NCF Nation: Vanderbilt Commodores

DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."
It wasn’t the kind of debut season that Derek Mason or anybody at Vanderbilt was hoping for, but Mason already feels better about his second go-round as head coach because of the way he’s been able to restructure his coaching staff.

Mason announced on Monday that former Dartmouth assistant and NFL player Cortez Hankton would coach the Vanderbilt receivers, the final piece of the puzzle this offseason to the Commodores’ staff.

Coming off a 3-9 season in his first year as Vanderbilt’s coach, Mason fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators and also replaced his strength and conditioning coach. Of course, the move he made that attracted the most attention was naming himself as defensive coordinator. Mason said he was able to do that, in large part, because of the trust he has in the people around him and the way this staff fits.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Images/Mark HumphreyWhy the numerous staff changes for Derek Mason? "It didn't look like good football last season," he said.
“All these guys have one thing in common. They embody my vision for Vanderbilt football,” Mason told ESPN.com on Monday. “I can already see the changes paying dividends. It’s never easy when you make changes, but what you have to look at is the program and what it looks like moving forward. It didn’t look like good football last season.”

One of the most important hires any coach can make is his strength coach, and Mason jumped at the chance to get James Dobson from Nebraska. Dobson had headed up the Huskers’ strength program under Bo Pelini for the past seven years.

“The strength coach spends more time with the players than I do, so I needed to make sure that guy was truly reflective of me and had a personality similar to mine in terms of core philosophy and beliefs,” Mason said. “That’s what I found in James Dobson, a master strength coach who’s been in championship games and understands what that looks like.”

Hankton is among three new on-field assistants that Mason is bringing aboard as he looks to get the Commodores back to playing winning football. They went winless in the SEC during his first season and were held to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games. Andy Ludwig will be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks, while Todd Lyght will coach the cornerbacks.

Ludwig spent the past two years at Wisconsin under Gary Andersen. The Badgers were 21st nationally this past season in total offense (468.9 yards per game) and rode Melvin Gordon much of the way. Their quarterback play was inconsistent, but Ludwig was still able to keep opposing defenses honest. The Badgers averaged 34.6 points per game and finished 27th nationally in scoring offense. Ludwig has also been an offensive coordinator at Cal, Oregon, San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah.

“I needed a guy who could utilize the talent and develop the quarterback position the way I wanted it developed,” Mason said. “I talked to everybody I could about Andy. He’s smart, articulate and been in a lot of different programs and has been able to adapt and make it work wherever he’s been.”

Lyght, who played 12 years in the NFL, coached the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive backs the past two years under Chip Kelly. Mason had tried to get Lyght when he was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and then again when he got the Vanderbilt head coaching job.

A big part of the restructuring is splitting up the secondary duties. Brett Maxie will stay on to coach the safeties, and Lyght will handle the cornerbacks. Mason said his decision to call his own defensive plays and coordinate the Commodores’ defense next season was really made for him after talking to several people about the job. He also said that having associate head coach Kenwick Thompson as his right-hand man on defense would make the transition even smoother.

“He’s a guy I strongly believe in, and he knows our system,” Mason said of Thompson, who will coach the outside linebackers. “I was already in those defensive meeting rooms. But for us to get to where we want to go defensively, I need to do more than just walk into those meeting rooms.”

Mason took on a much more active role in game-planning for the Tennessee game last season, and the Commodores had one of their better defensive performances in a 24-17 loss. It was after that game that Mason began to think that it could definitely work, his wearing both hats as head coach and defensive coordinator.

“We probably had too much defense in last season,” Mason said. “It’s not about how much defense you have, but how well you can execute the defense you have. As I talked to different guys about the coordinator’s job, they kept talking about playing a different style of defense. I didn’t want a different style of defense. I wanted our defense, and I wanted it to be what I planned for it to be when I first got here.”
» 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.

Bowl games are a tricky barometer in college football.

People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.

Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?

This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.

Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?

Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.

Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.

Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.

With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.

Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).

Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.

Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.

After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.

I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.

Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.

But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.

Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.

The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.
Naturally, just about everyone outside of the Deep South is reveling in the fact that the title game in the inaugural College Football Playoff will not feature an SEC team. After eight straight years of seeing an SEC team grace the national championship game, the conference that has towered over the sport for so long will be watching from home on Jan. 12.

The SEC's reign of terror and string of seven straight national titles seems like an afterthought following back-to-back years without a national champion coming from the league. The SEC's 7-5 bowl season, which actually tied its own NCAA single-season record for bowl wins by a conference, is viewed as a disappointment -- especially when you consider that the seemingly ferocious SEC West went an unsatisfactory 2-5 -- and a sign that the leagues around the SEC are closing the gap.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State showed it was not intimidated by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and the SEC West finished a surprising 2-5 in bowl games.
Though SEC fans might not want to acknowledge that, it's happening and it's a good thing for college football. The SEC's narrative of being the baddest conference around isn't necessarily gone, but it's hurt, and that makes the sport more fun. The element of surprise isn't a bad thing.

This isn't to say that the SEC won't bounce back, and I'm in no way saying the SEC has fallen behind the pack or that its days of glory are behind it. But parity in college football is a good thing. Like the years prior to the SEC's improbable run from 2006-2012, it feels like the sport is once again a free-for-all.

