NCF Nation: Bret Bielema

Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
You could hear the commotion in the background as Bret Bielema was handed the phone late Wednesday night. The Arkansas coach has been in the news lately as the most vocal proponent of the now-tabled 10-second rule. Not all of his remarks have gone over well, and he has come under fire for it, becoming a talking point in the media and at watercoolers around the country.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas coach Bret Bielema wants competition at quarterback this spring, though junior Brandon Allen is the favorite to start in 2014.
But the noise on the other end of the line was clearly enthusiastic as Bielema left a Razorback Club event in Central Arkansas, loading into a vehicle that would take him to the airport and back to Fayetteville. He does a number of similar booster club gatherings during the spring, and Wednesday’s event promised to be one of the final get-togethers before spring practice begins Sunday. The message that night: Last season wasn’t a starting point, it was a launching point. Some 500 people filled the room for fried fish and football, a record draw for the event.

“It’s always a little crazy, it just depends what kind of crazy,” Bielema said of the road to spring practice. “But it’s good. I’m excited. I know our kids are.

“A year ago at this time, we were getting to know these kids, trying to know their names. ... Now a year into it we have 88 kids who are going to partake in practice, and 84 of them you’ve seen before.”

Bielema and the Razorbacks are putting last season’s 3-9 finish behind them. In December, the team watched the SEC championship game and the second-year coach asked his players why they couldn't be there in 2014. Auburn and Missouri combined for two SEC wins in 2012 and now they were playing in Atlanta. Only a month earlier, Arkansas threatened a fourth-quarter comeback against Auburn, falling short despite getting almost 200 combined rushing yards from Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

“I really wanted to challenge them that it’s not one but two teams that decided to make a stand,” Bielema said. “And to do that, you need to change your actions. I knew they were going to work hard, they were going to listen, they were going to try and do the things we asked them to do. But maybe off the field they needed to dedicate themselves."

The results, Bielema said, have been positive. He has seen a number of players change physically since then, pointing out Williams in particular. The rising junior has put on 15 pounds and “is actually faster and more limber” than he was before, according to his coach.

Collins, who ran for 1,026 yards as a freshman last season, and Williams will once again make up Arkansas’ tandem at tailback. Fellow tailback Kody Walker will play much more at fullback this spring, switching back and forth between the two positions much like Kiero Small did last season.

With Hunter Henry back at tight end, there’s a good nucleus to build around on offense. Henry had his highs and lows last season, said Bielema, who is hoping for more consistency from his standout freshman. What he’s seen from Henry this offseason has been promising.

“He’s bigger. He’s faster. He’s stronger,” Bielema said. “I think he understands what it means to play in the SEC in an eight-game schedule, and hopefully beyond that.”

For Arkansas to go “beyond that” -- as in, the conference championship or a bowl game -- other players need to step up.

The defense got a boost from the return of defensive end Trey Flowers, who was second-team All-SEC last season. New defensive line coach Rory Segrest will “allow him to play faster and a little more aggressive,” Bielema said. And with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith in place, expect a slightly different look from the defense as a whole.

We'll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it. He's a guy that if he can play we will. If not we'll give him a redshirt year.

Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema on early enrollee quarterback Rafe Peavey.
“If you’re inside the huddle, you’ll hear a lot of things change," Bielema said. "We’re going to try and simplify it for our players and get them lined up quickly and put them in a position to play aggressively.”

Despite its 12th-place SEC finish in points per game allowed last season, the biggest question facing the Razorbacks isn’t defense. Instead, it’s who will start under center.

Brandon Allen started 11 games as a sophomore, ending the season 13th on the SEC leaderboard for passing yards per game (141.1). His double-digit interceptions (10) were the most troubling, though.

Bielema said he wants competition at quarterback this spring, all the while acknowledging that Allen has “gotten stronger” and is the favorite to win the job.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the ones, he’s going to step out there,” Bielema said. “But ... there will be other guys who get opportunity. Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.

“If it’s B.A., that’s great. If it’s not, hopefully that next person is ready.”

Watch out for Rafe Peavey. The four-star prospect enrolled in January and has the tools to push Allen. Bielema likes Peavey's talent and “football junkie” attitude, but Peavey is still just a freshman.

“We’ll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that if he can play, we will. If not, we’ll give him a redshirt year.”

Peavey was just one of a handful of freshmen to enroll early, the four unknowns of the 88 players Bielema referred to earlier on the phone. When Bielema spoke to the Razorback Club that night, much of the talk surrounded recruiting, and with good reason. Approaching the second season of his tenure at Arkansas, Bielema is slowly putting his imprint on the program with the way he brings in players and the changes in attitude on the roster as a whole.

When Arkansas opens camp on Sunday, his message will be much as it was Wednesday night. The record is wiped clean, he’ll say. It’s time to launch forward.

