NCF Nation: Bret Bielema
Her latest wrath descended upon Colin Cowherd, who claimed "Alabama's dynasty is over." And what an epic rant it was, even by Phyllis standards.
You don't think coaches notice any of that stuff?
Think again. Here's what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had to say after the Razorbacks' 14-13 loss to Alabama on Saturday.
Bielema: "I have respect for what Alabama has been able to do. I don't want that Phyllis gal from Finebaum calling and yelling at me."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) October 12, 2014
Obviously Bielema doesn't care as much about what people think of him from a fashion standpoint.
Did you see what this man wore on national TV Saturday during "SEC Nation" on the SEC Network? On a cool, rainy morning in Fayetteville, he went with flip flops and a tracksuit.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In all honesty, Texas A&M probably shouldn't have won Saturday.
The Aggies' offense spent the better part of three quarters out-of-sync. Texas A&M's drive chart in that span looked foreign to those who know them best: Touchdown, punt, punt, punt, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs, punt.
Defensively, they weren't much better: 395 yards yielded in those first three stanzas and 214 on the ground (though 51 should be counted against the special teams for a fake punt). Those special teams had forgettable moments as well, with a missed field goal on top of everything else.
But as Kevin Sumlin-coached teams are wont to do, the No. 6 Aggies found a way to swipe a victory from Arkansas and remain undefeated by climbing out of a two-touchdown hole at AT&T Stadium for a thrilling 35-28 overtime win.
The win provided both cause for concern and signs of encouragement. For starters, the Aggies didn't play to their lofty ranking and often showed why this young team gave so many pause prior to the season.
The Aggies (5-0, 2-0 SEC) knew their run defense would get their first true test of the year from the SEC's top rushing attack. It did (Arkansas ran for 285 yards), and it often left Texas A&M frustrated and chasing Arkansas running backs Alex Collins (131 yards) and Jonathan Williams (95 yards). When the Aggies weren't failing to fill their gaps, play-action passing from Brandon Allen and Co. gave them several headaches.
But when Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) smelled blood and tried to put the Aggies away, the Aggies' defense found its backbone (and the Razorbacks shot themselves in the foot a few times, too). The Razorbacks' final five drives went as such: punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs. The final stop, which came on fourth-and-1 in Arkansas' overtime possession and secured the win, might prove to be a seminal moment for an A&M defense still trying to shake off its 2013 reputation -- last in the SEC in every statistical category that mattered.
Defensively, are the Aggies more what we saw in the first three quarters or the unit seen in the fourth quarter and overtime? That remains to be seen.
Similarly, Texas A&M sophomore sensation Kenny Hill and the Aggies' offense were off, as Sumlin admitted. Starting only his fifth game, Hill showed some of the ills that come with a young quarterback -- forced throws, inaccuracy, inconsistent play -- and his receivers and offensive line contributed at times with dropped passes or by allowing Hill to get pressured.
Conversely, when the Aggies needed a spark, Hill was on the money. He hit Edward Pope and Joshua Reynolds for two huge, fourth-quarter touchdown passes to pull even with the Hogs. He threw a dart to Malcome Kennedy for the game-winning, 25-yard score. It was fitting, considering Hill threw one behind Kennedy in the first half that -- had it been thrown perfectly -- would have likely resulted in a touchdown.
"I just saw him run wide open and said, ‘I need to put it on him,'" Hill said. "They had the defender getting there late, and I had to fit it in to him, and he took care of the rest."
Let's make one thing clear: The Aggies are a good football team. Exactly how good is the question and one that won't be answered for a few weeks.
This improved Arkansas team gave Texas A&M everything it could handle, and though the Hogs are winless in two SEC games (and in 14 straight conference games dating back to 2012), they came away from home against highly-ranked foes (Auburn being the other), and both were contests in which the Razorbacks competed well. The Razorbacks no longer look like pushovers in Bret Bielema's second year, and they have made significant progress from a year ago.
Meanwhile, A&M's season-opening shocker at South Carolina and the Aggies' subsequent dominance of three cupcake opponents has sparked talk of the Aggies being perhaps the best in the SEC and a serious contender for the College Football Playoff. Those goals remain attainable, but those discussions should perhaps pause as this team navigates a gauntlet of a schedule that starts a week from now with a showdown against rising Mississippi State in Starkville. That will be followed by a home date with Ole Miss and a trip to Tuscaloosa for a clash with Alabama.