Though talk of SEC bias was incredibly ridiculous, SEC fatigue was very much a real thing. With Oregon and Ohio State to play for the national championship a week from today, that fatigue has quelled some. Yes, the SEC was front and center for most of the season because of how successful the West was, but a no-show in the title game and the collapse of the Wild West proved that the SEC, while great, is getting a mighty push from the rest of the country.

Even with seven wins and the fact that the SEC East, loathed all season, went 5-0, the SEC's overall perception took a hit because the big boys of the SEC West crumbled in front of the nation.

For so long, the SEC was ahead of the pack because of its coaches and its ability to continuously reel in the nation's top high school talent. That is still very true, and it's not like the fertile southeast recruiting ground is going to dry up -- ever -- but other conferences are catching up in both areas.

The Big Ten is definitely making up ground when it comes to coaches. Urban Meyer, once the SEC's top coach, has No. 4 Ohio State, which days ago stunned No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, in the big game with a 37-3 record during his three years in Columbus, Ohio. Mark Dantonio has won 75 games at Michigan State, and just shocked No. 5 Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Then, of course, there's Michigan, which hasn't had much of a football pulse over the past few years, but just made the best coaching hire in college football this year by snagging Jim Harbaugh from the NFL.

And if you think the Big Ten isn't slowly making ground in the talent department, just look at how Meyer has blended SEC and Big Ten traits in a team that steamrolled Alabama's vaunted defense for 537 yards. Though the SEC mainly held its hat on suffocating defenses during its magical run, other leagues have evolved into offensive juggernauts, something the SEC might want to consider before it is left behind in the points department.

Look at the success the Pac-12 has had. No. 2 Oregon obliterated No. 4 Florida State in the Rose Bowl, and after the defenseless performance we saw by the Tide in New Orleans, it would be hard not to feel confident picking the Ducks' high-flying quack attack to do some damage if given the chance against Alabama. The Pac 12 is also 6-2 in bowl play, and finished the regular season with five teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.

And we haven't even touched a TCU team that demolished Ole Miss, a one-time top-3 team, by 39 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and might be better than everyone.

Parity is back in college football, and the SEC is learning that it can't win on name alone anymore. Like Tiger Woods in golf, just being there doesn't make you intimidating anymore. Ask Georgia Tech, which ran all over Mississippi State, or Notre Dame and Wisconsin, which both went down to the final plays to beat LSU and Auburn, respectively.

The SEC is hurting, but the sport is flourishing. The league -- more specifically the SEC West -- took one on the chin this postseason, and it might have lost its benefit of the doubt in future playoffs. But that's fine. Maybe we'll see beefier nonconference schedules. Maybe it will make things that much more exciting late in the season going forward.

Regardless, the SEC will be fine if it continues to evolve, and college football will be great.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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A wild final weekend of the regular season in the SEC ended with Alabama's 55-44 win over rival Auburn in a memorable Iron Bowl on Saturday night.

Let's recap five things we learned:

Bow down to the ACC: Well this is new. A couple of the games were close, but the ACC won all four of its rivalry games against SEC opponents on Saturday. With Louisville joining the ACC this year and moving its rivalry game with Kentucky to the final weekend of the regular season, that brought the number of ACC-SEC finales to four (joining Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson). The SEC hadn't gone 0-4 in those games since 2000 and hadn't done any worse than 2-2 since 2003.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper and Alabama are now the SEC's only legitimate candidate for the College Football Playoff.
Postseason picture: With Ole Miss knocking off No. 4 Mississippi State 31-17 the SEC is down to one legit playoff contender: No. 1 Alabama, which had to rally to beat Auburn on Saturday. The Crimson Tide will assuredly remain in the top four if they beat Missouri in next Saturday's SEC championship game, but if they don't? Gasp ... the SEC will likely be left out of the playoff. On the brighter side from an SEC perspective, Tennessee's 24-17 win over Vanderbilt gave the conference 12 bowl-eligible teams. It would have been 13 if Kentucky hadn't fallen just short in its upset bid against Louisville, losing 44-40.

Mizzou got it done: Let's take a moment to celebrate Missouri. The Tigers sit in the middle of the pack (or worse) in the vast majority of SEC team statistical categories, but Gary Pinkel's Tigers still bounced back from ugly losses to Indiana and Georgia to win the East for a second straight season. Did they play the easiest conference schedule in the league? Without question. Should they apologize for that? Absolutely not. Georgia blew it. South Carolina and Florida stunk up the division for most of the year. Mizzou was the only one that did what it needed to do, and kudos to Pinkel's team for getting the job done.

No excuses, Georgia: Saturday's 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech -- which went to overtime on Georgia Tech's 53-yard field goal at the buzzer and ended with a Hutson Mason interception at the Georgia Tech 5 -- added insult to injury for Georgia. The Bulldogs' error-filled loss was a reminder of their many missed opportunities. Georgia beat the team that will represent the SEC East in the conference championship game, Missouri, 34-0 on the road. And yet it lost to South Carolina and Florida, which were mediocre at best. This Georgia team should have been in the conversation for a playoff berth, but some seriously uninspired football allowed Missouri to slip into the SEC title game and let Georgia Tech snap a five-game series losing streak on Saturday.

