Dallas Colleges: Zach Mettenberger
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 1): When you beat the No. 1 team in the country, then thump the No. 5 team 59-42 to win the SEC championship and get a spot in the Vizio BCS National Championship, your résumé really speaks for itself. Auburn is the hottest team in the country. Behind RB Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Tigers have the nation's best running game (335.7 yards per game) and a wave of momentum to ride out to Pasadena, Calif., to take on No. 1 Florida State.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 3): While the Crimson Tide won't be playing for a third straight national championship, they are still one of the best teams in the country. The Allstate Sugar Bowl waits for the Tide, but if the playoffs started this season, Alabama would be right back in the title hunt and might be the favorite to win it all.
3. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2; LW: 4): The Gamecocks ended the season by winning five in a row. They were in the BCS hunt until Alabama lost, but their Capital One Bowl matchup with Wisconsin should be a fun one. Here's hoping that the long layoff helps DE Jadeveon Clowney heal for what will likely be his final game in a South Carolina uniform.
4. Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers went to Atlanta with the nation's 14th-best rushing defense (second in the SEC) and left giving up an SEC title game-record 545 rushing yards. Missouri's defense looked far from sturdy against Auburn, but Mizzou still had a very successful season. A year ago, the team was sulking after a five-win season. Now, Missouri has 11 wins and is playing in the AT&T Cotton Bowl after possibly being a win away from the BCS title game.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): It was an up-and-down season in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers pulled off two big, late-season wins, including a blowout against QB Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies. In the Outback Bowl, LSU will be without QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. But the future looks bright for freshman Anthony Jennings, who orchestrated a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): This wasn't the ending Manziel wanted. While he hasn't officially declared early for the NFL draft, it's a foregone conclusion that his days in College Station are numbered. After another successful statistical season, Manziel is headed back to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but two straight poor performances in losses to end the regular season could keep him from winning the award for a second straight year.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 7): If any team wants to complain about its bowl game, it's the Commodores. After finishing the season on a four-game winning streak and beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same year, Vandy is headed to the BBVA Compass Bowl. It was another great season for coach James Franklin and his team, and you better believe this team will be motivated against Houston.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3, SEC; LW: 8): The Bulldogs had wins over South Carolina and LSU, but losing QB Aaron Murray to an ACL injury and dropping games to Mizzou and Vandy in consecutive weeks really put a damper on the season. The defense still has a lot of kinks to work out going forward, but surrendered 400-plus yards only twice in November after allowing 400 or more in four of the first five games of the season. And back-to-back bowl games against Nebraska is head-scratching to say the least.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 9): A season that started on the rocks ended with two must-wins and a bowl berth. Dan Mullen's hot seat suddenly feels cooler, and the Bulldogs even got some love in the postseason by unexpectedly jumping into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Rice. Mississippi State clawed its way back to the postseason and should have a lot of fire in Memphis.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): The end of the season wasn't great for the Rebels, but this program has come a long way under Hugh Freeze. In his first two seasons, Ole Miss has made back-to-back bowl trips. Last season, the Rebels were a surprise team in Birmingham. This year, Ole Miss is headed to Nashville, where Rebels fans will flock. It'll be fun to watch that spread offense take on Georgia Tech's triple option.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): Butch Jones wasn't able to pull a Gus Malzahn in his first season, but he brought some enthusiasm back to a program looking to rediscover its pride. There won't be a bowl game for the Vols, but this is the time for Jones and his staff to hit the recruiting road hard. Tennessee already has the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, but now it's all about keeping that class together and building for the future.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): It's going to be a long offseason in Gainesville after the Gators missed out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and had their first losing season since 1979. Things will be uncomfortable and toxic between coach Will Muschamp and the fan base, but he can't let that seep into his program or have it affect his football team. With no bowl prep, Muschamp's first order of business is to keep his recruiting class intact -- especially the offensive weapons -- and get those prospects to Gainesville.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): The Razorbacks finished the season with nine straight losses, which was a school record and a new record for coach Bret Bielema, who just completed his first-year at Arkansas (his first head-coaching stop was at Wisconsin). Arkansas had a solid running game, with freshman RB Alex Collins (1,026 yards and four touchdowns) carrying the load, but the passing game was the worst in the SEC (148.5 yards per game).
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): Mark Stoops' first season in Kentucky was forgettable in the win-loss column, but the hope in Lexington is that his impressive recruiting class brings some real life back to the program in Year 2. What had to really irk the defensive-minded Stoops was that his defense ranked 13th in the league, allowing 427.2 yards per game and an SEC-worst 31.2 points per game. The Wildcats just didn't have the endurance to keep up in SEC play and have now lost 16 straight against SEC competition.
But what about after that fairly obvious choice? ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach attempted to rank them all from 1-35 on the college football homepage.
For our purposes, let's take a look at where Schlabach ranked the bowl games for the nine SEC teams that aren't Auburn that will appear in the postseason.
