Dallas Colleges: AJ McCarron

No right answer when selecting a QB

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.

5 burning questions: Replacing QBs

February, 24, 2014
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Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

How they fared vs. SEC competition

December, 23, 2013
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One of the most revealing things to do every year is going back and looking at how players fared against SEC competition.

The numbers always look a little different when you take out some of the teams that were sacrificial lambs. With that in mind, here’s a quick checklist of the league leaders and their numbers against SEC foes (not counting the SEC championship game):

RUSHING

1. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 988 yards, 6.2 yards per carry
2. Tre Mason, Auburn: 985 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 875 yards, 6.1 yards per carry
4. Mike Davis, South Carolina: 830 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 769 yards, 6.6 yards per carry

TOUCHDOWNS

1. Tre Mason, Auburn: 13
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 11
3. Henry Josey, Missouri: 10
4. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
4. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 9
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 9
4. Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt: 9

TOTAL OFFENSE

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 394.6 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 300.8 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 275.4 yards per game
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 269.3 yards per game
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 257.5 yards per game

PASSING YARDS

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 336.9 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 283.4 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 257.9 yards per game
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 246.4 yards per game
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: 244.6 yards per game

PASSING TDs/INTs

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 22/11
2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 21/6
3. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: 18/1
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 18/3
5. Maty Mauk, Missouri: 10/2

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam had 7.5 sacks in SEC play, and Missouri players ranked 1-2 and tied for third in that statistic.
RECEIVING YARDS

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 122.5 yards per game
2. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: 113.4 yards per game
3. Jarvis Landry, LSU: 104.9 yards per game
4. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss: 79.5 yards per game
5. Odell Beckham, LSU: 72.9 yards per game

TOUCHDOWN CATCHES

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
2. L'Damian Washington, Missouri: 7
3. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: 6
3. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: 6
3. Kevin Norwood, Alabama: 6

SACKS

1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 7.5
2. Markus Golden, Missouri: 6.5
3. Kony Ealy, Missouri: 6
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 6
3. Garrison Smith, Georgia: 6

TACKLES FOR LOSS

1. Markus Golden, Missouri: 11
1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 11
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 10
4. Trey Flowers, Arkansas: 9.5
5. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: 9

18 from SEC named AP All-Americans

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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Now that the all-conference teams have rolled out, the Associated Press has unveiled its All-America teams, and they are very SEC-heavy.

Eighteen players from the SEC made the three teams, with six making the first team. The pick that might surprise people was Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt making the first team over Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But Prewitt had a very good season with the Rebels. He tied for first in the SEC with five interceptions in conference play, while totaling six on the season. He also defended 13 passes. Clinton-Dix, who projects as a high draft pick at the safety spot, defended six passes with two interceptions on the season.

Here are all the SEC AP All-Americans:

First team

OFFENSE

OT: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OT: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M

DEFENSE

DE: Michael Sam, Missouri
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

Second team

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
OG: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State

DEFENSE

DT: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

Third team

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
OT: Greg Robinson, Auburn
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU

DEFENSE

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.

Sugar Bowl glance: Alabama-Oklahoma

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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There's one thing the Allstate Sugar Bowl has in spades: tradition.

Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.

But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.

Key storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAfter leading Oklahoma to a Bedlam win, will Blake Bell get the call against Alabama?
Letdown factor: Both Alabama and Oklahoma came into this season with eyes on Pasadena, Calif., and the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but neither wound up in a position to make the long trip to the West Coast. How will that play a factor when the two teams meet in New Orleans? Is there any kind of unfinished business both programs feel? For Alabama, at least there's the idea that coming out and winning big might show the country that despite a last-second loss to Auburn, the Tide is the better team. A convincing win won't vault it to No. 1 in the rankings again, but a No. 2 finish could be cause enough to show up in New Orleans ready to compete.

Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.

Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.

Players to watch

Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).

Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.

Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Stats to keep an eye on

2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.

18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.

20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.

SEC with three Heisman finalists

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
11:00
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The SEC is headed to yet another BCS title game, and it's also sending a trio of players to New York City for this year's Heisman Trophy ceremony.

On Monday, the six finalists for this year's award were announced, and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, Auburn running back Tre Mason and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel all made the cut. The six finalists invited to New York are the most for the award since 1994.