Home field matters: Think home-field advantage doesn't matter in a rivalry game? Look down Saturday's results: Out of seven traditional rivalry games played Saturday, five home teams (Alabama, Ole Miss, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State) won. It could have been six if Georgia hadn't choked away a lead in the final 18 seconds of regulation. That includes two huge games in the playoff picture (Alabama and Ole Miss) and another (Clemson over South Carolina) that snapped a five-game series losing streak.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 14

November, 28, 2014
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What more could you want to finish the regular season?

There are games with playoff implications, division implications and bowl implications to choose from. There's even a Friday afternoon game to get you through to the weekend.

The SEC's regular season has been crazy so far. Now it's time to see whether it ends with a flourish.

Friday, Nov. 28

2:30 p.m.

Arkansas at No. 17 Missouri, CBS: All right, Missouri, you've been doubted all season. You've been knocked as soft on defense and woefully inconsistent on offense. You were laughed out of the room when you lost to Indiana. But here you are a win away from claiming the Eastern Division crown for a second straight season. The only thing standing in your way is Arkansas, which has won back-to-back SEC games in convincing fashion.

Saturday, Nov. 29

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsCan South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier notch his sixth straight win over Clemson?
Noon

Kentucky at No. 22 Louisville, ESPN2: If Mark Stoops' Kentucky Wildcats are going to reach a bowl game ahead of schedule, it's not going to be easy. It would mean breaking a five-game losing streak on the road at Louisville, which would easily be their most impressive win of the season. The problem is the Cardinals boast one of the best defenses in the country.

South Carolina at No. 21 Clemson, ESPN: There's not a lot on the line for either team other than pride, which is good because there's plenty of it in this rivalry. The back-and-forth between Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney the past few years has been worth the price of admission, and on Saturday we'll find out whether the Head Ball Coach can extend his winning streak over Clemson and Swinney to six games.

No. 16 Georgia Tech at No. 9 Georgia, SEC Network: If Missouri somehow loses to Arkansas and gives Georgia the Eastern Division title, that's not the end of the story. Because if the Bulldogs want to somehow sneak back into the playoff conversation, it will take more than backing into Atlanta. It will take beating Georgia Tech convincingly, and that won't be easy seeing as the Yellow Jackets average 327.9 yards per game rushing and have won four games in a row.

3:30 p.m.

No. 4 Mississippi State at No. 19 Ole Miss, CBS: Talk about two teams going in opposite directions. On the one hand, there's Ole Miss, which fell deeper into the dumps last week by losing at Arkansas 30-0. On the other hand, there's Mississippi State, which redeemed itself after a tough loss at Alabama by beating Vanderbilt 51-0. With the Bulldogs playing for a spot in the playoff and the Rebs playing for pride, it's clear which team has the greater inspiration to win the Egg Bowl.

Florida at No. 3 Florida State, ESPN: Speaking of inspiration, it will be interesting to see how Florida comes out for coach Will Muschamp's final time leading the Gators. Will his end be Ron Zookian? Or will it be one final, unceremonious note? While that's unclear, one thing is certain: Florida State likes to make things interesting. The Seminoles have struggled against teams they were supposed to blow out before. Could we be looking at a repeat?

4 p.m.

Tennessee at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: Not a lot of people thought Tennessee would make a bowl game this year. Not with a schedule that included tough nonconference games against Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma. But lo and behold, the Vols are one game away from bowl eligibility, and the only opponent left is Vanderbilt. Easy, right? It should be, seeing as the Commodores haven't won an SEC game all season.


7:45 p.m.

No. 15 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama, ESPN: The best Auburn can hope for is to play the role of spoiler, to crush Alabama's dreams of an SEC title and a playoff berth with one final regular-season swing. And in a rivalry as intense as the Iron Bowl, that might be enough. But the fact of the matter is Auburn just isn't playing good football these days. Alabama has won huge games against LSU and Mississippi State in recent weeks, while Auburn has fallen woefully flat with losses to Texas A&M and Georgia.

SEC has been entertaining in 2014

November, 24, 2014
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Whether you love the SEC or not, it's hard to argue against its entertainment value in 2014. The cannibalization of the SEC West and the mostly miserable play of the SEC East provided followers with two hotly contested divisional races that are coming down to the final weekend.

We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.

There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFor Dak Prescott and Mississippi State, plenty will be on the line in the Egg Bowl on Saturday.
 Offense was supposed to be down with so many seasoned quarterbacks gone, but 13 teams are scoring more than 27 points per game and eight are averaging more than 421 yards per game.

The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.

The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.

From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.

But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.

Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.

Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...

The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.

Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.

Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.

South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.

Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.

Go figure.

The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
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Saturday feels a little like the calm before the storm in the SEC. There are eight games on the docket, including a couple of intriguing matchups, and yet everybody is already talking about the rivalry games next week. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a preview of this Saturday’s slate. All times ET.

Noon Eastern Kentucky at Florida, SEC Network: It might be a bit strange to see Will Muschamp on the sideline Saturday considering he won’t be back at Florida next season, but he’s staying on to coach the team’s last two regular-season games. How will the players respond to a coach who’s on his way out? Based on Dante Fowler Jr.'s tweet this week, I'd expect them to come out and play hard for their coach. Also, the Gators become bowl eligible with a win.

