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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn discusses the Tigers' tough schedule, which includes LSU on Saturday.
Leonard FournetteAP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette was criticized for striking the pose.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- All of his life, Leonard Fournette has been ahead of the athletic curve, so naturally he was disappointed when his first college game didn't go according to plan.

In LSU's season-opening win against Wisconsin, Fournette ran eight times for 18 yards and returned five kickoffs for 117 yards, while senior Kenny Hilliard instead carried the Tigers' running game. It was an OK debut for a typical freshman running back, but not for the player who was ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, whom many college football analysts had compared to the greatest college running backs of the last 20 years.

"I was kind of hard on myself because I was so used to having 200-plus rushing yards in a game and I didn't have that, so I was kind of disappointed," Fournette said. "But I talked to Coach, talked to my father and my mother and they were like, ‘This is college now. It's not going to happen [in college] like it used to happen.' "

Maybe that early disappointment also made Fournette want to fast forward his collegiate development. A week later came Fournette's most memorable college moment to date -- one that brought more criticism than praise.

After a 4-yard touchdown run against Sam Houston State, Fournette's first college score, he struck the Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone. LSU coach Les Miles immediately gave Fournette an earful over the freshman's me-first moment and he later apologized to his teammates for what could easily be called a premature celebration.

All of a sudden, he was the subject of national ridicule -- a rude awakening for a player who had been roundly praised since middle school.

"I prayed on it, my parents talked to me, Coach Miles talked to me and just told me, ‘Don't worry about it,' so I got over it," Fournette said of the Heisman backlash.

Ever since then, Fournette has quietly shown steady improvement. Other SEC freshmen like Tennessee's Jalen Hurd and Texas A&M's Myles Garrett have made bigger national splashes, but last Saturday's win against New Mexico State marked the fourth straight game that Fournette led No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) in rushing.

Each week since the Wisconsin game, Fournette has averaged at least 5 yards per carry, which he believes is a result of improved patience.

"We'll be in the meeting room and watching practice and I'll be seeing [senior running back Terrence Magee] making cuts like I used to make in high school," Fournette said. "I'll just be like, ‘Man I wonder why I can't do that?' I'm always rushing, so I feel like I've just got to be patient, slow down. I've been taking all that to heed and I've been slowing it down and the cuts will be there for me."

Running room and cutback space were certainly available last weekend against New Mexico State, when Fournette broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time at LSU. He finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, all career highs, and credited his offensive line and seniors Magee and Hilliard afterward -- exemplifying another lesson in humility that he learned from the Heisman hoopla.

"Thanks to Kenny, thanks to Terrence, like they're really my mentors. Anything I have a problem with, I come to them," Fournette said. "I never really had a big brother on the football team. I always was the big brother, so I have them and they help me a lot."

The veterans, in turn, credit the rookie for his personal growth. Making the transition from high school legend to SEC freshman can be difficult, but Magee said Fournette adjusted his expectations to fit what LSU has asked of him thus far.

"Every game you're not going to go out and rush for 200 yards, 100 yards, so I think he's a lot more comfortable than what he [was] now and starting to relax and just play his game," Magee said.

That said, Fournette has not fully tapped into his massive potential yet. As Fournette mentioned, he hasn't hit holes decisively at times and, for a player listed at 230 pounds, he has been surprisingly ineffective at breaking tackles.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Fournette ranks 11th in the SEC and 59th nationally with 3.48 yards per carry before making contact with a defender. And yet he's fourth among regulars in his own backfield in yards after contact. Freshman Darrel Williams (3.64 ypc after contact) and Magee (3.18) both rank in the SEC's top 10, but Fournette's average of 2.27 ypc also ranks behind Hilliard (2.53) among LSU regulars.

His game remains a work in progress, but it is easy to envision a game-breaking finished product on the occasions when Fournette accelerates past defenders or leaves one in the dust with a well-placed stiff-arm, as he did on his first touchdown run against NMSU.

Those brief flashes are signs that Fournette is coming along fine, even if he didn't achieve instant superstardom like some expected.

"That's hard, especially with those expectations," center Elliott Porter said. "I don't think nobody in the last 10 years faced quite that much hype."

All week, we're discussing Saturday's terrific slate of games in the SEC West. We looked at which games we'd pay the most to see. We debated which team has the most to prove. Now it's time to talk about the quarterbacks.