“Don’t worry about what happened yesterday and focus on getting great today. At the end of this stretch we’ll all be better," he said. "We’ll take where we’re at, take all the things that were positive and all the things that were negative, evaluate it and move into the next phase.”
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

5 burning questions: Second-year coaches

February, 28, 2014
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There were four new head coaches in the SEC last season, and it was rough sledding for three of the four.

Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was the obvious exception. He guided the Tigers to the doorstep of a national championship in one of the most remarkable one-season turnarounds we’ve seen in college football.

Auburn’s 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship came on the heels of going winless in the SEC the year before, resulting in the firing of Gene Chizik.

[+] EnlargeDrew Barker
Tom Hauck for Student SportsESPN 300 QB Drew Barker could be the playmaker Kentucky needs on offense.
It didn’t take the Tigers long under Malzahn to pick themselves back up off the ground and become relevant again in the SEC and nationally. They will almost certainly start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls.

For the other three newbies, that road figures to be much trickier as they enter their second seasons in the league.

Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Tennessee’s Butch Jones all suffered through losing seasons in 2013 and none were surprising. They inherited tough situations, and all three played killer schedules.

So what can we expect from Bielema, Stoops and Jones in Year 2 in the SEC? Is it realistic to think that any of the three can get his team to a bowl game in 2014? Here’s a look:

Bielema: The Hogs last won a game in September, a 24-3 win over Southern Miss the third week of the season. That’s nine straight losses, and even with it being Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville, there was more than a little bit of restlessness in Hogville.

Most of the news made around the Arkansas football program in Bielema’s first season was generated by something he said, usually something controversial or something he had to come back and apologize for or explain. See his recent comments on player safety and Cal’s Ted Agu, who died following a training run in February.

The best thing the Hogs have going for them next season is that they’re much more acclimated to the way Bielema wants to play (physical, bully football), and they should also be more equipped. They still need to get faster on defense and will be counting on some young players on that side of the ball. Finding some consistency in the passing game is also a must.

The Hogs are still another recruiting class away from being a postseason lock. Three of their first five games next season are away from home, and making it through those first seven games will be a tall order. It’s a grind that includes dates with Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Texas A&M. The good news is that Auburn is the only true road game. The Hogs will improve on their 3-9 season from a year ago, but making it to a bowl game could still be a stretch.

Stoops: With two impressive recruiting classes under his belt, Stoops has given the Kentucky fans hope in something other than hoops. His most recent class was ranked 20th nationally by ESPN and included eight four-star prospects. Stars aren’t everything in the recruiting process, but swimming in those waters is usually a pretty good indicator that you’re upgrading the talent level.

Much like Arkansas, Kentucky enters the 2014 season on the wrong end of a streak. The Wildcats have lost 16 straight SEC games. Their last win in the league came at the tail end of the 2011 season when they beat Tennessee 10-7 at home. They haven’t won on the road in the SEC since the 2009 season when they beat Georgia in Athens. So nobody expected Stoops to come in and turn things around overnight.

One of the most interesting battles this spring will be at quarterback. Heralded true freshman Drew Barker is on campus and will get a shot at the starting job. It’s paramount that the Wildcats find more playmakers on offense -- period. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard is eligible and should help at running back. On defense, the Wildcats’ strength will be their two finishers off the edge, ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, but they’ll still be counting on a ton of youngsters everywhere else.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsButch Jones has brought talented recruits to Tennessee. Now he needs to see on-field results.
Five of the first six games are at home next season. If the Wildcats could go 4-2 during that stretch, which isn’t unrealistic with three very winnable nonconference games, they could at least be playing for a bowl berth in November.

Jones: Rocky Top was rocking earlier this month when Jones pulled in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class on national signing day. Tennessee fans needed that shot of hope after suffering through a fourth-straight losing season.

While it’s clear that Jones has brought in an infusion of talent, there’s no guarantee that the Vols will end their string of losing seasons in 2014. The schedule is once again nasty and includes a nonconference trip to Oklahoma.

Of Tennessee’s seven losses last season, four came to teams who ended the season ranked in the top 10. Even with that grueling slate, the Vols showed some signs of life in Jones’ debut season. They beat South Carolina and just missed against Georgia in overtime. Quarterback Justin Worley’s thumb injury forced true freshman Josh Dobbs into a starting role down the stretch, and that’s when Tennessee really struggled.

Sorting out the quarterback position will be a key. Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson will be one to watch and probably would have played last season if not for a stress fracture. The offensive line will have five new starters, and the tackle positions will be among the biggest questions on defense.

The Vols’ coaches are confident they helped themselves tremendously in the speed department with this recruiting class. Two or three freshmen could end up playing right away at safety. The same goes for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and freshman receiver Josh Malone, both of whom are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Tennessee needs to generate more explosive plays on offense, and Hurd and Malone should help them do that.

