NCF Nation: Auburn

video TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was the Iron Bowl, so of course it wasn't going to be easy.

It didn't matter that Alabama was ranked No. 1 and on a roll with six straight wins. It didn't matter that Auburn had slipped to No. 15 and dropped its past two SEC games in unceremonious fashion. It didn't matter what it looked like on paper, because rivalry games don't care for appearances.

Instead, Alabama survived a slugfest with Auburn, winning 55-44 in an instant classic filled with big plays, momentum-swinging turnovers and one furious finish.

How the game was won: Give Alabama's defense credit. Though the Tide gave up a number of big plays to Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense, it found a way to hold inside the red zone time and time again. Something about the pressure of being up against the wall gave Nick Saban's defense comfort. If it weren't for the four field goals Alabama forced inside the 20, Auburn might have run away with the game.

Game ball goes to: Amari Cooper. He couldn't be stopped. Though his quarterback, Blake Sims, struggled, Cooper played like a man on a mission. Three times he scored a touchdown, two of which came on plays on which he simply outran and outmaneuvered the coverage to get himself open. By the time it was all said and done, Cooper made his best case for the Heisman Trophy with 13 receptions for 224 yards and three scores.

What it means: Alabama might be ranked No. 1, but it is not a flawless football team. It struggles against spread offenses that can run the football. It has a good, but not elite, quarterback. And when those two things come together at the same time, the Crimson Tide are beatable. Auburn showed us that, as Sims was intercepted three times and Saban's defense yielded the most yards it has all season. Against a better team, possibly in a playoff semifinal, Alabama has to hope that both flaws aren't exposed.

Playoff implication: It wasn't pretty, but who said it had to be? Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the nation, isn't going anywhere, even if it struggled at home against Auburn. With just one loss and in position to win the SEC next weekend against Missouri, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny in the march toward the playoff.

Best play: Alabama needed an answer. Down two scores with all the momentum on Auburn's sideline, Cooper took matters into his own hands. The Tide's star receiver left the defense in the dust for this wide-open touchdown grab.


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What's next: For Alabama, it's on to the SEC championship game in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide get a Missouri team that inexplicably lost to Indiana earlier in the year and was steamrolled by Georgia but has stayed alive and won the East thanks to comeback wins in back-to-back weeks against Arkansas and Tennessee.
This week, USA Today, in the latest of its fan index lists, catalogued the top 10 traditions in college football.

Among them, dotting the "i" at Ohio State, lighting the Tower at Texas and rolling Toomer's Corner at Auburn. All fine events, but no list of such customs in the sport is complete without the latest craze: the wait for Tuesday night.

I say that somewhat jokingly, so refrain from the angry tweets. No, I don't really think it's more fun to dream about the details of a five-minute interview with Jeff Long than to decorate an intersection with toilet paper.

But it's close.

So welcome to the fourth of seven Tuesday College Football Playoff poll unveils, where it finally gets real in the selection-committee room.

Why is this Tuesday different? Because after last Saturday, none of the remaining unbeaten or one-loss Power 5 contenders will meet in the regular season or in conference-title games.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
10:00
AM ET
It's now or never for many teams in the SEC.

After Saturday, only two weeks of the regular season remain.

Want to reach Atlanta and play in the conference championship? This is the time to prove it.

Noon

South Carolina at Florida, SEC Network: A win over South Carolina would mean a lot of things for Florida. It would mean an automatic bowl bid, continued hope of winning the East and, possibly, another year for coach Will Muschamp. It's funny how a month ago none of those things seemed likely, but thanks to the spark Treon Harris has provided at quarterback, Florida is in a much different place today. Meanwhile, South Carolina is moving in the opposite direction. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have lost two straight, and the coach's future is suddenly a topic for debate.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen, Nick Saban
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWill Dan Mullen and No. 1 Mississippi State finally get a win over Nick Saban and No. 5 Alabama?
3:30 p.m.

No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama, CBS: Dan Mullen already got the Texas A&M and LSU monkeys off his back this season. So will he keep up the good work and finally beat Alabama, the only remaining SEC West team that has eluded him as coach of Mississippi State? It won't be easy, and Mullen's Bulldogs won't be favored heading into Tuscaloosa despite their No. 1 overall ranking.

4 p.m.

Kentucky at Tennessee, SEC Network: These are two young teams moving toward a bright future, but which will reach a bowl game ahead of schedule? Because that's what this game ultimately boils down to. Tennessee, at 4-5, must win two of its next three to get into a bowl. Meanwhile, Kentucky either takes care of business against the Volunteers or waits two weeks to try and upset Louisville to reach six wins and a bowl berth.

