Dallas Colleges: Nick Saban

If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

So far we’ve been to some of the usual spots (Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa), and a few outside of the SEC footprint footprint in locals such as Houston and Norman, Oklahoma.

We’ve knocked out 10 weeks of trips in all, which means we’ve got only four more to go. The conference title game in Atlanta is right around the corner.

So without further pause, let’s take a look at the best options for Week 10:

Nov. 8
Alabama at LSU
Texas A&M at Auburn
Florida at Vanderbilt
Georgia at Kentucky
Presbyterian at Ole Miss
UT Martin at Mississippi State

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Alabama at LSU

This game sells itself. The fact that it’s in Death Valley this year only makes it more appealing.

When you think of the SEC, you think of physical, smash-mouth football. And Alabama-LSU is routinely an exhibition of those principles. It’s the one game where offenses truly take a back seat to the defense. It’s the one game where big uglies such as Booger McFarland, Terrence Cody and Glenn Dorsey can steal the show. Sure, the quarterbacks have been good at times, but this is a game for defensive backs such as Mark Barron, Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid.

Alabama-LSU has become arguably the most competitive rivalry in all of college football, with only one game decided by double digits since 2007. It’s determined perfect seasons, SEC West championships, and even a national title. It’s showcased countless future NFL draft picks and two of the most successful coaches in the game.

Les Miles versus Nick Saban. That alone is worth the price of admission.

This year’s game has the chance to be another instant classic. The combined talent these two programs have on the defensive line is jaw-dropping. At the same time, the number of gifted running backs on the field will be something to see. And with two first-year starting quarterbacks projected under center, it should be fun to see a heavy dose of the running game for a show of strength versus strength.

Sam Khan's pick: Texas A&M at Auburn

Let's be honest -- the only right answer here is Alabama vs. LSU. Given how often the two are in SEC title (and national title) contention, the amount of talent the two teams have on their rosters, and the personality of the two head coaches, that's the game everyone has their eyes on.

But in the interest of making this diverse and offering a quality alternative option, I offer up the Aggies and the Tigers.

Remember, last season's battle between these two teams was quite intriguing. Auburn ran the ball up and down the field and Texas A&M was proficient itself offensively, led by the always-entertaining Johnny Manziel.

Manziel got injured early in the fourth quarter, adding quite a bit of drama to the proceedings, but was able to re-enter in time to lead a potential game-winning drive. Auburn defense came up with a huge stop though -- capped by a Dee Ford sack -- to secure a 45-41 road win, one that proved crucial in the Tigers' ascent from worst-to-first in the SEC West, which eventually netted them the SEC title and a BCS title game appearance.

Ford and Manziel are among the key players that have moved on to greener pastures in the NFL, but there should still be plenty on the line when these two meet on Nov. 8.

Many feel Auburn is poised for another run at the division and conference titles, so should the Tigers live up to those expectations, every game at this late stage in the regular season will carry significant meaning with the coveted spots to the College Football Playoff up for grabs.

The Aggies, who have said goodbye to their three best offensive players via the NFL draft, won't carry the lofty expectations the Tigers will, but they should still be good enough offensively to make this a competitive and compelling game. If you like offense, this is the game for you, with two of the country's brightest offensive head coaching minds -- Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. Talents such as Auburn's Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates, Texas A&M's Ricky Seals-Jones and a handful of quality running backs between the two teams could equate another high-scoring affair.

And for any players who were on the Auburn roster back in 2012, there could be yet another score to settle. The Aggies came in and embarrassed Auburn 63-21 in their last trip to The Plains on Oct. 27, 2012, in the midst of a forgettable 3-9 season. So if defending home turf and everything else mentioned above isn't motivation enough for Auburn, that's an added bit of incentive for any young Tigers who were part of or witnessed that showing.
Can you believe it? We’ve already reached the halfway point in our journey through the SEC regular-season schedule.

So far we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma, to name a few. With seven weeks down and seven more to go, there’s no more time to waste. We have to get to the best games before it’s too late.

If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 8:

Oct. 18
Texas A&M at Alabama
Georgia at Arkansas (Little Rock)
Missouri at Florida
Kentucky at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
Furman at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Tennessee at Ole Miss

Sam can have the clear Game of the Week in Texas A&M-Alabama. He’s never been to Bryant-Denny Stadium, so I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that experience.

Instead, I’m going outside of the box and inside The Grove. It’s time to get to Ole Miss. And if you’re like me and watched a certain TexAgs video that went viral last year, the chords of “Mississippi Queen” should come racing to mind right about now.