The question is simple. With the game on the line, which quarterback would you want leading your team? The answer? Not so easy, but our SEC writers take a stab at it anyway.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertIf the Bulldogs were to find themselves behind in a game, QB Dak Prescott is the player many would prefer to see leading the charge.
Edward Aschoff: I'm taking Mississippi State's Dak Prescott. If I need plays made late in the game, I'm going with someone who can not only fire the ball around but can take off and get plenty of yards with his feet. I'm so new-school in that respect. Give me a mobile quarterback any day over a statue pocket passer. Look at what Prescott did against LSU, in Baton Rouge no less. You're telling me I can have someone who strutted into the intimidating confines of Tiger Stadium and got a win with 373 total yards and three touchdowns? Yeah, sure. Sign me up.

David Ching: There are some good choices here, but I'll take Mississippi State's Prescott. Kenny Hill is an impressive talent with a bunch of weapons at his disposal at Texas A&M. Nick Marshall makes some incredible plays while leading Auburn's prolific offense. Blake Sims and Bo Wallace aren't bad, either. Give me Prescott. I had a front-row seat to watch his improvisational skills occasionally embarrass LSU's defense two weekends ago and came away impressed. He's got his work cut out on Saturday to keep up with Hill and Texas A&M's high-scoring offense, but I'll take my chances with Prescott any time.

Alex Scarborough: What if I say Sims and have him throw screen after screen to Amari Cooper -- the equivalent of an extended handoff? No? That's cheating, you say? OK, fine. If I'm forced to choose, give me Prescott. Something about his intangibles tells me he can win a close game for me. He's a better pure passer than Marshall, he's a more explosive and physical runner than Hill, and he's less Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than Wallace when it comes to turning over the football. Sims, on the other hand, has never played a meaningful snap on the road, and that gives me pause.

Jeff Barlis: Hands down, Auburn's Marshall is the best clutch quarterback in the SEC. Coach Gus Malzahn said it himself last week: "If you compare him to all the other quarterbacks around the country when the game's on the line, we've got the best guy." Marshall proved it time and time again during the Tigers' miracle run last season, but that was done mostly with his legs. This season, he's shown improvement as a passer as evidenced by the Tigers' huge road win at Kansas State when he started 5-of-13 passing for 56 yards and closed out the game by going 12-of-18 for 175. Marshall will have to come through one more time for Auburn to beat LSU.

Greg Ostendorf: Don't sleep on Wallace. He's much better at home. I was at the LSU game last season when he went 8-of-11 for 71 yards on the final drive to set up Ole Miss for the game-winning field goal. With that said, I'm going to have side with Jeff on this one. Marshall isn't the best quarterback in the SEC. He might not even be in the top three. But when the game is on the line, nobody is better. He orchestrated game-winning drives against both Mississippi State and Texas A&M last season; he threw the touchdown to Sammie Coates that made the kick-six possible in the Iron Bowl; and more recently, he made the clutch third-down throw to put away Kansas State on the road. The kid is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Sam Khan: I don't think there are very many wrong choices here. I like Prescott and Marshall a lot. Heck, I even like LSU freshman Brandon Harris, though he'll need some more experience before I can fully trust him in that situation. Today, give me Hill. He's as cool a customer as they come and that's what you need with the game on the line -- someone who is poised. Hill showed those characteristics last week, with his team down by 14 points in the fourth quarter. After struggling through three quarters, Hill made every throw he had to make and compiled 204 passing yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a perfectly-thrown dart for the game-winner to Malcome Kennedy in OT. He has come up big in A&M's two biggest games so far. You have to be darn good to earn the tag of "Trill" in Texas.

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 1

October, 1, 2014
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October has arrived and most teams have played a third of their regular-season schedule. One team has fallen off our playoff tracker (South Carolina) but the rest remain from last week. Let's dive in and see where the College Football Playoff contenders from the SEC stand as of today:

Alabama Crimson Tide
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: The bye week came at the right time for Alabama. It needed Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and DeAndrew White healthy for Ole Miss on Saturday. And if it needed any extra motivation, Rebs safety Cody Prewitt delivered, telling reporters that, "We don't think Bama has really been as good as they have been."
Cause for concern: Survive Ole Miss and things don't get any easier. You thought that Oct. 11 trip to Arkansas would be a cake walk? Ha! You thought Texas A&M would be an easier out without Johnny Manziel? That's a good one. That schedule you thought was littered with SEC cupcakes like Tennessee now looks more like a minefield.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Mississippi State over Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can upset Texas A&M and Auburn the next two weeks, the West might loosen up some. --Alex Scarborough

