BATON ROUGE, La. -- Through three quarters Saturday night, Kenny Hilliard and LSU’s offensive line had done nothing to give their coaches confidence that they’d dominate the fourth quarter against a stiff Wisconsin defense.

LSU’s running game had accounted for next to nothing, and it didn’t appear that anyone was going to break through since the Tigers were in desperation mode and the Badgers carried a double-digit lead into the final period.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hillard
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hilliard served as LSU's closer against Wisconsin, rushing for 102 of his 110 yards in the fourth quarter.
“[The offensive linemen] were pretty upset because we had 16 yards in the first half,” Hilliard said. “They knew we were better than that.”

It took some time for them to prove it, but they were right. The Tigers wore down Wisconsin’s defensive front -- and it certainly helped that two of the Badgers’ starting linemen left the game with injuries -- and took over in the fourth quarter. While Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee had found little or no running room earlier in the game, Hilliard was able to blow through big holes inthe fourth quarter -- and the Tigers kept feeding him.

He entered the fourth quarter with seven carries for eight yards -- while Fournette had seven carries for 21 yards through three quarters and Magee had five attempts for six yards -- but Hilliard essentially was LSU’s offense toward the end of the game. The senior carried 11 times for 102 yards in the fourth quarter alone, finishing with 18 totes for 110 yards and the go-ahead 28-yard touchdown.

Four of Hilliard’s 11 fourth-quarter carries achieved first downs. A fifth was the touchdown that gave LSU its first lead of the night with 9:41 to play.

“At the end of the day, they ran the ball well and they made a gigantic play,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “The last touchdown they got broke the game open.”

Before LSU kneeled to run out the clock on its final two snaps, Hilliard ran the ball on 10 of the Tigers’ previous 12 plays. He got the ball all three times before the kneeldowns, forcing the Badgers to use their three timeouts and achieving the crucial first down that secured the win with a 4-yard gain on his final run of the night. On the Tigers’ go-ahead touchdown drive, Hilliard got the ball on all three plays, running for gains of 17 and eight before his 28-yard scoring run.

It was as dramatic a turnaround as even the most loyal LSU supporter could have imagined.

“That’s something with our offense,” Hilliard said. “Whomever can get in there and get the hot hand and first downs will basically stay in the game.”

But what does Hilliard’s Saturday success mean moving forward? He has played the role of fourth-quarter punisher in LSU’s offense before, but opportunities to become the Tigers’ featured back have been rare.

Fournette didn’t make the immediate splash many media members had predicted, but he and Magee will still get their share of the workload. As Hilliard said, this was a time where the Tigers found a late spark on a night that had been full of frustration and stuck with what had started working.

“I felt like Kenny Hilliard played hard,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I like Leonard Fournette’s contribution, did just what we asked him to do, ran hard, returned a couple of kicks. We’re a blue-collar team that will fight like hell and get in competitive games and scrap you. This was one of those times.”

Even after his strong first outing, Hilliard’s vision of his backfield role didn’t seem to change.

He has been one cog in a multifaceted LSU running game throughout his career, and Hilliard doesn’t expect the Tigers to alter that philosophy. He and Magee still expect to help Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams develop bigger roles as the season progresses.

“That’s how it was for us when me and Terrence came in,” Hilliard said. “Guys like Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, they were able to take us underneath their wings and show us the way. That’s what we’re here for. We have to help lift each other and stay positive.”
The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouch is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.

Georgia, USC benefit big in Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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For more information on the rankings here, check out the Football Power Index and Dean Oliver's primer on this metric used by the Stats & Information analytics team.

What were the top analytical and statistical storylines from Week 1 of the college football season?

Georgia is the new favorite in the SEC
Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC greatly improved in Week 1.

The Bulldogs’ win over Clemson and South Carolina’s loss to Texas A&M combined to raise Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC East from 29 percent (in preseason) to 62 percent and its overall chance of winning the SEC from 11 percent to 31 percent, via ESPN’s FPI rating.