The other three finalists are Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Boston College running back Andre Williams and Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.

But does anyone from this SEC trio have a chance at bringing the bronze statue back to the SEC for the fourth time in five years? Let's take a look:

Mason: The Auburn running back was a mere blip on the Heisman radar before he ran over and through Missouri's top-ranked rush defense in Auburn's SEC championship victory over the weekend. Mason ran for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Mizzou to help send Auburn to the VIZIO BCS National Championship. But he was also very good before he stepped into the Georgia Dome. On the season, Mason has rushed for an SEC-high 1,621 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns. He also holds the Auburn single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,137). Five of the defenses he has faced this season rank in the top 50 against the run, and he rushed for 100-plus yards against each but Mississippi State, which held him to 34 yards. He averaged at least 5 yards per carry in nine games, rushed for 100-plus yards in eight games and had at least one rushing touchdown in 12 games. His stock is trending up.

Manziel: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner had a strong case to become the first repeat winner since Ohio State's Archie Griffin (1974-75), but back-to-back poor performances -- and losses -- to close the season have knocked Manziel down the pecking order. Still, he had a very impressive regular season. He transformed as a passer, going through his progressions, checking down, reading defenses and finding multiple throwing options. He thought to throw first this year, leading the SEC with 3,732 passing yards and 33 touchdowns. He also ran for 686 yards (724 less than last season) and eight more scores (he had 21 rushing TDs last year). Manziel also has two more losses than he did last year and was held to just 494 total yards and two touchdowns in his last two games. His stock is trending down.

McCarron: If this were a lifetime achievement award, McCarron would be a shoo-in for the Heisman this year. During his three years as a starter, McCarron won back-to-back BCS titles and heads into the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a 36-3 record. He's been one of the nation's most efficient passers and has thrown just 13 interceptions to 75 touchdowns during his career. But when it comes to numbers this season, McCarron ranks fifth in the SEC with 2,676 passing yards and has 26 touchdowns to five interceptions. McCarron has been incredibly consistent during his career and is the true definition of the word "winner," but his numbers could hold him back in the Heisman race. His stock is about the same as it was during the season.

It's all about Johnny Heisman ... again

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
9:30
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Move over Archie Griffin, Johnny Manziel is on his way to joining your elite club as the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.

Manziel's case is crystal clear, but if he isn't at or near the top of your Heisman list, you aren't watching the game correctly.

There just isn't a better, more exciting player to watch. Manziel has the wins, the stats, more stats and the swag to back it all up. But for some reason, Heisman talk has been pretty quiet surrounding Manziel. Sure, he won the award last year, and his in-your-face offseason created some Manziel fatigue, but you can't ignore Manziel's 2013 body of work.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel is playing better this year than he did in last year's Heisman Trophy season.
Through 10 games, Manziel leads the SEC and ranks third nationally with 3,313 passing yards. He's second nationally with a completion percentage of 73.0 and 31 passing touchdowns, and he is third with an efficiency rating of 186.9. He leads the SEC with 331.3 passing yards per game and is also 12th in the league with 611 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Manziel has thrown for more than 300 yards six times -- and in four of those he surpassed 400 yards -- and has thrown three or more touchdowns seven times.

He ranks fourth nationally with a QBR of 88.5.

At this point last year, Manziel had 2,780 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes. Yeah, he's thrown for 533 more yards and 13 more touchdowns this season.

No, Manziel isn't slicing up defenses with his feet like he did last year, but he's a much better passer and he's still capable of doing mind-blowing things like this.

This was supposed to be a season in which the fame and offseason gallivanting clouded Manziel's on-field vision. No way was he going to sniff duplicating his fantastic freshman campaign. His focus wouldn't be there, and he'd more than likely turn into a shell of his former self.

Well, Johnny Football only got better! He goes through his progressions, reads defenses and likes to throw first. Sure, he could carve up any defense at will, but he'd rather throw this year. He'd rather look at his second and third options before taking off. And when he does take off, good luck. The quarterback/ballerina can shimmy and shake his way past a drove of defenders with relative ease, but he has been more guarded this season, and that hasn't been a bad thing.