Auburn Tigers
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Reason for optimism: Nick Marshall continues to look more and more like his old self. On Saturday, he passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, and he also rushed for 105 yards. His new favorite target? OK, it’s still D'haquille Williams, but fellow wide receiver Quan Bray has emerged as a playmaker on both offense and special teams for the Tigers.
Cause for concern: There are a lot of question marks as to who’s going to play this Saturday against LSU. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are day-to-day with injuries, and starting right tackle Patrick Miller is questionable with an ankle injury. It also looks like Auburn will be without safety Jermaine Whitehead for the third straight game.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss over Alabama --Greg Ostendorf

Texas A&M Aggies
Record:
5-0
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: The Aggies passed a big test by showing that their run defense -- while still having a lot of room for improvement -- can do just enough to help them win after being tested thoroughly against Arkansas, the best rushing team in the SEC. The offense also showed it can win when it’s not at its best and Kenny Hill responded to adversity emphatically, showing poise in fourth quarter and overtime. Health-wise, the Aggies are in relatively good shape, which is critical considering what lies ahead.
Cause for concern: The schedule gets only tougher in the next few weeks. This weekend it’s a trip to Starkville to meet undefeated Mississippi State. They return home the following week to host Ole Miss. Then on Oct. 18 they go to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama. These are all teams and places the Aggies have won before, but now they’re doing it with a team that has a lot of young players in key positions, like quarterback, free safety, defensive end and receiver. This three-week stretch is a monumental test for Texas A&M.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn. (This would help the Aggies jump Auburn in the national rankings and gain an advantage in the standings) --Sam Khan Jr.

Ole Miss Rebels
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: The defense ranks first in the SEC and fourth nationally, allowing 248 yards per game and has 11 takeaways on the season. QB Bo Wallace is also spreading his passes around very nicely. Even with depth an issue at receiver, the Rebels already have five players with double-digit receptions.
Cause for concern: The West is easily the toughest division in college football. There really isn’t a major weak link when it comes to teams on this side of the division, and Ole Miss still has to go through everyone. We’ll find out if Ole Miss has the depth needed to make a real SEC run.
Who they’re rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn --Edward Aschoff

Mississippi State Bulldogs
Record:
4-0
AP rank: 12
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Texas A&M
Reason for optimism: With an open date between their dismantling of LSU and this Saturday’s showdown with Texas A&M, the Bulldogs have had time to rest and scheme to face perhaps the best opponent they’ve played to date. It had to help their confidence to see A&M struggle against Arkansas the way it did, too.
Cause for concern: Mississippi State’s secondary has been one of the team’s few weaknesses, and that’s a bad weakness to have against a high-flying offense like Texas A&M’s. It also doesn’t help that veteran center Dillon Day will miss the A&M game while serving a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike play against LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over Ole Miss (because why not?) --David Ching

Georgia Bulldogs
Record:
3-1
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Missouri
Reason for optimism: The SEC East is still a mess, and South Carolina’s loss to Missouri means the Bulldogs once again control their own destiny in the division. Just win, baby, and the Dawgs are headed back to Atlanta. Also, Todd Gurley seems like he’s getting better and better with each week.
Cause for concern: Passing, whether it’s by the Bulldogs or against them. Hutson Mason admitted Saturday that the chemistry between himself and his receivers isn’t where it should be, especially when it comes to throwing the deep ball. Right now, Georgia’s defense can’t stop any sort of passing over the middle of the field.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Tennessee over Florida --Edward Aschoff

LSU Tigers
Record:
4-1
AP rank: 15
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: It seems unlikely that anyone in the SEC West will finish undefeated, so the Tigers can stick around in this race if they start winning. A win in Saturday’s game at Auburn could potentially jump-start LSU’s chances, especially if Brandon Harris goes off as the new starting quarterback.
Cause for concern: Auburn’s running game has to scare LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a bit after Mississippi State had so much success against the Tigers two Saturdays ago. LSU might be able to stick around in the SEC West race with two division losses, but a playoff bid would almost be out of the question if the Tigers fall again.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Mississippi State --David Ching

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 5

October, 1, 2014
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Led by LSU's Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette and a big group from Tennessee, true freshmen again grabbed the spotlight in the SEC last weekend.