South Alabama at South Carolina, ESPN3: Raise your hand if you had South Alabama becoming bowl eligible before South Carolina this season. If your hand is raised, you’re lying. Credit the job Joey Jones has done in his sixth season with the Jaguars, but don’t expect an upset on Saturday. The Gamecocks bounced back from that excruciating overtime loss to Tennessee with a solid, come-from-behind win in the Swamp last weekend.

Charleston Southern at No. 10 Georgia, SEC Network: If there was ever a week to give Nick Chubb a break, this would be it. With Todd Gurley out for the season, Chubb is once again the man in Georgia’s backfield, but fellow freshman Sony Michel is expected to return Saturday, and both he and Brendan Douglas should see plenty of carries. All three backs could be in for a big day against the Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss will have a tough matchup Saturday against an Arkansas defense fresh off a shutout win over LSU.
3:30 p.m. No. 8 Ole Miss at Arkansas, CBS: After last weekend, Ole Miss still has a chance to win the SEC West. Auburn knocking off Alabama isn’t likely, but crazier things have happened. First, though, the Rebels have to take care of business Saturday against an Arkansas team that is dangerous at home and confident after winning its first conference game in over two years. The Razorbacks allowed a total of 31 points to Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU this season. That doesn’t bode well for Bo Wallace, who will be without top target Laquon Treadwell. With rain in the forecast, points might be hard to come by in this one.

4 p.m. Western Carolina at No. 1 Alabama, SEC Network: The Alabama basketball team had trouble with the Catamounts earlier this week, but I don’t expect much of a struggle for the football team on Saturday. Western Carolina might be a “good little team,” as Nick Saban put it, but the Crimson Tide have dominated all three previous meetings and should do the same this season. If anything, it will give us another look at backup quarterback Jake Coker.

7 p.m. Samford at No. 14 Auburn, ESPNU: There are a lot of connections between these two in-state schools. Samford coach Pat Sullivan won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn back in 1971. Samford assistant coach Kodi Burns played and coached at Auburn. And Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent a year at Samford before joining Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. The game itself won’t be very entertaining, but it should get the Tigers back on track.

7:30 p.m. No. 20 Missouri at Tennessee, ESPN: Missouri has to lose, right? There’s no way the Tigers can get back to Atlanta for the second straight season. Consider this -- Gary Pinkel’s team has won 12 of its past 14 conference games and has won nine straight road games, including seven straight in the SEC. Maybe it’s time we start taking this team seriously. The Tigers are going to have their hands full Saturday against a Tennessee team on the rise. The Volunteers have won back-to-back games with Joshua Dobbs under center, and a win over Missouri would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Vanderbilt at No. 4 Mississippi State, SEC Network: Dan Mullen was a happy man Tuesday when the latest College Football Playoff rankings came out, as his Bulldogs were still among the four playoff teams despite losing to Alabama the week before. Now the question is: Can they stay in the top four and hold off teams such as TCU, Ohio State and Baylor? Mississippi State has two chances left to impress the committee, beginning with Saturday’s tilt against the Commodores. It’s important the Bulldogs not only win, but win big.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 11

November, 7, 2014
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Is Alabama ripe for an upset in Death Valley? Can Texas A&M and Georgia regroup? Will Florida keep it going after last week's surprising win over Georgia? We'll learn the answers to those questions this weekend around the SEC.

Here's an advance look at Saturday's slate. All times Eastern.

Noon

[+] EnlargeJarrad Davis, Neiron Ball
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators will look to build off their win over rival Georgia.
Presbyterian at No. 11 Ole Miss, SEC Network: The Rebels are smarting after losing two in a row and plummeting from their No. 3 ranking of just a couple of weeks ago. They'll have to regroup without star receiver Laquon Treadwell, who suffered a season-ending leg injury late in last week's loss to Auburn. This is a good time to do that, with key games against Arkansas and Mississippi State still to play. Presbyterian is a fine FCS program, but the Blue Hose lost by a combined 97-3 margin to FBS programs Northern Illinois and N.C. State earlier this season.

No. 20 Georgia at Kentucky, ESPN: Georgia had a clear path to the SEC East title before its face-plant last week against Florida. Not only did the Bulldogs lose to a program that was flatlining, but they were beaten handily. Kentucky has lost three straight and seems to be in the middle of a late-season fade after getting off to a 5-1 start, but Georgia frequently struggles in Lexington. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if this game remains close in the second half.

3:30 p.m.

Texas A&M at No. 3 Auburn, CBS: In the last month, some of the shine has come off of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's diamond. The Aggies started October ranked sixth in the Associated Press Top 25 before a three-game losing streak dropped them all the way out of the poll. Thanks to their recent offensive struggles and underwhelming defense, they're a three-touchdown underdog as they travel to Auburn. Sumlin could prove a lot about his leadership skills by pulling the upset -- or even keeping this one competitive. They have the offensive firepower to give Auburn's defense problems, but freshman quarterback Kyle Allen still has a long way to go.

4 p.m.