If the Aggies emerge from that stretch unscathed, they truly do deserve to be mentioned in the top-four discussion.
How the game was won: The Aggies stopped Arkansas running back Alex Collins on a fourth-and-1 in the first overtime, getting a stop when they had to have it. Texas A&M had to scratch and claw after being harassed by Arkansas’ defense all day, but it was able to escape by the skin of its teeth thanks to huge fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Kenny Hill (an 86-yarder to Edward Pope and a 59-yarder to Joshua Reynolds) that turned a 14-point deficit to a tie ballgame and eventually set up overtime. Hill threw a 25-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy to start overtime, and the defense did the rest to secure the win in OT, piggybacking a strong fourth-quarter effort the Aggies gave to keep the Razorbacks from extending the lead.
Gameball goes to: Hill. He had his struggles, from errant throws, including an interception and had to weather the storm as the Aggies looked out of sorts offensively for much of the day. But he made the big throws when the Aggies had to have them late in the game and led the come-from-behind victory. He finished with 386 passing yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-41 passing.
What it means: Texas A&M’s playoff hopes and high ranking are safe for now, but it has a lot of work to do. Arkansas exploited many of the Aggies’ flaws today. The Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC), meanwhile, are as improved as advertised. Bret Bielema’s bunch has to feel sick after this one, leading by two scores (and having a chance to go up three when a penalty nullified the score). They had control of the game but let it slip away. The SEC West is on alert though, as Arkansas is a pushover no longer.
Playoff implication: The Aggies’ hopes remain alive as they move to 5-0 (2-0 in the SEC).
What's next: Another huge test for Texas A&M at No. 14 Mississippi State in Starkville a week from today. Dak Prescott and Co. are coming off an open date following their landmark win at LSU on Sept. 20.
Arkansas’ offensive philosophy is no secret. The Razorbacks want to run the ball -- a lot.
Using that power-football identity, the Hogs are showing themselves to be a much-improved team in Bret Bielema’s second season in Fayetteville. After the Razorbacks’ obliterated Texas Tech in Lubbock earlier this month to the tune of 438 rushing yards and 49 points, Bielema described his team thusly:
“This is Arkansas football, hog-ball, hog-strong, whatever you want to say it, this is what we are,” Bielema told reporters afterward. “I know at times it ain't that pretty, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.”
The Razorbacks are hoping to have more fun at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when they meet No. 6 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It will serve as the season’s first true test for the Aggies’ run defense.
Arkansas averages 45 rushes per game. Against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks ran the ball a whopping 68 times. Even in their season-opening loss to Auburn, they averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The Aggies, while having performed admirably in Columbia, South Carolina, still must to prove they can stop what the Razorbacks, who have the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC (324.5 yards per game), want to do.
“They're going to make you defend the run and try to go over the top and get behind you with the deep balls and keep the chains moving with the intermediate passing game,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “It's no secret what we're going to see Saturday.”
When the teams met last season, the Razorbacks ran the ball quite well. They compiled 201 rushing yards on 30 carries, a healthy 6.7 yards-per-carry average. The Aggies were young and thin on defense then, and while they are still relatively young, the difference in their depth and experience on defense this season is night and day thanks to the baptism many of those players received a year ago and the addition of a top-five nationally ranked 2014 recruiting class that brought in a host of immediate-impact defensive players.
But in 2013, circumstances led to a disastrous season on defense for A&M, especially against the run. The Aggies were last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (222.3) and 110th in the nation. This season, they're better (124.7 yards per game, sixth in the SEC and 42nd nationally).
Snyder knows what lies ahead. That’s why an emphasis was placed on defending this style long ago.
“We've been working on this for quite a while,” Snyder said. “We worked on it during spring, through fall camp, obviously we had a couple weeks getting ready for South Carolina. Obviously, some of that recall is going to have to come back for some of our guys. This won't be the first offense we've faced that likes to run the ball. We thought we'd get a good dose of that in the first game this year. But they're awfully good.”
Bielema, whose offense returns virtually all of its production from a season ago, expects an improved Texas A&M outfit on defense.
“They're better and they're a more disciplined group,” Bielema said Monday. “They're still a multiple front. ... Mark Snyder is a tremendous X's-and-O's guy. Really good football coach. ... Now it's another year with him and that program, doing what he likes to do, and you can definitely see the rewards of it.”