7:15 p.m.

No. 9 Auburn at No. 15 Georgia, ESPN: We could wind up seeing the most rushing yards in a single game this season when Georgia hosts Auburn between the hedges. After all, neither defense is particularly adept at stopping the run and, at the same time, both offenses are catered to the running game. And that's not to mention the return of Todd Gurley. Georgia's star running back has been itching to get back on the football field after his four-game suspension. He might just try and make up for all those lost carries in one game.

7:30 p.m.

Missouri at No. 24 Texas A&M, SEC Network: It has been a roller-coaster ride for Texas A&M, as it started off 5-0 before losing three straight. The fall from No. 6 in the AP poll to unranked felt devastating. Starting quarterback Kenny Hill was suspended, and it seemed as if the Aggies would throw in the towel on the season. But then last weekend happened. Kyle Allen made some plays in the passing game, and Texas A&M upset Auburn. Now the question becomes where the Aggies go from here. With no hope of reaching the playoff, will they continue their upward climb against a Missouri team that sits atop the SEC East?

8 p.m.

No. 17 LSU at Arkansas, ESPN 2: Fans of old-school football, rejoice! We have the game for you. When Arkansas hosts LSU, there will be fullbacks and offensive linemen galore, plenty of huddling and an abundance of running the football. There will even be freezing temperatures to set the mood. Bret Bielema has to be positively giddy. This is the "normal American football" Arkansas' coach so cherishes. Plus, it's an opportunity for his Razorbacks to break their unlucky streak of 17 conference games without a win.

SEC bowl projections: Week 10

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
8:00
PM ET
The College Football Playoff picture is coming into view.

Ole Miss became the first casualty of an overly crowded group of postseason contenders in the SEC West, but it won't be the last as Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State are on a collision course to meet these next few weeks.

But don't forget about LSU. With a little Les Miles magic in Death Valley on Saturday, the Tigers could simultaneously end Alabama's title hopes while igniting their own.

The only thing more difficult than sorting out the West is figuring out the mess that is the East. While it's impossible to tell who will win that race to mediocrity, we do know that everyone but Vanderbilt has a good shot of becoming bowl eligible.

Which brings us to this big number: 11 bowl teams from the SEC.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual): Auburn
Capital One Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: LSU
Citrus Bowl: Ole Miss
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Georgia
AdvoCare 100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Kentucky
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Florida
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The two coaches met at midfield prior to kickoff and shook hands. Chatting for a few minutes, they shared a similar frustration: They both have to lead teams in a gantlet called the SEC West.

Dan Mullen knew Bret Bielema’s pain. Every week had been a struggle. Every conference game had been a grind. The chips had fallen the right way for Mullen’s Mississippi State squad, but he knew the margin between their No. 1 ranking and Bielema’s .500 record at Arkansas was razor-thin.

“Both of us were just amazed at how strong our league is,” Bielema said.

[+] EnlargeCody Hollister
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesArkansas couldn't quite hold onto its opportunity to knock off No. 1 Mississippi State.
Then Bielema gave Mullen a scare that sent shockwaves out from Starkville and across the entire college football landscape. For what seems like the umpteenth time this season, lowly, unranked Arkansas nearly beat an SEC power.

By taking No. 1 Mississippi State down to the wire, the Razorbacks once again served as Exhibit A in the never-ending argument for and against the existence of SEC bias.

Either Arkansas is that good or the SEC is only average. It can’t be both. Bielema’s squad either proves the league’s incredible strength top to bottom or it shows that the top just isn’t as good as some believe.

How else could No. 3 Auburn be tied at halftime with a team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years?

How else could No. 6 Alabama trail a team in the fourth quarter that it had beaten 52-0 in each of the previous two seasons?

How else could No. 1 Mississippi State need a fourth-and-two stop and a red-zone interception to survive a .500 team at home?

Either Arkansas is a wolf in sheep's clothing or those teams don't deserve their high rankings.

The big question on both sides of the argument is how the College Football Playoff selection committee views the Razorbacks. And judging by the first round of rankings, there’s a ton of respect for Bielema’s squad and the SEC West in general.

If you think Auburn is overrated, what does it say about No. 9 Kansas State? If you believe Alabama’s top-10 ranking isn’t justified, then how about No. 20 West Virginia? Don’t think Mississippi State should be No. 1? Then how do you explain its three wins over top-10 teams, including Auburn?