Tennessee-Martin at No. 1 Mississippi State, SEC Network: This is another well-timed FCS game. The Bulldogs limped past Arkansas 17-10 last weekend when Will Redmond picked off a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds. This will be a good opportunity to rest up in advance of a closing stretch that features road games at Alabama (where Mississippi State almost never wins) and Ole Miss (home-field advantage is typically a big deal in the Egg Bowl). The Bulldogs need to be as close to 100 percent as possible to retain that No. 1 ranking.

7:30 p.m.

Florida at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: Florida and Vandy both cruised to wins last week. The Gators' win came against then-No. 11 Georgia and the Commodores' victory was over Old Dominion, which is in its first true season as an FBS program. Florida ran straight over Mark Richt's Bulldogs, providing a rare happy moment for embattled coach Will Muschamp. Surely the Gators will try to turn this trip into the second installment of the Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor Show. Vandy has played better since redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary took over at quarterback -- he tossed five touchdowns last week against ODU -- but the Commodores are still underdogs to notch their first SEC victory.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Alabama at No. 16 LSU, CBS: The conference's marquee game comes Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, where meetings between Nick Saban's Crimson Tide and Les Miles' Tigers have all become instant classics. Alabama has won two of those three meetings in Baton Rouge -- and three straight in the series -- so it enters as the favorite. However, LSU's young roster has finally seemed to settle into place as the Tigers ride a three-game winning streak. If they can move the ball effectively on the ground against Alabama's SEC-best run defense, this could be another memorable installment in the series.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
11/02/14
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Saturday's SEC games were loaded with players who deserved helmet stickers, including Arkansas' Hunter Henry (seven catches for 110 yards) and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace (341 passing yards, 2 TDs, 61 rushing yards, TD) in losing causes.

We should also mention the impacts that Mississippi State defensive back Will Redmond (intercepted a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 17-10 win over Arkansas), Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (notched 3.5 sacks to bring his season total to 11, a new record for SEC freshmen) and Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary (matched a school record with five touchdown passes) made on their teams' respective wins, but we can only make five sticker picks.

Here are our choices from another memorable Saturday in college football's toughest conference:

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: We easily could have gone with running back Cameron Artis-Payne (27 carries, 143 yards, TD) or receiver Sammie Coates (five catches, 122 yards, TD), but we'll take Marshall. The senior coolly led the Tigers back from a 10-point deficit in the second half by repeatedly converting on third down (the Tigers were 5-for-7 in the second half) against No. 4 Ole Miss. Marshall led the No. 3 Tigers to a huge SEC win by completing 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushing for 50 yards and two scores.

QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: Making his first start of the season, the sophomore helped Tennessee rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the last five minutes of regulation and then beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime. Dobbs set a new single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (166 yards, including touchdowns of 7, 36 and 3 yards) and passed for 301 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He hit Jason Croom with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

WR Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Normally we wouldn't hand a helmet sticker to a guy on a losing team, but Cooper can't play defense, too. He caught 11 passes for a school-record 233 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 85 yards. He ran for an 11-yard score. He tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds. And he even recovered a late onside kick. South Carolina surrendered 645 yards to Tennessee, which obviously put a damper on the evening for the Gamecocks, but Cooper was simply phenomenal.

Florida's running game: We're not just giving stickers to running backs Kelvin Taylor (25 carries for 197 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 65 yards) and Matt Jones (25 carries for 192 yards and touchdowns of 44 and 1 yards) in Saturday's 38-20 rout of No. 11 Georgia. Florida's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, helping their tailback tandem roll up most of the Gators' 60 rushing attempts for 418 yards. Only one opponent (Auburn with 430 yards in 1978) has ever run for more yards against a Georgia defense. Everyone involved with Florida's running game deserves recognition after Saturday's upset win.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri: The Tigers' offense was slightly improved in Saturday's 20-10 win against Kentucky, but the day belonged to Ray and the defense. Ray notched a pair of sacks -- including a fourth-down sack of Patrick Towles on Kentucky's final play -- to raise his season total to 12. In the process, he broke Missouri's single-season record of 11.5 sacks previously held by Aldon Smith and Michael Sam.

Happy Halloween in the SEC

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
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Gather round, ravenous SEC fans, for today marks the last day before the league devours itself. It's only fitting that the eve of what could be a gruesome month of southern cannibalization falls on Halloween.

All the playoff love could all come crashing down in the next few weeks, as the SEC feeds on itself. By the 30th of next month, the league could look like a horde of pesky zombies from "The Walking Dead."

It's a scary good time in the SEC, but if you can't stand the sight of carnage, maybe you should cover your eyes and turn on the lights before your dreams are haunted with carcasses of elephants, tigers and bears.

In honor of teeth gnashing into flesh, here's how you celebrate Halloween -- and NICK SABAN'S BIRTHDAY!! -- in the SEC:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Butch DillThere are two holidays in some sectors of SEC country on Oct. 31: Halloween and Nick Saban's birthday.
Godzilla: Not a horror movie icon, but he's easily the greatest, most destructive monster ever. Kinda reminds me of the way Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott manhandles defenses. Like Godzilla, he's been virtually unstoppable this season. Prescott is undefeated, has 2,393 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns, and is the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

"Jaws": Aptly named the "Landsharks," Ole Miss' defense has been terrifyingly good this season. It's barely allowing 300 yards of offense a game and gives up an SEC-low 4.35 yards per play. This group also tops the SEC and ranks second nationally with 24 takeaways.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street": Will the Gators ever wake up from this grisly nightmare? Things were supposed to be better with a fresh start after last year's injury-plagued season, but Florida is 3-3, has an offense in reverse and is in danger of missing out on a second straight bowl appearance. Will Muschamp is also coaching for his job, and faces Georgia next ...

