NCF Nation: Barrett Jones

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”

SEC all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
10:30
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It’s time to celebrate the best of the best in the SEC during the BCS era.

So what we’ve done is taken on the monumental task of selecting an All-SEC team from the BCS era, which officially ended last Monday with Florida State’s 34-31 victory over Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

To be eligible, a player had to have played at least one season in the SEC at any time between 1998 and 2013. More weight was given to those players who had longer careers and displayed consistency over the course of their careers.

Before the second-guessing commences, there were some spectacular players -- even a few players who won national awards such as the Heisman Trophy -- that were left off this team.

Nonetheless, it’s one star-studded team.

Here’s a look:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTim Tebow accounted for more touchdowns than any player in SEC history.
QB -- Tim Tebow, Florida: A tough call at quarterback, but Tebow had a hand in two national championships, won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and accounted for more touchdowns (145) than anybody in league history.

RB -- Mark Ingram, Alabama: In 2009, Ingram became the first Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy with a 1,658-yard rushing season. He rushed for 42 career touchdowns, breaking Shaun Alexander's school record.

RB -- Darren McFadden, Arkansas: A two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award, McFadden averaged 120.8 rushing yards per game for his career, second only to Herschel Walker and Emmitt Smith in the SEC.

WR -- A.J. Green, Georgia: He combined speed, size and incredible body control to haul in 23 touchdown catches in 31 career games. Green caught more than 50 passes in each season from 2008 to 2010.

WR -- Josh Reed, LSU: The Biletnikoff Award winner as the top receiver in the country in 2001, Reed hauled in 17 touchdown catches in his last two seasons. He set the SEC single-season record in 2001 with 1,740 receiving yards.

TE -- Jason Witten, Tennessee: It’s hard to beat Witten in any era as both a receiving and blocking tight end. He had seven career touchdown catches, including five during his All-SEC junior season in 2002.

AP -- Percy Harvin, Florida: Harvin was Mr. Everything for the Gators on their 2008 national championship team and a two-time All-American. He finished his career with 32 touchdowns (19 rushing and 13 receiving).

OL -- Shawn Andrews, Arkansas: Andrews is the last player to win the Jacobs Award as the SEC’s top blocker in back-to-back seasons (2002 and 2003). The Hogs’ massive offensive tackle was a consensus All-American in both of those seasons.

OL -- Barrett Jones, Alabama: Jones was a part of three national championship teams at Alabama and started at every position on the line but left guard during his career. He won the Rimington Trophy in 2012 as the country’s top center and won the Outland Trophy a year earlier as the Tide’s left tackle.

OL -- Marcus McNeill, Auburn: A two-time All-America selection at offensive tackle, McNeil paved the way for the Tigers' explosive rushing attack and was a huge part of their unbeaten 2004 SEC championship team.

OL -- Chris Samuels, Alabama: The Crimson Tide have been stocked with menacing offensive linemen during their storied history, and Samuels is right there near the top. The big offensive tackle won the Jacobs Award and Outland Trophy in 1999 and helped lead Alabama to an SEC title.

C -- Maurkice Pouncey, Florida: Also a standout guard earlier in his career, Pouncey gravitated to center and won the Rimington Award in 2009 as the nation’s top center. He was a devastating blocker and made 40 starts in 41 career games.

DEFENSE

DL -- Glenn Dorsey, LSU: The most decorated SEC defensive tackle of the BCS era, Dorsey won the Outland Trophy and both the Lombardi and Nagurski awards in 2007. He was the centerpiece of that LSU national championship defense in 2007.

DL -- John Henderson, Tennessee: A two-time All-American, Henderson is one of just five defensive players in the BCS era to win the Outland Trophy (2000) as college football’s most outstanding interior lineman.

[+] Enlarge Jadaveon Clowney
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJadaveon Clowney had 24 sacks in three seasons at South Carolina.
DL -- Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Even though his numbers dipped this season, Clowney remains one of the most disruptive defensive ends to play in the SEC during the BCS era. He finished with 47 tackles for loss, including 24 sacks, in 36 career games.

DL -- David Pollack, Georgia: Pollack joined Herschel Walker as Georgia’s only three-time, first-team All-Americans. He racked up a school-record 36 sacks from his defensive end position and was a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year in helping the Bulldogs win the 2002 SEC title, their first in 20 years.

LB -- C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Mosley is the only player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to have back-to-back 100-tackle seasons and was a part of two national championship teams. He was terrific in coverage and an even better tackler.

LB -- Patrick Willis, Ole Miss: Before he found stardom in the NFL, Willis terrorized the SEC and won the Butkus Award in 2006 as college football’s top linebacker. He was a tackling machine for the Rebels and the quintessential middle linebacker.

LB -- Al Wilson, Tennessee: The heart and soul of Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, Wilson was a playmaking machine at middle linebacker for the Vols. He was a two-time All-SEC selection and consensus All-American his senior season.

CB -- Champ Bailey, Georgia: One of the most versatile players in SEC history, Bailey participated in more than 1,000 plays during the 1998 season and won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player.

CB -- Patrick Peterson, LSU: No matter where Peterson lined up, he was the most explosive player on the field. As a cornerback, few were better. He won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards in 2010 and scored touchdowns three different ways during his career: punt return (two), interception return and return of a blocked field goal.

