STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It wasn’t in this office, all shiny and new.

It wasn’t in the glossy chair with the comfortable white leather he sits in today.

It wasn’t behind the massive desk to his right, the one surrounded by commemorative footballs from games won and Egg Bowls remembered.

No, it wasn’t here overlooking the practice field that he had to be rude and stubborn with some in his administration. This impeccable $25 million facility didn’t exist back then.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Butch DillDan Mullen has worked hard to change the mindset at Mississippi State.
Dan Mullen had to kick people out of his old office to get a new one.

“Early on people would say, ‘We can’t,’ and I’d throw them out,” he said.

Coming from a championship-winning program at Florida, Mullen couldn’t stomach the self-imposed limitations so many at Mississippi State had become accustomed to. Football seasons here were supposed to end in late November. Beating Ole Miss was the only tangible priority. Going to a bowl game was an afterthought.

The ceiling bothered him so much, he decided to tear the whole thing down.

“It was all the mindset,” he said, thinking back on his start late in 2008. “It was everything we can’t do. ‘We’re Mississippi State so we can’t do these things.’ If they wanted to go positive, ‘We can only do this because we’re Mississippi State.’

“To me, that’s not acceptable.”

Admittedly, that attitude was a little abrasive. After someone was thrown out, another person would have to clean up the mess and translate the message.

As Mullen said, “I don’t sugarcoat things well.” But when you’re attempting to rebuild a program that went 21-42 in the seasons prior to your arrival, how can you?

“You had to be brash because people had never heard or seen that here before,” Mullen said. “I’m not a softball pitcher. I don’t throw up the little easy ones in there. I’m going to come hit you square in the face with what I want to get done.”



It worked.

If it hadn’t, this week wouldn’t matter.

As Mississippi State prepares for its Saturday night tilt at No. 8 LSU, there’s a sense of optimism that maybe this is the year things finally change in Starkville. The Bulldogs are 3-0, possess a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Dak Prescott and have a defense that is two deep at every position.

Instead of people saying “We can’t” they’re saying “Why not?”

Rankings be damned.

“We’re projected to lose every game,” senior safety Jay Hughes said. “It’s nothing new to us.”

That chip on players’ shoulders? It’s more like a boulder.

Mississippi State doesn’t have the prestige. It doesn’t have the history of winning big games. The level of talent just isn’t the same.

“I know you look and say, ‘They’re a young team this year,’” Mullen said of LSU. “They’re a young team with five-star starters, five-star backups and five-star third-stringers.”

But so what?

“We’re a bunch of three- and two-star guys,” Hughes said. “We don’t really have stars here. We work really hard. I’ve been here for five years and my body is hurting.”

In that time, he’s seen change take place. He’s seen his coach be stubborn to make it happen.

“You have to step out on a limb to get the results,” Hughes said. “That’s what he did.”

A win over LSU would mean faith rewarded.

“It would set our season off,” running back Nick Griffin said. “We’re feeling confident we can do it and make a little history of our own.”



What would a win mean to Mullen?

“It would mean we have a very nice bye week,” he said. “You know what? We’re in the SEC West. You’re going to have to win a lot.”

By saying that, you know things have truly changed at Mississippi State. A win at LSU wouldn’t be a season maker, it would be a season starter. It would be the first step in the program’s hopes of reaching an SEC title.

And when’s the last time you heard that coming out of Starkville?

“You look at great programs, they embrace those expectations,” Mullen said. “If you go to LSU and Alabama and Florida and Georgia and Michigan and Ohio State, Southern Cal, they’re here to win a championship this year.

“When I said it at Mississippi State, it was laughed upon. Now when we say that, everyone kind of thinks the same way, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’”

Saying it is nice. Showing it is better.

Mississippi State has a lot to prove against LSU. It’s been 15 years since the Bulldogs have beaten the Tigers.

“This is what counts this week,” Mullen said. “Everything about it -- the demeanor, the attitude, the excitement, the focus -- all of that has changed.

“I don’t know if there’s a more challenging game than at LSU on Saturday night,” he added, “but it’s something we have to do to put ourselves in contention to compete for a championship.”

As Mullen said, “There is no ceiling.”

Now Mississippi State must see how high it can go.
Our crew of reporters will periodically offer their takes on important questions in college football. They'll have strong, though often differing, opinions. We'll let you decide who is right.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini's Huskers are close to returning to national prominence.
Nebraska and Miami renew a unique rivalry on Saturday night in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers and Hurricanes have played 10 times -- the past five in bowl games, four of which crowned the national champion. Most recently, Miami beat Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Since the Canes joined the ACC a decade ago, neither program has made it to a major bowl game.

So today's Take Two topic: Who is closer, Nebraska or Miami, to a return to the top of college football.

Take 1: Mitch Sherman

I'll go with the Huskers, though almost by default as Miami continues to feel its way through the new world order in college football, having lost five games or more in six of the past eight seasons. Sure, Miami uses a proven recruiting formula under Al Golden, but that's the problem. Florida State does it better. And so does half of the SEC.

Some might make similar claims about Nebraska. After all, the Huskers play in the Big Ten, where Ohio State resonates more deeply with recruits, and Penn State has seized momentum in recent months.