"Children of the Corn": Like the twisted youngsters that resided in Gatlin, Nebraska, the LSU Tigers should be feared. One of the youngest teams around, its's scary how freakishly good these guys look when they put everything together. They aren't perfect, but they beat No. 3 Ole Miss and are getting better and maturing. A night in Baton Rouge truly is terrifying for intruders.

Cujo: These Georgia Bulldogs really do have bite. You might even say they're possessed, they're playing so well. Since that ugly loss to South Carolina, the Dawgs have reeled off five straight wins, most of them in convincing fashion. The defense is playing out of its mind, and the offense is clicking even without Todd Gurley.

Pinhead: Don't let the name full you; he's one of the most sinister horror movie villains around. The bone-chilling star of the "Hellraiser" movies is kinda like Les Miles in the way he tortures his victims. Woeful opponents venture into a stadium looking to challenge Miles, only to be be sucked into a wicked realm of pain and confusion. He's diabolical, yet very intriguing and extremely dangerous.

"Night of the Living Dead:" What happened to Vanderbilt? The Commodores used to be so vibrant and exciting. Now, they're lifeless and stumbling around the bottom of the SEC under new coach Derek Mason, with no bowl hopes in sight. After back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin, Vandy is 2-6 and owns the SEC's worst offense. George A. Romero would be proud.

"Jeepers Creepers": It's becoming harder and harder to watch Missouri's offense and the downward spiral of Maty Mauk's play, but the Tigers keep winning. Like the Creeper lurking rural back roads, the Tigers are dangerous but rough on the eyes. Even at 6-2 and a game out of first place in the SEC East, the Tigers are last in the league in total offense in conference games (232.8) and 11th in scoring (21.8). Mauk is averaging 97 passing yards and has five interceptions to two touchdowns in league play.

Michael Myers: No one terrorizes opposing backfields -- as Myers did the hapless folks of Haddonfield, Illinois -- better than Missouri defensive end Shane Ray. While he doesn't stalk his prey with slow, stealthy movements, Ray is even more dangerous because of how fast he gets to quarterbacks. He leads the SEC with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

Jason Voorhees: Alabama just won't go away. This team certainly isn't the same as past championship contenders, but it's threatening and is still on the playoff/SEC path. Jason had sloppy moments, too, but you could never count him out for a valiant return.

Trick: Remember when we thought South Carolina would win the SEC East? Well, the Gamecocks are all but out of race with four losses, and the defense's numbers have been gruesome in conference play. South Carolina allows 457.5 yards per game and nearly 40 points a contest.

Treat: The state of Mississippi has lost just once, has two teams ranked in the top four and could find its way into the first College Football Playoff. Kentucky has five wins and is on the verge of making a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 10

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
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Ready for the weekend? Here's a glance at the SEC slate. All times Eastern:

Noon

Louisiana-Monroe at Texas A&M, SEC Network: This is what the doctor ordered for the Aggies, who are coming off a three-game losing streak, including their second-worst loss in school history (a 59-0 embarrassment in Alabama). Louisiana-Monroe won't be intimidated, because it has played two other SEC teams on the road this year (LSU and Kentucky). It will likely matter little. The thing to watch in this game is who starts at quarterback for the Aggies: Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill (it's sounding as though Allen will get the nod, his first after Hill started the previous eight, though A&M won't make the decision publicly known until its first offensive possession Saturday).

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
AP Images/John RaouxThe Gators turn to true freshman QB Treon Harris to break Florida's three-game losing streak against the Bulldogs.
Florida at No. 11 Georgia, CBS: Georgia is going for its fourth straight win in this rivalry and if the Bulldogs get it, it'll be the first four-game winning streak over the Gators in this series since 1983, when they capped off a six-game winning streak. And if they're able to, expect the Will Muschamp talk to only intensify. The Florida coach's days in Gainesville seem to be numbered. The Gators have made a quarterback change though, giving true freshman Treon Harris the start for this one. So that provides some intrigue for the Gators while the Bulldogs try to strengthen their hold on the SEC East lead.

4 p.m.

Kentucky at Missouri, SEC Network: This should be one of the most compelling games of the day. Kentucky is still seeking that sixth win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats lost last week but competed admirably against No. 1 Mississippi State. Missouri is looking to stay within reach of Georgia in the SEC East Division race but the Tigers have been up and down this season. They've won their past two thanks to their defense and special teams but the offense has left much to be desired of late.

7 p.m.