If you think Arkansas isn’t underrated, consider this: The Razorbacks are ranked No. 20 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team’s strength and predicts its performance moving forward based on results to date and remaining opponents. That comes despite a remaining strength of schedule that ranks third nationally. At 4-5, Arkansas is the only sub-.500 team in the top 30 of the FPI.

If statistics don’t interest you then look at Arkansas’ roster, which is better than you might expect. Though the Razorbacks don’t have a game-changer at QB, they have one of the best tandem of running backs in the country in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Their offensive line is massive. Hunter Henry might be the SEC’s best tight end, and Trey Flowers has to be one of the most unheralded defensive ends in all of college football.

Every coach who has gone up against Arkansas has walked away saying the same thing: Those guys are going to beat somebody soon and we’re glad it wasn’t us.

“At this point it’s almost numbing to be so close and not be able to come out on top with one of these opportunities,” Bielema said following Saturday’s close loss at Mississippi State. “But I can promise we’ll take a bye week and get a little bit better, get healthy, and nobody will attack these last three games like the Arkansas Razorbacks.”

That should be a scary thought for No. 19 LSU, which travels to Fayetteville on Nov. 15.

No. 4 Ole Miss probably isn't looking forward to visiting Arkansas the following week.

If Arkansas pulls off the upset either of those games, don’t be surprised. Mullen won’t be. His team is ranked No. 1 in the country and he couldn’t have been more pleased to beat those lowly, unranked Razorbacks. Some might have called it an ugly win, but he was happy to have survived.

As Mullen was leaving his postgame television show late Saturday night, he breathed one last sigh of relief. He knew Arkansas’ record didn’t indicate it, but he said that was a top-25 caliber team he just faced.

“If they weren’t in the SEC West ...” he began.

He didn’t have to finish the argument. We know where it goes.

SEC owns top 5 of AP poll

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
3:40
PM ET

The SEC has been historically dominant this season. Just look at the most recent Associated Press poll where it became the first league to ever boast four teams in the top five.

Look even further, though, and you'll see that all four of those teams hail from the West: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Auburn's Gus Malzahn said it a few weeks ago and other coaches have echoed the statement since: "It's the best division in college football."

This might be the point where you feel sorry for Texas A&M.

The Aggies were the toast of college football for the first month or so of the season. They they went through three-quarters of the West wringer, losing games to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama -- in consecutive weeks.

How anyone will survive the West unscathed is beyond comprehension.

Already, Alabama has lost to Ole Miss and Auburn has lost to Mississippi State. But we're not through with the jockeying for position. Auburn goes to Ole Miss on Nov. 1 and Mississippi State travels to Alabama on Nov. 15. And lest we forget, the top four might not be decided until the final week of the regular season when the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl are played.

The SEC is a bear this season. The West just happens to pack the most heat.

It's crazy to consider how we've arrived here, but it's even crazier to look ahead at what's to come.
Rest up, Mississippi. ESPN "College GameDay" isn't done with you yet.

That's right, Lee Corso and the boys will be in Starkville for Auburn-Mississippi State, one week after camping out at The Grove in Oxford for Alabama-Ole Miss.

Now if only Katy Perry could be the guest picker two weeks in a row. Then we'd be on to something.

Either way, Starkvegas will surely be bursting at the seams for the battle of unbeaten SEC West teams.

There's only one word and one device to describe what's to come: a cowbell clanga.
Sorry, SEC East. This post just isn’t for you.

Sure, we learned about Georgia (Todd Gurley can do anything), Florida (Treon Harris should start) and Kentucky (these Cats are on to something). We even found out, once and for all, that South Carolina is a playoff fraud.

But in the end, it was in the West that we learned the most.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Holloway
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrandon Holloway and Mississippi State showed they are SEC West contenders by thumping Texas A&M on Saturday.
1. You’ve got to Hail State: Welcome to the Mississippi State bandwagon, everyone. I’ve kept your seats warm for you this whole time. I understood how you were skeptical those first three games against nonconference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. I even got how you weren’t completely sold after the Bulldogs went on the road and beat LSU this past week. But if you aren’t ready to go all-in after the way State trounced Texas A&M, 48-31, on Saturday, there’s no helping you. Geoff Collins’ defense might be the best in the SEC. Did you see the way the front seven affected Kenny Hill and the Aggies’ passing game? Dak Prescott, meanwhile, is now a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. I know you saw how he imposed his will against A&M and scored with his arm and his legs. With Prescott leading the charge and that defense behind him, there’s nothing stopping the Bulldogs from taking a shot at the division crown. It’s a radical idea, I know, but it’s time to start accepting this brave new world we live in.