No. 4: Alabama-Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl: Sooners coach Bob Stoops has talked a big game about how tough the SEC actually is. He's about to get a close look at perhaps the toughest customer in the whole league.
No. 5: Missouri-Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl: This should be a fun matchup between former Big 12 rivals who feature explosive offenses. Just like the old days.
No. 6: South Carolina-Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl: If not for an inexplicable midseason loss to Tennessee, South Carolina would have been in the thick of the BCS picture. A win here would be a proper sendoff in what will almost certainly be Jadeveon Clowney's final game as a Gamecock.
No. 9: LSU-Iowa in the Outback Bowl: No Zach Mettenberger for LSU, but Anthony Jennings' debut at quarterback against a stout Iowa defense could make this one interesting.
No. 10: Georgia-Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Yeah, it's a rematch from last season's Capital One Bowl, but it should still be another tight contest between injury-riddled teams that will have had another month to heal.
No. 11: Texas A&M-Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl: If this is Johnny Manziel's final game as an Aggie, he'll have an opportunity to throw against a Duke team that is playing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. This game delivers an exciting result almost every year, and this season could turn into a shootout.
No. 22: Ole Miss-Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Facing Georgia Tech's option offense is always a challenge, and the young Rebels will need to slow down the Yellow Jackets in order to cap another year of improvement under Hugh Freeze.
No. 23: Vanderbilt-Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl: Commodores fans were angry that they didn't get invited to a more prestigious bowl after Vandy's second straight eight-win regular season. They'll need to turn out at Legion Field to prove their point.
No. 24: Mississippi State-Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl: The Bulldogs barely slipped into bowl season by beating Ole Miss in overtime. Now they'll have to take down Conference USA champ Rice, which won its first outright league title since 1957 when it blasted Marshall last weekend.
- When he was at Florida, Urban Meyer touted the SEC's strength of schedule as a reason for his Gators to jump over a Big Ten school to play in the national championship. Can the case he made be used against his Buckeyes this season?
- Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says he has Ohio State ranked No. 2 ... for now. After attending the Iron Bowl last week, he'll be watching Saturday's championship games intently.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn't lobbying for his Tigers' chances to reach the BCS national championship game if they win on Saturday. He's focused on Auburn.
- Two years ago there was some discord over the Alabama-LSU rematch for the national title. Would an Auburn-Alabama rematch draw even more ire this season?
- Florida's search for a new offensive coordinator will continue through bowl season.
- After South Carolina beat Clemson last Saturday, Steve Spurrier declared Connor Shaw the Gamecocks' best QB ever. Now others are agreeing.
- LSU is familiar with the scenario of losing its starting QB just before its bowl game. The same situation occurred in 2005 and 2008.
- Some scouts say Johnny Manziel will be a top-12 NFL draft pick.
- Mississippi State senior safety Nickoe Whitley will miss the Bulldogs' bowl game after surgery on Monday to repair a torn ACL.
- And finally, Georgia WR Chris Conley is a Star Wars nerd. Awesome.
1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.
2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.
3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.
1. Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide faced its biggest test since Texas A&M and passed with flying colors Saturday night with a resounding 38-17 win over LSU. Alabama didn't need a lot of yards, but the defense stood tall, holding LSU to a season-low 284 yards and 17 points. People continue to wonder if this truly is the No. 1 team in the country, but Alabama has tackled every obstacle that has come its way. Also, Phil Knight was decked out in Alabama gear in Tuscaloosa, so clearly the bandwagon still has room.
2. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 2): It seems like Auburn is getting better and better each week. The Tigers weren't intimidated at all by the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium and walked out with a commanding 55-23 win over Tennessee. The offense rolled up 444 rushing yards, and the defense is getting better and better -- just in time for this week's showdown with Georgia on the Plains.
3. Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 5): These Tigers continue to impress and had no problem handling a weary Kentucky team on the road. Maty Mauk is growing for the future, and Dorial Green-Beckham showed us all why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year with his school-record four touchdown catches in Mizzou's 48-17 thumping of the Wildcats. This upcoming bye week should give quarterback James Franklin even more time to rest his shoulder before a trip to Ole Miss.
4. Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC; LW: 3): We all know the Aggies can score at will when Johnny Manziel is under center, but the defense took a few steps back (again) in A&M's 51-41 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Right when you think that unit is getting better, it starts to lag behind, like surrendering 556 total yards to the Bulldogs. Still, the Aggies won in spite of the defense and get a bye week before taking on LSU and Mizzou on the road.
5. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks were off this weekend, which should help them rest any nicks or bruises. South Carolina is approaching its final SEC game, which is big, because a win over Florida on Saturday would get the Gamecocks one step closer to Atlanta. South Carolina still needs help, but the Gamecocks will have every opportunity to take care of business against a struggling Florida team.
6. Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): The Bulldogs had a nice tuneup game before facing Auburn on the road. Even after a sluggish start, the Bulldogs routed Appalachian State 45-6. If Georgia wants a shot at the SEC Eastern Division title, the Bulldogs have to beat Auburn and hope for Mizzou to fall off late. Aaron Murray continues to rack up records, and this offense regained its form Saturday. The defense will have to be at its best against a very good Auburn running game.
7. Ole Miss (6-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 8): After winning just six combined games from 2010-11, the Rebels are going bowling for the second straight year. Coach Hugh Freeze has led a very impressive turnaround in Oxford. Ole Miss let things get a bit interesting in its 34-24 win over Arkansas, but the outcome never really seemed in doubt. The Rebels go for win No. 7 against Troy before hosting Missouri.
8. LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 6): It really has been a season of what-ifs for the Bayou Bengals. Turnovers and mental errors have plagued this team in its three losses, and Saturday's 21-point loss to Alabama was no different. Fumbles by J.C. Copeland and Zach Mettenberger proved costly, as they created a 10-point swing that didn't go in LSU's favor. The Tigers were left scratching their heads in Tuscaloosa and get another bye week to stew over it.
9. Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 SEC; LW: 11): Remember when head coach James Franklin said you'd never see the old Vanderbilt again under his watch? Well, after taking the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, Saturday's 34-17 win over Florida marked the first time the Commodores have beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1945, and the first time ever the Dores beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. Vandy's blowout win in the Swamp came thanks to four takeaways by the Commodores and only 183 yards of offense, and Vandy is a win away from making its third-straight bowl.
10. Florida (4-5, 3-4 SEC; LW: 9): It has been a challenging season in Gainesville, and Saturday's ugly loss to Vandy (snapping a 22-game winning streak over the Dores) didn't help. The injuries have piled up, Florida has lost four straight and the Gators are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1990. Coach Will Muschamp said his team has a "woe is me" attitude right now, and the fans are restless. Seeing all those empty seats and hearing all those boos told you everything you need to know about the state of Florida football.
11. Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC; LW: 10): It was another long day for head coach Butch Jones and his Vols. Auburn ran up 444 rushing yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry, and had the game well in hand before the second quarter even ended. Tennessee has to be encouraged by the growth of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and receiver Marquez North, but it's just not enough right now. Five times this year Tennessee has given up 400 yards and gained less than 350.
12. Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 12): Hats off to quarterback Dak Prescott for going out and playing Saturday just days after his mother passed away after her battle with cancer. He and his Bulldogs didn't beat Texas A&M, but they never quit. Still, this has been a trying year for Mississippi State, which has to win two of its last three games in order to keep its three-year bowl streak going.
13. Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 SEC; LW: 13): Another weekend, another loss for the hapless Hogs. Arkansas' 34-24 loss to Ole Miss marked the seventh straight for Bret Bielema and his squad. It's the longest of Bielema's coaching career, and the Razorbacks are officially out of the bowl hunt for the second straight year. Arkansas has the SEC's No. 12 offense and a defense that ranks 11th in the league, after surrendering 531 yards to Ole Miss.
14. Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 SEC; LW: 14): For the third straight year, the Wildcats aren't going bowling. They certainly have shown heart, but the talent on both sides of the ball just isn't there right now for Kentucky to actually compete week in and week out against its SEC foes. Kentucky has now lost 13 straight SEC games.
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.
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.
Horror movies cover our TV screens, while candy wrappers litter our streets.
It's Nick Saban's birthday! ... Oh, and it's also Halloween.
Regardless of which one you celebrate, cut off the lights, wrap yourself in a blanket and try not to get scared as we look at the most bone-chilling people in the SEC:
Michael Myers: One of the most feared horror movie villains, Myers terrorized the citizens of Haddonfield, Ill., with his frighteningly slow stalk and superhuman strength. Meet Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who torments quarterbacks with more speed and the reputation of being one of the country's scariest players. He has registered a nation-leading 16 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 10 sacks. He has totaled three sacks in a game three times this year.
Freddy Krueger: This season, sleeping on Auburn has proved costly. The Tigers started the season unranked and under new management with Gus Malzahn, but are 7-1 and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings. The biggest Krueger-esque attack occurred in College Station, when the Tigers upset then-No. 7 Texas A&M 45-41. Two weeks before, Auburn upset No. 24 Ole Miss at home. Could Auburn do the same against Alabama later this month?
The Great Pumpkin: Like Linus waiting in that pumpkin patch on Halloween for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, we've waited for Jadeveon Clowney to return to his old form. Each week, we've been disappointed as Clowney, who entered the season with 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in his career, has just two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Teams have schemed him differently and he has dealt with injuries, but he's just not the same player who had garnered so much attention. At least he has the awesome Predator look going!