At least the Huskers have stability. Say what you want about coach Bo Pelini's lack of championships, but his teams have played in league title games three times in his six years, and he's never won fewer than nine games. Those 9-4 and 10-4 records do little to soothe the feelings of Nebraska fans who long for the glory years, but that era is long gone.

This week, Nebraska can take some solace in knowing that it's closer, by the numbers, to regaining elite status than Miami. And the weak Big Ten, despite conventional logic, might help Nebraska, which has upgraded its talent while others in the conference have not.

A win over Miami would complete an unbeaten nonconference season. Hurdles remain in the league, but for the Huskers, a re-emergence nationally is closer than many envision.

Take 2: Matt Fortuna

[+] EnlargeMiami
AP Photo/Alex MenendezAl Golden's ability to recruit in talent-rich Miami bodes well for the Hurricanes.
The idea that Miami has not played in a single ACC championship game yet is perplexing. Instead, the men's basketball team is the one that can claim a league title. Go figure.

Looking down the road, though, I think the Hurricanes have the more direct path back to their glory days, or at least at getting closer to what they once were. For one: Location, location, location. There is simply too much talent in Miami for this program to ever fall on down times. Golden, in his fourth year, has taken advantage of this, on-pace for his fourth straight top-15 recruiting class. Let's not forget that this was also a program that was operating under the black cloud of the Nevin Shapiro scandal for two-plus years.

The same argument of the Big Ten providing a clearer path for Nebraska can be said for the ACC and Miami, as the Coastal Division is a mess. But the most promising aspect for the Canes may be just that: promise.

Yes, fans want more out of this regime, which has lacked some punch at times. But there is still time to clean things up and for Miami -- which, we should note, has had some pretty awful injury luck offensively -- to improve. What Pelini has done in Lincoln is no small task, and I do think he is taken for granted, but I wonder if he has maxed out there. That may be tough to accept for a fan base that is so used to dominance, but like you said, that era appears gone.

What isn't gone is the talent in Florida, and in the Southeast. By virtue of its location, and by surviving a potentially program-crumbling scandal, Miami at least has the upside to make a return to the top of the college football world a possibility in the not-so-distant future.

Latest Dish: Five things I learned

September, 19, 2014
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Here are five things I learned in college football this week:

1. Sure, No. 5 Auburn greatly benefited from No. 20 Kansas State’s red zone miscues and three missed field goals in Thursday night's 20-14 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. But give the Tigers some credit for making plays when it mattered most, especially on defense.

Auburn limited the Wildcats to only 40 rushing yards on 30 carries (1.3 yards per carry) and surrendered only one run longer than 10 yards to KSU tailback Charles Jones, who came into the game averaging 6 yards per attempt. Also, Auburn only allowed two passes of more than 15 yards, and held quarterback Jake Waters to minus-7 rushing yards on 11 attempts.

Auburn might not yet have a championship-caliber defense, but it is certainly making strides under second-year coordinator Ellis Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Seminoles are used to getting off to a fast start in games when Jameis Winston is under center.
2. No. 1 FSU is used to starting fast with quarterback Jameis Winston on the field. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seminoles had a halftime lead of at least seven points in 15 of the previous 16 games Winston started at FSU. The only team that stayed within six points of the Seminoles in the first half was Auburn, which had an 11-point halftime lead in last season’s BCS National Championship. FSU rallied for a 34-31 victory in the second half to claim the school’s third national title.

We’ll see if No. 22 Clemson can keep it close in Saturday night’s ACC showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. Winston is suspended from playing in the first half after making vulgar comments in the FSU student union Tuesday, and redshirt sophomore Sean Maguire is expected to make his first career start. Maguire hasn't started a game since November 2011, when he was a senior at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey.

3. Although hindsight is 20/20, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo accepted blame for not having tailback Todd Gurley more involved in the offense when the Bulldogs faced first-and-goal at South Carolina’s 4-yard line in the closing minutes of last week’s 38-35 loss. UGA attempted a play-action pass on first-and-goal, and quarterback Hutson Mason was penalized for intentional grounding. After two more plays, the Bulldogs missed a chip-shot field goal that would have tied the score, and the Gamecocks were able to run out the clock.

Bobo's first-down call was an aggressive one, and it can certainly be argued that he should have put the ball in the hands of Gurley, who might be the country's best running back. But if the play-action pass had worked, we'd be talking about how brilliant Bobo's call was. And, of course, if Bobo had called for Mason to hand the ball to Gurley on four straight plays and the Bulldogs didn't score, we'd be talking about how vanilla and uncreative his play calling was.

4. West Virginia's defense surrendered 447 yards of offense in last week’s 40-37 win at Maryland, but Mountaineers defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said 188 yards came on three plays. Quarterback C.J. Brown threw a 77-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs and had a 75-yard scoring run of his own. The Mountaineers didn't give up a touchdown after Brown’s long run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half (the Terps kicked a field goal and scored on a long punt return in the fourth quarter).

West Virginia will need a similar defensive effort if it’s going to upset No. 4 Oklahoma in Morgantown on Saturday night. Last season, the Sooners defeated the Mountaineers 16-7, their fewest points total during the previous two seasons.

5. Oregon’s recent dominance over Washington State is making it one of the most lopsided conference series in the country. The No. 2 Ducks have won seven straight games over the Cougars heading into Saturday night’s game in Pullman, averaging 52.4 points per game with an average margin of victory of 32.1 points. Ouch.