If you haven’t been to Oxford, you need to go. The game is great and all, but the real fun is in the game-day festivities. The tailgating there might be the best in college football. As they’re oft to say, “Ole Miss never lost a party.” They get there early, they stay late and they even dress up for the occasion. Sure, some commercial aspects of the pregame experience have creeped in over the years, but tailgating in The Grove is as quintessential a Southern football experience as you’ll find.

On a more analytical note, the actual game itself should favor the home team. Ole Miss is better on both sides of the ball with a veteran quarterback, a talented group of skill players on offense and a defense packed with playmakers. Nonetheless, I’m interested in seeing Tennessee at the midway point of the season. Year 2 won’t be easy for Butch Jones, but if he can develop a quarterback or the future and get the defense going in the right direction, it should be a good sign for the hopes of the program in Year 3 of his tenure and beyond.

Sam Khan’s pick: Texas A&M at Alabama

No doubt this is the choice. The Grove is fun, and Mizzou-Florida looks like it might have potential, but the Aggies and Crimson Tide have provided us with highly entertaining games the last two times they met. In 2012, Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and pulled off a stunning upset and last season, Alabama’s offense put on a clinic, running all over the A&M defense and outlasting Johnny Manziel & Co. to exact a little revenge at Kyle Field.

Now, the Aggies make their first trip to Bryant-Denny since that fateful November night in 2012 and there’s no Johnny Football this time around. The Aggies probably will have their quarterback situation established firmly at this point (whether it’s Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the Aggies' offense should still be humming. The question is, will the defense be improved enough to put up a fight against the Crimson Tide?

It had better be, because while Alabama will be working in a first-year starting quarterback of its own, the Crimson Tide have plenty of running backs to throw at the Aggies again, led by T.J. Yeldon, junior Kenyan Drake, the bruising, cruising sophomore Derrick Henry and bowling ball Jalston Fowler. The Crimson Tide should be strong defensively again, so it will be a stiff test for what is still a young Aggies squad. It stands to reason that, at least at this point, Alabama will be favored going into this one.

So far, the first two times Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin have squared off, it’s turned out to be pretty fun. Here’s betting it is again when they square off in Week 8.

Something amiss with SEC schedule

May, 20, 2014
May 20
9:00
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One more time, and with emphasis, the 6-1-1 scheduling format the SEC has settled on going forward stinks.

If the league's not going to play nine conference games (and it should), then the only sensible way to make eight conference games work is to play six divisional foes and two rotating cross-divisional foes -- a 6-0-2 format -- and punt the old 6-1-1 format for good.

A conference really isn't a conference when you go eight years without playing a team that's supposed to be in your conference. And, yet, that's the warped reality of the SEC schedule, at least through 2025. The league office announced Monday a 12-year rotation of cross-divisional opponents for all 14 SEC schools.

Some of the highlights … or lowlights:
  • Alabama and South Carolina won't meet again until 2019 in Columbia, S.C. The two teams last met in 2010, also being in Columbia, when the Gamecocks upset the then No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide 35-21. Moreover, South Carolina won't play again in Tuscaloosa until 2024. The Gamecocks' last visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium came in 2009.
  • Alabama will play Florida in the Swamp again in 2021, a decade after they last met in Gainesville in 2011. Tim Tebow and Nick Saban might both be in the broadcast booth by then.
  • Auburn and Florida won't play again until 2019 when they meet in the Swamp. The Gators' next visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium will come in 2024. Auburn and Florida played every season from 1945-2002. They last met during the 2011 season. Talk about a rivalry slowing fading away.
  • Texas A&M, heading into its third season in the SEC, won't make its first appearance in Neyland Stadium to take on Tennessee until 2023. Heck, by then, Texas might be in the SEC, too.
  • Tennessee won't venture back to Tiger Stadium to face LSU until 2022. Tennessee's last visit to Death Valley came in 2010. That's 12 years in between visits. The Vols have had four head coaches in the last six years.
  • Remember how entertaining that Georgia-LSU game was a year ago with the Bulldogs out-gunning the Tigers for a 44-41 win? Well, they won't play again in Athens until 2025. Uga's grandson could be patrolling the Dawgs' sideline by then.

Get the picture?

Saving the annual Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia rivalries were important, which is why the league presidents voted to keep the 6-1-1 format and permanent cross-divisional opponents. But the conference has simply become too detached when certain teams go so long without playing each other in the regular season.

Every player who stays for four years should get the opportunity to face every team in the league at least once. And as a fan, it would be nice to see every team come to your home stadium at least a couple of times before you're too old to climb up to your seats.

Maybe we'll still get to nine conference games at some point, which would solve a lot of problems.