2. A Rebel yell: Ole Miss didn’t play well for the better part of three quarters. Bo Wallace was doing his usual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing, and the running game was practically nonexistent. The missed face mask call that resulted in a fumble return for a touchdown right before halftime seemed like the type of play that would decide the game. Ole Miss would fold under its own disappointment, and Alabama would come out in the second half and pull away. But then Ole Miss grew up. It wasn’t three quarters of maturation from the Rebs on Saturday night; it was three decades' worth. What Hugh Freeze has done is completely change the way Ole Miss thinks of itself. We saw that against Alabama. Wallace didn’t beat himself up after a few early mistakes; he got right back in the saddle. The defense, which fought valiantly with little help, never gave up in the 23-17 win. And when Ole Miss absolutely needed a big play, it got it -- twice. Wallace threw a game-winning touchdown pass, and Senquez Golson followed that up with a game-clinching interception. In doing so, Ole Miss proved it belonged. It proved, despite what we might think about football in the Magnolia State, these guys really can play.

3. Alabama isn’t dead: Take the emotions of the game out of it. Let’s think about this like the College Football Playoff selection committee might. Alabama lost to a team ranked in the top 15. It lost on the road. And it lost in the final few minutes. It lost a game in which its quarterback had a subpar performance; its most explosive weapon on offense, Kenyan Drake, was knocked out of the game in brutal fashion; and two starters, linebacker Denzel Devall and center Ryan Kelly, were sidelined with injuries. If there’s such a thing as a quality loss, this was it. It’s not quite Michigan State losing at Oregon, given that Sparty put itself out there scheduling that game, but it’s close. That’s little consolation to Alabama right now, but in a few months, it might mean something. The SEC West is a bear. Who really thinks a team is going to survive the division undefeated? If Alabama can get better play from its offensive line and secondary, what’s to say the Tide can’t get right back in it? A loss at Ole Miss isn’t going to be enough to keep them out.

4. Aggies allergic to defense: In the words of Kevin Sumlin: “What?!” He ought to go up to every defensive player in the locker room and ask that question in a much more hostile tone than he’s become accustomed to. Because the Aggies have no defense, that’s what. Mark Snyder was supposed to coax some improvement out of a defense that was the worst in the SEC the past season, but that hasn’t happened. Players are too often out of position. Tackles too often go missed. Quality execution is too often a foreign concept. The excuse of inexperience has grown tiresome. Go look at the past few recruiting classes -- there’s talent there. It’s time Texas A&M takes a long, hard look in the mirror and decides what it wants to be. Because as out-of-sorts as Hill and the offense looked against Mississippi State on Saturday, they weren’t the problem. You have Myles Garrett. You have Deshazor Everett. It’s time you have some semblance of a defense.

5. And then there’s Auburn: No one is talking about Auburn, and that’s probably the way Gus Malzahn wants it. But week after week, the Tigers keep winning. Forget that Nick Marshall hasn’t become Joe Montana. Forget that the win at Kansas State wasn’t pretty. Forget it because it doesn’t matter. Style points mean nothing. If Saturday showed us anything, it’s that surviving is all that matters. Alabama wishes it could have done that. So do Oregon and Oklahoma. Auburn, for all its supposed flaws, is undefeated and in line to move into the top 3 in the polls. If you don’t think Auburn is good enough to win the West again, I don’t know what to tell you. LSU might not be the team we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, but it’s still LSU. All Auburn did was beat the Bayou Bengals like they stole something. The 41-7 win might not grab the headlines like Ole Miss' and Mississippi State's wins, but it counts the same.

Week 6 playoff implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
11:32
PM ET
With Saturday’s action complete, we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the regular season.

Can you believe that?

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.

1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHutson Mason might need to be more aggressive to help take the strain off star RB Todd Gurley.
2. Need more from Mason: Georgia's Todd Gurley is a beast worthy of every bit of the Heisman Trophy hype he receives. But he can’t do it alone -- not for an entire season, at least. No matter how strong he might be, nobody can withstand that type of punishment on a consistent basis. At some point, Hutson Mason must step up and provide his star running back some help. Sure, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph have all missed time with injuries, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome are a pretty good group of targets. Still, against Tennessee, Mason barely fit the role of game manager. Georgia won 35-32, but he completed just 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. For Georgia to make a playoff push, Mason needs to take greater control of the offense and push the ball downfield. Playing as passive as he has just won’t cut it.