The Vols last won a bowl game during the 2007 season, so it’s been a while. Tennessee ends next season with home games against Kentucky and Missouri and then travels to Vanderbilt on the final weekend. That stretch will likely determine whether or not there’s a postseason in the Vols’ immediate future.
1. West Virginia hired Tom Bradley as assistant head coach, and for the first time since the Penn State scandal erupted, a majority of Joe Paterno’s assistants are working again. Has it been the taint of the scandal or a commentary on Paterno’s staff? The two assistants Bill O’Brien kept -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden -- have moved to Ohio State and Air Force, respectively. Galen Hall and Dick Anderson retired. Jay Paterno is running for lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania. Mike McQueary, a big witness in the Jerry Sandusky trial, has yet to resurface.

2. Speaking of Penn State, new head coach James Franklin might be the first sitting SEC head coach to leave the conference for a Big Ten school since the SEC began playing football in 1933. I say “may” because I haven’t found one in my research, but I am not positive I have run down every single lead. In recent years, two prominent head coaches, Nick Saban (Michigan State to LSU) and Bret Bielema (Wisconsin to Arkansas), have left the Big Ten for an SEC school.

3. Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys 25 years ago today, catapulting his University of Arkansas teammate Jimmy Johnson out of college football after a three-year run in which Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes went 34-2, winning one national championship (1987) and losing to the eventual No. 1 team in the other two years (Penn State, 1986; Notre Dame, 1988). Another of Jones’ Razorbacks teammates, Barry Switzer, came out of retirement and joined Johnson as the only head coaches to win a college football national championship and a Super Bowl (until Pete Carroll joined them earlier this month).
While many coaches have come out recently to shoot down the NCAA's new rule proposal to slow down offenses, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is standing by it.

[+] EnlargeSpurrier
AP Photo/Wade PayneSteve Spurrier called the rule proposing to slow down the pace of offenses 'ridiculous.'
Bielema met with members of the media before an appearance at the White County Razorback Club and said he expects the proposal prohibiting snapping the football until at least 10 seconds run off the 40-second play clock to pass. The NCAA playing rules oversight panel votes on March 6.

The driving force behind the rule is player safety, yet there has been no real evidence that up-tempo, hurry-up offenses lead to more injuries. Still, Bielema isn't backing down from his stance on the proposal and wants to make sure something catastrophic doesn't happen.

"If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do?

"What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"

Shortly after news of the rule proposal broke, it was discovered that Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban voiced their concerns about the effects up-tempo, no-huddle offenses have on player safety to the NCAA committee.

Having one of the sport's most powerful figures backing such a proposal certainly gives it stronger legs, but it isn't winning over current coaches, who find the rule silly and want more evidence of it actually being a true concern for player health.

Even defensive-minded Florida coach Will Muschamp told ESPN.com on Thursday that he isn't in favor of the rule. While he ran more of a run-first, traditional pro-style offense during his first three years with the Gators, the addition of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has the Gators shifting to more of a spread, up-tempo look in 2014.

Muschamp said he did a study two years ago and learned that on average, four to six snaps a game come before 10 seconds tick off the game clock.

"You're talking four to six plays, come on," Muschamp said. "It's not that big of a deal. It's not about player safety. To me, it's funny that everybody wants to argue whatever their point is. It's not really about what's good for the game, it's about what's good for me, at the end of the day. All these hurry-up guys want to snap as fast as they can snap it, and the guys who don't hurry-up want the game slowed down."

To Muschamp, it's more about the administration of the game by the referees in games, who sometimes can't get set in time before a ball is snapped. That's the concern Muschamp has when it comes to evolution of offenses.

I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too.

-- Georgia coach Mark Richt
"That's the issue," he said. "[Officials] have a hard time administering the game when it's moving that fast. There's times that they don't even have the chains set and the ball is being snapped. Is that good for the game? I don't think so, but I'm not making the decision. But it's comical to me to hear all these people come out and say their point of view and say it's what's best for the game. No, it's what's best for them; let's make that clear.

"As much as anything, it's the administration of the game that we need to help the officials. I'm not saying slow the game down, I'm just saying it's ridiculous that we can't even get the chains set and we're snapping the ball. Is that good for the game? We don't even know where the first down was? Where's the next first down? It's stupid, but that's just the way it goes."

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier went as far as to call the new proposal the "Saban Rule" and hopes that "it's dead now." He even left a voicemail for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who is the chairman of the rules committee, stating his disapproval for the rule.

"I just told him I was against it," Spurrier told USA Today. "It's ridiculous. Let's let everybody keep playing the way they've been playing."