S -- Mark Barron, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s 2011 national championship defense was dripping with talent, but Barron might have been the best of the bunch. He was a three-time All-SEC selection and two-time All-American.

S -- Eric Berry, Tennessee: Berry was as good in coverage as he was blowing up ball carriers. He won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2009 as the top defensive back in the country and was a finalist the previous year. He finished with 14 career interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK -- Billy Bennett, Georgia: Bennett is the SEC record holder with 87 made field goals from 2000 to 2003. Bennett was equally accurate, connecting on 79 percent of his kicks.

P -- Dustin Colquitt, Tennessee: A finalist for the Ray Guy Award in both 2002 and 2003, Colquitt averaged 43.1 yards a punt during his career. As a junior in 2003, he had 19 punts of 50 yards or longer and 21 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

RS -- Derek Abney, Kentucky: His eight career returns for touchdowns (six punts and two kickoffs) are an SEC record, and six of those came during one season (2002). Abney set seven NCAA records, 11 SEC records and 14 school records.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jim McElwain was searching for the right word to describe it.

"It" being the way the offense is run at the University of Alabama. It was clear in talking with those around the program that the overarching direction of the offense is determined by head coach Nick Saban, whose meticulous, controlling nature has been well documented.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
UA Athletic PhotographyOC Doug Nussmeier has continued to build on Alabama's success on offense. The Crimson Tide's offensive style under Nussmeier has changed very little, if at all, from previous seasons.
But calling the offense Saban's alone was too wide of a stretch for McElwain, who served as his offensive coordinator from 2008-11 and winning two national championships before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State.

"Back when I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to coach there, we sat down and he kind of gave me kind of a philosophy, if that makes sense, a thought process, or a vision, I guess, maybe," he said on the eve of his team's trip to face the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

"The big thing was to figure out what you had and then put it together based upon what team you have," McElwain said.

Unlike many teams in college football that are strictly ground-and-pound or run-and-gun depending upon who is calling the plays, Alabama's offense has been more adaptive, more fluid based upon the strengths of its roster. There's never been an "Air Raid" type of offense under Saban, and there's never been much of a "three yards and a cloud of dust" attack, either, no matter what the national perception has been in the past.

It's been productive, averaging 30 or more points per game in each of the past five seasons. What Saban insists upon is balance and limiting turnovers, according to McElwain.

Though the coaches running the offense have changed multiple times (seven coaching changes to be exact, including three different coordinators), the offense itself has never shifted dramatically. As Saban said upon hiring current offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, "this is Alabama's offense" and that means a power running game, controlling the clock and passing enough to keep the defense honest.

"Are we wholesale changing our offense and going to a whole new system, a whole new terminology?" Saban asked shortly after Nussmeier was hired. "Everybody in the building's got to learn a whole new system because one guy's changed? We're not doing that."

Nussmeier was only half-kidding when he said he wouldn't do anything new at all from the year before, just "change the order we ran them." But the truth is that from Major Applewhite to Jim McElwain to Doug Nussmeier, the style of the offense has changed very little, if at all. Saban's been the one holdover, a known commodity as a defensive mastermind but an unknown in his ability to form an offensive identity. He just happens to look at it from a different perspective.

"What he does is he has a great knack of looking at film, which is what he does, looking at film of the opponent's defense, and really helping you kind of understand what they're trying to take away based on what they're doing," McElwain said. "Inevitably the pieces he brings in, saying you may want to look at something in this design or something like that, they work."

Under Saban, Alabama has never thrown the ball more than its passed. Sixty-three percent of plays were runs in 2008, and that number barely changed over the years to where last season the Tide ran 63.5 percent of the time. The only time UA ever broke the 250 passing yards per game mark was in 2010 when the Tide started off the season as title favorites only to lose three games and wind up in the Capital One Bowl.

There's the idea that Alabama's offense has opened up dramatically and become more explosive in recent seasons, but the numbers show that to be untrue. Instead, it's been same old, same old, as the offense actually had fewer plays of at least 20 yards per game last season than it did the year before (5.43 to 5.46). Points per game went up, but only slightly (38.7 from 34.8 the year before).

"They made the transition very smooth," former UA center Barrett Jones recalled, saying later that it was hard to see McElwain leave going into his senior season. "They did a really good job of letting Coach Nuss bring in some new ideas, but not changing too much because, honestly, it wasn't really broken. We kept a lot of our same verbiage, our same calls, same principals, and just added a few new things, a few wrinkles. … You hardly had to learn any new stuff."

Said McElwain: "I can see the plays and probably what they were called within the system. I think the system is sound fundamentally. I think you pick your places to take your shots. The thing I see is maybe more explosive playmakers on the outside from a collective group than there were before.

"Yet you always have that dynamic that if you're going to load the box, you're going to have guys out there that will make it hurt. And then if you cover those guys, you've got those runners in the backfield with a dominant offensive line, which really helps. I mean, pick your poison."

It's the same offense McElwain would like to run at Colorado State, though he admittedly doesn't quite have the parts to do it. He had to laugh at the talent Saban's assembled through back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes, saying, "If you've got any [running backs] you want to send our way, I'll take them."

McElwain would love to use Saban's blueprint at CSU, but at the same time, he knows that won't be easy, saying, "The one thing I know is that I can't be him -- no one can."

