Cooper is arguably the best receiver in the country. But for Alabama's offense to be successful, he can’t continue to do it alone.
Take last season for instance. Despite the mess that it was for Florida, the defense held down LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Neither receiver had more than 60 yards receiving or a single touchdown. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri’s most talented receiver last season, was held to 52 yards and no touchdowns, too.
Receivers are reliant. Quarterbacks are not. Blake Sims, despite all the good work he’s done in winning the starting job, must get the ball to his other weapons on Saturday against the Gators.
So far, Cooper has accounted for 48.5 percent of all of Alabama's receptions and 50.8 percent of all passing yards. He’s been targeted 43 times. The next closest is Christion Jones, who has been thrown to only 14 times. Chris Black, who has started in place of DeAndrew White, has three total receptions. Starting tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard have combined for just one reception.
While there’s been a lot to like about Sims and the new life Lane Kiffin has breathed into the offense, there’s still a lot of uncharted territory to be discovered. Kenyan Drake has shown flashes of Reggie Bush-like ability, Jalston Fowler has caught the ball a few times in his versatile H-back role and even young ArDarius Stewart has gotten somewhat involved. But none have been truly featured.
Howard, who has the ability to be a mismatch against any defense, simply hasn’t gotten the football. We’re waiting on an APB to be sent out on the All-America talent. He’s been thrown to once all season and it resulted in an interception. You could say he’s not worked to get himself open, but that’s a faulty argument because good coordinators find a way to get their best players the football in space. Sometimes that means setting a pick, dump it off into the flat or dialing up a screen pass. Howard is fast and athletic enough for any of those options.
Before Saturday’s win over Southern Miss, Saban insisted that Howard needed to be more involved in the offense. That obviously didn’t happen. Following Alabama’s 52-12 beat down, Saban reiterated the need for more playmakers to emerge.
“We need to get more people involved offensively,” he said. “Coop has had a great start, but we have other guys that are capable players. Chris Black dropped the ball tonight. He’s a capable playmaker. We need those guys to play and get confidence. Getting DeAndrew White back will help us. Christion Jones had four catches tonight. We need to get more guys involved.”
Georgia's stud running back did just about everything he could have to win that game Saturday. He broke through tackles, changed the field on a dime during a wild 17-yard gain, drug Gamecocks -- likely kicking and screaming -- on his back and legs, and flattened guys in his way inside Williams-Brice Stadium.
Still, it wasn't enough, but who knows what would have happened if he'd been given the ball on that first-and-goal from South Carolina's 4-yard line with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter. I know Bulldogs fans are wondering how the Dawgs went away from their workhorse back at such a critical moment ...
Through two games, Gurley is second in the SEC with 329 rushing yards on 35 attempts. He's averaging a whopping 9.4 yards per carry and has four rushing touchdowns. He also has a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Gurley is your leader in the Heisman clubhouse nationally and the unquestioned one when it comes to SEC candidates. He has that special, rare blend of power, speed and agility that Playstation footballers wish they could compute.
But we already knew all that. So today, I thought we'd talk a little bit about the quarterbacks.
We can't have 10 legitimate Heisman candidates in the SEC. It's just not logical. But we can talk about a handful of guys who could throw themselves into the mix as the season goes on.
- Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: Obviously, he's the leader out of the quarterback gate. He leads the SEC with 1,094 passing yards and has 11 passing touchdowns with zero interceptions. It doesn't matter who he's played since that phenomenal performance at South Carolina, the kid deserves Heisman love.
- Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He's the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback with his 696 passing yards and 273 rushing yards. Prescott has accounted for 11 touchdowns and looks much sharper as a passer in the pocket. The next step is seeing how he performs in SEC play. Oh, hello road trip to LSU.
- Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: OK, so we never really know which Wallace we'll get in games, but when he's on, he's not too shabby. He's second in the SEC with 1,023 yards and has nine touchdowns to four interceptions (three in the opener). With his 316 yards in a blowout win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Wallace tied Eli Manning's mark of 10 300-yard passing games at Ole Miss, which is a school record. Wallace will break that record soon enough.