Plays that changed the game: Auburn

September, 18, 2014
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It might not have been pretty. It might not have been what everybody expected. But all that matters to Auburn is the final score, and the Tigers left Bill Snyder Family Stadium with a 20-14 win over No. 20 Kansas State. It was the program's first road win against a ranked nonconference opponent since 1984.

A little luck

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Kansas State had a chance early in the game to take a lead and grab the momentum, but that chance bounced right off the chest of Tyler Lockett as the star wide receiver tried to make a catch at the goal line, but the ball deflected off his hands into the air. To make matters worse, Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones was there to haul it in for the interception. It turned out to be a theme for the Wildcats, who missed three field-goal attempts, lost a fumble and threw another critical interception later in the game. Meanwhile, Auburn turned the ball over only once and was a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone.

A little skill

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Auburn wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams had to be kicking himself after dropping a potential touchdown in the first half, but the junior college transfer, playing in his first road game, more than made up for it with a spectacular touchdown grab at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The score capped off a 15-play, 80-yard drive and gave Auburn a 17-7 lead. Williams, who later had a clutch 39-yard catch to seal the win, finished with eight catches for 110 yards and the lone touchdown.

Auburn 20, Kansas State 14

September, 18, 2014
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Auburn fended off Kansas State 20-14 to improve to 3-0 on the season.

Early Offer: Hogs beef up defensive line 

September, 18, 2014
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Arkansas needs all the talent it can get at defensive tackle, and the Hogs landed a key defender Thursday. Chris Petersen continues to uncover sleepers at Washington, but can he attract enough talent to win in the Pac-12?

Nick Marshall makes the right read

September, 18, 2014
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AP Photo/Butch DillQB Nick Marshall is the key to Auburn's potent running game.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Auburn ranks in the top three in the FBS in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per rush.

The Tigers have had an FBS-high four players with at least 800 rushing yards during that time, including three players currently on their roster (Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant).

Quarterback Nick Marshall has been the key to Auburn’s rushing success. With him under center, the Tigers are averaging 6.2 yards per rush and scoring a rushing touchdown once every 15 carries. The FBS averages are 4.5 yards per rush and a touchdown every 20 carries.

It took head coach Gus Malzahn a few games to adjust to Marshall’s strengths.

The Tigers passed on at least 40 percent of their plays in two of their first four games last season, including their 14-point loss at LSU on Sept. 21.

Since that game, Auburn has passed on 28 percent of its plays and has not had a game above 36 percent. During that time, Marshall has had the highest Total QBR in the FBS.

Marshall and the zone read
What sets Marshall apart is his ability to implement Auburn’s zone read. The Tigers have run zone read on 41 percent of their rushing plays since the start of last season. On such plays, they are averaging 7.1 yards per rush and have a Power Five-high 28 rushing touchdowns.

When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he is averaging 8.0 yards per rush and leads all active Power Five players since the start of last season with 948 rushing yards.

His ability to make the right read has also translated to success for his teammates. Running backs Cameron Artis-Payne (7.8) Corey Grant (8.5) and Tre Mason (5.4) all have averaged more than five yards per carry on zone-read plays with Marshall at quarterback.

Why K-State might be able to slow Auburn’s run game
Auburn’s run game is predicated on its ability to find space, both when running the zone read and in standard run plays.

The Tigers are averaging 210.5 rushing yards per game before first contact this season, which is on par with their numbers from last season.

To put that into perspective, since the start of last season 99 FBS teams do not average 212 total rushing yards per game.

However, in a small sample size, Kansas State has been among the nation’s best at limiting opponents’ yards before contact.

On designed runs, only Alabama (20.3) is allowing fewer yards before contact per game than the Wildcats (22.5) this season.

Kansas State has also been able to stop the zone read the past two seasons, allowing 3.7 yards per rush on such plays, which ranks second among Big 12 defenses behind TCU.

The number to watch on Thursday night is 200. Kansas State is 21-2 when it allows fewer than 200 rushing yards in the last three seasons and 0-5 when it does not.

Alabama offense more efficient with Sims

September, 18, 2014
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Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims (left) and Jake Coker (right) are still competing to be named Alabama's starting QB.
Alabama is off to a 3-0 start for the eighth time in eight seasons under Nick Saban. The offense is a big reason. The Tide are averaging 42 points per game and rank seventh in offensive efficiency.

Blake Sims has started all three games for the Tide and has the sixth-best Total QBR (86.6) in the FBS, ahead of players such as Jameis Winston and Everett Golson.

Sims is one of 12 quarterbacks who are averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. Yet, he has not been officially named Alabama’s starting quarterback.

"Jake (Coker) needs to play and he needs to develop confidence. I think we're going to have to make a decision on a week-to-week basis on what gives us the best opportunity to win.” Saban said in his postgame news conference on Saturday. “Right now, Blake probably is a little more confident. If that remains that way, he's probably going to start the game.”

Sims should be confident as the offense has been more efficient with him at quarterback.

The Tide have scored a touchdown on 11-of-22 drives with Sims under center compared with 3-of-9 with Coker.

They have lost yards on six of Sims’ 151 snaps (four percent), the second-lowest percentage for any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays (behind Duke’s Anthony Boone, three percent).