The continuity Saban's been able to establish at Alabama has been second to none, never missing a beat when coaches leave or star players are drafted into the NFL. The production on offense has remained as steady as the tide. McElwain credited that to his unwavering vision, which extends to both sides of the football.

There's a plan in Saban's mind, and it's never changed in seven years at Alabama.

"To me, he's the whole package," McElwain said. "He's hired great coaches who understand what he wants and then go out and execute it."
The first round of the 2013 NFL draft tonight figures to reinforce how talented the league has been over the past few years.

As many as 13 SEC players could go in the first round.

But what about those guys not projected to go in the first round? Who are those players from the SEC expected to go later in the draft who will end up having successful NFL careers?

Keep in mind that Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster wasn’t even drafted.

Edward Aschoff has come up with five SEC players not on everybody’s first-round radar that he thinks he will go on to have successful NFL careers, and I’ve come up with five of my own.

The ATL Kid gets to go first:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: He's long, rangy and saw his stock rise after a solid senior season. Swearinger, who has very good bulk for either safety spot, can be a ballhawk/quarterback of the defense and make plays close to the line inside the box.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIMarcus Lattimore has struggled with injuries, but when healthy he's the type of playmaker teams covet.
2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina: He might have had two major knee injuries, but Lattimore will be an absolute steal for any team that drafts him. It might take him a while to get back up to speed, but we all know that a healthy Lattimore is a tremendous every-down back and is exactly what NFL teams want.

3. Cornelius Washington, DE, Georgia: Washington didn't get a ton of publicity with all the other big names on Georgia's defense, but pro scouts are excited about his potential because of all that athleticism and speed. He'll move to outside linebacker in the NFL and has all the pass-rushing tools to be a stud at the pro level.

4. Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: It's not every day that a former high school cornerback/safety prepares for playing middle linebacker in the NFL, but that's exactly what Bostic is doing. He has good speed in coverage, can blitz and play the run. He also has great field instincts.

5. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Last season wasn't great for Wilson, but he was still able to pass for more than 3,300 yards. He has great mechanics and a real NFL arm. He might start off as a backup, but has the potential to be a solid starter down the road.

Now, it’s my turn:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: We agree on the top guy. Swearinger might have been the most underrated player in the SEC last season. He can play strong or free safety and has a knack for making plays whether he’s in run support or in coverage.

2. Dallas Thomas, OG, Tennessee: Thomas unselfishly moved inside to guard as a senior after starting 25 straight games at left tackle. He’s versatile, tough and has more than held his own against some of the best defensive linemen in the country.

3. Barrett Jones, C, Alabama: He’s certainly not the strongest offensive lineman in the draft and is also coming off foot surgery after gutting it out in the BCS National Championship Game. But you win with people like Jones, who’s proved he can play anywhere you put him on the offensive line.

4. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky: Yes, another offensive lineman and one who probably didn’t get his due the last couple of years because of the Wildcats’ struggles. But he’s a big, powerful guy who will fight you on every down and will play for a long time in the NFL.

5. Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M: This may be a bit of a gamble because Michael has had injury issues and some off-the-field problems. But he has the blend of size, speed and power that all NFL teams are looking for. If he gets in the right situation, look out.
Nick SabanStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama are going for a third consecutive crystal football this season.

They’re all chasing Alabama, and not just in the SEC.

Oregon, USC and Ohio State are. Ditto for Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State.

The Crimson Tide have pocketed three of the past four national championships, including the past two, and are dead-set on winning a few more.

Remember offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio's proclamation after the 42-14 blistering of Notre Dame two months ago in the Discover BCS National Championship Game?

“We’re going for it next year again ... and again and again and again,” Kouandjio said.

It’s the way they roll at Alabama, particularly since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007.

But while everybody else is chasing the Crimson Tide, they’re involved in a chase of their own.

Some might say they’re chasing history. More precisely, they’re chasing a standard, one that is handed down year by year and cuts to the very core of what Saban’s “process” is all about.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is 25-2 since taking over as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback.
“That’s why one of our famous sayings at Alabama is, 'We don’t play football. We live it,'" said quarterback AJ McCarron, who has a chance to win a fourth national championship ring.

“That says a lot about our program and the way Coach Saban handles the guys on our team. You’ve got to be able to handle success, and best way to do that is that every time you step out onto the field, you’re pushing for greatness.”

That pursuit started all over again about 48 hours after Alabama’s players and coaches returned home from South Florida back in January. It resumes in earnest on March 16 when Alabama opens spring practice.

The Crimson Tide will almost certainly start the 2013 season ranked No. 1. No school has won three consecutive outright national championships since Minnesota all the way back in 1934-36, according to the NCAA's official website.

And while the Alabama players have been well-trained to live (and play) in the moment, they’re well aware of what awaits them next season.

The expectations, not to mention the pressure to collect another crystal football, will be enormous.

But they seem to like it that way.

“It’s like Coach Saban always says, ‘We created this beast, so you don’t complain about it,’” said McCarron, who’s 25-2 as a starter. “We set the standard this high. I think it brings the best out of you as a player and as a person on and off the field. You have to carry yourself with that much more pride.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the field or off of it. Everybody’s gunning to beat us, and everybody’s watching us. All eyes are on us at all times. It’s one of the best things about playing here. Everybody expects greatness.”

Linebacker C.J. Mosley, like McCarron, decided to come back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL. In a lot of ways, he’s to Alabama’s defense what McCarron is to the offense.