3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.

4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
9:00
AM ET
OK, so the competition wasn’t the best in the SEC this weekend. But players play, they don’t make the schedule.

Here’s a look at the top performances from Week 2:
  • Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: Granted, he didn’t have to do much. But Allen made the most of every pass attempt he had in the 73-7 win over Nicholls State. The junior who entered this season battling for his starting job was sharp, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. There may have been some quarterbacks in the SEC with better overall numbers, but none was more efficient than Allen.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: Maybe it’s Gus Malzahn’s system. Or maybe Artis-Payne is the same caliber running back as his predecessor, Tre Mason. However you draw it up, Artis-Payne sure looked like an All-SEC back in the 59-13 win over San Jose State, racking up three touchdowns and 100 yards -- in the first half. It’s scary to think what he could have done if he had carried the ball more than twice in the final two quarters.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: It didn’t matter who was throwing him the football, Cooper was going to make a play in the Crimson Tide's 41-0 win. Of the 26 Alabama receptions on passes from Blake Sims and Jake Coker against Florida Atlantic, Cooper caught half of them. His 189 receiving yards pulled him within 15 yards of Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's career record at Alabama.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: Jarvis Landry is where now? And Odell Beckham? No matter. LSU seems to have found its playmaking receiver in Dural, who was third fiddle to Beckham and Landry last season. After a solid season opener against Wisconsin, Dural followed it up in the 56-0 victory over Sam Houston State, catching three passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a 94-yard bomb.
  • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: Mauk single-handedly carried the Missouri offense against Toledo, accounting for six of the Tigers’ seven total touchdowns. The sophomore threw for a whopping 325 yards and five touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing in the 49-24 win. He also ran the ball 12 times for 36 yards and a score.
  • Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator, Florida: We don’t often hand out helmet stickers to coaches, but this felt like the exception to the rule. I mean, just look at how bad -- and stagnant -- Florida’s offense was last season. Now look at how efficient and explosive it was Saturday. Even if it was Eastern Michigan, you have to tip your cap to Roper, who helped UF to 655 total yards of offense in the 65-0 victory. He checked all the marks: quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for nearly 250 yards, three running backs ran for 50 yards or more and 11 different players had a reception.
The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouches are the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.
Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
If the SEC has plenty of one thing, it's athletes.

Every year we see running backs and wide receivers that can make one move and go the distance. They're explosive in every sense of the word. They're quick, fast and utterly elusive.

In 2013, Henry Josey and Tre Mason were home run hitters at running back. Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews routinely burned defenses deep at receiver. Heck, who can forget Johnny Manziel's big-play antics at quarterback?