Why has the offense been successful with Sims?

Accuracy
Sims has been extremely accurate. He has thrown 64 passes this season: 48 were caught, one was thrown away, three were dropped, four were broken up by the defense and eight were off-target.

His eight off-target passes are the fewest for any Power Five quarterback with at least 50 attempts and as many as Jake Coker has had in 33 fewer attempts.

Sims’ accuracy has allowed him to hit receivers in stride and let them run after the catch.

Look no further than his 22-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the first quarter against Southern Miss, in which he hits Cooper on a short crossing route over the middle and Cooper gains 20 yards after the catch for a touchdown.

Great on 3rd down
Sims has been excellent on third down, leading all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (91.7 percent), conversion percentage (75 percent) and Total QBR (99.9). Amari Cooper has been his favorite target, catching six of Sims’ 11 third-down completions.

One reason for Sims’ success on third down is that he has been in manageable situations. The Tide’s average distance to go on third down has been 4.7 yards, shortest in the FBS. This has allowed Alabama to have the entire playbook available.

For instance, the Tide have run on almost half (49 percent) of their third-down plays, including six rushes by Sims, which have resulted in four first downs. Last season, Alabama passed on 65 percent of its third-down plays, which is on par with the FBS average (64 percent)

Where can Sims get better?
Sims has struggled throwing the ball downfield. He has completed 1-of-6 passes thrown 20 yards or longer, including his only interception of the season.

His completion occurred last week against Southern Miss on a 27-yard pass to Cooper in the third quarter with the Tide up 19 points. Coker, on the other hand, has the reputation of having a strong arm, but he has not fared much better on such passes, completing 2-of-7 attempts.

For now, Sims is expected to get the nod Saturday when Florida heads to Tuscaloosa. It will be a major step up in competition for Sims. The Gators rank fifth in the FBS in points per drive allowed (0.67) this season and lead all Power Five defenses with three interceptions on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. If Sims rises to the challenge, he just may end up being declared the full-time starter.

Film review: Defending Dak Prescott

September, 18, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s defense will face no shortage of dual-threat quarterbacks in SEC play, and it will attempt to contain one of the best -- Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott -- right out of the gates in Saturday’s conference opener.

Prescott is a dark-horse candidate in the Heisman Trophy race because of the multiple ways he can affect the game, as evidenced by last week’s win against South Alabama, when he threw a touchdown pass, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass on a trick play.

As a passer, Prescott (43-for-72, 696 yards, nine TDs, two INTs in 2014) is effective, but it’s his running ability that makes him especially scary. He is eighth in the SEC with an average of 91.0 rushing yards per game, and he’s averaging 6.8 yards per rushing attempt thus far.

That run-pass combination will be tough to defend, as LSU coach Les Miles is well aware. Miles called Prescott “as good of a player as there is in his position in our conference.”

Let’s take a look at some of the issues LSU must contend with in defending Mississippi State’s quarterback:

RUNS WITH POWER

The multidimensional quarterbacks LSU will face down the road are more from the finesse mold -- think Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace -- than the power mold. Like previous SEC stars Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, the 230-pound Prescott is content to run over tacklers instead of around them.

“I don't know exactly how fast he is, but he carves through the ground very quickly, and when you go to tackle him, you better hit him hard,” Miles said. ”You’d better take him off his feet because he's just a big, physical kid.”

Florida fans might recognize this Tebow-style play from Dan Mullen’s time as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. In last season’s South Carolina game, Prescott takes a shotgun snap, follows a block from running back LaDarius Perkins, and plows between left guard and left tackle for a 1-yard touchdown.

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We could pull any number of short-yardage Prescott clips as visual evidence that there’s more to the Tebow comparison than their matching No. 15 jerseys. Most defenders failed to drag either of them down with arm tackles.

BREAKING FROM POCKET

In addition to power, Prescott runs with impressive speed. Check out this 28-yard touchdown scramble from last season’s LSU game.

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LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco destroys left tackle Charles Siddoway with a spin move and has a clear shot at Prescott, but the Mississippi State quarterback steps forward into the pocket and slips between Ego Ferguson and Danielle Hunter into the open field. Then it becomes a footrace, and he sprints away from linebacker D.J. Welter for a first-quarter touchdown.

LSU’s defensive front seven will certainly have its hands full trying to contain Prescott once he scrambles after initially dropping back to pass.

“It looks like he’s got even bigger since last year, but we’re ready to play physical and run fast. That’s basically what we have to do to prepare for him,” LSU outside linebacker Lamar Louis said.

RUNNING GAME IS DANGEROUS

Prescott’s running ability -- and Mississippi State’s running game in general -- makes defenses that sell out to stop the run susceptible to the occasional big passing play.

Take this 35-yard touchdown pass to Fred Ross from the 2014 opener against Southern Miss. When cornerback Jomez Applewhite abandons Ross to blitz off the edge, Prescott easily hits Ross several yards away from safety Emmanuel Johnson, who is slow in coverage after Prescott fakes a handoff in the backfield. All Ross has to do is make a wide-open catch and break a Johnson tackle attempt at the 5 and he’s in the end zone.

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The threat of Prescott runs and similar run fakes will test LSU’s defensive discipline. If Prescott catches defensive backs looking into the backfield like this, a big play for State might follow.