- Maty Mauk, Missouri: It's pretty obvious that the Tigers are just fine at quarterback with Mauk. All he's done as the full-time starter is throw for 647 yards and a league-high 12 touchdowns. Mauk can run if he needs to, and has really improved his pocket footwork, but he'd rather just stand and throw down field, which he does really well.
Now, will all of these guys be in the Heisman discussion in November? No. In fact, there's a good chance that by October most of this list will be eliminated from serious contention. But at this early part of the season, it was necessary to mention what these guys had done so far.
Here are a couple of other players to watch when it comes to SEC Heisman chances:
- Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Still the best receiver around. Leads the SEC and the nation with 33 receptions and has a conference-leading 454 yards with two touchdowns.
- Arkansas RBs: Alex Collins leads the SEC 411 rushing yards and has five touchdowns. Jonathan Williams is third with 322 yards and leads the league with six rushing touchdowns. Honestly, just take your pick with either back because they are both averaging more than 8 yards per carry.
- Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: He was off this weekend, but is still fourth in the SEC with 289 rushing yards and has four touchdowns.
- Travin Dural, WR, LSU: He was finally kept out of the end zone against Louisiana-Monroe, but is still second in the SEC with 370 receiving yards and has a league-leading four touchdowns.
- Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: Through two games, he has 21 receptions for 339 yards and three touchdowns. If he's not on the field, Florida doesn't beat Kentucky Saturday.
If Florida wants to be successful defensively, pressuring quarterbacks is paramount. On Saturday against Kentucky, Dante Fowler Jr. did a good job of it but didn't have a ton of help. That has to change when the Gators play Alabama this week. The individual matchup involving Fowler should be interesting -- he is facing Alabama true freshman Cam Robinson, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class. For what its worth, the Gators said they needed some adversity, like Saturday's game provided, before going to Tuscaloosa.
Days after its loss at South Carolina, Georgia is still the subject of much conversation. A lot of it centers around the offensive playcalling and coordinator Mike Bobo. My colleague Edward Aschoff said not giving the ball to running back Todd Gurley near the goal line late in the game was the wrong call. That topic was even the first question posed to Mark Richt by a caller on his weekly radio show and he admitted that “I think we were all thinking the same thing on the ride home.” The Bulldogs play Troy this week, so don't expect that chatter to calm anytime soon.
Read more here.
Around the SEC
- The SEC released a statement on the non-delay of game call in Florida's win over Kentucky. Mark Stoops declined comment.
- Brandon Harris remains in LSU's plans at quarterback even though Anthony Jennings appears entrenched as the starter.
- Check out the top 10 SEC quarterbacks who defied recruiting rankings, a list that includes Johnny Manziel.
- By moving their most athletic players inside, Auburn has found a fit on its defensive line.
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The uncertainty is part of what makes following the league fun, though. With a couple more SEC teams jumping into conference play this week, we should soon gain a better understanding of where things actually stand within the conference. But for now -- with a couple of key SEC games and a huge nonconference matchup on Thursday ahead -- let’s celebrate how many SEC fan bases truly believe their teams have a legitimate chance to make it to Atlanta in December.
A quick look at the week ahead:
Game of the week: Florida at Alabama
Little did we know before the season that Florida’s first major challenge of the fall would come from Kentucky and not from Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Tuscaloosa. Will Muschamp’s team (2-0, 1-0 SEC) needed an all-star performance from receiver Demarcus Robinson (15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns) and an assist from the back judge who was minding the play clock on a key fourth-down play to beat the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) in overtime. The Gators need to make a lot of progress in a little time if they’re to have a chance against No. 3 Alabama (3-0), despite the Crimson Tide’s over reliance on dump-off passes to Amari Cooper and occasionally shoddy pass defense. Florida has the ability to make this a competitive game, but it must look a lot more like the team that destroyed Eastern Michigan, 65-0, two weeks ago than the one that easily could have lost to Kentucky.