The coaches in the league, except for Saban, don't want any part of nine games. In their mind, eight is plenty, especially if everybody is going out and also playing one nonconference game against a team from one of the other four power conferences.

It's worth mentioning that none of the coaches liked the idea of playing an SEC championship game back in the early 1990s when that subject was first broached by then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. More than two decades later, it's fair to say they've warmed up to the idea, particularly since it's aided more than a few teams' paths to a national championship.

Here's a look at the cross-divisional rotation for all 14 teams over the next 12 years.

No right answer when selecting a QB

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
10:00
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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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

Filling out the SEC football brackets

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
2:15
PM CT
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss

Meet the coaches: Rumph and Vaughn

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
10:00
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This week, we’re taking a closer look at the members of the new Texas coaching staff under Charlie Strong. The fourth part of our two-a-days series focuses on two experienced defensive coaches Strong brought in from other schools, and what they’ll bring to their respective position groups.

Chris Rumph
Assistant head coach/defensive line


Rumph must get this question a lot: What’s it like at Alabama?

Actually, the inquiry probably sounds more like this: No, what’s it really like at Alabama?

[+] EnlargeChris Rumph
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsChris Rumph wants to bring the success and work ethic that has defined Alabama under Nick Saban to Texas.
Texas’ new defensive line coach arrives fresh off a three-year stint with the great dynasty of college football. Rumph got two national title rings, coached NFL-caliber players and recruited five-stars. He knows The Process like the back of his hand.

And it’s probably safe to say he gets lots of questions about Nick Saban, too.

“He has a method to his madness and you can’t knock it,” Rumph said. “Whatever you want to say about it, you can’t knock it. Because it works.”

What’s the secret to Bama’s success? This will sound cliché, of course, but Rumph believes much of what makes the difference comes down to two big things: Accountability and attention to detail.

At Alabama, those are the core standards. At Texas, it’s a must if you want to play for Rumph.

“If I tell you that you need to walk one mile,” Rumph said, “and you walk a half mile, I’ve got issues with that. I think that’s the difference for some programs.

“We say get behind the line. Everybody better be behind the line. We say run 10 yards. You better run 10 yards. Not eight, not nine. A lot of places that aren’t successful are that nine yards, that ‘He ran hard but he only ran nine yards, he didn’t run 10 yards.’ I see the same thing here. We tell those guys it’s attention to detail. It’s about the little things, about doing your job.”

It’s like a dam, he says. All it takes is one little crack that goes overlooked and, over time, the dam busts.

Crimson Tide players had to be dedicated to doing things the right way every single time. When you do a squat in the weight room, Rumph said, it better be the best squat ever. You better dominate that squat, and then do it again. That’s how you build toward big things.

“Stop being so result-oriented,” Rumph said. “I tell my guys, don’t worry about making 10 sacks. Don’t worry about 20 sacks. Just the process to get there.”

Even with Alabama’s gigantic turnaround under Saban, Rumph proudly says Texas is the “best university in the universe.” How quickly the Longhorns regain their national prestige will depend on how quickly the players buy into what Rumph and the coaches are demanding.

As he put it: “We want to make the most feared statement in college football: ‘We play Texas next.’”

Chris Vaughn
Defensive backs/special teams


When you dedicate eight years of your career to being a recruiting coordinator in the SEC, you learn a few things along the way.

Four years of those duties at Arkansas and four more at Ole Miss gave Vaughn a wealth of knowledge about how to win a kid over. The key, he says, is knowing that convincing the recruit is a small piece of the pie.

Recruiting is a game of relationships, a lesson that Vaughn learned over and over and was reinforced by his 13 years of working with former head coach Houston Nutt.

“We all sound like car salesmen, of course, because we want to sell our university and what we believe in,” Vaughn said. “But it’s the mom and dad, the grandmother, the uncle, that when all the schools come in, they see through what’s on the side of the helmet or what type of shoes you’re wearing or the people sitting in the stadium.

“They just want to know somebody is going to take care of their baby. I think that’s one thing I really learned from Houston: You’ve got to build relationships with the family. At the end of the day, that young man is going to ask a family member close to them, ‘What do you think?’”

Vaughn, who will recruit southeast Texas and Louisiana for Texas, has ties all over the South from his past gigs. Those should pay dividends in the instances when the Longhorns staff looks outside the state for talent.

One talent Vaughn always likes to see when he’s out evaluating recruits: Wrestlers.

Back in his days at Godby High in Tallahassee, Fla., Vaughn was runner-up in the state wrestling championship. He was an undersized 195-pounder in the 220-pound class, and he didn’t lose often.