The Bulldogs jumped from 14th to sixth in the rankings. That was the third-biggest FPI ranking jump of any Top-25 team after Week 1, behind Nebraska (up 13 spots to 28) and Texas A&M (up eight spots to No. 8).

South Carolina’s probability of winning the SEC East plummeted from 41 percent to 11 percent and its chance of winning the SEC fell from 19 percent to four percent.

Clemson and South Carolina had the two biggest drops in FPI rankings among teams in the Top 25, with Clemson falling 17 spots (to 30th) and South Carolina slipping 13 (to 20th). They were followed by North Carolina, which dropped 12 spots to 31 despite beating Liberty, 56-29.

North Carolina’s win against Liberty may have seemed dominant based on the 56-29 final score, but the Tar Heels trailed Liberty early in the second half before scoring 28 straight points. Their average in-game win probability ranked 29th out of 59 teams that won on Saturday.

USC rises in Pac-12
USC jumped from No. 9 to No. 5 in FPI after defeating Fresno State on Saturday. Conversely, UCLA dropped in FPI from No. 4 to No. 7 after its offense struggled on the road against Virginia.

USC now has the second-best chance to win the Pac-12 behind Oregon and the No. 1 chance to win the Pac-12 South.

USC travels to Stanford on Saturday in a game with conference implications. The Football Power Index gives the Trojans a 51.6% chance to win the game, and it is projected to be the closest Pac-12 game of the year.

Comeback of the week: LSU over Wisconsin
LSU came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat Wisconsin 28-24. Not only was that the largest comeback of the week, but LSU had the lowest average in-game win probability (35 percent) of any team that won on Saturday. The Tigers had an above-average chance to win on only 16 percent of their plays.

LSU’s win probability dipped to six percent early in the third quarter after Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead. The Tigers went on to score 21 straight points to win the game.

Unlikeliest wins of Week 1
Based on ESPN’s FPI projections, UTSA’s win against Houston was the most unlikely win by an FBS team against another FBS team in Week 1. FPI gave UTSA a 19 percent chance to win entering the game.

Other significant upsets included Temple (30 percent chance to win) over Vanderbilt, Colorado State (34 percent chance to win) over Colorado and Rutgers (34 percent chance to win) over Washington State.
video

Gene Chizik reviews film from the season openers for LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Arkansas.

Playoff picture: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
10:00
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There is one thing the College Football Playoff didn’t change, and that’s the importance of the regular season. The playoff picture has already been affected. Here’s a look at how the biggest games impacted the postseason in Week 1:

NOBODY LOOKED INVINCIBLE

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHeisman candidate Brett Hundley looked rather ordinary against Virginia on Saturday.
Nobody looked as good as Florida State did a year ago -- including this Florida State. The No. 1-ranked Seminoles got a good scare from Oklahoma State. No. 7 UCLA traveled across the country and ran into a shockingly good Virginia defense. No. 5 Ohio State’s defense looked like it had one week to prepare for Navy’s triple option -- not all summer. No. 2 Alabama looked vulnerable on defense and had its hands full with West Virginia. Two Heisman hopefuls – FSU quarterback Jameis Winston and UCLA’s Brett Hundley -- looked more average than they did spectacular, and were overshadowed by the likes of Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley and – surprise -- Kenny Hill. Nothing came easy in Week 1 -- including any indication as to who the best team in the country might be -- but that's typical. Look for significant improvement and more clarity in Week 2 now that the nerves have settled and the rust is off.

GAMECOCKS WENT SOUTH

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had no answers following his team’s 52-28 loss to Texas A&M, one of the most surprising results of the week. The Aggies looked in midseason form against a porous South Carolina defense that allowed a school-record 680 yards. Hill outplayed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, and while South Carolina’s playoff stock plummeted, the Aggies’ rose. Consider this: The next four opponents for A&M are Lamar, Rice, SMU and Arkansas. The Aggies should be 5-0 heading into October and a trendy playoff pick – especially if Hill continues to play with that poise and accuracy. It was a rough opening for the entire state of South Carolina, as Clemson lost to Georgia, which looked very capable of winning the SEC East. The Bulldogs, led by Gurley’s school-record 293 all-purpose yards, scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to break away for a 45-21 win.