PRESSURING HIS THROWS

No quarterback likes to throw under pressure. Prescott is not a pro-style passer, but he’s capable of making some impressive throws if he has time to survey the field.

Here’s a pass to Fred Brown from last week’s win against South Alabama that Prescott completes despite cornerback Montell Garner's attempt to disrupt Brown’s route by holding him. Prescott places the ball perfectly over safety Roman Buchanan for a 36-yard gain.

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Earlier in the South Alabama game, Prescott has plenty of time to zip a 15-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Malcolm Johnson where safety Terrell Brigham has no chance to deflect or intercept the pass.

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Thus, LSU’s pass rushers know it will be incumbent on them to keep Prescott in the pocket and make him uncomfortable when he attempts to throw.

“With them having a really good offensive line, we have to make sure that we just attack the line of scrimmage and make sure that we stay in our gaps and clog the holes” LSU defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Prescott has handled the blitz fairly well -- he has five touchdown passes and no interceptions against five or more pass rushers -- although his Total QBR against the blitz is just 48.5. He’ll definitely face extra rushers Saturday, like when defensive back Dwayne Thomas blitzes from LSU’s “Mustang” package.

Regardless of who applies the pressure, the Tigers' rushers will greatly help their cause if they get a hand in Prescott’s line of vision. Take this throw from last season’s 59-26 win in Starkville. Hunter gets in Prescott’s face before he overthrows Jameon Lewis, and Tre'Davious White intercepts the bad throw at the Mississippi State 45. His 40-yard return to the 5 sets up Jeremy Hill's touchdown run on the next play that essentially puts away the LSU win.

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video In advance of the All-American battle between Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, we’re breaking down what makes each player special. Click here for Edward Aschoff's take on Florida’s star cornerback.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is sizing you up. He might not say much, but Alabama’s star receiver is seeing exactly where you stand.

Could you have envisioned the start you’ve had?

“Yeah,” he said, not caring to elaborate.

You talked in the spring about Lane Kiffin and how you’d seen Marqise Lee and you were looking forward to that. Is that why you anticipated this?

“Yeah, that’s the exact reason,” he said, again letting you fill in the blanks.

It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s just who he is.

Cooper isn’t one to make bold statements. His former high school coach in Miami, Billy Rolle, drove him to and from school. “The three years I had him,” Rolle said. “I haven’t heard 50 words out of the kid.”

Cooper lets his play do the talking. Through three games, the junior leads the nation in receptions (33) and yards after catch (245).

So if he isn't going to open up, we allowed those who know him best to break down what makes him arguably the best receiver in the country.

At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest. At 210 pounds, he’s not the most physically imposing, either. And while he does possess good speed, almost every defensive back in the SEC runs well.

Instead, it’s the little things that set Cooper apart: his footwork, his ability to read defenses and his tireless work ethic.

video FOOTWORK

Alabama safety Landon Collins is still trying to figure him out.

Collins likes to read a receiver's steps, guess the route and make a play on the football. But with Cooper, the guessing game doesn’t work. The All-SEC defensive back is helpless.

Collins: “His footwork is confusing. If you look at his feet and try to stick him at the line, you’ll get lost.”

Jarrick Williams, Alabama cornerback: “His footwork, how quick he gets around you, how explosive he is. He’s amazing.”

Cooper: “It’s definitely something I pride myself on. Playing as much backyard football as I did as a kid, it’s something that’s instinct now.”

video READING THE DEFENSE

Take, for instance, the SEC championship game in 2012. It was late in the fourth quarter and Alabama was trailing Georgia 28-25. The play called for Cooper to go inside on his release, but he saw the defender shading that way.

Collins: “He was too far inside, so I jumped outside instinctively.”

To his credit, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann didn’t bite on the play-action fake. Instead, he fell for Cooper’s move toward the middle of the field. Cooper swung his hips back toward the sideline. Swann was caught flat-footed and completely turned around. Cooper was so wide open, he stopped running. He sped up just in time to catch the 45-yard game-winning touchdown that sent Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game.

Cooper: “It’s a thing you can sense. As soon as you start releasing off the line, you can feel he’s leaning toward one way and then you go the other way. It’s a very unique thing.”

But that wasn’t Cooper’s favorite instance of toying with a defensive back. It also took place in the 2012 season, against Ole Miss.

Cooper: “It was third down and I had a slant route. I’d been watching film of this guy because he’s from Miami and I knew him personally. He was really quick. But I was watching film and I noticed he’s really patient at the line. So I used one of my better releases to get open.”

Rolle: “He thrives on reading defenses and knowing how to get open and not just running by people. He liked to run the slant pattern, the hookups, the outs. He was even more dangerous if he got the ball right away and in open space.”

video WORK ETHIC

Former USC coach Lane Kiffin marveled at Cooper’s practice habits, too. When he became Alabama’s offensive coordinator in January, he quickly noticed how much work Cooper puts into his craft.

Kiffin: “Amari sometimes would work out two hours before the workout started. I thought it was a really hard workout we were doing -- the Fourth Quarter program that we do here -- but he worked out two hours before that.”

Christion Jones, Alabama receiver: “Have you seen him? It’s nothing fake. He goes hard every day, every practice. No matter what it is, he’s going to go full tilt.”

