NCF Nation: Auburn

It’s that time again. Time to count down who the best players in the SEC were this past season.

21. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Shane Ray got most of the attention on Missouri’s defense, and rightfully so considering he led the league in sacks. But don’t sleep on Golden, who it could be argued had a more complete season than his running mate. Not only did the senior rack up 8.5 sacks, he had 20 tackles for loss and led the team in quarterback hurries (12), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (3).

22. A’Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
At first glance, Robinson wasn’t the player he was as a freshman in 2013 when he led the team with 5.5 sacks. But as an interior lineman in coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 system, stats don’t tell the full story -- at least not individual ones. Rather, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore was a vital cog in a defense that ranked 12th nationally, taking on countless double-teams in the running game while also lending a hand rushing the passer.

23. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Auburn didn’t make it back to the national championship, but it wasn’t the fault of its quarterback. Rather, Marshall’s numbers were actually much better than his first season under center as he went from 1,976 yards passing to 2,531 and his quarterback rating jumped eight points. With a record of 20-7 as a starter, 6,425 total yards and 57 total touchdowns, Marshall’s career stands out in SEC history.

24. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Speaking of ridiculously talented freshmen, how about Texas A&M’s stud defensive end? On an abysmal defense, Garrett, a former five-star prospect in his own right, shined. The 6-5, 250-pound rookie wound up finishing second in the SEC in sacks with 11.5. He also had 14 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and one blocked kick.

25. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
OK, so the Heisman Trophy talk was a little premature, but don’t let that obscure the solid freshman season the nation’s former No. 1-ranked recruit had. After all, in a backfield that was plenty deep with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, it was Fournette who led the team in rushing with 1,034 yards. In his final two games, he showed why there was such eagerness to see him in purple in gold as he ran for 289 yards and three touchdowns against Texas A&M and Notre Dame.
The deadline to declare for the NFL draft has come and gone.

The SEC, as usual, saw its fair share of early entrants. At last count, the conference led the nation in underclassmen turning pro.

While those who have declared for the draft have another 72 hours to go back on their decisions and return to school, for today's purposes we'll assume everything holds and declare three teams winners and three losers when it came to retaining talent.

Three up
  • Alabama -- Yes, the losses of T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins and Amari Cooper are huge. But no one expected them to stay. Instead, Nick Saban welcoming three defenders back into the fold on defense was the big takeaway. Cyrus Jones is someone to build around in the secondary, Reggie Ragland provides continuity at linebacker, and Jarran Reed bolsters a defensive line that could be among the best in college football in 2015.
  • Auburn -- QB Jeremy Johnson received a pleasant surprise when it was learned that star wideout Duke Williams would return for his senior year. But Johnson, the Tigers' expected starter, should be happy for the other side of the ball, too, as new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp gets Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy back at linebacker.
  • Georgia -- Todd Gurley turning pro was a given, but for Mark Richt to keep John Theus, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd in school was a coup. Theus gives Georgia four returning starters on the offensive line, which will be a boon for whoever wins the starting job at QB. Floyd gives defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt one of the best pass-rushers in the country.
Three down
  • Florida -- Jim McElwain's hands are full as he attempts to rebuild Florida's offense, and that job wasn't made any easier with the decisions of Matt Jones, D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore to enter the draft. That's two starting offensive linemen from a group that was already depth-challenged. Throw in the loss of pass-rush specialist Dante Fowler Jr. and you're looking at a depleted roster all the way around.
  • LSU -- Les Miles needed Travin Dural and Jerald Hawkins back on offense, but his defense could have used help, too. Kevin Steele, who takes over as defensive coordinator after the departure of John Chavis, will be without three key starters: linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter.
  • South Carolina -- With Mike Davis and Shaq Roland off to the NFL, the Gamecocks are without two of their most talented players on offense. Granted, consistency was a constant battle for Roland at receiver, but good luck replacing Davis' 2,000 rushing yards over the past two seasons.

When the good folks at the ESPN Stats & Information department came up with their annual Conference Power Rankings, they took a number of factors into account.

But there is one measure that never shows up on a spreadsheet and trumps all those that do: perception.

The SEC might be the No. 2 conference in America on paper, but after a bowl season in which nearly all of its supposed powers lost, the impression on the hearts and minds of football fans is much more grim.

Today is a new day for the conference that berthed seven straight national championship contenders.

Today is the day the conference must swallow its considerable pride and admit it's no longer king of the hill.