“If a guy is a good wrestler, as a football player, that carries a little weight with me,” he said. “If he’s good, I know he’s dedicated, know he’s a hard worker, know he loves to compete and doing the little things are important to him.”

And when it comes to recruiting, those little things can make all the difference.

Who runs the most plays in the SEC?

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
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Whether or not the much debated 10-second rule passes or not on Thursday (or even goes to a vote), it’s clear that the pace of the game in college football and the number of plays being run has been the topic du jour this offseason.

The coaches who want to go fast frown at the thought of a restrictor plate being placed on their offenses, while a few defensive-minded coaches, namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, are concerned that player safety is compromised by increasing the number of plays in a game.

“This is the only game in history of any sport where the college game is longer than the pro game,” Saban said.

Compared to the rest of the country, the SEC wasn’t a league last season that necessarily lived in the fast lane, at least as a whole.

Ole Miss averaged the most offensive plays per game (79.8), but only ranked 21st nationally. Texas Tech was first nationally with an average of 90.3 plays per game.

Not surprisingly, Alabama and Arkansas were at the bottom of the SEC. The Crimson Tide averaged 65.9 plays and the Hogs 64.7 plays.

Auburn, which is renowned for its hurry-up, no-huddle attack under Gus Malzahn, was tied for fifth in the SEC along with Texas A&M with an average of 73.8 plays per game.

In 2012, before to Malzahn’s arrival as head coach, Auburn averaged just 60.5 plays per game, which ranked last among 124 FBS teams.

The Aggies went the other way in Kevin Sumlin’s second season in College Station. They averaged 83.5 plays per game in 2012 and dipped to 73.8 last season, a difference of nearly 10 plays per game.

Here’s a rundown of the entire SEC in the last two seasons in terms of offensive snaps per game:

2013

1. Ole Miss: 79.8
2. Missouri: 75.5
3. Georgia: 74.6
4. Mississippi State: 74.2
5. Auburn: 73.8
6. Texas A&M: 73.8
7. South Carolina: 72.5
8. Vanderbilt: 70.8
9. Florida: 68.9
10. LSU: 67.7
11. Tennessee: 67.7
12. Kentucky: 66.8
13. Alabama: 65.9
14. Arkansas: 64.7

2012

1. Texas A&M: 83.5
2. Ole Miss: 76.2
3. Missouri: 75.7
4. Tennessee: 75.1
5. LSU: 70.8
6. Arkansas: 70.5
7. Vanderbilt: 69.2
8. South Carolina: 69
9. Georgia: 67.8
10. Florida: 67.2
11. Kentucky: 67
12. Mississippi State: 66.8
13. Alabama: 66.3
14. Auburn: 60.5

SEC's attendance numbers rise in 2013

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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While attendance across the country might be getting spottier at college football games, the SEC’s numbers increased in 2013.

That’s after the league experienced a slight dip each of the four seasons prior to 2013.

One of the things to remember about the SEC is that the stadiums are huge. A stadium on the “smaller” side in this league still holds more than 60,000 people, and eight of the 14 schools play in on-campus stadiums with a seating capacity of more than 80,000.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina Gamecocks fans
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina averaged 82,401 fans in its seven home games in 2013, which ranked 14th in the FBS.
Last season, the SEC averaged 75,674 fans, up from 74,636 in 2012. These figures, provided by the SEC office, include the Jacksonville, Fla., game between Florida and Georgia as well as the SEC championship game in Atlanta between Auburn and Missouri.

Even more telling, all but two of the schools in the league topped 90 percent attendance last season. The average percentage capacity in 2013 for SEC games was 99.02 percent, compared to 97.40 percent in 2012.

Alabama, coming off back-to-back national championships, led the SEC in home attendance last season, averaging 101,505 fans.

Kentucky (20 percent) and Tennessee (6 percent) had the largest increases in attendance last season. Arkansas (9 percent) had the largest decrease.

And while attendance was up this season in the SEC, it’s not as if league officials and athletic directors at the different schools had their collective heads in the sand.

The 2012 attendance figures for the SEC were the conference's lowest since the 2007 season, which was disconcerting to everybody.

So at the SEC spring meetings last May in Destin, Fla., it was announced that the league had created a committee in charge of making the game-day experience more enticing for fans.

High-definition televisions are getting better all the time, and there’s something to be said for sitting in the comfort of your home theater (or den) and watching all of the games there instead of going to the trouble or the expense of getting to the games in person.

SEC officials and administrators agree that with technology improving and ticket prices rising, in some cases exorbitantly, fans aren’t going to blindly keep going to games unless there’s something unique about the game-day experience.