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Mississippi State’s quarterback has been great against three overmatched teams so far (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama). When they visit No. 8 LSU this weekend, Prescott and the Bulldogs will gain their first real opportunity to prove they’ll be more than a middle-of-the-pack program in the SEC West this season. LSU hasn’t allowed a single point in nine quarters and has outscored opponents 108-0 since falling behind Wisconsin, 24-7, early in the second half of the opener. The Tigers traditionally win comfortably in this series, so the pressure is on Prescott to keep the Bulldogs afloat against by far the best team they will have faced to date.
Coaches under the microscope: Georgia coordinators Mike Bobo and Jeremy Pruitt
A longtime Mark Richt assistant, Bobo has fielded some of the most productive offenses in school history in recent seasons, but he has taken plenty of heat for not handing the ball to Todd Gurley on Saturday with Georgia knocking at the South Carolina goal line with the chance to take a late lead. That decision blew up in Bobo’s face when the drive sputtered and normally solid kicker Marshall Morgan missed a chip-shot field goal. Meanwhile, newcomer Pruitt’s defense was atrocious, surrendering 447 yards of total offense following a solid debut two weeks ago against Clemson. This Saturday’s matchup against Troy shouldn’t provide a major challenge for the Bulldogs, but it will be their next opportunity to get bad tastes out of their mouths.
Storyline to watch: Auburn’s travel schedule
Playing a Thursday night game halfway across the country can’t help but be disruptive for Gus Malzahn’s No. 5 Auburn Tigers (2-0, 1-0). It might be a competitive challenge, too, as the 1,000-mile trip to Manhattan, Kansas, will culminate with Malzahn’s team facing No. 20 Kansas State (2-0). The sunny side of the unusual trip is that Auburn was off last weekend, so it will not play on short rest. Plus the Tigers will have nine days until they host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 27, so they have extra recovery time built into the back end of this trip and a relatively easy nonconference game between K-State and a huge SEC matchup with LSU on Oct. 4. Nonetheless, this odd piece of scheduling will probably create a couple of headaches for Malzahn and his staff.
Intriguing matchup: Arkansas running game against Northern Illinois defense
Fresh off a 438-yard outing in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech, Arkansas’ impressive rushing attack seems to rank among the nation’s best. Jonathan Williams (22 carries, 145 yards, four TDs against Texas Tech) and Alex Collins (27-212, 2 TDs) might be the best tandem in the SEC and the Razorbacks’ offensive line is doing fine work. Let’s see how they fare on Saturday against a Northern Illinois defense that ranks 13th nationally against the run, surrendering 81 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. The Huskies posted those numbers in wins against Presbyterian, Northwestern and UNLV, so they certainly haven’t seen the likes of Arkansas’ running game yet. It seems highly likely NIU’s opponent averages might rise a bit after Saturday’s game.
Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.
Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.
Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?
Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.
But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.
In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.
“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.
Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.
“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”
Now Sims is a new man.
“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”
His teammates do, too.
Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.
“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.
“He’s really matured over these last three games.”
Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.
“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.
Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.
“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”
But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?
“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”
"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”
If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.
Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.
“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.
“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”
Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.
Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.
Around the SEC
- Tennessee's rebuilt offensive line needs work after a five-sacks-allowed performance vs. Oklahoma, but Butch Jones said he's sticking with his current group.
- The 369 passing yards allowed by Florida was the most the Gators have given up since 2007. It is cause for concern in the Florida secondary.
- Steve Spurrier said he doesn't know how high his team's confidence is or how much South Carolina is supposed to have after the win over Georgia.
- Maty Mauk throws a lot of touchdowns. His percentage is higher than that of predecessors James Franklin, Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith.
- Freshman running back Ralph Webb has given Vanderbilt a consistent effort through three games.
- Mark Richt discusses two pivotal penalties in Georgia' loss to South Carolina
Hahahaha, Billy Horschel doing the Gator Chomp on 18 after winning the Tour Championship and getting booed by Georgia fans.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) September 14, 2014
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We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: South Carolina
Capital One Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Georgia
Belk Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Mississippi State
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Florida
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee
Drive Through: On The Line In Week 4
12:00 PM ET Troy 13 Georgia 3:30 PM ET 6 Texas A&M SMU 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 7:00 PM ET Northern Illinois Arkansas 7:00 PM ET Mississippi State 8 LSU 7:30 PM ET 14 South Carolina Vanderbilt