The Walking Dead: If anyone looks like a stumbling herd of undead walkers, it's Florida and Georgia. These programs have been ravaged by injuries. Florida has dealt with eight season-ending injuries, including to starters Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley. Nicks and dings have piled up for Florida, too, as just 13 healthy defensive players dressed for the Mizzou game two weeks ago. Georgia watched as running back Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending ACL injuries. Nagging injuries have sprinkled around, and heading into Saturday's game with Florida, receiver Chris Conley (ankle) is doubtful and safety Tray Matthews (hamstring) is questionable.
House of horrors: Opponents might wander into South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium for a fun football game, but few leave with a win. The Gamecocks have an SEC-leading 14-game winning streak at home.
Trick: Under Kevin Sumlin, all of Texas A&M's losses (four) have come at home. This year, the Aggies fell to Alabama and Auburn at Kyle Field by a combined 11 points. Not exactly the most intimidating home-field advantage.
The Joker: Arkham Asylum's most heinous inmate and Batman's arch nemesis, the Joker has the ability to manipulate his foes and wreak utter chaos. Kind of like how Johnny Manziel plays. We thought he wouldn't be focused enough this season, so he has churned out 3,091 yards of offense and 28 touchdowns. Defenders think he's going one way, only for him to go the other. Manziel might have dressed up as Scooby Doo last year, but he's as evil as the Joker on the field.
Thriller: The best game of the year has to be Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU. We saw three lead changes, four ties, 943 yards of offense and 85 points. Aaron Murray's touchdown pass to Scott-Wesley with 1:47 remaining proved to be the difference after LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw four straight incomplete passes on LSU's final drive.
Scary: Texas A&M's defense has been the SEC's most terrifying defense to watch. The Aggies rank 111th nationally in total defense, allowing 473.8 yards per game. They're 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (32.6), last in rushing (210.1), 12th in passing (263.6) and are giving up 6.4 yards per play. A&M has allowed fewer than 400 yards just twice this year.
Best costume: Will Muschamp.
Missouri wasn't ready: There's a fine line between good and great, and you don't know what exactly that is until you've crossed it. For a moment, we thought Missouri had taken the next step as one of the few remaining undefeated teams in college football. Beating Georgia and Florida was huge for Gary Pinkel's Tigers, but no matter how hard Missouri battled South Carolina on Saturday night, it still lost. At home. After leading 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter. That's hard to stomach when you're ranked in the top five nationally. Granted, not all is lost for Missouri. The SEC East is still a wide-open race. But with one loss and games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M ahead, the Tigers' road to a division title is much shakier than it was coming into the weekend.
Johnny's OK: Man, for a second there, Johnny Manziel had us worried. He landed awkwardly on his arm against Auburn and winced in pain on the sidelines. He continued to play that game, sure, but it remained to be seen how he'd do a week later. Well, it appears that Johnny is still Johnny. Texas A&M beat Vanderbilt 56-24 as its defending Heisman Trophy winner torched the Commodores to the tune of 305 yards and four passing touchdowns. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "People thought I was being coy" when he told anyone who'd ask that Manziel's status was questionable. Manziel, meanwhile, never had a doubt, telling reporters, "In my mind I was always going to play."
Jordan Matthews: If it took you this long to realize just how good of a receiver Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews is, your dedication to the SEC might be a little shaky. Either way, Matthews solidified his reputation as one of the best to ever play in the conference on Saturday as he became the SEC's all-time leader in career yards receiving with 3,172, passing former Georgia great Terrence Edwards. The Commodores are not having the season coach James Franklin or anyone else would have hoped, but you can't ignore the stellar play of Matthews. He and Texas A&M's Mike Evans are the top two wideouts in the league and right there in the conversation nationally.
Alabama. LSU. Again: Set your countdown clocks. It's happening again. Alabama and LSU are on a collision course to compete in a game that will help determine the SEC West race on Nov. 9. Both teams will have bye weeks to prepare, which means we'll have two weeks to dissect every position battle and scouting report. Oh joy! Top-ranked Alabama absolutely manhandled Tennessee at home on Saturday, beating the Vols 45-10. The only thing in question at Bryant-Denny Stadium was how long the fans would stay to watch. And LSU, despite being upset last weekend by Ole Miss, returned home and took care of business, demolishing Furman 48-16. The troubling news for LSU fans, though, is that Zach Mettenberger seems to have developed a turnover problem. Two interceptions against Furman brought his total to six in the last four games. He threw one pick in his first four contests.
1. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC; last week: 1): Say what you will about the lack of competition Alabama has faced since the Ole Miss game, but the Crimson Tide are doing exactly what they need to develop and build momentum. For the second straight year, the Tide blanked an overmatched Arkansas team 52-0 and appear to be the SEC's biggest hope for bringing the conference its eighth straight national championship.