[+] EnlargeAuburn Tigers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith an average of 85,657 fans at its eight home games in 2013, Auburn ranked No. 12 in the FBS.
Among the things the SEC committee addressed were finding a way to improve cell phone and wireless service at the stadiums, making more replays on the big screens available, dealing with the secondary ticket market, and improving the overall quality of games.

To the latter, SEC commissioner Mike Slive has said he wants to see every school in the league play at least 10 “good games” every season, whether that’s nine conference games and a marquee nonconference game, or eight conference games and two marquee nonconference games.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, a proponent of playing nine conference games, also has been outspoken that fans aren’t going to continue going to games to watch glorified scrimmages.

One of the biggest problems all schools in the SEC face is student attendance. Last season, Saban famously chastised the students at Alabama for leaving games early.

The Alabama student newspaper, The Crimson White, conducted a study and determined that only 69.4 percent of student tickets were used during the 2012 season.

In the past couple of years, Georgia has reduced its student-ticket allotment from 18,000 to 16,000, making those extra tickets available to younger alumni who can buy them without making an annual donation.

At Tennessee, student attendance increased dramatically last season in Butch Jones’ first year as coach. It was up almost 2,300 per game. As an enticement to continue getting students to go to the games, Tennessee plans to move more of them from the upper deck to the lower bowl.

Alabama moves up in early 2014 rankings

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
4:00
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ESPN.com colleague Mark Schlabach has tweaked his Way-Too-Early Top 25 for the 2014 season to reflect the recent signing classes, and Alabama moved up to No. 2 behind Florida State.

The Crimson Tide signed the nation's top-ranked class, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation. It's the third straight year that Nick Saban has reeled in the No. 1 class in the country. Seven of the top 10 classes nationally belong to SEC schools.

Schlabach also has Auburn at No. 6 and Georgia at No. 8 in his revised Top 25.

The other SEC schools to make the Top 25 are South Carolina at No. 12, LSU at No. 13, Texas A&M at No. 15 and Florida at No. 23. All seven of the SEC schools in Schlabach's latest Top 25 signed top 20 classes nationally.

Most impressive classes in the SEC

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
3:30
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Now that signing day is over and the fax machine is allowed another 364 days of rest, it’s time to look back on who did the most on the recruiting trail in the SEC.

It’s important to note that this is not purely a rank of who had the best class. You can go to ESPN’s class rankings for that information. Rather, this list took into account the state of each program and how it performed against expectations, hence Kentucky’s lofty standing.

No. 1: Alabama
Rundown: The class wasn’t just No. 1 overall, it was No. 1 by a mile. Alabama cleaned up with one-third of all the five-star prospects in the ESPN 300, the highest ranking of which was offensive tackle Cameron Robinson, who could challenge for immediate playing time as a freshman. Along those lines, coach Nick Saban and his staff didn’t just sign the best prospects, they signed those that fit the program’s needs. The offensive line class could be the best in Saban’s history, the cornerback class promises two future stars and quarterback David Cornwell helps expand the field of candidates to replace AJ McCarron.

Instant impact signee: Tony Brown won’t be the only five-star cornerback on campus, but he’ll be the first one there. The speedy track star enrolled in January and will compete in spring practice. With both starting cornerback spots open, he’ll have a chance to start right away.

No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain’t your grandfather’s Kentucky. It’s not your father’s or your older brother’s, either. Mark Stoops didn’t have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it’s here to play and win.

Instant impact signee: There’s opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats’ offense.

No. 3: Tennessee
Rundown: No program brought in more young talent than the Vols. All told, Tennessee signed 35 prospects, far more than any BCS-level program. Coach Butch Jones joked that he’ll have an all-freshman team next year, and with 11 ESPN 300 players in the class it’s not that farfetched an idea. Not only did Jones lock down in-state stars like Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd, he reached across borders and landed LaVon Pearson and Dillon Bates. Where his first recruiting class in 2013 was more about creating buzz, 2014 was about fulfilling a promise.

Instant impact signee: Jones and his staff are high on junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolled at Tennessee early. Considering the Vols are completely reloading on the offensive line, the 6-7, 307-pound Blair will have the chance to step in and play from Day 1.

No. 4: LSU
Rundown: Les Miles was on the hook after losing several in-state stars to programs like Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida. Seeing Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Laurence Jones commit elsewhere cast LSU’s recruiting efforts in a bad light. But that all changed when Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, announced that he would be a Tiger. And on Wednesday, Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation, followed suit. By the end of the day, 11 of the top 25 players in Louisiana ended up at LSU.