The Razorbacks boast a large offensive line: At an average of 328.4 pounds per player, their starting offensive line is bigger than any starting NFL offensive line was in Week 1 of pro football. That group is paired with a two-headed monster at running back in Alex Collins (490 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Jonathan Williams (391 rushing yards, 8.1 yards per carry, seven scores).
Those two, combined with the play of the Razorbacks’ offensive front, have been the core of the Razorbacks' success. The improvement of quarterback Brandon Allen has helped the Razorbacks take the next step offensively, and the elevated play helps loosen things up for the running game.
“They don't abandon their run game at all,” Texas A&M junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “If they have two straight losses on the run game and it's third-and-18, they might still run the ball. They don't abandon their run game. They have a big, physical offensive line and I know their head coach used to be at Wisconsin. They would run the ball all the way up there; he has a Big Ten mentality, old-school football, ‘I might put eight offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage this play.’ It's just kind of crazy stuff and they just love their run game."
How Texas A&M handles both of those elements Saturday will determine whether the Aggies truly are an improved defense this season or if there is still much work to be done as the schedule toughens.
“Bret knows what he's doing,” Snyder said. “I spent 10 years in the Big Ten going against Coach [Barry] Alvarez, that's where he got it from. So we have to build a wall and stop the run and have great eyes on the back end.”
The Aggies sound like they’re ready for the test.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “[Against] South Carolina we were preparing for that kind of a game and they did run it, but we got ahead so we kind of forced them to throw. I don't think we've really seen our fill of running game to this point in the season. I think we're really ready for it.”
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Bielema couldn't turn around Arkansas in an instant. His brand of football -- smash-mouth, old school football, that is -- requires time and patience. The losing got old last season, of course, but there was some solace outside the final score. The games were close. On average, Arkansas entered the fourth quarter of games against Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M down by less than a touchdown.
But the divide between building and breaking through is cavernous. Looking at his players through spring and fall camp, Bielema saw the gap closing.
On Saturday at Texas Tech, Arkansas broke through, snapping a losing streak against Power 5 teams that dated back to 2012. And not only did the Razorbacks win big, they won their way, abusing the Red Raiders with a power running game that produced 438 yards and seven touchdowns. "Normal American football," as Bielema so famously described it, won the day.
"When I left Wisconsin we had been winning a long time," Bielema told ESPN on Sunday evening. "It was very hard to see our guys here do anything but that.
"When you haven't tasted success, when you haven't felt those things, it's tough to get it going. But I think we're stepping in the right direction now."
Bielema admitted that there were times last season where, "I don't know if we took the field with 100 percent conviction of expecting success." There was a belief that things would get better, but not much evidence to back it up. Against Texas Tech, there finally was.
Jonathan Williams rushed for 145 yards and four touchdowns. Alex Collins, a star recruit in Bielema's first signing class, carried the ball 27 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Their skepticism about sharing carries turned into a full-fledged belief that there is "strength in numbers," Bielema said.
With fullbacks Patrick Arinze and Kody Walker leading the way behind a well-built offensive line, the physical running game Bielema promised finally delivered.
In a day and age of spread offenses, it was a win in the column of the committed.
"The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent," Bielema said. "We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.
"Those programs that don't recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we're doing it now."
Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it's a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power.
"Programs just don't have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback," Bielema said. "They don't have a 280-pound tight end. They don't have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that."
Texas Tech learned the hard way.
But how will that translate for Arkansas moving forward?
"In SEC play we have to be a lot more balanced and there might be games where we have to throw it more than we run it," Bielema said. "It's just with that game on the road against that type of offense I thought we had to monopolize the clock and take the wind out of them."
Brandon Allen, Arkansas' second-year starting quarterback, will have to become more involved. He was efficient against Texas Tech, completing 6 of 12 passes for 61 yards, but not inspiring.
"Our numbers aren't huge in volume, but they've been very, very productive numbers," Bielema said. "They've done what we've asked them to do. ... It's been the perfect storm to keep our passing game quiet, and we all feel it's one of the best kept secrets in the SEC right now."
A win at Texas Tech isn't the end of the turn around at Arkansas. It's probably just the beginning. But in terms of perception and recruiting, it was a huge step in the right direction.
With five coaches recruiting Texas -- "We talk all the time about Tex Hogs," Bielema said -- the Lone Star State might be ripe for the picking. Maybe there Arkansas can continue to grow.