2. Missouri (7-0, 3-0 SEC; LW: 4): So this is what Missouri's offense is supposed to look like when guys are healthy. Well, even with James Franklin out and Maty Mauk running things, the offense is pretty deadly. The Tigers are the surprise of the conference and crushed Florida 36-17 over the weekend with 500 yards of offense and a smothering defense that allowed just 151 yards. A win over South Carolina this weekend would essentially clinch the SEC Eastern Division for the Tigers.
3. Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 8): It's clear that Gus Malzahn was the right choice for this team. The Tigers marched into Kyle Field on Saturday and shocked the nation with a thrilling 45-41 win over Texas A&M. The offense churned out more than 600 yards, including 379 rushing yards. The Tigers might be a bad first half against LSU away from being undefeated. Auburn is now averaging a league-high 300.1 rushing yards per game, which is 65.7 more than Missouri's No. 2 rushing offense.
4. Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC; LW: 2): Not even the great Johnny Manziel could rescue the Aggies against Auburn. Despite playing with a bad shoulder and throwing for 454 yards and four touchdowns, Manziel wasn't enough. Why wasn't he enough? Well, look at the Aggies' pitiful defensive performance. They surrendered 615 yards of offense, allowed Auburn to convert 7 of 14 third downs and gave up 7.2 yards per play. I've never seen a team so great offensively yet so bad defensively.
5. LSU (6-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 3): Just when we thought LSU was really figuring things out, the defense gets gashed in Oxford, Zach Mettenberger reverts back to his bad habits throwing the ball and the Tigers get outplayed in a rivalry game. LSU fell to Ole Miss 27-24 on Saturday and looked as though it didn't want it as much as the Rebels. Mettenberger was flustered all night, throwing three interceptions and registering a QBR of 33.2
6. South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 6): The Gamecocks looked like a team ready to make a charge through the SEC, but that sight was short-lived after Saturday's 23-21 loss to Tennessee on a last-second field goal. It was a bad loss that might knock the Gamecocks out of contention for the East title, and quarterback Connor Shaw left the game with a knee sprain. South Carolina's only hope for the East crown is to win at Missouri this weekend.
7. Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 5): As the injuries continue to pile up in Athens, so do the losses. Georgia surrendered a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, allowing Vanderbilt to score 17 straight in the Commodores' 31-27 upset. Now, top receiver Chris Conley and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons could be out against Florida in two weeks with injuries. This was Georgia's worst offensive showing of the year, registering just 221 yards of total offense and turning it over three times.
8. Ole Miss (4-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 9): Right when it looked like the honeymoon with Hugh Freeze was starting to lose its luster, the Rebels shocked LSU with a 27-24 win after losing three straight in conference play. The mistakes that had plagued this team during its three-game losing streak vanished as Ole Miss outplayed the Tigers at home.
9. Florida (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 7): A week ago, coach Will Muschamp said his defense shouldn't worry about the offense. On Saturday, the defense gave up 500 yards and 36 points but got absolutely no help from an inept offense that has generated just 391 yards, 16 points and one touchdown in the past two games combined. The defense was gashed, but fatigue had to set in with a sputtering offense barely staying on the field. It'll be a long two weeks in Gainesville before next week's game against Georgia.
10. Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC; LW: 11): Something tells me those guys in the Knoxville are really digging what new coach Butch Jones has to say. After some shaky play and some over-coaching early, the Vols put together back-to-back solid games against SEC East heavyweights and really shook things up with their 23-21 shocker over South Carolina. Keep an eye on freshman wide receiver Marquez North. The kid has some talent.
11. Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3 SEC; LW: 10): If Vanderbilt was truly going to take the next step under coach James Franklin, the Commodores had to beat one of the big guys in the SEC East. Well, that finally happened after the Dores upset Georgia 31-27 in Nashville on Saturday. With backup quarterback Patton Robinette in, Vanderbilt erased a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to end the game on a 17-0 run.
12. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): After a close call against a scrappy Bowling Green team, the Bulldogs were off over the weekend. They'll face a hurting Kentucky team Thursday, which is an important game in the realm of bowl talk for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs haven't been very flashy this season, but the defense hasn't been half bad, ranking fourth in the SEC in total defense (364.5 yards allowed per game) and allowing just 23 points per game.
13. Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 SEC; LW: 13): It has been a nightmare of a start to the Bret Bielema era in Fayetteville. It seems like ages ago that the Hogs were sitting at 3-0. Now, after Alabama destroyed this team in every area of the game over the weekend, Arkansas has lost five straight. The past three losses (all in conference play) have been by a combined 117 points.
14. Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off this past weekend after getting thumped 48-7 by Alabama the previous week. Coach Mark Stoops said after the game that neither he nor his players would give up after a rough first half. Kentucky enters Thursday's matchup with Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC in total offense and defense.
But will that balance work against the SEC in the national championship race?
The midway point of the season is upon us, and only two teams in the league are still unbeaten. Two-time defending national champion Alabama would have been a runaway choice to be one of those teams back in the preseason, but not a lot of people would have targeted Missouri to be the other one.