“We go into every game expecting to get that team’s best,” Mosley said. “We look at it like the regular season is 13 national championship games for every opponent we play, so we know that we’re going to have to play our best every week.”

For the most part, the Crimson Tide have found a way to do that during their historic run.

Still, they’ve needed a little help along the way and have managed to make clutch plays at key times.

They rebounded from a November home loss to Texas A&M last season to reach the BCS National Championship Game after previously unbeaten Oregon and Kansas State both lost the next week. A week earlier, they pulled out a win over LSU on the road thanks to a last-minute touchdown drive.

Had Ohio State not been on NCAA probation last season and ineligible for postseason play, Alabama probably would have been left out of the BCS National Championship Game.

In 2011, the Crimson Tide got a rematch with LSU in the BCS National Championship Game despite not even winning the Western Division title and losing at home to LSU during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images "We go into every game expecting to get that team's best," C.J. Mosley said. "... the regular season is 13 national championship games."
So the ball has bounced Alabama’s way each of the past two seasons. But once on the big stage, the Crimson Tide have proved emphatically that they were the best team in college football.

Getting there may again be the tricky part in 2013. There’s the showdown with Texas A&M in College Station the third week of the season, and there are some key holes to fill on both defense and offense.

Three starters on the offensive line are gone, including All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. The Crimson Tide will also be looking for reinforcements in the defensive secondary. There’s very little depth at cornerback.

“We still have a lot of guys coming back who’ve been in those big games and have the right experience,” McCarron said. “But at the same time, we’re going to need some of these freshmen coming in and some of the sophomores and redshirt freshmen to step up and make some plays for us.

“We’re going to find out who’s ready to do that. You always need new guys to emerge, every year. We’ve got to have guys who can do it on a consistent basis and know that they’re going to be there week in and week out. Nothing’s going to be given to us, and nothing’s going to be easy. We know that.”

If Alabama can get past Texas A&M on Sept. 14, the schedule isn’t too daunting from there. In fact, the Crimson Tide have to leave the state to play only twice more after that -- at Kentucky on Oct. 12 and at Mississippi State on Nov. 16. What’s more, they avoid Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the East next season.

Of course, good luck in getting anybody inside the Alabama locker room to admit that they’ve even thought about looking that far down the road.

But as the chase ensues in 2013 -- on both fronts -- the specter of a potential three-peat will loom large across the entire college football landscape.

“There’s a lot of work to do before anybody starts thinking about that,” Mosley said. “We’re still trying to get a feel for some of the younger guys. We working on putting the standard in their heads and making sure they know what Alabama football is all about.”

Judging by how crowded the trophy case at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility is getting, they tend to learn quickly at the Capstone.

This marks the final year of the BCS, and you better believe the SEC would love to close the BCS era with eight straight titles. It would also ensure that the league has even more momentum going into the playoff, which starts during the 2014 season.

Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.

But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.

Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:

ALABAMA

Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?

TEXAS A&M

Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.

Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.

GEORGIA

Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.

Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.

FLORIDA

Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.

Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.

Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

LSU

Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.

Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.

Where they ranked as recruits: Offense

January, 30, 2013
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We’ve done this exercise for the past several years and it’s always interesting.

Where did the players on the 2012 Associated Press All-SEC team rank as high school prospects by the ESPN recruiting folks?

We’ll start with the offense and take a look at the defense later today.

Notice that some of the most accomplished and decorated players on offense weren’t ESPN 150 members. That includes Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, as well as Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy in 2011 and the Rimington Trophy in 2012.

In fact, of the 12 first-team players on offense, eight were not ranked as ESPN 150 prospects.

Here’s a look back:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M – Three-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2011. Ranked as the No. 39 quarterback prospect nationally. Nine other quarterbacks who signed with SEC schools that year were ranked higher. Among them: Kiehl Frazier (Auburn), Christian LeMay (Georgia), Jerrard Randall (LSU), Justin Worley (Tennessee), Maikhail Miller (Ole Miss), Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Jacoby Brissett (Florida). Manziel was ranked as the No. 97 prospect overall in the state of Texas.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesTodd Gurley was a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia – Four-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2012. Ranked as the No. 22 athlete nationally and the No. 10 prospect overall in the state of North Carolina. Six other players who signed with SEC schools were ranked ahead of Gurley in the state of North Carolina.

RB: Mike Gillislee, Florida – Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 14 running back prospect nationally and the No. 20 prospect overall in the state of Florida. Andre Debose was the Gators’ highest ranked signee from the state of Florida that year at No. 4. Gary Brown was the second highest at No. 7.

WR: Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 50 receiver prospect nationally. That same year, LSU signee Russell Shepard was ranked as No. 1 overall athlete nationally. Among the receivers signing with SEC schools that were ranked higher than Hamilton that year were Andre Debose (Florida), James Green (Tennessee), Zach Rogers (Tennessee), Nu’Keese Richardson (Tennessee), LaVoyd James (Auburn), Lamar Scruggs (South Carolina), Brandon Heavens (Mississippi State), Pat Patterson (Ole Miss) and Kendall Kelly (Alabama).

WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt –Two-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 153 receiver prospect nationally. Matthews became the first student from Madison Academy in Huntsville, Ala., to sign with an SEC program. His other finalists were Mississippi State and Kansas.

