Alabama CB Tony Brown: Nick Saban and his coaching staff seem to find a way to make the most out of the extended bowl practices. Take last year, for example, when they brought along a true freshman by the name of Derrick Henry, who went on to obliterate Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. This time, don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie cornerback, Brown. He has seen the field his fair share this season, but been kept on a short leash because of his inexperience. Well, now the five-star talent has 13 games under his belt, and he could be the answer to Alabama’s struggles at cornerback.
Ohio State: LB Darron Lee: Considering that he’s only two years removed from playing quarterback and safety in high school, it’s pretty remarkable that the redshirt freshman was able to crack the starting rotation at linebacker so quickly for the Buckeyes. But Lee has done far more than just earn playing time this season, he’s rapidly developed into one of the team’s best playmakers and looks like a perfect fit in the mold left behind by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He may not be a finished product yet, but with the ability to cover the entire field thanks to his elite athleticism, Lee stuffed the stats sheet with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns during his first campaign as a starter. The Buckeyes may have bigger stars on the defense heading into the Sugar Bowl, but they’ll need Lee at his best to leave with a victory.
Alabama: WR Christion Jones: Chances are that Alabama will need a receiver not named Amari Cooper to make plays. With several weeks to prepare, it stands to reason that the Ohio State staff will find a way to bracket Alabama’s Heisman Trophy finalist and force quarterback Blake Sims to look elsewhere. So pay attention to Jones. The senior has the moves to make people miss in the open field and the speed to get behind the defense. At 13.9 yards per catch, he can make Ohio State pay for focusing too much on Cooper. And for good measure, don't miss Jones on kickoffs and punt returns. Though he hasn't struck paydirt with a touchdown on special teams yet this season, someone with his athleticism is due to break free at some point.
Ohio State: WR Devin Smith: A pretty straightforward formula has emerged during the senior wideout’s career, and it hasn’t failed yet. When Smith catches a touchdown, the Buckeyes win. They are 20-0 when Smith has a TD reception. Is that any good? But this season Smith has taken it even further -- when he’s at his best, Ohio State’s already high-powered offense becomes downright unstoppable. In the two biggest matchups of the season, on the road against Michigan State and in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Smith was a nightmare as a deep threat, unleashing his speed, incredible leaping ability and knack for making tough grabs all at once to kick the Buckeyes into their highest gear. He combined for 10 catches for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns in those wins, and Alabama’s secondary will have to account for him in New Orleans.
Opposing coaches and offensive linemen have wondered the same thing: How could this guy be that young? Robinson had old man strength before he was allowed to purchase an adult beverage. As a rookie, he played in all 13 games and made two starts. Leading the team with 5.5 sacks, the former four-star prospect became a consensus Freshman All-American.
But progress comes in peaks and valleys, and Robinson's growth spurt didn't extend into the beginning of his sophomore season. He was still plenty powerful, but in the season-opener against West Virginia he was noticeably absent on the stat sheet with zero tackles. Through his first six games, the First Team Preseason Coaches All-SEC choice had just 14 total tackles, 2.5 of which went for a loss.
Robinson's slow start was, in fact, a symptom of a larger issue. The entire Alabama defensive line wasn't living up to the hype. The unit billed as the best in the Nick Saban era wasn't getting the kind of pressure it was expected to. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't all-time great.
As it turns out, it was just a matter of time. Week 8 against Texas A&M, the defense got going in the right direction with six sacks and nine tackles for loss. The next time out against Tennessee, Alabama had seven more tackles for loss. And when it came time for the SEC Championship Game, the defensive line was stifling, limiting Missouri to 41 yards on 18 carries. Robinson & Co. freed up Xavier Dickson and Ryan Anderson to rush the passer, and the two outside linebackers combined for seven quarterback hurries.
Robinson, in particular, stood out in Atlanta, putting together a career night that featured nine tackles. He had 3.5 tackles for loss coming into the game and walked away with three more. Whenever Missouri tried to run the ball, big No. 86 was consistently there at the point of attack.