Here are five who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from Saturday’s SEC games:

QB Brandon Harris, LSU

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesAfter Brandon Harris' 11-of-14 performance against New Mexico State, the Tigers named him the starter against Auburn.
What he did: Harris came off the bench in the second quarter and led LSU’s offense to seven touchdowns in seven possessions in a 63-7 rout of New Mexico State. He was 11-for-14 for 178 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 36 yards and two scores.

What it means: This is a huge week for Harris. He won SEC Freshman of the Week honors and LSU coach Les Miles announced that Harris will make his first college start on Saturday against Auburn. He’s played mostly in mop-up duty so far, but Harris looked great against Mississippi State and NMSU. His starting assignment makes Saturday’s game exponentially more intriguing.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

What he did: Against NMSU, Fournette set new season highs for rushing attempts (18) and rushing yards (122) and scored touchdowns of 17 and 5 yards. He also made a 33-yard reception. It was Fournette’s first 100-yard game at LSU.

What it means: Fournette has quietly been LSU’s leading rusher in each of the past four games. He hasn’t been putting up huge numbers, but the Tigers have spread around the carries between four backs, too. Nonetheless, with LSU entering the bulk of its SEC schedule, expect to see more of Fournette in key situations.

DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss

What he did: With Ole Miss leading Memphis just 10-3 in the fourth quarter, Haynes sacked quarterback Paxton Lynch and forced a fumble that Isaac Gross recovered at the Memphis 23. The Rebels scored on the next play to go up 17-3 and put away their surprisingly narrow win.

What it means: Ole Miss probably beats Memphis even without Haynes’ big play, but victory was no certainty at that point. Getting the win helped Ole Miss stay undefeated and set up a huge game this weekend with No. 3 Alabama.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

What he did: Hurd build off of his strong outing against Oklahoma with his first 100-yard game in a 35-32 loss to Georgia. The freshman ran 24 times for 119 yards and a touchdown -- all of which set or matched Hurd’s season highs -- and caught three passes for 19 yards.

What it means: The freshman back and his inexperienced offensive line are starting to find their way. It has been tough sledding in that department for Tennessee, but Hurd’s recent big games have been bright spots.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky

What he did: The versatile Williams ran five times for 27 yards, led the Wildcats with 39 receiving yards on three catches and returned two kickoffs for 56 yards, including a long of 36 in a win against Vanderbilt.

What it means: Unfortunately we won’t see Williams on Saturday against South Carolina since he and three teammates were suspended for reportedly firing air pistols in a campus residence hall. Williams has already become a valuable contributor in the Wildcats’ lineup and they need all the help they can get against the Gamecocks.

Other notables:

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Ran 11 times for 32 yards and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass in Georgia’s win over Tennessee.

WR Malachi Dupre, LSU: Caught three passes for a team-high 54 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown, in the win against NMSU.

S Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee: Recorded four tackles and made a leaping interception in Tennessee’s loss against Georgia.

TE Ethan Wolf, Tennessee: Returned from injury and had his most productive game yet, finishing with five catches for 69 yards against Georgia.

LB Tre Williams, Auburn: Played most of the Louisiana Tech game because of injuries to Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy, recorded seven tackles and nearly intercepted a pass.

Watch: SEC Spreecast, 3 ET

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
8:30
AM ET
Join ESPN.com reporters Edward Aschoff, David Ching and Chris Low at 3 p.m. ET as they preview a monster week of SEC action. They'll break down Alabama-Ole Miss, Mississippi State-Texas A&M and LSU-Auburn, while also talking Todd Gurley's Heisman chances and answering your questions.

Auburn, LSU swap roles from 2013 game

September, 30, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Every championship team faces adversity at one point or another. For last year’s Auburn team, it came in the form of a September road trip to Death Valley.

The Tigers began the season 3-0, snapping their SEC skid against Mississippi State along the way. But in the first half at LSU, Auburn simply looked outmatched. It was pouring rain; the offense couldn’t move the ball; the defense couldn’t stop Jeremy Hill; and it was 21-0 after the first 30 minutes. It felt like the team should get back on the bus and head home.

Auburn didn’t, though. As the rain tapered off in the second half, Gus Malzahn’s team fought back and nearly made it a one-possession game before eventually losing 35-21.

Looking back, the game can be remembered two different ways. On one hand, it was the lone blemish on an otherwise flawless resume heading into the BCS title game and a contest Auburn would rather forget. On the other hand, it was a turning point for Auburn, a loss that would create momentum and ignite a nine-game winning streak.

As for the players, all they remember is the rain, or the “very stiff, wind-driven dew,” as LSU coach Les Miles so eloquently put it.