Instant impact signee: Fournette is the No. 1 overall prospect for a reason. He’s got all the physical tools and the mindset to play at the next level. Because of that he’s been compared favorably to former Sooner Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, Fournette can insert himself into the running back rotation right away.

No. 5: Texas A&M
Rundown: In 2012, Texas A&M signed the 15th best recruiting class in the country. In 2013, it joined the SEC and rose to eighth in the rankings. And on Wednesday, it completed that climb by finishing fourth. Kevin Sumlin and Co. signed an impressive 10 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 athlete and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Signing a pair of junior college offensive linemen -- Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor -- solidifies depth on a line moving on without Jake Matthews.

Instant impact signee: There’s no doubt Texas A&M needs help on the defense. Defensive end Myles Garrett's body is college-ready (6-5, 255 pounds) and he’s ripped to shreds. If he can pick up the defense and show he's capable of holding up against the run, he could play soon.

No. 6: Florida
Rundown: It’s the win coach Will Muschamp so desperately needed. Keeping together this class after one of the most disastrous seasons in program history was a remarkable feat. In all, Florida signed 13 ESPN 300 commitments, including seven players who rank among the top 10 nationally at their position. Even more impressive was that Muschamp sold Florida against some other top programs, flipping four-star Florida State quarterback commitment Treon Harris to cross the state to Gainesville.

Instant impact signee: Jalen Tabor has as good a chance as anyone to start at cornerback opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the former standout freshman whose footsteps he's trying to follow. Florida coaches are high on his talent and skill level, and of course, being an early enrollee helps.

No. 7: Georgia
Rundown: Mark Richt got his guy in Lorenzo Carter. Without him, the entire outlook of the class changes. While it wasn’t high on numbers -- 21 signees in all -- the quality of Georgia's class was impressive. Richt signed 11 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in the country. Four-star athlete Isaiah McKenzie was a big signee as well. He’s small in size (5-8), but his speed and quickness could translate to early playing time.

Instant impact signee: “That defense is going to be nasty,” Carter said. “And I plan on being a part of it.” With that, Georgia got a taste of the energy the No. 3-rated defensive end will bring to Athens. His ability as a pass-rusher will help the Bulldogs right away, and if he adds a few more pounds he could develop into an every-down lineman.

No. 8: Auburn
Rundown: It’s not always about who you sign, but who you miss. The loss of Rashaan Evans still stings a day later, but Auburn landed commitments from offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams to close out what was already an impressive class. In all, the Tigers have 12 signees in the ESPN 300 and two ranked in the ESPN JC 50. Despite losing Evans to the Tide, Auburn signed four of the state’s top 10 players, including its top-ranked player in the class, running back Racean Thomas.

Instant impact signee: Nobody is more qualified to step in and contribute than wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He’s the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he’s already on campus. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s go-to wide receiver by the start of next season.

No. 9: Ole Miss
Rundown: The class wasn’t filled with stars like the year before, but coach Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t let up in 2014. The Rebels went after more seasoned recruits, signing six players from either junior college, prep schools or delayed enrollment. Actually, this year’s class might end up having more depth than the previous year’s as 15 four-star recruits signed in 2014, compared to 12 four-star recruits and two five-star recruits in 2013. With players like Garrald McDowell and C.J. Hampton, there’s plenty to build around.

Instant impact signee: Ole Miss needed help on the offensive line and four-star Rod Taylor could be the man to give them a boost. The No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 300 and the Rebels’ highest ranked signee enrolled in school early and will compete in spring practice.

No. 10: South Carolina
Rundown: It wasn’t the most heralded class in Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina, but it didn’t lack talent, especially on defense where the Gamecocks signed four defensive linemen and four cornerbacks. Stealing defensive tackle Dexter Wideman from Florida State and nabbing cornerback Chris Lammons from Wisconsin’s sights was huge in moving South Carolina up from 27th in the class rankings to 19th.

Instant impact signee: He’ll no doubt add a few pounds to his 6-3, 250-pound frame, but no amount of weight will help Dante Sawyer's attempts to fill Jadeveon Clowney's sizable shoes at South Carolina. That’s not Sawyer’s job as a freshman, though. The four-star prospect should help the Gamecocks pass rush and is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end.

No. 11: Arkansas
Rundown: When I spoke to Bret Bielema during the season, he told me that he wasn’t going after guys based on their rankings. He wanted “his guys,” guys who fit his blue-collar system. And he did exactly that with six of his top eight signees coming on the offensive and defensive lines. Throw in Rafe Peavey, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback, and Arkansas’ got a good foundation to build upon.