Lineman Jonathan Allen would say of Robinson that night, "He played amazing" and "He's one of the best players we have."
Alabama center Ryan Kelly would know. Between Robinson and the rest of the line, he has had his hands full.
"You look at Dalvin Tomlinson go in the three-technique, [Brandon Ivory], Jarran Reed, A'Shawn, [Darren] Lake, all those guys are huge dudes," he said. "We play against the best defensive front every day in practice, so it makes it easier to go out there in games."
It also makes it easier for the back end of the defense.
"It stars up front with the line," said safety Landon Collins. "They get penetration, and once you get penetration, I mean, it messes up the whole scheme of what the offense is trying to do."
If Alabama is going to be successful against Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it's going to come down to the battle of the trenches.
If the defensive line can take away the run and get in the face of the Buckeyes' rookie quarterback Cardale Jones, it could pay big dividends.
Robinson & Co. have the momentum. Now the question becomes whether they can maintain it.
The Football Writers Association of America released its All-America team and there is plenty of SEC representation on it, including six members on the first team (Amari Cooper, Reese Dismukes, Shane Ray, Benardrick McKinney, Landon Collins and Senquez Golson. The SEC got seven total players on the two teams. On Tuesday, The Associated Press All-America teams were released and the SEC got 15 players across the three squads.
Kentucky had a void to fill at offensive coordinator when Neal Brown left the Wildcats to become the head coach at Troy and it looks like Mark Stoops has his man. Several reports point to West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson as Stoops' pick to replace Brown at the position. It ensures some continuity for the Wildcats, who ran the well-known Air Raid offense under Brown the last two seasons. Dawson is also an Air Raid disciple, having worked under Dana Holgorsen. At West Virginia, Holgorsen was the playcaller, but Dawson has been in the offense long enough to be well-versed in it so the transition to handling those duties at Kentucky should be smooth. West Virginia averaged 502 offensive yards per game (11th nationally) while Kentucky averaged 384.5 yards per game (75th).
Around the SEC
- If you're a fan of the Christmas spirit and the SEC then SEC Network has just the thing: A burning Yule Log with SEC fight songs on Christmas morning on SEC Network.
- There's a report out that Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney is considered a lock to enter the NFL draft.
- Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo interviewed for the vacant Colorado State head coaching job. If he leaves, he will be missed.
- Bo Wallace can pass Eli Manning in career wins with 25 if he guides Ole Miss to a victory in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
- Georgia paid $43,301.36 for Todd Gurley's legal representation during an NCAA investigation this year.
If Jim Harbaugh ends up making $8 mil at Michigan per @RapSheet, Nick Saban won't be happy making a paltry $7.5 a year.— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) December 17, 2014
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?
“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”
Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.
But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.
“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.
“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”
There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.
But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.
“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.
“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”
Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.
But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.
“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.
“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”
Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.
The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.
“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.
“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”
That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.
“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.
“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”
Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.
Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.
“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.
“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”
The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.
A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.
All good there.
But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.
Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).
Four players for only three spots ...
Hey, there's always next season.
Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:
WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn
CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama
OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina
DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama
OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State
Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.
There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.
Around the SEC
- Missouri junior defensive end Shane Ray hasn't decided yet whether he'll enter the NFL draft, according to his mother.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he and athletic director Scott Stricklin hope to have a contract extension done soon and that he's not looking for another job.
- Should he stay or go? Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is weighing whether to enter the NFL draft.
- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he's not looking for head coaching jobs but acknowledged it is part of the deal when you have success.
- Tennessee receiver Jason Croom will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl because a knee injury.
Saban: "Some little 10-year old boy came up to me after A-Day and asked if we had a quarterback other than Blake Sims."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) December 17, 2014
Aguayo is the first kicker to be a two-time All-American since Ohio State's Mike Nugent, though Nugent did not make the first team in consecutive seasons like the Seminoles' star.
The second-seeded Ducks will play third-seeded Florida State on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.
Players Provide Playoff Picks
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State