“It was raining in Death Valley, and that’s always a good time,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “It was a night game. I remember that was kind of our turning point in our season. We lost the game, but it really showed that we had fight. It came down to the wire at the end.”

“Wet, rainy,” running back Corey Grant said. “Started off slow. Came back second half, made some adjustments and we kind of got back on track, but it was a little bit too late.”

“I kind of remember the rain a lot,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “It was really slippery. It was my first road game as a college player and I didn’t know I was going to play that much, but coach put me in so I tried to do what I could.

“And I remember losing. That’s the big thing I remember. I think it’s going to be better this year. I hope we get the win.”

“We didn’t really come out the way we should’ve,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “We didn’t have that edge. By the time it was time for us to adjust, we didn’t really put the proper points on the board or we didn’t make the correct stops, fill in gaps.”

It’s been more than a year since that game, and Malzahn admits it still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. To this day, it’s his only SEC loss as a head coach.

However, he also remembers the second-half comeback and how it was a defining moment for Auburn last season. He remembers how the players responded after halftime and how they were an onside kick away from making things interesting.

“Our guys came back,” Malzahn said on Monday’s Tiger Talk radio show. “They responded like champions in the second half, and it gave us momentum the rest of the year.”

This is a new year, though, and the roles have reversed. Auburn is the overwhelming favorite at home against a young, inexperienced LSU team that has a quarterback in Brandon Harris who is making his first road start in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? Nick Marshall made his first road start in Baton Rouge last year.

The good news for Harris is there’s no rain in the forecast this year. The bad news is Auburn is hungry for a win.

“I haven’t beat them all four years and I’m coming up on the last time playing them, so I’ll be excited and especially motivated to play those guys,” Dismukes said.

"We lost last year in their house," added Adams. "They’re coming to our house now, so we’re going to try and get that win."
What a weekend ahead in the SEC. There are some premier games pitting ranked teams against each other and others featuring teams with plenty to prove in college football’s premier conference. In our SEC roundtable yesterday, we tackled games we’d pay to see.

Today, we pose the question: Which team has the most to prove Saturday? Our SEC writers take a swing at answering it.

Edward Aschoff: It has to be Florida. If the Gators are going to have any chance in the SEC East race, they have to win this weekend in Knoxville. Also, I think it’s pretty clear this is a must-win for coach Will Muschamp. Is this a team that can legitimately compete in the SEC? We didn’t see it two weeks ago against Alabama, and we honestly don’t know what to expect from the Gators this season. Can Jeff Driskel properly direct this offense? Can the secondary stop blowing assignments? Do the Gators have any mettle? We’ll find out Saturday.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/John BazemoreWith ESPN's "College GameDay" in Oxford, Mississippi, this weekend, Ole Miss certainly has the stage to prove itself against Alabama.
Alex Scarborough: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are all undefeated. They have something to prove, certainly, but they’re not staring down the barrel of a shotgun. That would be LSU. The Tigers have everything to prove. We’ll find out against Auburn whether LSU can get back on track or whether this is a rebuilding year. It certainly looked like the latter against Mississippi State. Anthony Jennings played so poorly against New Mexico State that he was replaced by Brandon Harris. Is he the answer? When will the Leonard Fournette we all expected show up? For that matter, when will that swarming, physical LSU defense return? Will the real LSU please stand up?

Jeff Barlis: It'd be easy to pick Ole Miss, but my gut says Mississippi State has more to prove. The Rebels have been a trendy pick as a team on the rise for a while now. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, didn't get voted into the Top 25 until they ended a 23-year losing streak to LSU in Baton Rouge. That was also MSU's first win against a ranked team in its past 16 tries. Expectations haven't been this high in Starkville in a long time. But in order to truly contend for the SEC West, the Bulldogs will have to knock off Texas A&M.

David Ching: There are two ways of looking at this one. On one hand, I want to go with Ole Miss because it’s in unfamiliar territory. The Rebels are rarely good enough for “GameDay” to consider visiting. They’re 2-7 against ranked opponents under Hugh Freeze. I think they’re a good team, but they must prove they’re legitimate. Beating Alabama would be a great start. On the other hand, LSU embarrassed itself against Mississippi State. The Tigers need to prove they’re worthy of a No. 15 ranking, not to mention consideration among the contenders in the West. They desperately need to beat Auburn.