But all of those playmakers have moved on. Now it's time for a new group of explosive athletes to emerge on offense in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of each team's most dangerous weapons:
  • Alabama: A talented return man, Christion Jones knows how to operate in space and break free from the defense. Amari Cooper, meanwhile, has the feet of a ballerina and can dance away from coverage just as well -- or run right by it. After experiencing a down sophomore year due to injury, he should return to his freshman form where he had 19 receptions for 20 yards or more. And don’t lose sight of Kenyan Drake while you’re at it. Even on limited carries last season he had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards.
  • Auburn: Speed is in ample supply at Auburn, from quarterback to receiver to running back. Nick Marshall’s agility and big-play ability under center speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Sammie Coates has some of the best straight-line speed you’ll find in the country. And, finally, running back Corey Grant is one of the league’s all-time burners, having reportedly clocked a sub-4.2 second 40-yard dash. He had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards last season and averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per carry.
  • Arkansas: Bret Bielema needs some help at receiver. Sure, Keon Hatcher (12.8 yards per catch) showed some promise late and the return of Demetrius Wilson from injury is reason for hope. But ultimately the real big-play ability on offense comes from the running backs. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined for 56 rushes for 10 or more yards last season -- a number that would have tied for third nationally behind Jordan Lynch (64) and Taysom Hill (60).
  • Florida: Andre Debose, when healthy, is an athlete with world-class speed. After all, he was a state track champion in high school, running the 100-meter dash in 10.68 seconds. It’s part of why he already holds the school record of four kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a record tied for tops in SEC history with Willie Gault, Felix Jones and Brandon Boykin. How's that for good company? With two major injuries hopefully now in his past, Debose is a threat to score at both receiver and in the return game.
  • Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell will be a welcome return at receiver after missing all but one game last season with a torn ACL. When he was healthy, he was able to run in the neighborhood of a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. He and Chris Conley, who led the team in receiving yards last year, can stress any secondary. That’s not to mention Justin Scott-Wesley, who was a state champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash in high school.
  • Kentucky: You should know Javess Blue's name, but chances are that many of you probably don’t. Unfortunately his work at receiver flew mostly under the radar at Kentucky in 2013. His five catches of 20-plus yards may not sound overwhelming, but you have to remember he did that without much help from his quarterbacks. Still, Blue is a burner to the tune of a 4.29 second 40-yard dash.
  • LSU: Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. will be missed. But coach Les Miles wasn’t left lacking for playmakers on offense when they went on to the NFL. Terrence Magee was quietly one of the most explosive backs in the league last season with 10 rushes for 20 or more yards. Even so, No. 1 overall recruit Leonard Fournette might overshadow him. Fournette is not just big and strong, he’s also fast. (Think of a young Adrian Peterson). And while we’re talking true freshmen, Malachi Dupre has the chance to make an immediate impact at receiver. The former five-star prospect runs in the 4.5-second 40-yard dash range, and has impressive size and a vertical to match.
  • Mississippi State: It’s a make or break year for Mississippi State’s offense. In the past coach Dan Mullen has struggled to find playmakers. Now he has three guys who can really spread out a defense. Jameon Lewis, who has the tools of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, is a great underneath receiver, and Brandon Holloway, who can play either running back or receiver, is lightning quick and deadly in space. With De’Runnya Wilson standing at 6-foot-5 with the leaping ability of a true basketball player (he's a forward for the Bulldogs, in case you didn't know), Mullen’s offense should be able to attack every level of the secondary.
  • Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel lost a lot of firepower on both sides of the ball this offseason. But even with Dorial Green-Beckham and LaDamian Washington no longer in Columbia, there are still plenty of dangerous weapons on offense. Russell Hansbrough is a talented back who had 20 rushes for 10 or more yards in 2013. Then factor in Bud Sasser (13.88 yards per play) and Marcus Murphy (17 career touchdowns four different ways: rushing, kickoff return, punt return and receiving), and the Tiger offense should be able to stretch the field just fine.
  • Ole Miss: By now you ought to know about Laquon Treadwell, who finished second only to Jordan Matthews in the SEC in total receptions last season (72). He became the first player in school history to be named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league coaches. Though he may lack elite top-end speed, he more than makes up for it with his elusiveness and ability to make yards after the catch. And don’t sleep on running back Jaylen Walton. In addition to being the team's primary kick returner, he also rushed for 523 yards last season. His 29 receptions were fourth on the team and he led all Rebs with eight total touchdowns.
  • South Carolina: Dylan Thompson may not have a lot of height at receiver, but he’s got plenty of speed. Shaq Roland is an All-SEC type of talent, if he can play with some consistency. His 18.2 yards per play last year ranked 15th nationally (minimum 25 touches). Opposite him at receiver is Damiere Byrd, who could be the fastest player in the league. His 17.3 yards per play ranked 20th nationally and an impressive 72.7 percent of his receptions went for either a first down or a touchdown.
  • Tennessee: Outside of a spectacular one-handed grab against South Carolina, Marquez North and his 13 yards per catch were somewhat lost in the shuffle last season. At 6-foot-4 and in the neighborhood of 220 pounds, he shouldn’t have the speed he does. With his size and athleticism (he won the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics 110-meter hurdles at the age of 12), he’s a threat to burn any defensive back in the SEC.
  • Texas A&M: All credit goes to Kevin Sumlin for pulling in some top-tier athletes on the recruiting trail the past two years. Trey Williams, who still has to adjust to the ins and outs of the running back position, has the speed and agility to be a breakout star this season. Meanwhile, there’s Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil to consider. They’ll wow you in different ways -- Noil is all moves and agility and speed, while Seals-Jones is pure height and jumping ability -- but both are threats to score from anywhere on the field.
  • Vanderbilt: The first sentence of Brian Kimbrow’s high school scouting report by ESPN says it all: “Kimbrow may be small but he's an electrifying running back prospect with excellent speed and quickness.” When you think of his running style, think of Warrick Dunn. Kimbrow came on strong as a freshman in 2012 with 413 yards on only 66 carries, but he saw his production taper off last year behind Jerron Seymour and Wesley Tate on the depth chart. Now he has a fresh start under new coach Derek Mason, who showed a major commitment to the running game while at Stanford.

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.

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