Georgia coach Mark Richt stood by Spurrier, saying defensive players should be able to adapt to staying on the field longer, just like offensive players.

"I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too," Richt told the Athens Banner-Herald.

If the NCAA Football Rules Committee gets its way, college football teams no longer will be penalized 15 yards if one of its players really didn’t target an opposing player.

But teams could actually be penalized for delay of game for – get this – playing too fast.

A few coaches of teams that utilize no-huddle, hurry-up offenses – which are becoming more and more common at the FBS level – immediately blasted the proposed substitution rules change, saying its only intention is to slow them down.

“It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And what’s most ridiculous is did you see what the penalty is going to be called? Delay of game! How is that a delay of game? That’s the ultimate rules committee decision. Make the game slower and call it delay of game.”

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/John MillerArizona coach Rich Rodriguez calls a proposal to penalize quick snaps with a delay-of-game penalty "ridiculous."
The NCAA committee recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half. So in effect, offenses won’t be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before then, it would be penalized five yards for delay of game. Under current rules, defenses aren’t guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense subs first.

“First off, [I] doubt it will pass,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Second, it’s ridiculous. All this tinkering is ridiculous. I think it deteriorates the game. It’s always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it’s disgusting.”

The rules changes proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee will be submitted to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel for discussion on March 6.

In an NCAA statement, the NCAA Football Rules Committee said “research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock.” The NCAA statement also said the proposed rules change also “aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.” In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for safety reasons or for modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rule change, according to the NCAA statement.

Leach and Rodriguez aren’t buying that slowing down hurry-up offenses would make players safer.

“Where’s all the data that proves this is a player safety issue? I don’t buy it,” Rodriguez said. “What about making it so you can’t blitz seven guys? That’s a dangerous thing for a quarterback.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.

"Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us," Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Where is it? They're going to have to show us some evidence. If there's not any evidence, then they should table it.

"You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn't that when you should be most fatigued?"

Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”

This past season, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses continued to operate faster and faster in college football. Baylor, which led FBS teams in scoring (52.4 points) and total offense (618.8 yards), averaged 82.6 offensive plays in 13 games. Texas Tech averaged a whopping 87.3 offensive plays under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Fresno State averaged 83.6 offensive plays.

But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.

It's always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn't want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it's disgusting.

-- Washington State coach Mike Leach
“All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told ESPN.com in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing."

But Leach contends it’s unfair to handcuff offenses because defenses can’t keep up with the pace.

“My suggestion is rather than spending a bunch of time coming up with a bunch of really stupid rules, spend that time coaching harder,” Leach said. “Worry about your own team and try to make your product better rather than trying to change the game so you don’t have to do anything.”

Freeze also believes that allowing defenses to rotate players in and out more frequently under this rule will put offensive linemen who are a part of uptempo offenses at more risk for injury because they will potentially face fresher defensive linemen every few snaps.

"If anything, you may be making it more dangerous for the offensive line because they're going to face 12 five-star defensive linemen from Alabama rotating every three plays," he said.

To Freeze, taking away the opportunity to snap the ball as fast as possible is taking away a major fundamental advantage that any offense can use against opposing defenses, which are allowed as much movement as possible before a play is even run.

"Since the start of football, defenses can line up wherever they want to," Freeze said. "They can move around as much as they want to before the snap. … They can do whatever they want to do, that's fine. I coach defense, too, that's great. The one thing that has always been offenses' deal is snapping the ball. That's the only thing we have."

The proposed change to the sport’s new targeting rules seems like a no-brainer after a slew of controversial decisions during the 2013 season. Under current NCAA rules, which went into effect this past season, players penalized for targeting opposing players were ejected from the contest and their teams were penalized 15 yards. But officials were allowed to review the play and determine whether a targeting foul actually occurred. If officials determined the play wasn’t targeting, the player’s ejection was overturned but the 15-yard penalty was still enforced.

If the proposed rule change is approved, the ejection and the penalty won’t be enforced. However, if a defender is penalized for a personal foul in conjunction with the overturned targeting foul, such as roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty will still be enforced.

In games in which instant replay is not in use, the committee recommended an option to permit on-field officials to review targeting calls during halftime that were made during the first half. Officials then could reverse the targeting call and allow the player to compete in the second half.

ESPN.com’s Ted Miller and Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. First, a closer look at the increased investments Big Ten schools are making in their football staffs to keep up with the national market.

Two days before Michigan State ended its best season in nearly a half-century with a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Hollis stood outside a Los Angeles conference room and described the dilemma he and other athletic directors face with football coaches' salaries.

"I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry," Hollis said, "but at the same time, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/ John BealeNew Penn State coach James Franklin will make about $1 million more than his predecessor Bill O'Brien.
Michigan State ensured continuity by making major financial commitments for coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants. Penn State, meanwhile, is paying new coach James Franklin about $1 million more than a coach (Bill O'Brien) it lost to the NFL. Michigan used its financial resources to attract an offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) from national power Alabama.