Sam Khan: It’s definitely Ole Miss, for many of the reasons David stated. This is the Rebels’ moment: “College GameDay” in the Grove, Alabama coming to Vaught-Hemingway, a chance to finally prove they are ready to take the next step. The past season, when these teams met and many thought the Rebels would give Alabama trouble, they were shut out. If they’re truly going to contend in the SEC West, this is a game in which the Rebels have to thrive. Plus, this isn’t just about them; it’s also about the balance of power this year in the state of Mississippi. Over in Starkville, a rising rival, Mississippi State, is also undefeated and ranked, has a road win at LSU under its belt and will try to knock off No. 6 Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can, the Rebels -- who seemed to have the momentum at this time a year ago -- have to keep up.

Greg Ostendorf: It feels like Texas A&M lost this past weekend. Despite a thrilling come-from-behind victory against an improved Arkansas team, everybody is all of a sudden counting the Aggies out. They dropped to No. 3 in this week’s power rankings. They’re underdogs against Mississippi State. Did we all forget how good they looked in the season opener? The past year’s Auburn team didn’t exactly blow out every opponent, and yet they won the conference. I think it’s important for Texas A&M to get back on track this week and play like the team we saw earlier in the season, the team everybody had as a shoo-in for the playoff.

LSU offense more productive with Harris

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- As is often the case after a disappointing loss, many callers were on the warpath last week during LSU coach Les Miles’ radio show.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertNo matter the formation, Brandon Harris has been a more effective quarterback option than Anthony Jennings.
The most common criticism? That LSU’s offense had grown too predictable in the previous weekend’s 34-29 loss to Mississippi State -- particularly before freshman quarterback Brandon Harris replaced Anthony Jennings and nearly engineered a miraculous comeback win.

When one of the more pleasant critics encouraged Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to limit their use of I-formation/two-tight end sets, Miles predicted they would sprinkle in more spread formations in the future.

“I can tell you that we do look forward to expanding the use of spread for both quarterbacks,” Miles said. “That’s a direction that we’re going in. It’s just that right now a personnel group that’s very, very strong for us, especially on the running end, is the two-tights.”

LSU used more shotgun sets with multiple receivers in last week’s 63-7 win against New Mexico State. The Aggies were not a formidable opponent, but that might be a sign of things to come with Harris taking over as the starter this week against Auburn.

“I think Brandon’s more comfortable like that,” running back Leonard Fournette said.

Harris played in a spread offense in high school, so that makes sense. And while Harris said he is also comfortable taking snaps from under center, spreading the field was the best way to attack NMSU's defense.

“You’ve got to go with things that make us successful,” Harris said. “I was comfortable with that in high school, and we tried to come out this week and spread people out and just run the football.”

It wasn’t so much that the Tigers changed their offensive philosophy against NMSU as that they enjoyed much more success once Harris entered the game -- continuing a recent trend.

Using the tight ends

Does LSU use the tight end-heavy package more than most teams, as some callers insinuated? Absolutely.

The Tigers have run 89 plays with at least two tight ends and two running backs, which is the most of any team in the nation. The next-closest teams are Pitt and Boston College, both of which have run 77. Only B.C. (314 plays) utilized that look more than LSU (228) in 2013.

Is that a problem? Miles doesn’t think so -- not when the Tigers’ offensive identity is built upon the running game.

“We have the opportunity to take advantage of people in both two-tights and in spread,” Miles said. “And we have two very, very talented tight ends and it gives the opportunity of running lanes for I-back style of backs, which Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard and those guys are.”

That said, the Tigers actually used the two-tight formation less against NMSU than they had in previous weeks. LSU averaged 20 plays per game using at least two tight ends and two backs through the first four games, but used that look just nine times against NMSU.

It helped that LSU was rarely in short-yardage situations, so the blocker-heavy lineup was not necessary. Rest assured that it will remain part of LSU’s arsenal.

“Obviously everybody knows we have a powerful running game, so it’s something to kind of expect,” receiver John Diarse said.

Multiple receivers

As previously mentioned, LSU didn’t shift to an entirely new scheme with Harris. The Tigers were simply more productive.

The Tigers ran 30 plays, gained 287 yards and scored four times on plays where there were at least three wideouts on the field against NMSU. In the first four games, they averaged 27 plays per game with three wideouts and 163.5 yards per game.

“Every receiver enjoys going out in a three- or four-wide set,” receiver Travin Dural said. “As the game went on, you could tell the receivers went from kind of being mad and frustrated to having more smiles on their face.”