TE: Jordan Reed, Florida – Ranked No. 141 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 14 quarterback prospect nationally. Reed started his career at Florida as a quarterback, and after redshirting in 2009, rotated with John Brantley and Trey Burton in 2010. He shifted to tight end in 2011 despite having never played the position before.

AP: Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee – Unranked nationally overall or as a receiver coming out of high school in 2009. He attended North Carolina Tech in 2009, but didn’t play football. He spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and came to Tennessee as the No. 1-ranked junior college receiver prospect in the country.

OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M – A four-star prospect and ranked No. 83 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 6 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Three tackle prospects who signed with SEC schools that year were ranked ahead of him – Ja’Wuan James (Tennessee), Ian Silberman (Florida) and Chaz Green (Florida).

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M – A four-star prospect and ranked No. 90 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 7 offensive tackle prospect nationally and one spot behind eventual teammate Luke Joeckel.

OL: Chance Warmack, Alabama – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 16 offensive guard prospect nationally and ranked as the No. 35 prospect overall that year in the state of Georgia. There were 18 players from the state of Georgia that year signing with SEC schools who were ranked ahead of Warmack.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 125 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Among Southeast recruits that year, Jackson was ranked No. 553. Three players signing with SEC schools that year were ranked in the top 10 nationally among tackle prospects – No. 1 D.J. Fluker (Alabama), No. 5 Austin Long (Georgia) and No. 7 Xavier Nixon (Florida).

C: Barrett Jones, Alabama – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2008. Ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Among Southeast recruits that year, Jones was ranked No. 157. The 2008 class for Alabama was ranked No. 3 nationally and included seven ESPN 150 players, but Jones wasn’t one of them.

Best and worst of the SEC bowls

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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Let’s take a look at some of the best and worst of the SEC bowl season:

Best tackle: It was the best tackle a lot of us have seen -- ever. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney destroyed Michigan running back Vincent Smith just as he was getting the handoff. Smith's helmet came flying off, and the ball popped free. Clowney reached down with his left hand and recovered the ball as if it were a Nerf football in one of those plays they'll still be showing 50 years from now.

Best catch: Chris Boyds twisting, one-handed grab for Vanderbilt's first touchdown. It was initially ruled no catch on the field, then reviewed and ruled a touchdown. Replays showed that Boyd managed to somehow get a toe in on the 5-yard gem of a catch.

Worst play-calling: LSU calling for back-to-back passes that were incomplete after having it second-and-2 at its own 47 with a 24-22 lead in the final minutes. The two incompletions allowed Clemson to save all of its timeouts and get the ball back with 1:39 to play. Nobody needs to remind LSU fans what happened from there. Clemson moved into position for a field goal and stunned LSU 25-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Best (and only) hit on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron: His own center, Barrett Jones, shoving him after they got into an argument over a check at the line of scrimmage and late snap.

Best Rocky impersonation: Jones putting off surgery and playing with a Lisfranc fracture in his foot.

Worst trick play: Florida’s onsides kick to start the second half of the Allstate Sugar Bowl blew up in the Gators’ faces. Not only did Louisville recover, but the Gators were hit with two personal fouls on the play, moving the ball to the Florida 19 and resulting in the ejection of Florida’s Chris Johnson for throwing a punch. Louisville scored a touchdown on the next play.

Best quote: “We’re not going anywhere, so everybody better get used to it. This is the brand new Vanderbilt.” – Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

Best substitution: South Carolina's Dylan Thompson filling in for Connor Shaw after Shaw’s foot problems flared up in the fourth quarter and throwing the game-winning, 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds to play.

Best fans: Legion Field might as well have been Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Ole Miss fans showed up in force, setting a BBVA Compass Bowl attendance record. Just through the Ole Miss ticket office, Ole Miss fans gobbled up more than 23,000 tickets, and the Rebels rewarded them with a 38-17 beatdown of Pittsburgh.

Worst fans: Somebody must have forgotten to tell the Florida fans what day the Sugar Bowl was. Then again, maybe they all stayed out on Bourbon Street. That’s OK, because the team didn’t show up, either, in the 33-23 loss to Louisville.

Best disappearing acts: Florida and LSU’s running games.

Worst prediction: Anybody who picked Notre Dame.

Best performance: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel rolling up an AT&T Cotton Bowl record 516 yards in total offense. So much for a Heisman Trophy hangover for Johnny Football.

Best multi-purpose performance: South Carolina’s Ace Sanders scoring three touchdowns -- two receiving and one on a 63-yard punt return.

Worst rebound attempt: Mississippi State falling flat against Northwestern in a 34-20 TaxSlayer.Com Gator Bowl loss after losing four of its last five games to close the regular season.

Best recovery: After throwing two interceptions in the first quarter, Georgia’s Aaron Murray came back to throw for 427 yards and five touchdown passes in the 45-31 Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska.

The SEC's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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There were some memorable performances in bowl games this season and some not-so-memorable ones.

We’re honoring some of the best individual performances today with our SEC All-Bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M – Just another day at the office for Johnny Football with a Cotton Bowl-record 516 yards of total offense in the 41-13 rout of Oklahoma.

RB: Eddie Lacy, Alabama – He looked like a bulldozer running over Notre Dame defenders on his way to 140 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia – One of the top true freshmen in the country, Gurley ended his first season in style with 125 rushing yards, including a 24-yard touchdown.