The recent moves underscore a greater willingness throughout the deep-pocketed Big Ten to invest more in the men charged to coach its flagship sport, one that has struggled for the past decade. The Big Ten didn't set the market for soaring coaches' salaries, but after some initial reluctance, the league seems more willing to join it.

"When you see an institution like Penn State and Franklin, it says we're going to attract the best talent that we can and in order to do that, we have to step up financially to procure that person's services," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I think that's great for our league. ... We need to have the best coaches, we need to retain the best coaches."

Ohio State in 2011 hired Urban Meyer for a salary of $4 million per year. At the time, the Big Ten had no coaches earning more than $4 million and only two making more than $3 million. Purdue was one of the few major-conference programs paying its coach (Danny Hope) less than $1 million. Bret Bielema cited the difficulty of retaining top assistants at Wisconsin as one reason he left for the Arkansas job in 2012.

The landscape has changed. Last year, both Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin's deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio's new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.

"I don't think we've been woefully behind," Smith said of the Big Ten. "We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren't far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them."

They also must pay top assistants, many of whom command salaries well above those of head coaches from smaller leagues. The Big Ten, after lagging behind nationally in assistant coach pay, is catching up.

"The offensive and defensive coordinators, those decisions become critically important," Michigan AD Dave Brandon said. "You can have the greatest head coach in the world, but if you're not providing him with those leaders who can manage those smaller staffs ... it's hard to believe that the head coach is going to be successful."

There has been no Big Ten mandate to increase salaries, and athletic directors don't discuss financial specifics when they meet. These are institutional decisions, and Hollis, upon realizing Dantonio and his aides deserved an increase, first looked at what MSU could provide before surveying the Big Ten, the national college scene and the NFL.

Part of his challenge is verifying data, as some numbers, even those available through records requests, aren't always accurate.

"Every school pays individuals in different ways," Hollis said. "There can be longevity payments put in there, different bonuses."

Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner expected to make a strong financial push for O'Brien's successor but didn't know exactly where the numbers would fall. Among the metrics Joyner used was the potential attendance increase a new coach could bring.

Despite PSU's on-field success the past two years, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by about 5,000. An increase of 1,000 fans during the season, including parking and concessions, adds about $500,000 in revenue, Joyner said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SMIIndiana has put more resources than ever before into coach Kevin Wilson and his staff.
"If you believe [the coach is] going to have a very positive effect on your fan base and on your program and on your ability to put bodies in the seats," he said, "it doesn't take a lot of seats to cause a return on that investment."

Indiana AD Fred Glass also wants to fill seats, but he's in a different financial ballpark from schools with massive stadiums like Penn State, despite competing in the same conference. Glass notes that while Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, Indiana made only about $4.5 million.

But it didn't stop IU from doubling its salary pool for assistant coaches when Kevin Wilson arrived, or awarding Wilson a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, or increasing the number of full-time strength coaches devoted to football from two to five, the NCAA maximum.

"There's a reason IU traditionally hasn't been where we want to be in football," Glass said. "We haven't really made the investments in it. We haven't stuck with continuity. We haven't stayed with a staff over a long period of time. That's what we need.

"Kevin understands we're making resources available, but it's not a bottomless pit."

Glass' last point resonates in the Big Ten, which generates record revenues but also sponsors more sports, on average, than any other major conference. The league believes in broad-based programs, which makes it harder to sink money into football, despite the superior return.

"We are a college program versus just a football franchise, and I think our football coaches not only understand that but really embrace it," Hollis said. "I believe in the Big Ten, maybe more so than others -- I've had the opportunity to see East and West -- [coaches] feel that the athletic department is part of their family."

But they also have to take care of their own families, and their assistants. They know salaries are rising everywhere.

Big Ten athletic directors know this, too. To keep up, you have to pay up.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 11, 2013
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The SEC is headed back to the BCS title game. Stop me if you've heard this before...

1. Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 1): When you beat the No. 1 team in the country, then thump the No. 5 team 59-42 to win the SEC championship and get a spot in the Vizio BCS National Championship, your résumé really speaks for itself. Auburn is the hottest team in the country. Behind RB Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Tigers have the nation's best running game (335.7 yards per game) and a wave of momentum to ride out to Pasadena, Calif., to take on No. 1 Florida State.

2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 3): While the Crimson Tide won't be playing for a third straight national championship, they are still one of the best teams in the country. The Allstate Sugar Bowl waits for the Tide, but if the playoffs started this season, Alabama would be right back in the title hunt and might be the favorite to win it all.

3. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2; LW: 4): The Gamecocks ended the season by winning five in a row. They were in the BCS hunt until Alabama lost, but their Capital One Bowl matchup with Wisconsin should be a fun one. Here's hoping that the long layoff helps DE Jadeveon Clowney heal for what will likely be his final game in a South Carolina uniform.

4. Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers went to Atlanta with the nation's 14th-best rushing defense (second in the SEC) and left giving up an SEC title game-record 545 rushing yards. Missouri's defense looked far from sturdy against Auburn, but Mizzou still had a very successful season. A year ago, the team was sulking after a five-win season. Now, Missouri has 11 wins and is playing in the AT&T Cotton Bowl after possibly being a win away from the BCS title game.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): It was an up-and-down season in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers pulled off two big, late-season wins, including a blowout against QB Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies. In the Outback Bowl, LSU will be without QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. But the future looks bright for freshman Anthony Jennings, who orchestrated a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): This wasn't the ending Manziel wanted. While he hasn't officially declared early for the NFL draft, it's a foregone conclusion that his days in College Station are numbered. After another successful statistical season, Manziel is headed back to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but two straight poor performances in losses to end the regular season could keep him from winning the award for a second straight year.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 7): If any team wants to complain about its bowl game, it's the Commodores. After finishing the season on a four-game winning streak and beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same year, Vandy is headed to the BBVA Compass Bowl. It was another great season for coach James Franklin and his team, and you better believe this team will be motivated against Houston.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3, SEC; LW: 8): The Bulldogs had wins over South Carolina and LSU, but losing QB Aaron Murray to an ACL injury and dropping games to Mizzou and Vandy in consecutive weeks really put a damper on the season. The defense still has a lot of kinks to work out going forward, but surrendered 400-plus yards only twice in November after allowing 400 or more in four of the first five games of the season. And back-to-back bowl games against Nebraska is head-scratching to say the least.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 9): A season that started on the rocks ended with two must-wins and a bowl berth. Dan Mullen's hot seat suddenly feels cooler, and the Bulldogs even got some love in the postseason by unexpectedly jumping into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Rice. Mississippi State clawed its way back to the postseason and should have a lot of fire in Memphis.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): The end of the season wasn't great for the Rebels, but this program has come a long way under Hugh Freeze. In his first two seasons, Ole Miss has made back-to-back bowl trips. Last season, the Rebels were a surprise team in Birmingham. This year, Ole Miss is headed to Nashville, where Rebels fans will flock. It'll be fun to watch that spread offense take on Georgia Tech's triple option.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): Butch Jones wasn't able to pull a Gus Malzahn in his first season, but he brought some enthusiasm back to a program looking to rediscover its pride. There won't be a bowl game for the Vols, but this is the time for Jones and his staff to hit the recruiting road hard. Tennessee already has the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, but now it's all about keeping that class together and building for the future.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): It's going to be a long offseason in Gainesville after the Gators missed out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and had their first losing season since 1979. Things will be uncomfortable and toxic between coach Will Muschamp and the fan base, but he can't let that seep into his program or have it affect his football team. With no bowl prep, Muschamp's first order of business is to keep his recruiting class intact -- especially the offensive weapons -- and get those prospects to Gainesville.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): The Razorbacks finished the season with nine straight losses, which was a school record and a new record for coach Bret Bielema, who just completed his first-year at Arkansas (his first head-coaching stop was at Wisconsin). Arkansas had a solid running game, with freshman RB Alex Collins (1,026 yards and four touchdowns) carrying the load, but the passing game was the worst in the SEC (148.5 yards per game).

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): Mark Stoops' first season in Kentucky was forgettable in the win-loss column, but the hope in Lexington is that his impressive recruiting class brings some real life back to the program in Year 2. What had to really irk the defensive-minded Stoops was that his defense ranked 13th in the league, allowing 427.2 yards per game and an SEC-worst 31.2 points per game. The Wildcats just didn't have the endurance to keep up in SEC play and have now lost 16 straight against SEC competition.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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We have a new No. 1 in our Power Rankings, and there's a chance that either of the top two teams on this list could back its way into the BCS title game:

1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.

2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.

3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.

4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
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Division titles, bowl games and bragging rights are up for grabs Saturday. Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC for Week 13:

1. Franklin’s return: It has been over a month since quarterback James Franklin last played a down for Missouri, but his return couldn't have come at a better time. The Tigers visit No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday, and it's a must-win game if they want to stay atop the SEC East standings. Before the injury, Franklin had thrown for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also rushed for 290 yards and three scores. Missouri fans hope he can return to form in time to keep the Tigers on track for Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel can help his Heisman Trophy chances with a win at LSU on Saturday.
2. Manziel’s Heisman tour: The last player to repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner was Archie Griffin way back in 1974 and 1975. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has a chance to accomplish that feat this season. The sophomore is on pace to surpass the numbers he put up a season ago when he won the award, but losses to both Alabama and Auburn are holding him back. He's still looking for that signature moment, and though LSU has underachieved this season, a win at Tiger Stadium could be just what Manziel needs to impress the voters.