Shotgun

Harris played almost exclusively in mop-up duty prior to the NMSU game, but LSU’s offense has been more dangerous in nearly every way with him at quarterback.

He is 15-for-20 for 316 yards, three touchdowns and one interception while passing out of the shotgun (an average of 15.8 yards per pass attempt) compared to Jennings’ 27-for-52 for 327 yards, two touchdowns and two picks (6.3 ypa). Harris has nine completions of 20-plus yards from the shotgun compared to just four for Jennings.

“We came out in a couple of three- and four-wide sets when [Harris] was in the game, given the situation, and he made some plays,” Dural said. “He made some great throws and did some great things on the ground and he helped us out tremendously.”

LSU has also rushed the ball more effectively out of the shotgun with Harris. The Tigers have 24 runs for 155 yards (6.5 yards per carry) out of the shotgun with the freshman compared to 47 for 205 (4.4 ypc) with Jennings.



Under center

Boosted by his school-record 94-yard touchdown pass to Dural against Sam Houston State, Jennings is actually averaging 13.1 yards per pass attempt after taking snaps from under center. He’s 15-for-31 for 407 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in that scenario. Meanwhile, Harris is 7-for-10 for 78 yards (7.8 ypa), three touchdowns and no interceptions.

LSU has run the ball 115 times and gained 457 yards (3.97 ypc) with Jennings taking the snap from under center compared to 51 attempts for 312 yards (6.12 ypc) with Harris under center.

It’s anybody’s guess whether those trends continue with Harris as the starting quarterback, however. The Tigers might spread the field more now, but power-run formations will surely remain part of LSU’s scheme.

Diarse predicted that Cameron’s philosophy will still change each week based on personnel matchups.

“I think as an offensive coordinator, you kind of look for what works and it just so happened that spreading those guys out from New Mexico State worked for us,” Diarse said. “We kind of stuck with it and it lasted us the whole game. Each and every week, Coach Cam is unpredictable. He’s not a predictable coach at all. He can throw anything at you.”

Week 6 playoff implications

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:30
AM ET
Claim your spot on the couch now. Reserve your table at your favorite sports bar. Buy another TV. Do whatever you gotta do to make sure you don't miss a snap Saturday because this is going to be a good one.

College football has been a well-kept secret so far, as it has been hiding the true identities of teams. Not this week. It's time to play or go home. There are six games between ranked teams. Of the 17 undefeated teams remaining, eight play against each other this week. It's the most relevant weekend the sport has had in regard to the new College Football Playoff.

Here are the games you can't miss, ranked from least to most likely to affect the playoff:

No. 14 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame -- Stanford already has one loss, and this is the second straight road trip for the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, its playoff hopes will be in serious jeopardy but not over, given that it could still win the conference. This game should reveal more about Notre Dame's place in the playoff, as it will be the first ranked opponent for the Irish.

No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 25 TCU -- ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oklahoma a 64 percent chance to win and predicts this to be Oklahoma's hardest remaining game -- slightly more difficult than Nov. 8 against Baylor. If the Sooners can't handle TCU, they'll be on the outside looking in.

No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn -- LSU gave Auburn its only regular-season loss the past year, but LSU has already lost to Mississippi State, which put the Tigers behind in the SEC West race. Considering the rest of LSU's schedule -- and the hole it's already in -- this is a must-win. For Auburn, this is a chance to erase some doubts and make a push from the bubble into the top four.

No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State -- Two terrific quarterbacks will be on display in the Aggies' Kenny Hill and the Bulldogs' Dak Prescott, who both rank in the top 10 in total QBR. A&M's stock dropped a bit this past week after it needed overtime to beat Arkansas, but it could be a top-four team if it can survive the state of Mississippi the next two weeks.

No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss -- This is the most interesting matchup of the day. Alabama ranks third in offensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency. Neither team has played a ranked opponent, so there is still some margin for error, but the Tide have a chance to separate from the crowded West.

No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State -- Surprise. The game with the biggest playoff implications is not in the SEC West. This Big Ten matchup could knock Sparty out of the playoff entirely. It's one thing to lose to Oregon; it's another to try to make the four-team playoff with two losses and your best win coming over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a win in East Lansing could vault the Huskers into the playoff conversation. They're the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and the toughest game left on their schedule is against No. 17 Wisconsin. If Nebraska pulls off the upset, it's time to take it seriously as a playoff team.