"To get a win on Saturday on the national stage, that said a lot for our program," Bielema said. "It does a lot for our recruiting, it does a lot for our players' confidence and, more than anything else, it gives the Hog nation something to smile about.
"There have been some dark days the last couple of years. If they even just began to see what we're doing on the field, it's very positive."
UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.
Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.
3:30 p.m. ET
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.
Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.
4 p.m. ET
Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.
Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.
6 p.m. ET
Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.
7 p.m. ET
Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.
7:30 p.m. ET
Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.
8 p.m. ET
Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.
9 p.m. ET
Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.
It’s that simple.
Given the nation’s toughest schedule (there are currently six ranked teams on Arkansas’ schedule, including four top-10 opponents), the Hogs have to sweep the nonconference slate and pull at least two upsets in SEC games. It certainly isn’t impossible, and there is no doubt this Arkansas team is better than last season’s, but finding three conference wins on this slate isn’t exactly easy.
Though Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his players aren’t ready to call this a make-or-break game, they all understand how important it is for the confidence and psyche of this team going forward.
"I’m excited to see exactly where we can go with this chance," Bielema said. "It’s an opportunity for your guys to gather confidence, and that’s something this program needs really needs a lot of."
Added senior defensive end Trey Flowers: "Getting a win over a pretty good team will put us up there and help us move forward for the rest of the season."
Yes, it would.
The thing about this Arkansas team is we didn’t know if it could be physical enough to survive this season. Last season, the Hogs were continuously pushed around during their 0-8 SEC journey, and little was done on the surface to tell us anything would be different in 2014.
Well, look at the tape from the first two games, because change has come. Yes, Arkansas lost steam in the second half of its opening loss to Auburn (45-21), but the Hogs kept it very tight in the first two quarters and actually erased a 21-7 deficit.
Last week’s 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State might be scoffed at by some, but it was a chance for this team to get better and iron out some of the deficiencies it saw in the second half against Auburn.
"This year, we go into every game knowing we can win every game -- we can play with the best of them out there," quarterback Brandon Allen said. "It all comes down to us executing and playing clean football. We’ve shown that when we do that we can play with anyone, we can beat anyone on any day."
That game also stood as a very important notch on the win belt.
The truth is that we still don’t know a ton about this team. Though it might be better -- and Bielema said he sees more talent and development in his locker room now -- it’s still an enigma.
With the coaching turnover this program has dealt with in recent years, it’s only natural for Arkansas to still be behind the rest of the SEC West. But improvements have been made in the first two weeks.
The offensive and defensive lines have played with a tougher demeanor. The running game went from a two-headed monster with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to adding a third weapon in speedster Korliss Marshall. And Allen looks more confident and comfortable in Arkansas’ offense, something this team desperately needs.
So can this team survive a schedule that includes consecutive games in the middle of the season against Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia -- all current top-seven teams -- and make it to the postseason? What about with a November that houses Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri?
Those are legitimate questions for a program that still has a lot of building to do in all areas.
Allen wouldn’t say that a Texas Tech win holds the key to Arkansas’ postseason, but he knows it would go a long way toward empowering the Hogs before the teeth of conference season approaches.
"I think it’s going to be huge, especially when you go into SEC play where you’re going to play a tough opponent every week," he said. "Anytime you can have the momentum and the swagger on our side, it’s only going to help us play better and compete with some of the best teams in the country."
That is the kind of confidence this team didn’t have last season, and as the loses piled up, players' spirits disappeared. However, in the months since last year’s dismal showing, attitudes have changed, and Arkansas players feel they can -- and will -- surprise a lot of people this fall, starting Saturday.
"We’re capable of doing something special," Flowers said. "A lot of people are looking down on us. Our backs are pretty much against the wall and they gave us the toughest schedule. Those are the cards we were dealt, but we’re capable of doing some big things around our league, shock a few people and get some big wins."
Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.
3:30 p.m. ET
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.
West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.
4 p.m. ET
Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.
5:30 p.m. ET
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.
7 p.m. ET
Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.
7:30 p.m. ET
Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.
9 p.m. ET
No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.
Sunday, 7 p.m. ET
Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.
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Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!
It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.
Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:
1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.
4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.
5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.
6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.
7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.
8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.
9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.
10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.
HOOVER, Ala. -- In an effort to make communication inside Arkansas' football team easier, the Razorbacks have adopted a new language: Hoganese.