3. The battle of Tennessee: Who thought the day would come where Vanderbilt would be favored over Tennessee? But with a win, the Commodores have a chance to make it two in a row over their in-state rival for the first time since 1926. James Franklin's squad has won three of its past four and became bowl eligible last weekend with a win over Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Volunteers still have to win their last two games if they want reach the postseason.

4. How Georgia responds: There are devastating losses, and then there's Georgia's loss to Auburn last weekend. The Bulldogs had the game won until Nick Marshall connected with Ricardo Louis on a 73-yard prayer in the final minute. It's the type of loss that stays with you. But fortunately, the Dawgs have Aaron Murray at quarterback, and he's too much of a competitor to dwell on it. He'll be ready when Kentucky comes to town Saturday.

5. How LSU responds: It's not the same hangover that Georgia is experiencing, but LSU suffered its own hard-fought loss to No. 1 Alabama the last time out. It was a make-or-break game for the Tigers, and they came up short. Now, after an off week, they have to get up once again to play No. 12 Texas A&M. LSU has had a tendency to fall apart when the BCS is no longer an option, but Les Miles is hoping to buck that trend this season, beginning Saturday.

6. A Rebel upset: Ole Miss might be the best team in the SEC that nobody is talking about. The Rebels have won four in a row and are up to seven wins on the season. Their only losses came to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M -- three teams ranked in the top 12. They will have to keep quarterback Bo Wallace upright against a tenacious defensive line for Missouri, but they have a chance to knock off another top-10 team at home this weekend.

7. First-year coaches: Outside of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the first-year coaches in the SEC have not fared well. Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Kentucky'’s Mark Stoops have yet to win a conference game, while it's still a mystery how Butch Jones and his Tennessee team upset South Carolina. The trio has a combined record of 1-17 in the SEC. On Saturday, they hope to find better results.

8. Coaches on the hot seat: The seats are getting warmer each week for both Will Muschamp and Dan Mullen. Muschamp’s Florida team has had its fair share of injuries, but they're in a downward spiral. The Gators will get a short reprieve Saturday against Georgia Southern. It won't be as easy for Mullen and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs travel to Arkansas in what could be a must-win game for their coach. Both teams need to win out to make a bowl game.

9. More FCS opponents: There are plenty of intriguing matchups on the docket for Saturday, but there are also a couple of snoozers. Florida plays Georgia Southern, as mentioned above. Alabama welcomes Chattanooga, and South Carolina will host Coastal Carolina. The days of playing FCS opponents might be numbered, but the fans will have to endure them for at least one more week.

10. Are we there yet? It's still a week away from the Iron Bowl, but everybody is already talking about the matchup between Alabama and Auburn. The state of Alabama might not make it though Thanksgiving at this rate. Auburn is off this weekend, giving Malzahn and the Tigers two weeks to prepare. In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide might as well have two weeks to prepare with a game against Chattanooga on Saturday.

3-point stance: A lopsided matchup

November, 21, 2013
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1. Southern Mississippi announced Wednesday that it will play Alabama in Week 3 of next season, the first meeting between the two teams in nine years. The Golden Eagles’ fall over the last two seasons might be unprecedented. Two years ago, Southern Miss upset Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game, beat Nevada in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl -- and hasn’t won a game since. That’s 22 straight losses. Eight of the 10 this season have been by at least 21 points. And they’re going to play Alabama?

2. It is easier to repeat failure than it is to repeat success which is what has made Arizona junior tailback Ka'Deem Carey’s season so remarkable. He led the FBS last season with 1,929 yards, and -- even as defenses are well aware of who he is -- Carey has improved his performance this season. Carey has rushed for 100 yards in 13 straight games and counting, and as the Wildcats prepare for a visit from No. 5 Oregon, it’s worth pointing out that the Ducks gave up 274 rushing yards at Stanford two weeks ago.

3. Arkansas has lost seven straight games, a first for coach Bret Bielema, who came to Fayetteville after taking Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls. Bielema, who coaches power football, took over a team that had run a spread offense taught by former head coach Bobby Petrino. That’s a big leap. All of that makes what Bielema’s successor, Gary Andersen, has accomplished so impressive. Andersen didn’t coach power football at Utah State. But the No. 19 Badgers have rushed for 307.9 yards per game in going 8-2. That’s about 70 yards more per game than the last three Rose Bowl teams.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
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Nothing was hotter this past weekend than the dramatic ending of that Auburn-Georgia game. Elsewhere in the SEC, though, it wasn’t quite as toasty.