Cyrus Jones, Alabama cornerback: “His potential has been evident since the first time he stepped on the campus and on the field. You progress each year as a player and you can definitely say he’s reached another level this year.”

SEC slant: Defense still optional

September, 18, 2014
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Blame Missouri and Texas A&M. Blame the targeting rule, the emphasis on protecting the quarterback or the failed attempt to slow down the pace of play. Blame whoever and whatever it takes. But it's time to start facing facts about the SEC. The league that has long thrived on defense, the league that made its name on defense, is in the midst of an identity crisis. These last few years -- it feels like it started with the expansion to 14 teams, right? -- defenses have gone missing, particularly against the pass.

Back in the day

Of course it wasn't that long ago, but it feels as if it's been a decade since the SEC was a defense-dominated league.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe SEC's defensive decline has coincided with the arrival of Big 12 coaches such as Kevin Sumlin.
For the longest time, the defenses of Alabama and LSU were measured in feet, not yards. Urban Meyer's Florida defenses swarmed to the football, not giving an inch.

Remember the Gators' thrashing of Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game? The Sooners, who averaged 54 points per game entering the contest, were held to just two touchdowns.

From 2004-11, SEC defenses surrendered an average of 330.2 yards per game, 192.11 of which came through the air. Meanwhile, the rest of the Power 5 conferences gave up 350.1 total yards per game, 219.6 of which came by way of the forward pass.

During that time, quarterbacks completed an average of 55.3 percent of their passes against SEC defenses.

But in 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M entered the league and everything changed.

From 2012-13, SEC defenses allowed an average of 361.3 yards per game. Passing yards per game went from 192.11 to 221.16. Quarterback completion percentages climbed by 4.2 percent.

It was supposed to get better, but it hasn't

Remember the offseason? It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about all the stellar quarterbacks who left the league.

With Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel gone, defenses would finally catch a break. Zach Mettenberger wouldn't be around to rifle those impossible 25-yard outs. Even James Franklin would move on and leave behind his 51 career touchdown passes at Missouri.

The quarterbacks left, but the offense hasn't.

Texas A&M -- without Johnny Football, mind you -- racked up 680 total yards of offense against South Carolina in the league opener. Kenny Hill, a first time starter, threw for a whopping 511 yards.

Then there was this past weekend. Not much defense to be found there either. Georgia's secondary was shredded by South Carolina as Dylan Thompson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, South Carolina's front seven was gashed for 131 yards and a touchdown by Todd Gurley.

So far, SEC defenses are allowing an average of 354.6 yards per game, which is only slightly down from this time last year.

Pass defense has actually gotten worse from 2012-13 to now. Through three weeks, SEC secondaries are allowing 231.5 yards through the air per game, compared to 221.16.

Interceptions per pass attempt are down from 3.6 percent from 2004-11 to 3.2 percent this season. Over time, that adds up.

Where have all the star DBs gone?

Don't you miss Tyrann Mathieu? No, not for the off-the-field stuff, but for the way he made plays on the back end of the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesStar defensive backs such as Alabama's Landon Collins are rare these days in the SEC.
It seems like there are fewer Honeybadgers in the SEC these days. Outside of Landon Collins and Cody Prewitt, are there any other star safeties in the league? Besides Vernon Hargreaves III, is there another cornerback worth talking about nationally?

Four cornerbacks were taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft. None were from the SEC. Only Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represented the league's secondaries in the first round.

The year prior, Dee Milliner, Eric Reid and Matt Elam were all drafted in the first round. In 2012, three SEC DBs were taken in the top 10 picks.

How many SEC DBs are projected to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft? According to the mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay in May, he expects only Collins and LSU's Jalen Mills to be taken Day 1.

Maybe the SEC is just catching up

To be fair, offenses deserve credit, too. Coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have challenged SEC defenses with their unique brand of spread-you-out, push-the-tempo offenses.

And therein lies the problem.

Big 12 football invaded the SEC when Sumlin, Malzahn and Freeze started entering the league in 2012. Since, it's become the norm to operate without a huddle and use multiple receiver sets. Passing has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Through three weeks of play, eight SEC quarterbacks rank in the top 50 nationally in Raw QBR. Five SEC QBs have thrown for eight or more touchdowns and more than half of the league's starters average more than 200 yards per game through the air.

The SEC might not be as dominant defensively as it used to, but it's still the best defensive league in the country.

From 2012 to now, no Power 5 conference has allowed fewer total yards per game or rushing yards per game, and only the Big Ten has allowed fewer passing yards per game.

Here's the breakdown in total yards allowed per game: SEC (369.0), Big Ten (370.7), ACC (374.0), Pac-12 (399.0) and Big 12 (401.7).

Important game for Cozart, Kansas

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It was supposed to be a different Montell Cozart.

The Kansas quarterback was supposed to be much improved in many aspects of his game as a sophomore.

He didn’t look like it in KU’s 41-3 loss to Duke last weekend.

“He had a bad day at the office,” coach Charlie Weis said. “We all had a bad day that day. He was just one of the guys who had the ball in his hands on every play, so it obviously becomes magnified.”

Cozart’s 22.8 Adjusted QBR was the second-worst single-game performance by a Big 12 quarterback this season. He finished 11-of-27 for 89 yards with two interceptions against the Blue Devils.