Foreign to everyone outside of the confines of the Razorbacks' football facility, Hoganese was created this spring by Bret Bielema and his coaching staff so players could use coded terminology on the field. It's used on offense and defense to inform Arkansas' players of what to do, what not to do and what should be coming.
Here's Bielema's definition:
“Hoganese is a language and a verbage and a way of communicating that’s unique to the Hogs."
Basically, it's a way for players to quickly talk to each other on the field in a "language" only understood by Razorbacks players. It's a way to disguise things for a team looking for every advantage it can find in 2014, as it attempts to grow and develop in the second year of the Bielema era.
What was "sketchy" and "corny" to some players when it was first introduced during the spring morphed into a crystal clear dialect that has pulled a team that limped through an ugly 3-9 2013 season closer in the past few months. Searching for something to create some positive unity, the Hogs embraced their new way of speaking.
“It was a huge growing process for us," senior offensive lineman Brey Cook said. "It was going over the little things that you don’t always think about as a player in the summer. It’s been really huge for us this summer as far as growing as a team.
“You forget about those little things that you have to master, and that’s what Hoganese is for.”
While Hoganese has become an essential part to the Hogs' progression in 2014, Bielema knows it's going to take more than communication to improve upon last season. This team has to win the mental side, but it also has to get tougher physically, something Bielema's team struggled with at times in 2014.
“It’s not just words; it’s gotta be part of their DNA," he said. "They have to understand that we’re going to play physical football offensively and defensively. They have to understand that fourth-and-1 isn’t a question, it’s a task. A year ago, guys talked about, ‘We’re physical, we’re physical,’ but I don’t know if we lined up and did it.
“They can’t just preach it; they have to walk it.”
“I am not an agenda guy,” Bielema said. “I believe in playing by the rules and what it is. I love up-tempo offenses, I love going against them, I love competing against them, I respect coaches that believe in that system because it’s so much different than mine.
“I had one agenda: player safety. And that was the only thing that really became frustrating for me.”
With or without the silly 10-second rule, debate will rage on between coaches when it comes to up-tempo offenses and how it affects – or doesn’t affect – players’ health.
The fact is teams are trying to play faster. Even Florida coach Will Muschamp is jumping into the up-tempo ring, as new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will have Florida going more no-huddle and pushing the tempo in 2014.
“It is, I think, growing, and it’s a fun brand of football for people to watch,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who has really only known up-tempo offenses during his coaching tenure.
Cue more frustration from traditionalists.
Alabama coach Nick Saban talked this week about the number of “exposures” (how many plays, hits and contact practices players are involved in during a given season) players get and how going faster can affect them.
Saban said you can limit the studies to just concussions and “how many exposures a guy gets relative to how many concussive hits that he takes.” As he dove deeper into the subject, Saban injected some sarcasm into his feelings on how up-tempo offenses are making games longer for players because of the number of actual plays they run now.
“We act like the game doesn’t matter and most of the time our guys hit harder and play harder and it’s more physical in the games than it is in practice,” he said. “We have a longer game now when you play 85-90 plays a game. We used to average 65 plays a game. That’s three more games over the course of a season, so I guess it’s not logical at all to think that if guys are playing three more games -- 15 games instead of 12 -- there’d be any chance for more injuries.”
“Saban and Bielema said that studies are either out there or are being done about the dangers of hurry-up offenses, but to Freeze, he hasn’t seen them and doesn’t believe up-tempo offense provides any more health risks.
Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let's just make sure the game's administered the right way and doesn't get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don't let the offenses control the tempo of the game.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
“I don’t think that it’s a fact,” Freeze said. “Certainly, you can keep up with injuries on teams that run tempo, as oppose to those that don’t. I’d love to see how that measures up. I don’t believe that it’s going to be a big difference. We train for this, just as they train for their type.
“As far as tempo offenses causing more injuries, I just haven’t seen it. Again, I’m not trying to be stubborn, hardheaded or totally biased to my way. I’d love to see it. I just don’t see that there’s a big difference.”
Muschamp sees this argument differently. He’s already discussed the player-safety agenda and said the real issue is the placement of officials on the field. His concern is that faster offenses mean slower officials and less time for either side to get set. What he’d like to see is better administration of the game.
If a substitution needs to be made, hold the ball and let both sides get set. If not, then Muschamp says go as fast as you want. What he doesn’t want is a ref jogging over to him while the ball is being snapped.