Injuries, period, have been a common theme during the first half of the SEC season. Florida’s Dominique Easley, who was playing better than any defensive lineman in the league, suffered a season-ending ACL tear a week after the Gators lost their starting quarterback, Jeff Driskel, for the season.
Georgia has been depleted on offense, leaving senior quarterback Aaron Murray without his top playmakers. The Bulldogs hope to get star running back Todd Gurley back from a high ankle sprain in the next week or two, but have already lost receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and running back Keith Marshall for the season. Receiver Michael Bennett is also out for a few more weeks with a knee injury.
Meanwhile, everybody is still chasing Alabama, which survived a 49-42 scare at Texas A&M the third week of the season and a few other shaky outings to play its best football the past two weeks.
The Crimson Tide have steadily improved defensively since giving up 628 yards of total offense (the most ever by an Alabama defense) to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies back in September. The Tide are ranked second nationally in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and are starting to look like Alabama defenses of old.
If anybody’s going to unseat Alabama, it’s probably LSU. The Tigers have a brutal schedule, but it’s easily the most explosive offense they’ve fielded under Les Miles. First-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been the acquisition of the year in the league, and senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been the most improved player in the league.
During the SEC’s seven-year national championship streak, only twice have the teams hoisting the crystal football at season’s end been unbeaten.
This season has a similar feel to it, especially given the way the teams in the league have beaten up on each other to this point. In other words, the odds are against anybody going unbeaten, although Alabama has the most favorable schedule.
There’s no getting around the metamorphosis that has taken place in this league in the first half of the season. In fact, the norm has suddenly become the 38-35 shootout, filled with explosive plays on offense and some of the finest quarterback play this league has seen in a long time.
Defense has long been the SEC’s trademark, but only two teams at the midway point are ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense -- Florida (No. 3) and Alabama (No. 8).
And then there’s Texas A&M. The Aggies can score with anybody and lead the league in total offense (586.5 yards per game) and scoring offense (47.8 points per game). Unfortunately for them, they can’t stop anybody and rank last in the league in total defense (474.3 yards per game) and next to last in scoring defense (32 points per game).
We’ll see what the second half of the season holds, but times would seem to be changing in the SEC.
Here’s a look at some midseason accolades:
Defensive MVP: Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. He’s the Crimson Tide’s quarterback on defense, and as valuable as Mosley is when it comes to making game-turning and game-saving plays, he’s just as valuable with his ability to make everybody else around him better. Mosley leads the Tide with 48 total tackles, including 3.5 for loss.
Biggest surprise: Missouri. The Tigers are off to a 6-0 start after limping to a 5-7 finish a year ago in their first season in the SEC. They were picked sixth in the East this season at the SEC media days. One of the keys to their success has been a string of good fortune on the injury front, but that changed Saturday when Franklin separated his shoulder in the 41-26 win at Georgia. Even so, this is a team playing with a lot of confidence and right in the thick of the East race.
Biggest disappointment: SEC defenses. Maybe it’s a back-handed compliment to how good the offenses have been this season, but what has happened to the defense in this league? Seven of the 14 teams are allowing more than 26 points per game, and some of the scores during the first half of the season have been better suited for the game room at the arcade.
Newcomer of the year: Arkansas running back Alex Collins. This was a tough one. Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson have both made tremendous impacts, but Collins has been Mr. Steady for the Hogs. He’s third in the SEC in rushing with an average of 102.9 yards per game (720 yards) and is also averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Best coach: Missouri’s Gary Pinkel. In his 13th season at Missouri, Pinkel has gone from the hot seat to being the SEC’s Coach of the Year at the midway point. Without Franklin, he’s really going to have his work cut out, but Pinkel has done an excellent job in rallying the Tigers in their second year in the SEC. They’ve scored 38 or more points in all six of their games and lead the league in turnover margin.
Best game: Georgia 44, LSU 41, Sept. 28. To be honest, there were several thrilling games to choose from during the first half of the season. The Alabama-Texas A&M and Ole Miss-Texas A&M contests both deserve honorable mention, but the Dawgs and Tigers played one for the ages at Sanford Stadium a few weeks ago. Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger were both terrific in a back-and-forth game that nobody wanted to end.
1. Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC; last week: 1): Twitter was ablaze with tweets concerning Alabama's slow start at Kentucky. That worry quickly left after the Crimson Tide scored 31 consecutive points in the first half and cruised to a 48-7 win. Alabama isn't perfect, but it still has a hold on the SEC and is still the country's top team.
2. Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Aggies certainly don't have much of a defense, but it doesn't really matter with Johnny Manziel running the show. For the second consecutive year, Manziel led a come-from-behind, game-winning drive against Ole Miss in Oxford. Not even a freak knee injury could slow him down. As long as he's making defenses look silly, the Aggies are a title contender.
3. LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 4): So there's that LSU defense we know and love. After some questionable early play, the Tigers defense held Florida to six points and just 240 yards of offense. With relentless pressure from the LSU defense, Florida's offense wilted inside of Tiger Stadium. LSU's offense wasn't great, but running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 121 yards against the nation's No. 1 rush defense.
4. Missouri (6-0, 2-0 SEC; LW: 7): Yeah, we all saw this one coming. These Tigers are undefeated and have the SEC's second-hottest offense behind Texas A&M. Mizzou strutted into Athens over the weekend and walked out with a win and their chests puffed out after a 41-26 win. The question now is if the Tigers can keep their momentum with quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury. It's Maty Mauk time in Columbia.
5. Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Bulldogs defense struggled in the first half against Mizzou, but offensive mistakes really cost Georgia against the Tigers. Georgia was banged up on both sides of the ball and just didn't have the offensive star power around Aaron Murray to make a run late. It has been a rough week for the state of Georgia in the world of sports, and an unhealthy Bulldogs team is really hurting heading into its trip to Vanderbilt.
6. South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 6): Like LSU, we finally saw a balanced, solid defensive performance in a big game from the Gamecocks. Arkansas' running game churned out more than 200 yards, but the Gamecocks shut down the Hogs passing game, allowing just 30 yards on 4-of-13 passing. Connor Shaw continues to prove that he's made out of titanium and Mike Davis has rushed for 100-plus yards in five of six games.
7. Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Gators just couldn't get anything going on offense in Baton Rouge. Quarterback Tyler Murphy looked bewildered against LSU's blitz, and the offensive line crumbled under pressure. The offense averaged just 3.5 yards per play. The defense gave up some big plays, but held Zach Mettenberger to just 152 yards and a QBR of 46.7. No one would have blamed Florida's defense if it didn't allow the offense on the plane home Saturday.
8. Auburn (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 8): No, the Tigers weren't playing hefty competition over the weekend, but this team is getting pretty fun to watch. Even without starting quarterback Nick Marshall, the Tigers registered 712 yards behind Jeremy Johnson in their 62-3 win over Western Carolina. Also, 511 of those yards came on the ground. Watch out for these Tigers.
9. Ole Miss (3-3, 1-3 SEC; LW: 9): How do you not run the ball on your final possession with Johnny Football standing on the other sideline? You can't give Manziel time to work with, and after the Rebels threw three straight incomplete passes on their last drive, Manziel was given 2:33 seconds to drive and win the game. He did, and the Rebels, who had their defense gashed, lost their third straight game.
10. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC; LW: 10): The Commodores were off this weekend, so this team got an extra week to work out some of those defensive kinks. They'll need everything to be ironed out with a frustrated Georgia team heading to town. Keep an eye on receiver Jordan Matthews. He has had a stellar start to the year and leads the SEC with 47 receptions and is third with 709 yards.
11. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): The Vols were off, but they moved up because of what happened while they were hanging out on the couch this weekend. Plus, almost beating Georgia two weeks ago was pretty impressive. This team still has a long way to go before it's truly competitive in the SEC, but the performance against Georgia might give the Vols some nice momentum for the rest of the season.
12. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 13): The Bulldogs got quite the scare at home against Bowling Green. With a two-headed quarterback attack of Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott, Mississippi State slipped by the Falcons 21-20. It certainly wasn't pretty, but it was a must-win for the Bulldogs as they look to make it to the postseason. The Bulldogs are off this week, which is probably a good thing, as this team looks to regroup after an up-and-down first half of the season.
13. Arkansas (3-4, 0-3 SEC; LW: 11): Picking the Razorbacks to pull the upset over South Carolina was a major mental lapse on my part. The passing game was nonexistent against the Gamecocks and the defense was trampled on. This team can run the ball, but it just doesn't have an adequate passing game right now to make a real push in Bret Bielema's first season.
14. Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats had some fight early against Alabama, but then the talent difference put the Wildcats back in their place. Coach Mark Stoops said his team doesn't plan to cave and will be competitive from here on out. It has been a rough first year for Stoops, but attitude is everything when it comes to building.
There’s a lot of projection involved, and there are always players who come out of the woodwork and others who simply don't live up to their billing.
But as we reach the midway point of the season, at least now we have some real performances to evaluate. So we’re taking a second shot at reranking our top 10 based on what the players have done to this point.
Again, this is not a ranking of where players sit on NFL draft boards. Rather, it’s a ranking reflecting how they have played during the first part of this season and their impact on their teams.
We took injuries into consideration. For instance, Florida’s Dominique Easley was playing better than any defensive lineman in the league, but only played in the first three games. The same goes for Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who’s missed most of the last three games. Both are great players, but they didn't play in enough games to be included in our midseason list.