Instant impact signee: With starting defensive tackle Byran Jones gone, the door is open for big Bijhon Jackson, who comes in at a hefty 6-2 and 330 pounds. The No. 6-ranked defensive tackle is the only ESPN 300 member in Arkansas’ recruiting class.

No. 12: Mississippi State
Rundown: The Bulldogs’ 2014 signing class was on the small side with 23 signees, and it was planned that way. With so few seniors, coach Dan Mullen chose to be selective. Still, the class left something to be desired without a single player ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. It was good to see the Bulldogs get so many in-state recruits, but the furthest their reach went was to Texas, Alabama and Georgia. That said, Mississippi State fans will be glad to see that both of its ESPN 300 signees -- Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson -- were skill players on offense, an area in need of development.

Instant impact signee: There’s plenty of opportunity in the Bulldogs’ backfield now that LaDarius Perkins is off to the NFL. Enter Aeris Williams, a four-star prospect from Mississippi. With Dak Prescott at quarterback, Williams could make hay on the read-option.

No. 13: Missouri
Rundown: Maybe the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta didn’t amount to much on the recruiting trail. Maybe the thrilling Cotton Bowl win didn’t impress enough recruits either. Whatever it was, coach Gary Pinkel didn’t exactly make hay on signing day. Landing just two ESPN 300 commitments was underwhelming, as was the grand total of four four-star recruits. The signing of Andy Bauer, a four-star offensive tackle who was targeted by Alabama, does engender some hope. Still, as we watch Texas A&M take advantage of the bump it received in recruiting since joining the SEC, one has to wonder why Missouri hasn’t done the same.

Instant impact signee: Brandon Lee, the nation's No. 17 outside linebacker, comes in at a healthy 6-2 and 210 pounds. Given that two of the Tigers’ three starting linebackers were seniors last season, Lee will have a chance to come in and contribute right away.

No. 14: Vanderbilt
Rundown: With so little time to recruit, Derek Mason couldn’t put together the class he wanted. And with former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin poaching so many of his former recruits at Penn State, it only made matters worse. So don’t judge Mason’s first class and its two ESPN 300 signees too harshly. But do give him credit for convincing Nifae Lealao, the No. 20 defensive tackle, to come to Nashville. The four-star prospect is among the most highly rated recruits to ever sign with the Commodores.

Instant impact signee: It isn’t just Jordan Matthews who's leaving. So is Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games last season. Enter three-star Rashad Canty. He’s not the most highly ranked recruit, but the 6-3, 201-pound receiver has the tools to make a push for reps early.

Top 2014 SEC games to watch

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
11:00
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It's never too early to start looking ahead to next season. With that in mind, here's an early stab at the top 10 games to watch next season involving SEC teams, which includes both conference and nonconference games:

Aug. 28, Texas A&M at South Carolina: Life after Johnny Manziel begins for the Aggies in the first-ever meeting between these two teams and the first SEC game of the 2014 season, a Thursday night contest that will be televised on the SEC Network.

Aug. 30, LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston: It's not until 2016 that these two teams get it on in historic Lambeau Field, but they'll open next season in Reliant Stadium in what should be a classic Big Ten vs. SEC showdown.

Sept. 13, Georgia at South Carolina: The winner takes a big step forward in the East race, and the Dawgs have lost each of their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium. Plus, Todd Gurley vs. Mike Davis always makes for entertaining theater.

Sept. 20, Florida at Alabama: The Gators make a rare appearance in Tuscaloosa, only their fourth trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium since the 1992 expansion and division split. It's the SEC opener for the Crimson Tide, who are unbeaten in league openers under Nick Saban.

Oct. 4, Alabama at Ole Miss: The Rebels had to play at Alabama each of the last two seasons but finally get the Tide in Oxford next season. This could be the year that Ole Miss puts it all together and makes a run in the West, but doing that will mean snapping a 10-game skid against the Tide.

Nov. 8, Alabama at LSU: It got away from the Tigers a little bit this season against Alabama in the second half, but when's the last time this game hasn't meant something? Over the last five or six years, it's hard to find a better and/or more meaningful rivalry in college football than Alabama vs. LSU.

Nov. 15, Auburn at Georgia: Living up to the thriller these two teams played this season on the Plains will be difficult, but we could get a glimpse of the 2014 SEC championship game next November in Sanford Stadium.

Nov. 29, Mississippi State at Ole Miss: Talk about a rivalry that's been revitalized. The Bulldogs won in overtime this season, their fourth victory over the Rebels in the last five years. But the "school up north" will be looking for a little payback next season, particularly quarterback Bo Wallace.