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama – Hard to believe Cooper was only a freshman this season. He torched Notre Dame all game and finished with six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

WR: Chris Conley, Georgia – He only caught two passes in the Capital One Bowl, but his 49-yard touchdown tied the game in the third quarter and he followed that up with an 87-yard touchdown catch to seal the deal.

TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia – Ignited the Bulldogs’ scoring outburst in their 45-31 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl with a 29-yard touchdown catch.

AP: Ace Sanders, South Carolina – He was Mr. Excitement all season for the Gamecocks and delivered in the Outback Bowl with two touchdown catches and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown.

OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt – The Commodores’ junior left tackle helped pave the way for Zac Stacy’s 107 rushing yards in the 38-24 win over NC State.

OL: Pierce Burton, Ole Miss – The junior right tackle capped his first season at Ole Miss after coming over from junior college with his best all-around game in the 38-17 beatdown of Pittsburgh.

OL: Chance Warmack, Alabama – The interior of Notre Dame’s defensive front looked like it was getting mashed on just about every play, and Warmack was usually leading the charge from his left guard spot.

OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M – His farewell game at Texas A&M was a memorable one, as Joeckel was dominant one final time at left tackle.

C: Barrett Jones, Alabama – The essence of a team-first player, Jones played like a champ against Notre Dame’s touted front, with a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot.

DEFENSE

DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina – His crushing tackle and forced fumble in the Outback Bowl was the hit heard around the country during the bowl season. He’s the ultimate game-changer on defense.

DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M – Oklahoma’s high-scoring offense was held to 13 points in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Moore was a big reason in his final game in an Aggie uniform.

DL: Sharrif Floyd, Florida – The Gators didn’t have a lot of success getting to Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, but Floyd got to him twice for sacks and also blocked a field goal attempt.

DL: Jesse Williams, Alabama – He was credited with just one tackle in the Discover BCS National Championship, but was a one-man wall in the middle of that Alabama defensive line.

LB: Mike Marry, Ole Miss – One of the Rebels’ strongest leaders all season, Marry racked up four tackles for loss, including a sack, and forced a fumble in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

LB: Kevin Minter, LSU – Even though LSU eventually wore down on defense in its Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Clemson, Minter was sensational with 19 total tackles.

LB: Alec Ogletree, Georgia – Nebraska probably thought Ogletree was in its huddle. He was everywhere in the Capital One Bowl with 13 sacks, including three for loss, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

CB: Dee Milliner, Alabama – Notre Dame kept trying Milliner, and he kept showing why he was one of the top cornerbacks in the college game this season.

CB: Damian Swann, Georgia – Intercepted two passes in Georgia’s 45-31 win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. The first one set up a touchdown, and the second one ended a Nebraska fourth-quarter drive.

S: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt – Had a team-leading 10 tackles and an interception and also returned a fumble 22 yards to set up the Commodores’ second touchdown.

S: D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina – Tied for the team lead with nine tackles in the Outback Bowl to go along with two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Devon Bell, Mississippi State – There wasn’t a lot to cheer about in Mississippi State’s bowl loss, but Bell made both of his field goals from 47 and 27 yards.

P: Richard Kent, Vanderbilt – Kent capped off a terrific season by averaging 46.2 yards on five kicks. Three of his punts were downed inside the 20.

RS: Andre Debose, Florida – Debose’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave the Gators a spark in the fourth quarter, one of the few signs of life in their Allstate Sugar Bowl flop.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.

But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.

It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
Oh, and a not-so-tretcherous schedule won't hurt the Tide's chances either.

But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.

South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.

LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.

The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.

It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.

The defense will lose a lot up front, but linebacker Archibald Barnes and cornerback Trey Wilson are the only other significant losses.

There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
Alabama's Barrett Jones shouldn't just be considered the nation's best center. That just wouldn't be enough. He should now be thrown into the mix for the label of the toughest player in college football.

Everyone knew Jones was battling a sore foot, but the Rimington Award winner said after Alabama's 42-14 romp over Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship that he played the game with torn ligaments in his left foot. Jones suffered the Lisfranc (midfoot) injury in the first quarter of the SEC championship game against Georgia on Dec. 1 and will undergo surgery on Wednesday. He'll likely be out for three to four months.

Jones' foot might not have even been remotely close to 100 percent, but the coaches were probably going to have to tranquilize the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder in order to keep him from playing in or missing any part of Monday night's game.

"They would have had to physically drag me off the field to keep me from playing in this game, and even then, I don't know if that would have worked," Jones said.

He also revealed that he tore a tendon in his right pinkie finger during Monday's game. He was a walking Band-Aid inside Sun Life Stadium, but he refused to let it bother him. While his foot was heavily wrapped and he said pushing off was a bit of a challenge, you could hardly tell watching him push around Louis Nix and whichever linemen came his way.

You could also hardly see it in the 265 rushing yards the Tide churned out.

Jones even had enough in him to push his quarterback after some confusion over the snap count late in the fourth quarter.

Jones was an animal on the field and he basically did it on one foot (again). None of those defenders he has faced will miss him, but he'll certainly be missed around Tuscaloosa. There are few in the game who are the complete package like Jones.