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMontell Cozart hopes to bounce back on Saturday against Central Michigan.
“I never thought that would have happened,” offensive coordinator John Reagan said. “He is still young in his development and has a long way to go and a big upside. I know this: He wasn’t pleased with his performance regardless of whether anybody else was.”

But that was last week. This week is all that matters now, making Saturday’s contest against Central Michigan a game that could define Cozart’s future. He can either prove Weis’ decision to hand the offense over to him in the spring was the right decision or he can prove his doubters right.

“He is looking forward to getting back out there and defining who he is as a quarterback,” Reagan said. “I think there are a lot of things he has shown us he can do and we have to make sure we put him in a scenario to do that. That will be the goal here as we keep going forward. We just have to make sure he keeps developing and keeps moving forward and everyone else on offense keeps moving forward.”

In nine games (five starts) as a Jayhawk, Cozart has passed for more than 100 yards just once and has never completed more than 50 percent of his passes (outside of a 1 of 1 effort against Texas). Even with those discouraging numbers, Weis remains behind Cozart and believes his struggles aren't rooted in permanent problems.

“If you believe that the answers can solve the issues, then you're okay,” Weis said. “It's when you don't have an answer. That's a bigger issue. But there were a lot of simple things that could be done.”

Backup quarterback Michael Cummings better stay ready, as he could be called upon if Cozart’s performance doesn’t improve. Cummings, a junior, has run-pass skills similar to Cozart.

“I expect Montell to play very well this week,” Weis said when asked if Cozart was on a "short leash" earlier this week. “If you're asking me will I have Cummings ready to go if things don't go well, I'll have Cummings ready to go if things don't go well.

“All I know is whoever is going to give us the best chance to win this game, that's who's going to be in there. And right now we think that Montell gives us the best chance to win this game.”

It’s early in the season but KU’s final nonconference game against Central Michigan could go down as a defining moment for Cozart, Weis and the 2014 Jayhawks.

“I think this kind of sets the table, sets the table either way,” Weis said. “Either sets the table well or it doesn't, [and] sets the table where you're really, really fighting, fighting an uphill battle.”

Clemson's Watson proves a quick study

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His teammates called him “Rook” -- short for “rookie” -- back when Deshaun Watson was starting as a 14-year-old freshman at Gainesville High. The nickname stuck, but it was never an apt moniker.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson fans would like to see highly-touted QB Deshaun Watson take the field sooner rather than later.
 His first start was against the defending state champions, but Watson was never flustered. After his first four games, he’d already become a star, and when head coach Bruce Miller called him into his office to talk about handling success, Watson simply shrugged.

“Don’t get a big head,” Miller told him. “I never have,” the 14-year-old shot back.

By the time his high school career was over, Watson had thrown for more than 13,000 yards, run for another 4,400 and produced 218 touchdowns, but during Christmas break last year, just days before his college career would begin at Clemson, Watson called up his quarterback coach and asked to meet him at the field. He wanted to throw for a while.

Watson was the top quarterback recruit in the country last year, a perfect mix of poise, presence, arm strength and athleticism. But if there’s a secret ingredient that sets Watson apart, it's that maturity. The kid has always played beyond his years.

“He watches film like an NFL veteran,” Miller said. “He just knows so much, and he’s so gifted athletically, I’m not sure he couldn’t pick up a set of golf clubs and go play par. He’s just a gifted athlete with a very special personality.”

It’s no wonder then that just two games into his Clemson career, a vocal contingent of Tigers fans are ready to see Watson ascend to the throne as the team’s QB1, and Dabo Swinney is left to deflect the spotlight that inevitably comes with a quarterback controversy.

To hear Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris tell it, there is no debate. Cole Stoudt won the job in the spring, won it again this fall, and the senior who spent three years toiling in Tajh Boyd’s shadow has played well enough to keep the job so far. But that’s all the practical logic. Fans have seen the future and they want more.

Maybe it was Watson's bullet to Charone Peake in the end zone, as pretty a pass as Boyd threw in three years as the most prolific QB in Clemson history. It came on just the third pass of Watson’s career.

Maybe it was the swagger that Watson exuded each time he trotted onto the field in the glorified scrimmage against South Carolina State a week later, leading four touchdown drives in four chances.

Maybe it’s the sales pitch Clemson’s coaches had already delivered so many times in the previous nine months, touting Watson as a can’t-miss talent who would, one day, lead Clemson to the promised land.

“We have a guy [in Stoudt] that won the job clearly, and he’s our guy,” Swinney said. “But we have this other guy in Deshaun that has just, from the time he got here, has gotten better and better. He’s closed the gap. There’s not a lot of drop-off.”

That’s not to say Swinney is ceding ground to the rabble calling for the Watson era at Clemson to begin now.

Away from the prying eyes of the public, Stoudt has shined and Watson has, at times, looked every bit like a rookie.

“His first week-and-a-half of camp, it was really bad,” Swinney said. “But that last week, man, he came on. He did not win the job. But you can't just make a guy a starter on potential. It doesn't work that way. Guys have to earn things.”

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite Watson's progress, coach Dabo Swinney says Cole Stoudt remains his starter.
 Stoudt earned the job. But in these first two games -- a loss at Georgia and a drubbing of an FCS team -- Watson has looked awfully sharp.

Stoudt has one touchdown throw after 60 attempts. Four of Watson’s 13 passes have gone for scores.