Nov. 29, Auburn at Alabama: Just when you think you've seen it all in the Iron Bowl, Chris Davis delivers a play for the ages with his kick-six. We might never see another ending quite like that one, but it's not too farfetched to think that next season's game could again decide the West race.

Nov. 29, South Carolina at Clemson: When the Head Ball Coach knows he can get under somebody's skin, he just twists the needle that much harder. South Carolina has won five in a row now over Clemson, and it probably feels like 20 in a row to Dabo Swinney and the Tigers.

Best and worst of the SEC bowls

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
2:30
PM CT
Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
AM CT
NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.

Allstate Sugar Bowl will be OU's barometer

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
AM CT
NEW ORLEANS -- "The King" tweeted it best.

"What's great about playing Bama," legendary former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer wrote on Twitter this week, "is they are the team to find how good you are or how far you have to go."

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow good are Bob Stoops' Sooners? We'll find out in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Sooners will play in the ultimate barometer game against third-ranked Alabama.

It's a game that will reveal where the Sooners are, relative to the Crimson Tide. And just how far they have to go.

"How could it not be that?" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked. "They're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.

"So it’s definitely that."

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have become the standard-bearers in college football. Since 2009, Alabama has won three national championships, and only the wildest ending in college football history prevented the Tide from playing for another.

"They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football," Sooners co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably so."

Under Stoops, Oklahoma once set the bar in college football. At the turn of the millennium, the Sooners played for three national titles in five years, and captured the championship in Y2K with a defensive flattening of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Like the Tide of now, the Sooners of then rolled in top-five recruiting classes every February. And every April, Oklahoma produced a lion's share of first-round draft picks.

But that was then.

And in the present, the Sooners have fallen on hard times -- at least according to the towering expectations that apply to the likes of an Alabama or an Oklahoma.

"We win 10 games every year," said center Gabe Ikard, "and people feel that we’ve fallen off."

True, the Sooners haven't fallen off into a canyon like their Red River brethren (even though Texas did dismantle Oklahoma this year in Dallas). But in Norman, 10-win seasons minus the championships ring hollow.

It has been six seasons since the Sooners seriously contended for a national title past October. And after seizing six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, Oklahoma has only one outright conference title since 2008.

This November, once they fell 41-12 to Baylor -- yes, the same Baylor that Central Florida roasted Wednesday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- the Sooners weren’t even a factor in the Big 12 race, much less the national one.

At the moment, Alabama owns RecruitingNation's No. 1 class, while Oklahoma's just barely cracks the top 25. Last year alone, the Crimson Tide furnished the NFL with three first-round draft picks. The Sooners, meanwhile, have had just one first-rounder (OT Lane Johnson) since 2010.

But just because the results have tapered off in Norman doesn’t mean the expectations have.

And against Alabama, the Sooners will find out where they stand.

"This is definitely going to show what kind of team we have right now," said Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders. "What type of players we have at OU. Where we stand nationally."

Lately, the Sooners haven’t stood quite as tall.

As a testament to Stoops' unrivaled, long-term consistency, Oklahoma still managed to grind out 10 victories in 2012 despite having no running game and a shaky defense. But whenever the Sooners faced a quality opponent last season, they were vanquished. Kansas State out-executed them in the Big 12 opener, Notre Dame smashed them in the fourth quarter, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, well, he just made them look ridiculous in an AT&T Cotton Bowl rout.

As a result, Oklahoma opened 2013 outside the top 10 in the preseason polls for the first time since Stoops' second year.

Even though the Sooners stunned Oklahoma State in the 2013 Big 12 regular-season finale to sneak their way into the BCS, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged them as 16½-point underdogs against the mighty Tide. That, by the way, is the third-largest point spread in BCS history, behind only this year's Baylor-UCF Fiesta Bowl and the 17-point line Oklahoma was handed over Connecticut in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.

In other words -- at least according to Vegas -- the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma right now is roughly equal to the gap between Oklahoma and Connecticut then.

"They're a great, great team," Stoops said of the Tide. "Great talent across the board."

When facing great talent, however, comes great opportunity. To ascend back atop college football's summit, the Sooners have to start somewhere. They'll find no more opportune setting than the Sugar.

"They’ve been so dominant," said Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, "that if we come out with a victory, it would definitely say we're a national championship-contending-type team."

The Sooners can't secure a national championship overnight. And they certainly can't on Thursday night. But they can send a message. And in doing so, also can launch their climb back to the top.

"Winning this game would be big," Ikard said. "Big for recruiting, big for the program, big for the fan base.

"It would show that we're still one of the premier, top-five programs in the country."

The Sooners haven’t been a top-five program lately. But in New Orleans they get to find out how good they really are.

And just how far they have to go.

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