Pregame: BCS National Championship

January, 7, 2013
1/07/13
10:00
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No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0, independent) vs. No. 2 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC)

Who to watch: Keep an eye on Alabama All-American center Barrett Jones, who injured his left foot in the SEC title game against Georgia. If Jones is not close to 100 percent, Louis Nix and the rest of the Notre Dame defensive line likely will reveal that early and often. For Notre Dame, watch how quarterback Everett Golson handles the stage and the Tide's dominant defense. He has grown throughout this season, and how well he improvises could prove to be the difference Monday night.

What to watch: The key matchups will come in the trenches. Jones and Alabama's offensive line have been talked about in legendary terms; Notre Dame's defense leads the nation in scoring. The Irish likely will try to pressure quarterback AJ McCarron in a way that has not been done yet this season. If they can knock him around and force some errant throws early, they will have a strong chance at pulling off the upset.

Why to watch: This is the final game of the college football season, and it is for the crystal football trophy. It is also a matchup of two of America's most popular and historic programs. Will the SEC extend its national title stretch to seven straight years, or will Notre Dame solidify its return to the top of the college football world? No team has won consecutive BCS titles, and Tide coach Nick Saban will try to make it three in the past four years -- and four overall for him -- when he faces Brian Kelly and the Irish.
There are many different ways to measure Jesse Williams' toughness.

For starters, seeing him battle in the trenches of the SEC as a nose guard ranks pretty high on the tough-o-meter. Originally a defensive end in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, Williams moved to the middle this spring, only to endure more pain as more bodies collided with him.

Then there is the plethora of tattoos that covers his body. His arms, neck, chest, legs and hands are drenched in ink, with his most popular one coming on one hand that reads: I stopped checking under my bed for monsters when I realized the monster was me.

[+] EnlargeJesse Williams
Beth Hall/US PresswireAlabama's Jesse Williams finished the regular season with 36 tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack.
There are also paragraphs from a high school coach’s speech written on his left forearm, which is just another impressive way he shows his tolerance for pain.

Or maybe you measure it by the way the 6-foot-4 320-pounder can shimmy his way into an airplane seat and ride for about 24 hours back to his native country of Australia. With the time difference, Williams, who gets back home to Brisbane only once a year and hasn’t spent Christmas there in three years, said he loses about two days flying across the globe.

“It’s a rough trip,” he said, “especially with my size.”

But the freshest way to measure Williams’ toughness is to watch him go from hobbled mess to lead blocking fullback for the Tide in Alabama’s SEC championship victory against Georgia on Dec. 1.

Williams suffered what looked like a rather nasty knee injury in the third quarter. He needed help getting off the field and eventually plopped down on the end of Alabama’s bench alone with a towel draped over his head.

But after his temporary departure, the senior sprang into action, helping running back Eddie Lacy punch in a 1-yard touchdown and later recording the last of his three tackles in the game.

Williams, who didn’t miss any practices or wear a black noncontact jersey, wasn’t trying to prove anything or play hero. He just wanted to play.

“Trying to get back on the field was the only thing,” Williams said. “I don’t try and stand out, I just look to do what I can to help.”

But he does stand out. From his exotic background and look to his ferocious play up front, Williams can’t help but gain attention. It helped him get noticed by the University of Hawaii while he was playing American football back home, and it helped him get even more attention after he decided to go the junior college route.

After two years at Arizona Western College, the former rugby and basketball standout had his pick of colleges. Now, he’s a win against Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship from having his pick of ring designs … again.

This ring might mean even more to the laid-back bully in the middle. Last season, he was a rising star at defensive end, but when he made the move from end to tackle this spring, Williams realized he’d be racking up more bruises than plays. He expected more double-teams and less time on the stat sheet.

He was right. The technique took awhile to master, and so did his role. He was nicked up a little more and finished the regular season with 36 tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Williams said it’s tougher playing nose guard, but he feels he’s showing more versatility and hopes that will help him win an NFL job.

Center Barrett Jones knows Williams will get his shot at creating an NFL future for himself. He has lined up opposite Williams just about every day since the start of spring practice, and he has noticed a total transformation in Williams' game as he continues to understand his position and how offenses plan for him each play.

“He leaves it all on the field, and we really got to a see a shade of just how tough those Australians are,” Jones said.

“When he gets those hands on you, it's hard to really body up on him because he’s got just such strong hands and he can just sling you and get off the ball fast and really get physical with you.”

Williams’ physical nature made him a Twitter sensation this summer after he bench-pressed 600 pounds. That sort of brute strength is not something Williams reserves only for the weight room, Jones said.

“It’s crazy how strong he is, and you can feel that strength on the football field,” he said.

The Internet publicity was nice, but Williams prefers to keep to himself. He doesn’t care to go into detail about his tattoos -- or his move from Australia to the States.

His focus is on the pigskin, and, right now, he’s looking to be as disruptive as possible against a Notre Dame front standing in his way of capturing a second national title in two years.

It’s been an interesting journey for the Aussie, but a win against the top-ranked Irish would be the perfect ending for such a unique career.

“It’s been a long trip, but it’s been a good one so far,” Williams said. “Hopefully, it can end with this last win and see where it goes from there.”

Alabama's Chance Warmack takes charge

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Alabama All-American offensive guard Chance Warmack didn’t need any outside motivation.

He did just fine motivating himself.

“I always told myself that I was average,” Warmack said. “When I was in high school, I just wanted to get a scholarship. When I came to Alabama, I wanted to be All-SEC.