SEC morning links

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
8:00
AM ET
1. Alabama's players wouldn't bite. When asked about Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt's comments -- "We don't really think Bama is as good as they have been" -- none of the four Crimson Tide players interviewed Monday said anything noteworthy in response. After all, what did you expect? This is Alabama we're talking about. Landon Collins had fans forward him a link to the bulletin board material, but he wasn't about to lob any shots in return. "We're definitely going to give them our best game and see who comes out with the W," Alabama's star safety explained. If he had gone any further, Nick Saban would have had his head. And, frankly, there was no reason to fan the flames. Neither team is what it has been. Blake Sims has played well, but he's no AJ McCarron. C.J. Mosley ain't walking through that door. This isn't your daddy's Ole Miss, either. Prewitt and that secondary are tenacious. The front seven can get after it. As Saban said, "This is the best team we've played all year." If anything, Prewitt's slight jab was just what we needed to set the week off right.

2. I'll admit it: we were a little myopic on the SEC Blog Monday. In a roundtable discussion, our writers were asked to pick their game of the week. The options: Alabama-Ole Miss, Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn. The reason? Well, it's obvious, seeing as all three games have College Football Playoff implications. But to make sure we cover all our bases, it felt like we ought to make note of the other games on the SEC slate. No, Vanderbilt-Georgia doesn't hold much intrigue. We can skip that. But you could argue that Florida-Tennessee and South Carolina-Kentucky mean something. For the Gators, this feels like a must win. Jeff Driskel needs to crawl out of the hole he's dug for himself, and his coach, Will Muschamp, needs a W to keep his job. The Vols, meanwhile, have to say enough is enough with moral victories and finally close out a big game. And in the case of South Carolina-Kentucky, you're looking at two teams heading in opposite directions. The Gamecocks fell all over themselves yet again Saturday, blowing a late lead against Missouri. Kentucky, on the other hand, broke its winless streak in the SEC by beating Vandy. The Wildcats may be young, but they're dangerous. With a deep group of tailbacks, Bud Dupree and Za'Darious Smith rushing off the edge, and A.J. Stamps making plays in the secondary, South Carolina and the rest of the East better watch out.

3. Not to end our morning jaunt on a sour note, but I was struck by news Monday of the Indianapolis Colts releasing Da'Rick Rogers. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. This is par for the course with Rogers, after all. But once again I was reminded of what a waste of potential the former Tennessee receiver was. To this day I remember seeing him play at Calhoun High in Georgia. He's the best high school player I've ever witnessed in person. Sadly, on the list of all-time SEC talents that never amounted to much, Rogers is right up there with names like Ryan Perrilloux, Mitch Mustain and B.J. Scott. Rogers was everything you wanted in a receiver: tall, physical, explosive. Even in the NFL he flashed All-Pro talent. But something never clicked for him. Maybe there's still time, but not likely. If anything, his story is a cautionary tale for any four- or five-star prospect who thinks talent alone can get the job done.
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Florida State and NC State are still taking shots at each other, an Ole Miss player takes a jab at Alabama and LSU is going with a freshman quarterback at Auburn. It's all ahead in your College Football Minute.
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The Tigers will start Brandon harris at QB in their next game which will be against the Auburn Tigers.

Brandon Harris to start for LSU

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
2:51
PM ET
video

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU freshman quarterback Brandon Harris will make his first college start on Saturday at No. 5 Auburn, coach Les Miles said Monday.

Harris led the No. 15 Tigers (4-1, 0-1 SEC) to seven touchdowns in seven possessions after replacing struggling starter Anthony Jennings in the second quarter of Saturday's 63-7 win over New Mexico State.

Harris also nearly led LSU to a comeback victory against Mississippi State the previous Saturday, directing a pair of touchdown drives in the game's final four minutes.

"I think he deserved the opportunity to take snaps," Miles said at his Monday news conference. "I don't think it was a difficult decision."

Harris went 11-for-14 for 178 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two more scores in roughly two quarters of work against New Mexico State, with the Tigers rolling up 429 yards of total offense in that time.

Meanwhile, in seven possessions, Jennings was responsible for three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) and the Tigers' offense went three-and-out twice before Miles finally removed him from the game.

Jennings has started LSU's past six games, including wins over Iowa and Wisconsin, and the Tigers are 5-1 in his starts. However, LSU's offense was unproductive against Mississippi State before Harris entered the game in the 34-29 loss, and many fans in Tiger Stadium began to boo each time Jennings jogged onto the field for a new possession once things went south against NMSU.


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