Here’s a look at our Week 12 version of Hot and Not in the SEC:

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
AP Photo/Dave MartinGus Malzahn already has engineered a seven-win turnaround from 2012's 3-9 debacle.
Auburn’s magical ride: Sometimes, it’s just meant to be. Call it miraculous. Call it lucky. Call it whatever you want. But Nick Marshall’s batted 73-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis in the final seconds Saturday, lifting Auburn to an improbable 43-38 win over Georgia, kept this magical ride going for the Tigers. They’ve now won seven straight games and will take on No. 1 Alabama in two weeks in the Iron Bowl with the SEC's Western Division championship on the line. Is this really the same team that didn’t win an SEC game a year ago and was outscored 150-21 in its last three SEC contests? That’s an easy answer … no. Gus Malzahn and his veteran staff have come in and restored everything that had seemingly vanished from a program that won a national championship only three years ago. There was certainly more talent on this team than last season’s 3-9 record would suggest, but the difficult part for Malzahn was restoring the Tigers' edge after they went belly-up last season. It's safe to say he has done that. And before anybody says Auburn has been more lucky than good, show me just about any championship team and I’ll show you a team that has had some luck along the way. This team believes right now, and we’re in store for one epic Iron Bowl on the Plains in two weeks.

HOT

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray: He has been around for so long that we’ve probably all taken him for granted, but Murray is one class act and one terrific football player. He did everything he could to bring Georgia back from the dead in the fourth quarter against Auburn. The fifth-year senior has been a rock all season for the Bulldogs despite crippling injuries around him and has exuded class every step of the way.

NOT

Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell: The Bulldogs’ senior quarterback hasn’t been able to catch much of a break this season. He suffered a concussion in the opener and had to miss several games, eventually losing the starting job to Dak Prescott. This past weekend, Russell got another shot against Alabama after Prescott was unable to play because of a shoulder injury, but Russell wasn’t able to finish the game after hurting his shoulder while trying to make a tackle following his fourth-quarter interception.

HOT

Florida’s grit: Nobody is happy in Gator Nation right now, and that starts with coach Will Muschamp. But there’s something to be said for the way Florida fought its guts out Saturday in a tough 19-14 loss to South Carolina. The Gators were down to their third-string quarterback and had an excellent chance to win the game on the road against a top-15 team.

NOT

Preseason rankings: Florida, Georgia and LSU all started the season ranked in the top 12 of the Associated Press poll. As we head into Week 13, those three teams have a combined 13 losses, and LSU still has to face Texas A&M at home this weekend.

HOT

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJordan Matthews had a season-high 12 receptions as Vanderbilt reached bowl eligibility with a victory over Kentucky.
Vanderbilt: We all know Vanderbilt coach James Franklin doesn’t like to talk about bowl games, but we will. Thanks to the Commodores’ 22-6 victory over Kentucky last weekend, fueled by 12 catches for 141 yards from senior receiver Jordan Matthews, they’re now headed to a bowl game for the third straight season. For perspective, Vanderbilt had been to only four bowl games in its history before Franklin arrived. The Commodores also have a chance to get to nine wins for the second straight season if they can win out over Tennessee, Wake Forest and their bowl opponent.

NOT

Alabama’s focus: Good thing the Crimson Tide’s defense came to play Saturday in Starkville. And good thing the Tide were playing Mississippi State. Against a more talented team, Alabama would have been toast. Four turnovers going forward will mean an end to their national championship run. OK, maybe not this weekend against Chattanooga, but certainly against Auburn in two weeks and any other games after that. Something says this week in practice won’t be a lot of fun for the Tide.

FREEZER BURN

Fans’ patience: It's that time of year again when they’re lining up at the town square. That's a reference to Bobby Bowden’s classic line regarding fans' impatience when a football team or a unit on a football team starts to struggle. Bowden would always say, "They want a hanging at the town square." With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, it's safe to say there are more than a few restless fan bases around the SEC. It remains to be seen who's really in trouble. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley insists that Muschamp will be back for a fourth season, but it's difficult to see Muschamp's offensive staff returning intact. Mississippi State fans aren't thrilled with Dan Mullen right now, and that's despite the Bulldogs still having a chance to go to a fourth straight bowl. The Georgia fans are furious over the way the defense has played this season, although given the Bulldogs' youth, it was obvious they were going to struggle on that side of the ball. If LSU loses to Texas A&M this weekend there could be grumbling on the Bayou about Les Miles. Even first-year coaches aren’t spared. Arkansas has lost seven straight under Bret Bielema, and the fans in the Ozarks are wondering how they could go from 21 wins in 2010 and 2011 to 15 losses in the past two seasons. In this league, there is no equity and even less patience.

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