Manziel also is putting up Playstation numbers with his own defense collapsing around him. The Aggies' defense has been dreadful, giving up a league-high 454.4 yards per game and more than 30 points a contest. Manziel is trampling defenses in spite of his defense.

But Manziel has two losses, you'll shout! He has 11 interceptions, you howl. Yes and yes, but he also had two losses and nine interceptions last year, yet ran away with the Heisman.

Look at his numbers in losses. In the 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama, which ranks sixth nationally in total defense, he rallied his team back from a 35-14 deficit with 464 passing yards, five touchdowns and 98 rushing yards. In the 45-41 loss to Auburn, Manziel threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns, while adding 48 rushing yards and another score. What was even more impressive about his play was that he completed 10 passes for 102 yards and ran for a touchdown after an apparent shoulder injury.

Compare his numbers in losses to those of former Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota in Oregon's loss to Stanford, and it's not even a close race. Mariota threw for 250 yards and two scores against the Cardinal, but he ran for minus-16 and didn't lead the Ducks to a scoring drive until the fourth quarter. Manziel either gets in the end zone or leads his teams to scores while lighting up the stat sheet no matter the outcome.

Injuries don't faze him. You saw it against Auburn, and you saw it when his knee buckled during his 470 total-yard performance in the Aggies' 41-38 win over Ole Miss.

The kid is a machine, and he's darn near impossible to stop.

As the clock winds down on college football season, we finally can get into the nitty gritty of the Heisman race. At this point, it's all about Johnny Football and Florida State freshman quarterback phenom Jameis Winston, who trails Manziel by 1,106 total offensive yards and nine touchdowns.

Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd are mere afterthoughts, while AJ McCarron and Bryce Petty are making runs that likely will fall short late, but not after a nice good job, good effort.

Famous Jameis is great. He's the future of the sport, and the future looks radiant. But he just doesn't put on the show that Manziel does.

In what could be Manziel's final collegiate year, he has turned in a wonderful final act that's more than worthy of that classy bronze statue.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
3:30
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With apologies to Nick Saban, AJ McCarron, T.J. Yeldon, C.J. Mosley and all of the pageantry that accompanied the SEC's annual marquee regular-season matchup, there were just too many noteworthy performances to go handing out helmet stickers to the rolling Tide's usual suspects.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: With two touchdown passes in an easy 45-6 rout of Appalachian State on Saturday, Murray broke the 17-year-old SEC record of Florida's Danny Wuerffel (1993-96) for the most career TD passes. Murray entered the game already holding the SEC career marks for total offense and passing yards. The senior completed 19 of 26 passes for 281 yards in three quarters of work.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Ho-hum. Another week, another compelling argument in the sophomore's case for a second straight Heisman Trophy. Against Mississippi State on Saturday, Johnny Football threw for 446 yards with five touchdown passes (never mind those three interceptions). Honorable mention goes to senior Travis Labhart, once a walk-on, now a scholarship guy who has emerged as a key contributor at receiver. Manziel completed six passes to Labhart for a career-high 102 yards and two touchdowns.

Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia Bulldog and former juco quarterback accounted for 214 of Auburn's 444 rushing yards, running for two touchdowns and passing for another in the No. 9 Tigers' 55-23 dismantling of the home-standing Volunteers. Marshall posted a 99.6 Total QBR despite completing only 3 of 7 passes, but Gus Malzahn didn't need to throw with the success the Tigers were having on the ground. Marshall's 214 yards were the third-most by an SEC quarterback in a game over the last 10 seasons, behind only Heisman winners Manziel (229 yards vs. Oklahoma in 2012) and Cam Newton (217 vs. LSU in 2010).

Missouri's offense: The No. 8 Tigers encountered little resistance in their first league game in the Bluegrass State. Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk threw five touchdown passes to tie Chase Daniel's school record in Mizzou's 48-17 romp past Kentucky. Dorial Green-Beckham broke through in a big way. The 6-foot-6 sophomore, who was the nation's No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the Class of 2012, had seven catches for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Not to be outdone, running back Henry Josey ran 11 times for 113 yards and two TDs, including an 86-yarder. The Tigers remain a half-game ahead of idle South Carolina in the East division.

Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Even in a 51-41 road loss to Texas A&M, a special heartfelt helmet sticker goes out to Prescott, who lost his mother last Sunday to her battle with cancer. Tyler Russell got the start after Prescott missed the week of practice before Saturday's game, but the two rotated, with Prescott getting the majority of the snaps. The Aggies had difficulty slowing him in the running game, as Prescott ran 16 times for 154 yards (9.6 yards per carry). He was 14-of-26 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns. It was certainly a determined and inspiring performance under the most difficult of circumstances.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
2:30
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All eyes were on Saturday's Alabama-LSU showdown, but there were plenty of storylines to take away from the rest of the conference, as well. Here are five things we learned from Week 11 in the SEC.

Alabama still king: For the first 30 minutes, it looked like it was going to be another epic clash between the Tide and the Tigers. However, the nation's No. 1 team imposed its will in the second half and rolled to a 38-17 victory. AJ McCarron threw three touchdown passes; T.J. Yeldon rushed for 133 yards and two scores, and the defense held LSU to 43 yards on the ground, sacking quarterback Zach Mettenberger four times. It was the first challenging game the Tide have played in more than a month, and it proved why they are still the No. 1 team. On a weekend when Oregon suffered its first loss, Alabama not only remained unbeaten but showed why it's the favorite to win a third consecutive national championship.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Dave MartinWith three touchdown passes against LSU, is AJ McCarron finally hearing some Heisman buzz?
Heisman hopefuls: With another solid performance in a big game, is it time we put McCarron back in the Heisman trophy race? It's safe to say that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has emerged as the front-runner after the weekend, but McCarron certainly helped himself against LSU. And don't forget about Johnny Manziel, last year's Heisman winner. The Texas A&M quarterback put up more ridiculous numbers Saturday, throwing for 446 yards and five touchdowns at home against Mississippi State. Manziel is on pace to surpass his numbers from last year, but the Aggies' loss to Alabama early in the season could influence voters. Both McCarron and Manziel have marquee games still left to pad their resumes.

Year of the Tiger: Who would've guessed Auburn and Missouri would be No. 2 and No. 3 in the SEC, chasing down Alabama? Both Tigers teams have had terrific seasons, and they continued Saturday with impressive road wins. Ninth-ranked Auburn went to Tennessee and blew out a Volunteers team that had been dangerous at home. Quarterback Nick Marshall rushed for 214 yards and two scores as the SEC's top-rushing offense put up 444 yards on the ground. Missouri also took care of business against a struggling Kentucky team. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit, caught seven passes for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams should remain in the top 10 when the BCS standings come out Sunday.

Trouble in Gainesville: Florida's season went from bad to worse Saturday. The Gators, who have been decimated by injuries, were on a three-game losing streak but hopeful they could turn it around at home against Vanderbilt. It didn't happen. Despite giving up nearly twice as many yards, the Commodores knocked off Florida 34-17 for their first win in Gainesville since 1945. The Gators turned the ball over four times. What does this mean for head coach Will Muschamp? He should get a pass because of all the injuries, but this is the type of loss that could lead to unemployment. Florida now has to win at South Carolina or at home against Florida State just to reach a bowl game.

Gaining momentum: It seems like a long time since Ole Miss lost those three consecutive games to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. The Rebels have quietly righted the ship, and they have a legitimate chance to win out. On Saturday, they looked impressive in a 34-24 win over Arkansas. Quarterback Bo Wallace finished 26-of-33 and threw for a career-high 407 yards. The win made Ole Miss bowl eligible for the second straight year under coach Hugh Freeze, but this team wants more. They want to finish with nine wins and play in a New Year's Day bowl game. That means the Rebels will have to upset Missouri at home in two weeks and finish the season with a win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. Neither is out of the question.

Ranking the top 10 SEC quarterbacks

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
4:30
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Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray AP ImagesThe SEC is loaded with top QBs, but which signal-caller means the most to his team?
Since we've made it to through the first quarter of the season, we've taken a quick look at the first four weeks of the season across the blogosphere. We even saw ESPN's Brock Huard take a look at who he believes are the top 10 quarterbacks in college football.