“There’s a big difference in being a good player and being a great player. This is Alabama. Everybody’s great here. That’s something I’m still chasing, probably something I’ll always be chasing. I like playing with a chip on my shoulder.”

[+] EnlargeChance Warmack
AP Photo/Dave MartinChance Warmack was challenged by coach Nick Saban to be a more of a leader during his senior season.
Warmack, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound senior, is a textbook example of the way players develop at Alabama under Nick Saban.

Having played his high school football in Atlanta at Westlake High, Warmack wasn’t offered by Georgia until the last minute. He’d already locked in on Alabama by then and won the starting left guard job by his sophomore season.

A year ago, Warmack might have been the most underrated offensive lineman in college football. He wasn’t even a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.

One of his biggest fans is the guy he plays next to, senior center Barrett Jones, who just happens to be one of the most decorated offensive linemen in Alabama history.

“I’ve been trying to promote Chance for a long time,” Jones said. “It’s all going to pay off for him in April when he’s drafted about 20 picks higher than anybody else.”

Indeed, Warmack is rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft and has established himself as the top interior offensive lineman in the college game.

“He just mashes people and is like having a big tractor clearing the way for you,” said Eddie Lacy, one of two Alabama running backs (along with freshman T.J. Yeldon) to rush for 1,000 yards this season.

It’s the first time in Alabama’s storied history that it’s had two running backs rush for 1,000 yards in the same season, and the first time it’s happened in the SEC since Darren McFadden and Felix Jones both did it at Arkansas in 2007.

“I guess we’re doing something right,” beamed Warmack, who doesn’t allow himself too many pats on the back.

Warmack’s value to the team this season has gone much deeper than just being a road-grader up front. He’s also become a more demonstrative leader.

“He doesn’t talk much. But when he does, everybody listens,” Lacy said.

Jones pulled his blocking mate aside a year ago and challenged him to be more of a leader.

“I just told him if we were going to have success that we needed him to step up and be a leader because we were losing a lot of leaders on our team,” Jones recounted. “In this past year, I’ve seen him become a whole new guy and grow and mature. He was named captain, which was really cool.”

Saban had a similar conversation with Warmack coming into this season.

“Chance has been a good player for a long time, but he was awful quiet,” Saban said. “He was one of those guys focused on doing his job. One day, I said to him, ‘This is your job, affecting other people and being a leader. You’re a senior now. That’s part of your job.’

“I don’t think he ever thought of it that way, but he’s responded like I hoped he would. Sometimes, it’s just the language with guys. They get into a comfort zone and don’t really realize how they can impact other people.”

Jones, who won the Outland Trophy in 2011, was pushing hard for Warmack to win the award this season as college football’s top interior lineman. When the three finalists were announced, Warmack wasn’t one of them, and Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel ended up winning the award.

Jones won the Rimington Award as the top center in college football.

“Barrett had talked to me about how cool it would be if I won the Outland and he won the Rimington,” Warmack said. “But when you look at everything and how it turned out, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m at a great institution, a great program with great coaches and players who care.

“The most important thing to me is what’s in front of us.”

Warmack said the Notre Dame front seven will be as stiff a challenge as Alabama’s offensive line has faced all season.

“They play smashmouth football and I can’t wait,” Warmack said. “It’s an exciting feeling to play a physical opponent who really doesn’t disguise anything.”

It’s also a chance to collect a third national championship ring and make a little history along the way.

Not bad for a guy who started this unforgettable ride with very modest expectations.

“We’ve hoisted that crystal ball up twice, and I’ve seen the work that’s gone into doing that,” Warmack said. “I’ve been blessed enough to be a part of something special that will be even more special when this is all over.

“The thing I want to do is make sure we finish it off the right way.”

Tide unfazed by SEC's bowl hiccups

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
8:00
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The SEC’s performance in bowl games up until this point has been underwhelming, especially for a conference that prides itself on being the best in the country.

What’s that mean for Alabama in Monday night’s Discover BCS National Championship against Notre Dame?

Not a lot, according to the Crimson Tide’s players.

But one of the truisms when it comes to bowl games was reinforced Tuesday night in watching heavy underdog Louisville take apart Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“Once you get there, it’s who plays the better game, not so much who’s the better team,” Alabama senior center Barrett Jones said.

Jones stopped short of singling out the Gators, but his point was clear. LSU also lost to Clemson 25-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, while Mississippi State fell 34-20 to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

“I think we’ve seen in a few bowl games this year, and I’m not going to name any specific names -- and you guys probably know who I’m talking about -- where probably the better team hasn’t won the game,” Jones said. “A lot of that has to do with preparation and the kind of mindset you take into the game.”

In a lot of ways, Florida’s 33- 23 loss to Louisville brought back memories of one of Jones’ worst moments as a college player. Alabama lost 31-17 to Utah in the Sugar Bowl to end the 2008 season.

“Watching (Tuesday night), I couldn’t help but think of 2008, my first bowl game against Utah,” Jones said. “It’s not about who’s the better team. It’s about who fights the better fight that night.”

Junior receiver Kevin Norwood said the Crimson Tide don’t need any reminders about what’s at stake.

“Whenever you get into a bowl game, your record is 0-0 and nobody has won anything,” Norwood said. “It basically depends on which team is the most prepared.”

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