Here’s what we came up with:
2. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (preseason: No. 5): With all the injuries the Dawgs have incurred on offense, Murray is carrying that team and playing the best football of his career against a killer schedule. He did have a costly interception late against Missouri last week, but he threw eight touchdown passes and only one interception in the two wins over LSU and South Carolina. He's accounted for 20 touchdowns, which leads the SEC, and is right behind Manziel in passing with 304 yards per game.
3. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU (preseason: unranked): One of the most improved players in college football, Mettenberger has blossomed under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and is a big reason the Tigers are lighting up scoreboards like never before under Les Miles. Mettenberger leads the SEC in passing efficiency, is completing 66.7 percent of his passes, and has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. In LSU's only loss (to Georgia), Mettenberger threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns.
4. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina (preseason: unranked): The Gamecocks had a good feeling coming out of the summer that Davis was primed for a big season. But he's been even better than anybody expected and has set the pace among a star-studded group of running backs in this league. Davis leads the league in rushing with 742 yards (an average of 123.7 yards per game) and has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of his six games. He also has nine touchdowns and has shown the ability to hit the big play with three runs of 50 yards or longer.
5. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (preseason: No. 6): The move from right tackle to left tackle for Matthews has been a snap, and he's playing as well as any tackle in America right now. The Aggies' offensive line, period, is playing lights out, and having a player with Matthews' expertise, talent and experience anchored on that left side is invaluable. The Aggies have given up only seven sacks in six games and are averaging nearly 600 yards of total offense per game.
6. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama (preseason: No. 8): Mosley's sheer numbers on defense aren't going to blow you away. But turn on the tape and watch everything he does for that Alabama defense, from making the calls to getting everybody lined up to always being in the right place at the right time. Mosley leads the Tide with 48 total tackles and is one of the surest tacklers in the league. He's also excellent in coverage and is one of those guys who's always making key stops or pass breakups when Alabama needs it most.
7. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (preseason: unranked): After a rocky offseason that nearly cost Hill the rest of his career at LSU, he's bounced back with a vengeance. Hill is second in the league in rushing with 715 yards (an average of 119.2 yards per game) and really didn't get started until the third game. He was suspended for the opener and carried it only six times in the second game. But he's rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his last five games and was a straight-up man running the ball last week against that vaunted Florida defense.
8. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M (preseason: No. 17): He's the one-on-one matchup no defensive coordinator wants to think about. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Evans was held in check last week against Ole Miss, but that was the exception. He leads the SEC with an average of 122.8 receiving yards per game and has caught five touchdown passes. Nobody goes up and gets the ball like Evans, who pulled in seven passes for a remarkable 279 yards against Alabama. He's averaging 23 yards per catch.
9. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (preseason: No. 14): The Commodores' record-breaking senior leads the SEC with 47 catches and is second to Evans in receiving yards per game (118.2). With Chris Boyd dismissed from the team and not playing this season, opposing defenses have shadowed Matthews at every turn, but he's continued to produce. He has five touchdown catches and is averaging 15.1 yards per catch. His consistency is what sets him apart. In his last 15 SEC contests, he's averaging more than 120 receiving yards per game.
10. James Franklin, QB, Missouri (preseason: unranked): It's a shame that Franklin separated his throwing shoulder last week in the win over Georgia and will now be sidelined for the foreseeable future. In the year of the quarterback in the SEC, Franklin was playing as well as anybody. He'd accounted for 17 touchdowns and was one of three quarterbacks in the SEC (along with Manziel and Murray) averaging more than 300 yards per game in total offense. Franklin's command of the Tigers' offense had been outstanding.
103.3 FM ESPN PODCASTS
Play Podcast Part 2 of the articles on OSU's involvment in academic fraud was released. Some claim the expose is unfounded. Ian and Richard warn that there are two sides to all stories.
Play Podcast Fitzsimmons and Durrett discuss Mack Brown, Manny Diaz and all the latest with the Texas Longhorns.
Play Podcast Fitzsimmons and Durrett give you the latest on the Johnny Manziel story and Charles Barkley weighs in. You won't believe who the outspoken NBA Hall of Famer is disappointed in and what he thinks about the autograph allegations.
Play Podcast Kirk Herbstreit joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to preview the 2013 college football season.
Play Podcast Former TCU and current Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the expectations for the Bengals this season, give a prediction for the TCU-LSU game and talk about what it's like having the Hard Knocks cameras follow him.
Play Podcast Randy Galloway, Matt Mosley, and Mark Friedman react to Dez Bryant's comments regarding the NCAA's ongoing investigation of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Play Podcast Richard Durrett, Ian Fitzsimmons and Glenn "Stretch" Smith react to Dez Bryant sounding off yesterday after practice about Johnny Manziel and the shadiness of the NCAA.
Play Podcast Former NCAA investigator and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to weigh in on the Johnny Manziel drama and give some insight as to what goes on during an NCAA investigation.