On throws of 10 yards or more, Watson is 5-of-8 with two touchdowns. Stoudt is 5-of-17, including an interception.

Stoudt can run a little, but Watson is a weapon with his legs -- a talent he’s yet to fully demonstrate, but a skill that fits Morris’ game plan perfectly.

That’s the other mark in Watson’s column. He’s the new face in the locker room, but Morris’ playbook is old hat. At Gainesville High, Watson ran virtually the same offense.

“He’s been doing [it] since he was 14,” Swinney said. “The learning curve was very small as far as running the zone-read, the snap, the cadence, the timing of the snap, the shifts, the tempo we play at, reading first level, second level, third level. It was second nature to him.”

And so the rumblings get louder and, as Clemson prepares for its showdown against No. 1 Florida State, the program feels like it’s at a crossroads. Stoudt will be the starter, but his performance Saturday may well dictate the direction of the program. If he’s good and Clemson wins, it’s easy for Swinney to remain patient. If he struggles and the Tigers fall, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between Clemson’s present and future. And no matter what, Watson will play Saturday and have another chance to shine on a big stage.

“I wasn’t expecting to get as much playing time as I am right now, to be honest,” Watson said. “I always work to compete and play. You don’t want to sit on the sideline and watch. You want to be out there playing. So any time I have an opportunity I want to take advantage of it.”

He has, and that’s why there’s a debate now. That’s a good thing, Swinney insists. He says there’s “an urgency” at quarterback that hasn’t existed at Clemson in a long time, a battle between a veteran in his waning days with the program and a freshman whose future seems limitless. That’s fun, not controversial.

Watson hasn’t stoked those fires, either. He wants the starting job, but he’s not campaigning for it.

“He’s Cole’s biggest supporter,” Morris said. “They’re a great tandem together.”

How the dynamics of that tandem will work on the field Saturday remains covert information. Morris says there’s a plan in place for Saturday and beyond, but he isn’t sharing, and Watson insists even he doesn’t know how much playing time he’ll see against Florida State.

What’s clear is that Watson intends to take advantage of the opportunities he'll get. He’s proven, Morris said, that no moment is too big for him.

“He’s to the Nth degree of what you want in a quarterback,” Swinney said. “He’s got everything. There’s nothing this man lacks to be a great quarterback, but he’s also the type of person you want as a leader of your program. He’s on his way to quite a career, and it’s going to be fun to watch this young man blossom.”

It’s just a matter of time. Everyone agrees on that. The question is simply whether the time is now.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Ricky Seals-Jones' introduction to Aggieland was an emphatic one.

In his collegiate debut as a true freshman receiver and a landmark recruit in Texas A&M’s 2013 class, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver quickly showed why he was so highly regarded, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass in the Aggies’ season-opening win against Rice last August.

It was also the last pass Seals-Jones would catch in 2013. A knee injury he suffered on the play knocked him out of the rest of the game and -- after trying to give it a go two weeks later -- the rest of the season, once he elected to have surgery.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNow healthy, receiver Ricky Seals-Jones is making an impact for Texas A&M.
It has been a waiting game for Seals-Jones and the Aggies for him to truly make his mark.

"The toughest part about it was knowing that the season was over with, really, and it had just started,” Seals-Jones said. "I was kind of part of the game. So I had to get surgery and bounce back."

So far, Seals-Jones is proving he was worth the wait.

Now a redshirt freshman (Seals-Jones applied for and was approved for a medical hardship waiver to regain the lost year of eligibility), the Sealy (Texas) High product is carving himself out a significant role in Texas A&M’s passing attack.

Seals-Jones has hauled in a touchdown in each of the Aggies' three games, and has 13 receptions for 154 yards so far this season. Receivers coach David Beaty said Seals-Jones has taken the biggest step forward in his route-running.

Blocking is also a big part of Seals-Jones’ game. Beaty said Seals-Jones has the most knockdown blocks and most "scoring blocks" among the Aggies receivers.

"Does he affect the game every play?" Beaty said. "Ricky affects it every play. That’s what you want out of a guy like that."

It’s also the first time in a long time that Seals-Jones is fully healthy. His senior season at Sealy was marred by injuries, including a dislocated kneecap that knocked him out for half the season, and he spent the last year recovering from knee surgery to get ready for Texas A&M’s 2014 campaign.

Now injury-free, Seals-Jones has developed a solid chemistry with Aggies’ quarterback Kenny Hill and become a critical part of the passing game by playing multiple roles: inside receiver, outside receiver and a hybrid tight end/H-back type role after tight end Cameron Clear left the season-opening win against South Carolina with an injury.

Clear is likely to suit up against SMU, so Seals-Jones' tight end duties won’t be as prominent, but he is showing he can handle whatever the coaches throw at him, making him a valuable weapon.

"He handles it great because he’s smart," Beaty said. "He doesn’t need a lot of time to learn things. You tell him things one time and he gets it."
David Ash's decision to retire was not unexpected but the former Texas Longhorns quarterback has received support from around the country, including the reigning NBA MVP.

Former Texas standout and current Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, who won the 2013-14 NBA MVP award, took to Twitter to express his appreciation for Ash's contribution to the Longhorns.


Ash responded with a thank you of his own for his fellow Longhorn.

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