On Huard's list, he had four players from the SEC. Alabama's AJ McCarron checks in at No. 4, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is fifth, Georgia's Aaron Murray ranks seventh and LSU's Zach Mettenberger is 10th. Huard bases his rankings on two factors:

1. Productivity at the collegiate level.
2. Pro skills.

Well, if Huard can look at the 10 best quarterbacks, why not cause a stir and rank the SEC's top 10 quarterbacks through the first four weeks? I'm looking at production and importance to his team.

Here's my top 10:

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Well, Johnny Football looks focused as ever and leads the SEC with 1,228 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. He passed for a school-record 464 yards with five touchdowns in the loss to Alabama and has 255 rushing yards with five more scores on the season.

2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: He might have that loss to Clemson standing out on his 2013 resume, but Murray has been on fire with his right arm this season. He's averaging 346.7 yards per game and has seven touchdowns to two interceptions. Against South Carolina, he threw for 309 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

3. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: After a very up-and-down 2012, Mettenberger has found quite the rhythm. He's second in the SEC with 10 touchdowns and threw his first interception last week against Auburn. After barely averaging 200 yards per game last year, Mettenberger is throwing for 256.5 yards per game and has a QBR of 88.3 in 2013.

4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: While McCarron could still be a Heisman candidate because of the Tide's current national championship quest, his numbers don't exactly jump out at you. But in the biggest game of the year -- the 49-42 win at Texas A&M -- McCarron threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns. On the season, McCarron has 702 passing yards with six touchdowns to two interceptions.

5. James Franklin, Missouri: After a year filled with nagging injuries, Franklin is healthy and is directing Mizzou's offense like he did back in the Big 12. The competition hasn't been great, but Franklin has, as he's averaging 291 passing yards and 60.7 rushing yards per game. Franklin has thrown six touchdown passes and has nearly 200 yards rushing yards with another score.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Connor Shaw has made plays in the passing game and with his legs.
6. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: The read option has been Wallace's best friend this season. He has run it to near perfection so far and it has really upset opposing defenses. Wallace has thrown for 648 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and he has rushed for another 120 yards and three scores.

7. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: You could flip-flop Shaw and Wallace here, but Wallace gets the slight edge because of his importance to the team. Shaw's backup, Dylan Thompson, fills in nicely when Shaw is out. Still, Shaw has had a heck of a season, throwing for 661 yards and six touchdowns and rushing for 202 yards.

8. Austyn Carta-Samuels, Vanderbilt: Quietly, Carta-Samuels is fourth in the SEC in passing (889 yards). He has rushed for 63 yards and three touchdowns. But what kept him from being higher on the list are his turnovers. Vandy's new quarterback has thrown four interceptions, including two in the heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss.

9. Nick Marshall, Auburn: The former athlete/defensive back is starting to grow with every new snap he takes. He orchestrated a beautiful last-minute, game-winning drive two weeks ago against Mississippi State and has 809 passing yards. However, he has to cut down on his carelessness with the football. He has as many interceptions as touchdowns (four).

10. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He might have started the year as Tyler Russell's backup, but Prescott has been impressive since Russell was sidelined with a concussion in Week 1. It might be hard to take him out with the numbers he has put up so far. Prescott has thrown for 709 yards with three touchdowns and one interception and has a team-high 215 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

SEC assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
12:00
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We’re a quarter of the way into the college football season, and two-time defending national champion Alabama is right where it started -- No. 1 in the polls.

In fact, Alabama is the only one of the five SEC teams that opened the season in the top 10 that hasn’t lost a game. So everybody’s still chasing the Crimson Tide, but it’s a race that could still go any number of ways, especially with some of the offensive numbers being generated. If the first four weeks taught us anything, you better be ready to score some points if you’re going to win a title this season.