GOOD NOT GREAT

Ohio State doesn’t look like it’s going to bulldoze its way through the Big Ten with J.T. Barrett at quarterback and a young offensive line paving the way, but it certainly isn’t going to roll over for anyone, either. The loss of Braxton Miller to injury was a game-changer, but the team’s relentless performance against Navy showed that the Buckeyes can’t be counted out just yet. Barrett threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut, and coach Urban Meyer used a conservative game plan to keep his rookie comfortable. Ohio State has three straight home games against unranked opponents (Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati) before opening league play at Maryland on Oct. 4. The Hokies’ defense should present the biggest challenge, but the Buckeyes can still enter their Big Ten schedule in exactly the same place everyone thought they’d be with Miller -- in the playoff conversation.

PERCEPTION PROBLEMS

The Big Ten was oh-so-close to gaining some respect this weekend until Wisconsin squandered its 10-point halftime lead against LSU. With the exceptions of Wisconsin and Northwestern, the conference won all of its games. League newcomer Rutgers found a way to beat Washington State in Seattle, and Penn State beat UCF in Ireland, but the Badgers missed their opportunity on the biggest stage. They had the best chance at making a statement for the entire conference. Instead, it was an underwhelming debut for quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Melvin Gordon had 140 yards -- but only had 16 carries. With Wisconsin’s schedule -- the Badgers don’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan -- a win over LSU would’ve pushed them into the playoff conversation. Now? The Big Ten better hope the Spartans or Buckeyes can live up to the expectations.

BUH-BYE BOISE (and UCF)

The Broncos had one chance to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee against a Power 5 opponent, and it disappeared with a 35-13 loss to Ole Miss on Thursday night. If an undefeated Boise State couldn’t get into the title game in the old BCS system, a one-loss Broncos team probably isn’t going to sneak into the four-team playoff. The same can be said for UCF, which had high expectations for this season coming off its Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. A tough 26-24 loss to Penn State in Ireland was hardly an embarrassment, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to overcome as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

That’s not to say that Boise State or UCF won’t play on New Year’s Day. The highest-ranked conference champion not from the Group of 5 will earn a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, but that’s a consolation prize to two programs that have already been there, won that.

LSU freshman tracker

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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So it wasn’t a Heisman Trophy-caliber debut for LSU freshman Leonard Fournette. The Tigers’ coaches understandably rode the defense and veteran running back Kenny Hilliard late as No. 13 LSU scored 21 unanswered points to beat No. 14 Wisconsin 28-24 on Saturday night.

But the Tigers did get Fournette and eight other true freshmen -- receiver Trey Quinn, quarterback Brandon Harris, defensive backs Ed Paris and Jamal Adams, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Deondre Clark, linebacker Donnie Alexander and kicker Cameron Gamble -- on the field Saturday in Houston during the comeback win. Here’s a quick recap of the top three.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did: Fournette looked tentative on both kickoff returns and runs out of the backfield. He returned five kickoffs for 117 yards, with a long of 33 yards, and ran eight times for 18 yards. The explosive running everyone expected was nowhere to be found, although the offensive line didn’t give him much room to run, either. Fournette and Terrence Magee (6-8) took a backseat to Hilliard (18-110, TD) in the second half as the Tigers mounted their comeback.

What it means: Because of the hype built around the nation’s top overall prospect, anything less than 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns would have been a letdown. Fournette’s time will come, but he didn’t make much of an impact in his college debut. Perhaps he’ll find more of a groove over the next couple of weeks when he should have more room to run against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe.

WR Trey Quinn

What he did: Quinn was the only LSU true freshman to start on Saturday. The record-setting receiver caught one pass for 11 yards and ran 2 yards on a reverse. But easily his biggest play of the night came when he went in motion on a two-point conversion attempt and was wide open when he caught Anthony Jennings’ pass to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 24-21 with 12:08 left in the game.