“Is that really what we want? I think what we all want is a good administration of the game,” he said. “Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let’s just make sure the game’s administered the right way and doesn’t get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don’t let the offenses control the tempo of the game.
“If we want to play fast -- I’m not trying to slow anybody down, including ourselves -- I’m just saying let’s make sure we administer it the right way where guys are lined up, guys got their cleats in the dirt, and are ready to play. Once we’re able to do that, you can still play fast.”
Luckily for Muschamp, SEC officials are making speed a priority this fall. SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said Thursday that officials are hurrying up to catch up and keep up with faster SEC offenses.
Shaw said he certainly doesn’t want officials walking to spot the ball, but he also doesn’t want them sprinting. Something right in the middle should be good enough to help both sides of the ball.
“We expect a crisp job,” Shaw said.
Although NCAA rules limit programs from running high school camps more than 50 miles from their campus, coaches are allowed to work at camps outside of the radius as long as they don't run the events.
"The Big Ten and NCAA rules allow you to do these things," Franklin recently told reporters during a Coaches Caravan stop in King of Prussia, Pa. "We wanted to not only have camps on our campus, which we're going to have a bunch of them, but also be able to maybe take the Penn State brand and be able to take it to part of the country that maybe young men and families wouldn't be able to make it to our place, take it to them.
"And I'm fired up about it."
But Franklin's former SEC brethren aren't fired up. Unlike the morally reprehensible Big Ten, the SEC prohibits coaches from working at camps beyond 50 miles from campus. Again, it's all about integrity in that league.
So SEC coaches have complained to their commissioner, Mike Slive, to step in and try to stop Franklin and his attempt to enter their sacred ground.
"It's that kind of thing that gets us to think about our rules," Slive said. "They [SEC coaches] like our rule; they don't like the so-called satellite camps. They see it as a loophole and asked us to see what we can do about that."
Slive said the SEC would have to approach the NCAA about closing the loophole.
You go and do that, Commissioner Slive. March yourself to Indianapolis. By golly, someone needs to stand up for doing things the right way. And if the NCAA asks about oversigning, just show them your championship rings. So sparkly!
The truth is other programs are capitalizing on the same loophole. As colleagues Brett McMurphy and Edward Aschoff report, coaches from Oklahoma State and New Mexico plan to work several camps in Texas this summer. While Florida and Georgia are among the highest-producing states for FBS prospects, Texas tops the list.
So Franklin isn't the only one. But his plan to extend the recruiting reach for a Penn State program that has largely ignored the fertile South in recent years is brilliant. Everyone asks me how the Big Ten can close the gap with the SEC. The answer is to spend more time in its territory.
"This thing that James Franklin did with Georgia State, that’s a stroke of genius," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at LSU and Vanderbilt, told me. "If Penn State continues to do that, and other Big Ten schools continue to have an agreement with these smaller Southern schools and you can officially visit a prospect in May and June, it will be the most significant move in favor of Big Ten football in my lifetime."
Just wait until more Big Ten coaches begin stumping for earlier official visits, which would help their cause tremendously. Michigan's Brady Hoke is on board. So are many others in the league.
It'll be fun to see how the SEC reacts to that campaign.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork offered this gem at SEC spring meetings when asked about Franklin's summer Southern migration. By the way, arguably no SEC program has a more storied oversigning tradition than Ole Miss.
"That's our backyard, so anytime those things happen, your eyes and ears perk up to say, What do we need to address [the issue] if that's a hindrance?" Bjork said. "If it's a competitive disadvantage, then we need to look at it."
Competitive disadvantage! Sound the alarms! The Big Ten is gonna get us!
To quote the other Björk:
You're all right
There's nothing wrong
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You'll meet an army of me
The SEC should stop complaining about, of all things, a potential challenge to its recruiting hegemony. Better yet, it should change its policy and come on up to Big Ten country. Nick Saban loves Ohio. Les Miles is a Michigan guy. Kevin Sumlin went to Purdue.
How could Division III power Wisconsin-Whitewater turn down a chance to bring back favorite son Bret Bielema to America's dairyland?
But maybe it's better that the SEC coaches dig in on this issue. Remember, they're all about fairness and honor in recruiting.
And 37-man recruiting classes.
Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:
10. South Carolina
14. Texas A&M
It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?
With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.
Let's see how perfect these are:
1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.
2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.
3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.
4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.
5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.
6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.
7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.
8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.
9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.
10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.
11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.
12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.
13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.
14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.