That title belongs to the Pac-12, according to ESPN's latest rankings. But the Big 12, which boasts powerhouse TCU, has every reason to gloat over the SEC as well, as does the Big Ten, which is home to the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

And how ironic it is that Urban Meyer helped create this overly decorated SEC we know today with two championships at Florida, only to be the one to lay the conference bare by beating Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal before moving on to win the first national championship of the playoff era.

Now, instead of everyone chasing Nick Saban at Alabama, it's the SEC playing catch-up with Meyer and a resurgent Ohio State poised to make another run at the national championship next season.

If it's not the Buckeyes hoisting the trophy in 2016, it could be favorites TCU, Baylor or USC. If you're following along with Mark Schlabach's Way-too-early Top 25, you have to then pass Oregon, Michigan State and UCLA before landing on a team from the SEC. And even then, it's the perennially underwhelming Georgia Bulldogs at No. 8, which are without a returning starter at quarterback and haven't won a national championship since 1980.

That's looking ahead to next season, of course, but it speaks to the status of the conference as a whole after what we saw during its zombie walk through the bowl season. It speaks to perception, whose momentum drives through the offseason and carries well into the fall.

The SEC is a dying conference by no means, but after so long at the top, ranking second should come as a major disappointment. A slap in the face. A wake-up call.

Because in the coming months, it won't just be the Pac-12 that taunts the conference with feelings of superiority. Outside of perhaps the ACC, the rest of the Power 5 should feel as if its turned the tables on the SEC.

Now, mind you, Alabama isn't going anywhere. Neither is Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss or Mississippi State. Outside of Georgia in the East, we've learned that you shouldn't sleep on Missouri, Tennessee or even Florida with its new coaching staff.

But depth is only one part of the equation. Potential is meaningless without results either.

Until the SEC breaks its two-year streak without a national championship, perception will continue to go against the conference that has long relished its status as No. 1.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

SEC entering a new era

January, 12, 2015
Jan 12
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It is going to be a strange and difficult day for fans of the SEC.

There will be college football on most every working television in the United States tonight, and Birmingham, Alabama, will likely remain among the country’s largest consumers. But in the where the SEC is headquartered, people won’t be watching Alabama or Auburn or any of the conference’s other programs that strung together seven consecutive national championship appearances.

No, Groundhog Day has passed. The SEC is finally shut out of college football’s most important game, and what an odd sensation it is to find out that there is a tomorrow.

It’s a brave new world for the conference that has long relished its spot atop the sport. Respect, even if it’s comes begrudgingly, must now be given to Oregon of the once too-soft Pac-12 and Ohio State of the once too-thin Big Ten. Respect and concern, because Urban Meyer has brought Ohio State back to life, Mark Helfrich has made Oregon into more than a fast offense and pretty uniforms, and elsewhere it feels as if college football is catching up.

TCU’s dismantling of Ole Miss was the initial slap in the face. When Wisconsin beat Auburn and Georgia Tech beat Mississippi State, alarm bells went off. Then, when Alabama lost to Ohio State, parity kicked the SEC out of bed.

But what will this new day hold? The neighbors have never felt so close.

Has Mississippi State’s moment come and gone that quickly? Can Florida rebuild under Jim McElwain? Is Alabama’s dynasty really sinking? Are the young Vols of Tennessee ready so soon? Who wants to play quarterback for Ole Miss? Or Georgia or LSU or South Carolina? Auburn has its quarterback, but can the Tigers learn to play defense? Does anyone in the SEC want to play defense again?

Other than uncertainty on the field, tomorrow will soon bring a new commissioner off it. With Mike Slive set to step down this summer, a 13-year era of stability and growth is over for the SEC. Will a new one begin? If so, who will be the man or woman to continue down Slive’s path?

Slive was instrumental in building the playoff we’ll watch tonight, but his conference won’t be a part of its grand reveal. It has to be bitter for both he and fans of the SEC to know that the league’s turn in the sun couldn’t last another game.

But all runs must end somewhere. The question is how quickly you get back in the race.

Today will be difficult for the SEC, but tomorrow offers a fresh start.

The rest of college football had to wait eight years for a national title. The SEC should be able to survive one night without being the center of attention.
Dak Prescott, Robert NkemdicheIcon Sportswire, AP PhotoDak Prescott and Robert Nkemdiche give the Mississippi schools plenty of hope for 2015.

Now is not the time for excuses.

Don’t tell me about a lack of motivation. Don’t tell me about key injuries. Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me about luck.