Here’s a quick recap:

Best game: Take your pick. There have been some dandies to this point. The very first SEC game between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on a Thursday night produced a thrilling ending in Nashville with the Rebels pulling out a 39-35 win. Both of Georgia’s first two games were incredibly entertaining, their 38-35 loss at Clemson and then their 41-30 win over South Carolina the next week. But nothing tops Alabama’s wild 49-42 win at Texas A&M in Week 3. The two teams combined for 1,196 total yards and 62 first downs. The Aggies jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Crimson Tide answered with 35 unanswered points only to have the Aggies come roaring back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was so much fun that maybe we’ll see them go at it again in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game if everything falls right. Wouldn’t the rest of college football just love that?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAs good as Johnny Manziel was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he's even better this year.
Best player: Even though he caused an uproar with some of his antics and a 15-yard taunting penalty in the opener against Rice, the real news surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is that he’s even better than he was a year ago. All he did a year ago was win the Heisman Trophy and set the SEC record for total offense. Manziel’s arm strength has improved. He’s spreading the ball around, and he’s still carving defenses apart with his ability to make something out of nothing. Manziel is averaging 370.8 yards of total offense per game, completing 70 percent of his passes and has already accounted for 15 touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Best performance: Once again, Johnny Football takes top honors. Yes, it came in a loss, but he was brilliant in passing for five touchdowns and rolling up 562 yards of total offense (the most ever in an SEC game) in the 49-42 setback to Alabama. The guy Manziel was throwing to that day, sophomore receiver Mike Evans, comes in a close second with his seven catches for 279 yards. And let’s also not forget about how good Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was in that game. He finished 20-of-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns, completing passes to 10 different players. Sticking with Alabama, Christion Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray deserves a shout-out for his four-touchdown outing in the win over South Carolina, and the same goes for Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott and his 243 all-purpose yards in the win at Texas. Scott rushed for a career-high 164 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Best surprise: It has to be LSU’s passing game and how balanced the Tigers have been offensively through four games. In the offseason, Les Miles talked about the need to throw the ball better, and that’s exactly what the Tigers have done under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron. The days of loading up against LSU's running game and not worrying about the passing game are over. Mettenberger has 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. The receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham has been dynamite with 11 combined touchdowns, and then there’s also Jeremy Hill trucking everything in sight in the running game. This has the makings of Miles’ best and most explosive offense since he has been in Baton Rouge.

Biggest disappointment: Granted, the expectations were through the roof, but South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been a mere mortal in the Gamecocks’ first three games. He has been solid, but hasn’t been that consistent of a disruptive force so many people were anticipating to start his junior season. To be fair, he’s dealing with a foot injury that sounds like it will plague him for the rest of the season, and teams have done their best to run away from him and make him chase. Clowney still has two sacks, and at this point a year ago, he had only three and finished the season with 13. The Heisman Trophy chatter may have quieted, but you can bet that No. 7 won’t stay this quiet on the field all season.

Instant analysis: Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
9:04
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory was a show of dominance by Alabama in the final three quarters, as the Crimson Tide defeated Texas A&M 49-42 before 87,596 on Saturday at Kyle Field. Let's take a look at how it went down.

It was over when: Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron connected with Jalston Fowler for a 5-yard touchdown with 2:28 remaining in the game. That score gave the Crimson Tide a lead they wouldn't relinquish. It came at the end of a methodical nine-play, 65-yard drive that ate up 5 minutes, 36 seconds.

Game ball goes to: The Alabama offensive line. Once the Crimson Tide responded to the Aggies' early 14-0 onslaught, the Tide's big guys up front got the job done. There was so much talk coming into the week about the line play in the opener against Virginia Tech, but that unit paved the way for 236 Alabama rushing yards. The line allowed the Tide to control the clock and control the pace of the game in the second half. It seemed like whenever the Aggies had a big score, the Tide answered. After falling behind 14-0, the Crimson Tide rattled off 35 unanswered points.

Stat of the game: Texas A&M finished with two turnovers to Alabama's one. Turnovers also played a big role in last season's battle, as the Crimson Tide turned it over three times in a 29-24 loss. A&M had zero turnovers that day. On Saturday in the rematch, A&M turned it over twice, including a 73-yard interception return by Vinnie Sunseri early in the third quarter that gave Alabama a three-touchdown lead. Texas A&M was able to narrow the gap late because of a fumble by T.J. Yeldon in the fourth quarter, but that was the only turnover the Tide had.

What it means for Alabama: The Crimson Tide get some redemption from last season's home loss to the Aggies but, more importantly, are 1-0 in SEC play. They answered a lot of questions about their offensive line, and McCarron looked strong. There might be some questions about the defense after it yielded 42 points and 628 offensive yards, but it's worth noting it was playing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and one of the best offenses in the country. Are the Tide good enough to win a BCS title with what we saw on defense Saturday?