What it means: It was clear coming in that Quinn would play a big role after he generated a lot of buzz during preseason camp. He made one of the Tigers’ biggest plays during their comeback. They played only four receivers all night – sophomore Travin Dural (3-151, TD) and redshirt freshman John Diarse (2-48, TD) also made some huge catches – so it’s clear that we should expect Quinn to rank among LSU’s top wideouts moving forward.

QB Brandon Harris

What he did: Harris played one series in the second quarter and the Tigers went backward, literally and figuratively. They lost 9 yards on the possession – Harris ran once for a loss of a yard and later was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down – and also had to burn a timeout when Harris was unable to get the play in quickly enough from the sideline. Jennings returned on the next possession and played the rest of the game at quarterback.

What it means: As with Fournette, this was an unimpressive debut for Harris. He looked a bit lost on the field, in a game where the Tigers couldn’t afford to fall much further behind. Jennings floundered a bit early, but he hit a couple of huge passes and gave LSU enough in the second half to mount a comeback. You can’t say Jennings completely solidified his position as LSU’s full-time quarterback – he finished 9-for-21 for 239 yards and two touchdowns – but Harris certainly didn’t do anything to prove that he deserves the job yet.
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HOUSTON -- The game turned -- and isn't this always the case for LSU under Les Miles? -- with a bold call on special teams.

The game ended -- and how many times have we seen this in recent years? -- with Wisconsin falling just short of a marquee win and wondering where it all went wrong.

The No. 13 Tigers and No. 14 Badgers came into the Advocare Texas Kickoff as mystery teams because of all the new faces in key positions for both sides. But there was no mystery remaining at the end of LSU's 28-24 victory at NRG Stadium. A new season began, but these teams simply keep regurgitating their old storylines.

For the Tigers, it was another rise-from-the grave, how-did-that-happen victory under Miles, who improved to 11-0 in season openers and an impossible 22-21 when trailing in the fourth quarter.

[+] EnlargeLSU's John Diarse
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLSU's John Diarse gets past Wisconsin's Darius Hillary for a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"We did everything we could possibly have done, the latest possible time to do it, before we decided to play best," Miles said.

Wisconsin led 24-7 after scoring early in the second half, and LSU looked doomed. Its offense mustered only 136 yards in the first half, with 80 of them coming on a long pass play against busted coverage for a touchdown. The Badgers were averaging more than eight yards per carry and bulldozing a Tigers defense that kept missing tackles and assignments.

Just when things appeared the bleakest, after an apparent three-and-out on LSU's first possession of the second half, Miles called for one of his patented special teams gambles. Kendell Beckwith only ran for five yards on the fake punt, but it led to a first down and eventual field goal. It also triggered a run of 21 unanswered points by the Tigers.

"I felt like we had to make a play," Miles said. "It was the right call, and it was the right time. The momentum change at that point was significant. I think our guys started feeling it."

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen disputed that the fake caused such a momentous momentum shift. After all, he said, the Badgers only gave up a field goal and still held an 11-point lead.

He might be right. Other changes happening in the game proved just as important, if not more so. For one, Melvin Gordon suddenly morphed from leading Heisman Trophy candidate to invisible man without much explanation.

Gordon opened the second half with a 63-yard burst to set up Wisconsin's final score. But from then on, Gordon received only two more carries the rest of the game and stood on the sideline at times with his helmet halfway on his head.

Andersen said Gordon had "a scenario" at halftime that made it doubtful whether the star tailback could return to the game. But he did not elaborate, and Gordon did come back late in the game to provide pass protection. Asked after the game if he tweaked anything or was injured, Gordon responded, "Nah, I was good, man. All good."

But he clearly wasn't the same, and neither was the Wisconsin offense. LSU began stacking against the run and walking its safeties down to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. First-time starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy couldn't counter and went just 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions. He finished 1-of-13 on throws of 10 yards or more, as his receivers struggled to get separation and he missed them when they were open.