Last week, the SEC was exposed. The West, in particular, failed. Miserably. Undeniably. Disappointingly.

If we’re being honest about what we saw, it was destruction. Ole Miss fell flat on its face. Mississippi State continued its downward slide. Auburn’s defense, once again, had the resistance of a wet napkin. And Alabama, supposedly the best of the them all, couldn’t function on third down -- the money down -- if it’s life depended on it.

And before you start saying that it was about the SEC beating itself, stop. TCU, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Ohio State weren’t lucky beneficiaries; they were the better teams. Period. The Big Ten and Big 12 were superior conferences this bowl season.

Try that on for size: The SEC was a second-tier league when it mattered. Before any talk of next season, that must be accepted as fact.

But for how long can we expect that to continue? A week after the league’s meltdown on the national stage, that feels like the logical question.

Here’s a guess at the answer: Right up until the preseason polls come out.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette posted 100 rushing yards in five of LSU's final nine games.
It’s going to whip the #SECBias posse into a frenzy, but the league isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Because when you start projecting who will be among the top teams in college football next season, it’s going to look oddly familiar: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State. Nick Chubb will carry Georgia into the mix, and with enough good feelings toward Jim McElwain, the East might even gain more representation in the top 25.

A decade’s worth of dominance can’t be wiped away in a single bowl season. But more importantly, neither can a decade’s worth of recruiting.

Though the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all will surge forward in 2015, none will have the cache of talent the SEC still enjoys. None will lay claim to the same number of NFL-ready prospects.

When ESPN’s Scouts Inc. compiled its top 25 non-draft-eligible players last month, 13 hailed from the SEC. The next-closest conference: the ACC with five. Ole Miss alone had that many underclassmen on the list.

Before we start declaring Alabama’s dynasty dead, consider that the Crimson Tide are running out the clock on their fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class. If Jake Coker doesn’t work out replacing Blake Sims at quarterback, Nick Saban can turn to a pair of blue-chip prospects in David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. If they need help, there’s always Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to.

The other side to the Iron Bowl should be fine as well. Nick Marshall may be gone, but Jeremy Johnson has been preparing for his chance to lead Auburn for two years now. Thanks to Duke Williams’ return at receiver and the running back tandem of Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, Gus Malzahn’s offense should keep on humming. Coupled with the addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, the Tigers might find that scoring 30 points is enough.

LSU, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up. With Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre to build around, the offense is in good shape. And the defense, in spite of the loss of coordinator John Chavis, is still stacked with talent across the board.

The state of Mississippi may be hurting now, but that pain will soon give way to hope as both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have reasons to believe that next year could yield a breakthrough. The Rebs reload thanks to back-to-back stellar recruiting classes and could find better consistency at QB with Bo Wallace gone. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs already have their playmaker under center in Dak Prescott and a solid defensive line thanks to future pro Chris Jones.

And that’s just the teams that lost their bowl games from the SEC West.

In the division, there’s still Arkansas and Texas A&M to consider. No one will be caught sleeping on the Hogs in 2015, and with a change at coordinator, the Aggies might develop a defense to match the production on the other side of the ball.

In the East, Florida is a sleeping giant, and Georgia is a QB away from breaking through. Missouri is a program that in spite of appearances always finds a way, and keep an eye on Tennessee. The Vols blew out Iowa in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl, and Butch Jones has compiled a recruiting class that currently ranks sixth nationally.

If you’re setting the over/under on the number of preseason top 25 teams from the SEC, where does it lie? Say for argument’s sake that it’s eight. Do you dare take the under? If so, who do you leave out?

While preseason polls carry as much weight as skinny-armed Rob Lowe, it illustrates a point about perception. Today the perception is the SEC is an overinflated bubble that’s poised to pop, if it hasn’t already. But soon that will change.

The rest of the Power 5 conferences should enjoy mocking the SEC’s failures this bowl season. After the runaway hype of the regular season and how things ultimately played out, they have every right to call the West a joke and question the conference's strength as a whole.

When the playoff runs its course on Monday, it will have been two years without a national champion from the SEC.

Let's repeat that number: two. After seven titles in seven years.

Since when is a two-year drought the End of Days? The league isn't exactly wandering Egypt right now.

Downgrade the SEC if you must, but be careful because the league isn’t dead. The divide between conferences is just becoming thinner.
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.


video

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
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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
11/04/14
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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
10/19/14
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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.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 6

October, 4, 2014
10/04/14
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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
9/30/14
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.

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