept him out of practice all week. If he can't go Saturday, Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs could split time under center.

In fact, longtime Tennessee follower Brent Hubbs of Volquest.com dug up a stat this week that's staggering. In their last 35 SEC games, the Vols have thrown 42 touchdown passes and 57 interceptions while starting five quarterbacks.

With those kind of numbers, is it really a surprise that Tennessee is 7-28 in SEC play over that stretch?

As a comparison, Alabama has thrown 66 touchdown passes and just 14 interceptions during its last 35 SEC games. The Tide started three quarterbacks during that span, including AJ McCarron for all but nine of those games.

So yes, you better be good up front. You need to protect the quarterback on offense and pressure the quarterback on defense. But more than ever, you also better be darn good at quarterback, not to mention experienced, efficient and healthy.

What's all this have to do with Kiffin?

Upon taking the Tennessee job, he sent word to a couple of quarterbacks the Vols had committed under the previous regime that they needed to look elsewhere -- and they did.

Their names? Tajh Boyd and Bryce Petty.

Landsharks attack



This is the best Ole Miss defense since ...

The measuring stick in Oxford, at least over the past 55 years, would be the 1962 defense, which was the backbone of the Rebels' 10-0 national championship team. That unit allowed just 19 points in six SEC contests.

This year's defense has given up just six touchdowns in its first seven games, while scoring four of its own off takeaways. And one of the six it gave up came on the last play of the game against Texas A&M with the Rebels leading 35-14. Ole Miss leads the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 10.6 points per game.

Even more telling, Ole Miss' plus-19.4 defensive efficiency is on pace to be the best for any team in the past 10 seasons. Team efficiency is the point contributions of each unit to the team's schedule-adjusted scoring margin, on a per-game basis. According to ESPN's Stats ∓ Info, the Rebels have forced at least two turnovers in six of their seven games this season, tied for the most in FBS.

It's no coincidence Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is slowing the tempo on offense. Smart coaches aren't so programmed into playing a certain way they can't adjust. Freeze is playing more to his defense right now.

And with that defense, why wouldn't he?

SEC morning links

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:00
AM ET
1. Who is the best one-loss team in the country? That is the most intriguing debate in college football right now. With four teams in the top 5, it has to be somebody from the SEC, right? Well, the rest of the nation might disagree and claim SEC bias. On Thursday, ESPN Insider Brad Edwards used a metric called Game Score to rank the losses of each playoff contender. The best loss, with a score of 72, was Alabama's loss at Ole Miss. The worst (27) was Ohio State losing at home to Virginia Tech. That seems fair. What I don't agree with is putting Auburn's loss to Mississippi State among the worst losses with a score of 46. Sure, the Tigers lost by double digits, but it was on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. And they overcame a 21-0 deficit to make it a one-score game in the second half.

1a. On the same scale, Notre Dame's recent loss to Florida State was among the best losses, but it still might have cost the Fighting Irish a shot at the playoff according to Gregg Doyel. The new Indianapolis Star columnist writes that while it was a good loss, the Irish are lacking any good wins. I tend to agree. I figured SEC fans would, too. Read the full piece here.

2. So I was going to call out Texas A&M for backing out of its home-and-home series with Oregon in 2018 and 2019, but then the Aggies went and scheduled a home-and-home with Clemson those same years. Now personally, I would have loved to have seen the Aggies and the Ducks and all the points that would have ensued. But who knows where those two programs will be in four years? All I know is that there are some enticing non-conference matchups on the slate for 2019. Check these games out:
  • Texas A&M at Clemson
  • Notre Dame at Georgia
  • LSU at Texas
  • Kansas State at Mississippi State
  • Michigan at Arkansas

Even that last game could be intriguing assuming Michigan has hired a new coach and that Bret Bielema has the Razorbacks among the SEC contenders by then. And they haven't yet, but you can go ahead and count on both Alabama and Auburn scheduling a quality non-conference that year.

3. I've done a couple stories this season on SEC players showing support for cancer patients, so naturally it caught my attention when I saw a similar piece on Patrick Towles. The Kentucky quarterback has lent support to high school freshman Brady Walz, the nephew of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz, and even invited him to attend the Wildcats' win over Vanderbilt last month. No, it's not the Iron Bowl, but the Kentucky-Louisville can get pretty heated in the Bluegrass State. This seems to be a growing trend in college football, and there are probably more stories like this that never get told. Kudos to you Mr. Towles. Kentucky hosts No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday.

Tweet of the day

 
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National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Matt Schick to break down where several of the top recruits in the nation might commit, including the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, Terry Beckner Jr.

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