What it means for Texas A&M: The Aggies have a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of work to do on defense. That was a question mark coming in, especially the run defense, and it remains that way even though the Aggies finally got almost their full complement of defensive players back from suspensions. They allowed 568 total yards and 234 rushing yards. Are they good enough defensively to still contend for an SEC West title? This loss puts them behind the eight ball in that regard. The Aggies need Alabama to lose twice down the road (perhaps once if there's a three-way tie for the top of the division at the end of the season).

Game ball, Part 2: Give one to Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. He set the school record with 279 receiving yards on seven catches. He had a 95-yard touchdown grab that got the Aggies back to within a score and gave them hope in the fourth quarter. He has the look of an NFL receiver, whenever he chooses to enter the draft (he'll be eligible after this season). He is big and physical, has great hands, is a great blocker in the running game, and can beat one-on-one coverage.

Johnny watch: Manziel had two interceptions, which hurt, but overall played well. He set the school record for passing yards with 464 on 28-of-39 passing. He had five touchdown tosses and 98 rushing yards. He had some throws he'd like to take back, but he played pretty well against one of the best defenses in the country.

Bama tuning out hype of rematch with A&M

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
12:12
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Not many of Alabama’s players watched No. 6 Texas A&M host Sam Houston State over the weekend. The truth is they didn't miss much. The 37-point blowout was little more than a tuneup for the Aggies. But Alabama's players couldn't have named the score if they were asked to. Many, if not most, of them were too busy relaxing on their off week to find the nonconference game on the television dial.

Anthony Steen, the Tide's veteran right guard, was out at the lake. AJ McCarron didn't even know the game would be televised.

"Were they on TV?" Alabama's senior quarterback asked. At the very least, it was available online. "I don't have a laptop so …"

[+] EnlargeManziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama will have to deal with Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M's raucous crowd this weekend.
There was no follow-up question, though his trailing voice certainly left room to ask about his cell phone and tablet situations. It's hard to believe that an athlete in this day and age could be without some method of accessing the internet. At least then he might have been able to get a taste for what the environment at Kyle Field will be like on Saturday when the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide travel there to face Texas A&M.

It was typical McCarron nonchalance. He wasn't too concerned with anything when he spoke to the media on Monday. When asked, he said he had no plans to communicate with his friend, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, this week. The last time the two spoke, he said, was at SEC media days in July. And then, he added: "We're just friends, guys. Y'all make this thing a lot bigger than it needs to be."

Downplaying the significance of their relationship was understandable. But downplaying the significance of the game they'll play in just a few days wasn't possible. For the first time since 1988, Alabama is going to College Station to play a football game.

And that was enough to get McCarron excited.

"It's going to be a fun experience," he said. "Their whole 12th Man and everything, it's going to be a very cool experience for myself. Hopefully it'll be a good experience."

Steen said he watched the Aggies home opener two weeks ago and thought the crowd noise wasn't as bad as he expected. Still, it will be an obstacle for an offensive line that had difficulty communicating in its season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta two weeks ago.

"Things weren’t as loud as people say it is at 12th Man Stadium," he said. "We expect to not be able to hear each other, especially our center making the calls. We just have to stay focused and each and every person on the offensive line has to know all the calls for every position."

Steen, like so many of his teammates, downplayed the hype surrounding the game. There was no talk of revenge or retribution, just winning.

"It’s just one of those things where it’s in the back of your head that you lost last year, so you want to try that much harder to make sure you win this year," Steen said.

"I guess for some people it does [add motivation], but for me it’s another game and I know we’ve got to win it and I’m not going to go out there and come out flat. I’m going to go out there and try to play the best game I can."

Amari Cooper, Alabama's star wideout, said he doesn't watch TV and that and a Saturday’s trip to Kyle Field is only one step of many.

"We don't buy into the hype here," Cooper said. "I think all the hype is really irrelevant because at the end of the day you have to go out there and play your game. All the hype is really not real, you know, the things they say on TV and stuff like that. It doesn't line up with what's really going on."

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