No. 3 Auburn at No. 4 Ole Miss, ESPN: Make no bones about it, this is the game of the day (or night, rather). It's basically a College Football Playoff elimination game, as the loser would have a rough time trying to sneak back into the top four. Ole Miss is coming off its first loss, a 10-7 heartbreaker to LSU in Death Valley; Auburn had to shoot it out with South Carolina to escape with a 42-35 home win last week. You have Auburn, one of the league's premier offenses, going against Ole Miss' Landshark D. And two innovative coaches (Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn) who started from the bottom -- now they're here. Should be a blast.

Old Dominion at Vanderbilt, ESPNU: With no SEC wins and a rough first season for its new coach, Vanderbilt needs all the positives it can get. That means a win here would be nice, regardless of the fact that it's a nonconference game against a Conference USA team. The quarterback carousel continues for the Commodores as redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary became the team's fourth starting quarterback this year. Fortunately, he showed some signs of promise in the loss to Missouri, throwing two touchdowns, and will get the nod again, though Derek Mason noted Patton Robinette could see some time as he recovers from an injury. Old Dominion comes into this game having lost four straight.

7:15 p.m.

Arkansas at No. 1 Mississippi State, ESPN2: Mississippi State has been No. 1 for a few weeks in the polls, but it is in the driver's seat officially now, holding the No. 1 ranking in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings. The pressure will undoubtedly increase each week as the Bulldogs get closer; it will be compelling to see how the Bulldogs handle it. This week's challenge is Arkansas, a team still seeking its first SEC win of the Bret Bielema era but a squad that has given other SEC West foes headaches, taking Alabama and Texas A&M down to the wire. Mississippi State has won 10 straight; Arkansas' SEC skid is now at 16.

7:30 p.m.

Tennessee at South Carolina, SEC Network: Both teams are having a rough go at it this year but when these two met at Neyland Stadium last year, it was quite memorable. South Carolina came in ranked as the No. 11 team nationally but Tennessee pulled off a 23-21 win with a 19-yard field goal from Michael Palardy as time expired. Butch Jones did not publicly announce who is starting at quarterback for this game (Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs are the options) and the Vols are still seeking their first SEC win of the season. South Carolina is looking to snap a three-game SEC skid and it's a wonder if we'll see some more fourth-down magic from Steve Spurrier, whose Gamecocks went 5-for-6 on fourth down last week.

SEC Week 10 predictions

October, 30, 2014
10/30/14
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After everyone agreed on all of the picks last week (probably the last time we all doubt Les Miles in Death Valley at night), we're back with some differences of opinion. The headliner is obviously Ole Miss-Auburn, but there are several other games worth watching closely, including Florida-Georgia, with Will Muschamp trying to save his job. Let's get on with the picks.

Why Georgia wins big: Even without Todd Gurley lining up for Georgia, the Bulldogs still have an absolute stud in freshman Nick Chubb. In two games as a starter, Chubb has rushed for 345 yards and three touchdowns. The kid just tosses people around out there and certainly has a little Gurley in him. Florida is starting the Treon Harris era at quarterback, but the offense has been lousy for the better part of the season, while Georgia's defense is on a roll. It'll be tight early, but Georgia pounds away in the second half. Georgia 28, Florida 14 -- Edward Aschoff

How Florida keeps it close: This is Harris' game at quarterback, and he certainly provides more of a spark than Jeff Driskel. If Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor can run the football and negate some of the pressure from Georgia's talented pass-rushers, Florida could have some success moving the football. If they can even out the time of possession battle, you'll see a much more effective defense from the Gators. Georgia 21, Florida 13 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Kentucky wins: Missouri just can't seem to get it together. Just look at last weekend's game against Vanderbilt. Sure, the Tigers won, but not convincingly. And Kentucky is no Vanderbilt. The Wildcats gave Mississippi State a run for its money and beat South Carolina a few weeks ago. With a true playmaker at quarterback and a better-than-expected defense, Kentucky will give Missouri fits on both sides of the ball and win on the road. Kentucky 30, Missouri 20 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Missouri wins: Ever since a 34-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia, the Tigers have looked shaky, especially on offense. But things are gradually getting better as quarterback Maty Mauk re-learns how to take care of the ball. This game offers the improving Wildcats a plum opportunity to show they can win conference games. But look for the home team to squeeze out a hard-fought victory. Missouri 26, Kentucky 23 -- Jeff Barlis

Why Ole Miss wins: The Rebels were injected with some playoff hope after the first batch of College Football Playoff rankings were announced. That should energize a team that lost an ugly one at LSU. Bo Wallace has to regroup, and he has to follow what his coaches tell him. The Rebels haven't had a consistent running game all season, but Auburn's pass defense ranks 75th nationally, and that should help Wallace regroup after a bad showing in Baton Rouge. Watching Ole Miss' defense try to tackle Auburn's running game might be the highlight of the day. A late turnover will seal it for the Rebels. Ole Miss 31, Auburn 28 -- Edward Aschoff

Why Auburn wins: Ole Miss' sideline was like a M*A*S*H unit last week against LSU, with multiple key players leaving with injuries. Even if most of those guys play Saturday -- and it looks like they will -- the Rebels aren't going to be at 100 percent against arguably the best offense they'll face all season. If Wallace doesn't play better than he did a week ago, Auburn might win easily. Ole Miss' quarterback is the X factor here, and I suspect he'll fare well against Auburn's mediocre defense at home, but the Tigers have way more firepower at their disposal right now. Auburn 31, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching

Why Mississippi State wins big: Playing its first game with the No. 1 ranking, Mississippi State came out tight against Kentucky. Dan Mullen even admitted that. Look for the Bulldogs to play more relaxed at home Saturday in front of the familiar sound of cowbells clanging. They’re the No. 1 team in the country, and Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the defense will prove it against the Razorbacks. Mississippi State 35, Arkansas 14 -- Greg Ostendorf

How Arkansas keeps it close: It should be a triumphant return to Davis Wade Stadium for the nation's No. 1 team, but things aren't perfect for the Bulldogs. Kentucky's offense exposed some issues with the MSU secondary. While Arkansas doesn't have the same caliber of passing attack, the Hogs do have a stable of talented runners, a veteran quarterback and two good tight ends. Mississippi State 37, Arkansas 26 -- Jeff Barlis

More unanimous picks:

Texas A&M over UL Monroe: The big storyline will be who starts at quarterback for Texas A&M, Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? Either way, the Aggies should roll against a lesser opponent. Texas A&M 52, UL Monroe 14

South Carolina over Tennessee: Steve Spurrier won’t have to go for it on every fourth down against the Vols, but don’t be surprised if he still has a few tricks left up his sleeve. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four games in this series. South Carolina 35, Tennessee 24

Vanderbilt over Old Dominion: Vandy is looking for its third win of the season, but it won’t come easy against Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his 54 career touchdown passes. Vanderbilt 31, Old Dominion 28

Standings
Edward Aschoff: 64-11
Greg Ostendorf: 64-11
Jeff Barlis: 63-12
Chris Low: 63-12
David Ching: 62-13
Alex Scarborough: 61-14
Sam Khan Jr.: 57-18

SEC viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
10/24/14
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A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

UAB at Arkansas, SEC Network: Bret Bielema will have to wait at least one more week before notching that first SEC victory, but after three straight losses, this Arkansas team needs a win in the worst way. It’s not like the Razorbacks are playing poorly. Even Saturday, after falling apart in the first half, they didn’t give up. They responded in the second half and outplayed Georgia the final 30 minutes. That first conference win is coming. In the meantime, Arkansas can’t afford to overlook UAB. The Blazers put up 34 points on No. 1 Mississippi State earlier in the season, so they’re at least capable of getting in the end zone.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDak Prescott threw for 268 yards and ran for 33 last season in a 28-22 home victory over Kentucky.
3:30 p.m.

No. 1 Mississippi State at Kentucky, CBS: What happened to Kentucky? This game was shaping up to be one of the biggest games in program history – a top-25 matchup, a chance to take down the No. 1 team in the country – and then it all fell apart at LSU on Saturday. Losing close is one thing, but the Wildcats were dominated in Death Valley. The good news is that they can still take down No. 1 this weekend as this will be Mississippi State’s first game since taking over the top spot. For the Bulldogs, it’s a chance to prove they’re worthy of No. 1 and it’s another opportunity for Dak Prescott to shine in front of a national audience.

4 p.m.

Vanderbilt at Missouri, SEC Network: A week after everybody left Missouri for dead, the Tigers are back in the SEC East race and rolling after a 42-13 win at Florida. The defense feasted on the Gators’ offense, forcing six turnovers and taking two back for touchdowns. That’s bad news for Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary, who will be making his first start for the Commodores. In his first action since the season opener, McCrary went 10-of-16 for 169 yards with one touchdown and one interception Saturday against Charleston Southern. But that was Charleston Southern. This is Missouri. Good luck Mr. McCrary.

7:15 p.m.

No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU, ESPN: Don’t assume that Ole Miss is going to just go to Baton Rouge and handle its business. Yes, the Rebels have arguably the top defense in the SEC. And yes, they’re ranked No. 3 for a reason. But winning on the road at LSU is no easy task. Just ask Les Miles, who is 45-4 as LSU coach in night games at Tiger Stadium. There’s something special about when the sun sets over Death Valley. So don’t be surprised if this game is close in the fourth quarter, and it’s up to Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to make a play. Wallace did account for more than 350 yards and four touchdowns at LSU two years ago.

7:30 p.m.

No. 4 Alabama at Tennessee, ESPN2: Thank you, Lane Kiffin, for infusing a little life back into this rivalry. He made it interesting back in 2009 when his Tennessee team nearly knocked off the eventual national champs, and he’s doing it again this year with his return to Knoxville as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. You can bet the fans will be a little more rowdy in welcoming Kiffin back to Neyland Stadium on Saturday. But despite all the hoopla surrounding Kiffin, there’s still a game to be played. Alabama comes in as a heavy favorite, and the Vols could be in trouble if quarterback Justin Worley isn’t able to play.

South Carolina at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Gus Malzahn admitted this week that he wears a visor every game because of Steve Spurrier. That’s how much respect and admiration he has for the Head Ball Coach. On Saturday, Malzahn will face Spurrier for the first time as a head coach in a game that Auburn has to win for its playoff hopes. The Tigers are coming off a loss to Mississippi State, and this is their first of four SEC games in four weeks. Meanwhile, South Carolina has not delivered on the preseason hype. A top-10 team before the season, the Gamecocks are barely above water at 4-3.

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