Andersen said he didn't consider turning to Joel Stave -- who started every game last year and has a more accurate arm than McEvoy -- because the protection was so bad it wouldn't have mattered.

"They weren't passing too often, so that gave us the opportunity to put more people in the box," LSU linebacker D.J. Welter said. "We really benefited from that."

After a shaky start, Tigers sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings started to find his footing late, and Wisconsin's valiant defensive effort crumbled after it lost a second starting lineman to injury. LSU outgained Wisconsin 140-22 in the fourth quarter.

But what else is new? The Badgers have made a habit of doing just enough to lose in major nonconference showdowns of late, including close losses in three straight Rose Bowls against TCU, Oregon and Stanford, plus last year's bizarre ending at Arizona State.

They squandered a golden chance here to strike a blow for the Big Ten and boost the league's image, not to mention announce themselves as a College Football Playoff contender given their pillowy remaining schedule. Instead, it was more of the same.

"It was a big game for us, and we fell short," Gordon said. "Obviously, people will say Wisconsin can't win the big game. I'm sure they'll be saying that all year."

LSU's immediate outlook is murkier. Playing with scores of freshmen and sophomores and missing two starters due to suspension, the Tigers made plenty of mistakes. Highly hyped freshman running back Leonard Fournette looked more like a 19-year-old in his first college game than the reincarnation of Adrian Peterson, as he had just 18 yards on eight carries. Freshman quarterback Brandon Harris came in for one series and promptly got sacked when he failed to recognize a blitz.

But other youngsters, such as receivers Travin Dural (three catches for 151 yards) and John Diarse (who bounced off three tackles to score in the fourth quarter) and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, showed immense potential. Miles said that while there is much to fix, doing so after a victory means those issues are only "light tremors and a mild infection."

"That was our first game, and you're going to see us keep getting better and better," senior wideout Quantavius Leslie said. "Young guys can't play young in the SEC."

LSU can feel optimistic about the rest of the way, while Wisconsin must regroup. It's more SEC pride and another Big Ten slide. One team finds a way to win, while the other finds ways to lose. And the beat goes on and on and on.

College Football Minute

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
1:54
AM ET


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LSU's big-time comeback, Todd Gurley's Heisman statement, and quarterback questions at Alabama: It's all ahead on the "College Football Minute."
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Les Miles talked about the LSU Tigers' win over Wisconsin.
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enny Hilliard scored on a 28-yard touchdown run to cap a fourth-quarter rally for No. 13 LSU in a 28-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin at NRG Stadium on Saturday night.

Video: LSU coach Les Miles

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
1:18
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Les Miles’ gutsy fake punt call helped ignite LSU’s 17-point comeback against Wisconsin.

LSU 28, Wisconsin 24

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
1:15
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LSU finished the game on a 21-0 run to stun Wisconsin 28-24 on Saturday.

Kenny Hilliard leads No. 13 LSU's comeback win over Badgers

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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HOUSTON -- Kenny Hilliard scored on a 28-yard touchdown run to cap a fourth-quarter rally for No. 13 LSU in a 28-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin at NRG Stadium on Saturday night.

The Tigers trailed 24-21 when Jalen Mills intercepted Tanner McEvoy's pass at the LSU 47 with 11:04 left. Hilliard ran for 53 yards on the ensuing drive, capping it with a sprint through a hole on the right side.

The Tigers extended the nation's longest regular-season nonconference winning streak to 46 games after coming back from a 24-7 deficit in the fourth quarter.

The Badgers seemed to have the game in hand after Corey Clement scored in the third quarter. Colby Delahoussaye kicked two field goals and Anthony Jennings threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to John Diarse to start LSU's rally. Jennings hit Trey Quinn for a 2-point conversion to cut the deficit to three.


(Read full post)


What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.

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Coach Chiz's Film Room: Week 1
Gene Chizik reviews film from the season openers for LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Arkansas.
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