NCF Nation: Chris Todd

Outback Bowl preview

December, 31, 2009
Breaking down the Outback Bowl on Friday (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET) between Auburn (7-5) and Northwestern (8-4):

WHO TO WATCH: When senior quarterback Chris Todd had it going this season, Auburn was pretty tough to beat. For a lot of people, it was a surprise that he’s the one who emerged in August as the starter after missing all of spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Todd, who set an Auburn single-season record with 21 touchdown passes this year. He suffered through a forgettable junior season while trying to fight through an injured throwing shoulder that was never right. And then this season, he had the lull in consecutive losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU where he was held under 140 yards passing in all three games to go along with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the resilient Todd came back strong in his last four games with nine touchdown passes.

WHAT TO WATCH: Which version of the Auburn defense shows up for this game? Is it the one that looked fresh and aggressive in the 26-21 loss to Alabama in the final game of the regular season? Or is it the one that struggled to make it through 11 straight weeks without a bye and wound up finishing last in the SEC in scoring defense at 26.9 points per game? The long layoff should really benefit the Auburn defense. It’s not a deep unit, and several guys should be back closer to 100 percent now that they’ve had the extra time off. The Tigers would love to cap off the season with their most complete defensive performance yet. They’ll probably need it against Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who throws it quickly, accurately and with a lot of confidence.

WHY TO WATCH: Gus Malzahn’s offenses are always a lot of fun to watch. And with this much time to prepare, you know he’ll have a full arsenal of reverses, throw-back passes and various other wrinkles ready for the Wildcats. This is also the healthiest the Tigers have been on offense in a long time, especially with freshman running back Onterio McCalebb back to full strength after being plagued by an ankle injury during the second half of the season. Freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen is worth keeping an eye on, too, as he steps into the H-back role.

PREDICTION: Northwestern ended the season by winning four of its last five games and five of its last seven. Auburn, on the other hand, lost five of its last six SEC games. But the difference in this contest will be Kafka, who’s shown this season that he can beat teams with his arm and his legs. Northwestern 27, Auburn 24.

Outback Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Northwestern (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After being snubbed by the Outback Bowl for Iowa last year, Northwestern received a somewhat surprising invitation to the Tampa game, as it makes its first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since 1997.

The Wildcats now look for the same result as the Hawkeyes, who last year crushed South Carolina in the Outback to claim the Big Ten's only bowl victory. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose.

The game pits two teams (Northwestern and Auburn) that have never played, as well as two potentially explosive spread offenses. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, leads a Wildcats attack that settled into a rhythm in its final two games. Kafka will need to be sharp against an Auburn defense that ranks 28th nationally against the pass, though there could be some running room for a Wildcats rushing attack that has struggled to get on track.

Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been a key part of Northwestern's surge the last two seasons, but he will be tested against Auburn and spread guru Gus Malzahn. The Tigers will try just about anything on offense and boast the nation's No. 12 rushing unit, led by senior running back Ben Tate. The game features two efficient passers in Kafka and Tigers senior Chris Todd, who ranks 21st nationally in passer rating.

Northwestern comes in very hot, having gone 3-0 in November with two wins against top 20 opponents. Auburn started 5-0 before dropping five of its final seven contests, though the Tigers did give No. 1 Alabama all it could handle.

Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Auburn was one of six teams in the SEC this season finishing 7-5, but emerged out of the pack as the Outback Bowl’s top choice. The Tigers were one defensive stand away from knocking off Alabama in the regular-season finale two weeks ago and really putting a memorable stamp on Gene Chizik’s first season as head coach.

The long break before the bowl game should help Auburn as much as any team in the SEC. The Tigers battled depth problems all season, which explains in part their fast start and rocky finish to the season. They wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But the way they played against the Crimson Tide gives everybody on the Plains hope that there are better days ahead.

Gus Malzahn’s offense is one of the more unpredictable units in the country. The Tigers like to spread you out and will run everything from reverses, to direct-snap packages to throw-back passes. Their bread and butter this season, though, was turning around and handing the ball off to Ben Tate, who rushed for 1,254 yards.

Defensively, it was a struggle for Auburn. The Tigers finished last in the SEC in scoring defense (26.9 points per game). But, again, they looked like a different defensive unit against Alabama and turned in their best effort of the season on that side of the ball, holding Mark Ingram to 30 yards rushing.
Posted by's Chris Low

The SEC championship game is all set. Alabama and Florida will play for the title for the second year in a row on Dec. 5 in Atlanta.

All that remains is to see whether there will be more at stake than just the league title. At this point, it would be a pretty major upset if both teams weren’t unbeaten and playing for a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 10:

1. Alabama vs. Florida one more time: For the seventh time, Alabama and Florida will meet in the SEC championship game. The Gators have won four of the previous six affairs. It’s never too early for a quick preview, even if there’s still three weeks left in the regular season. Both teams have some holes offensively, and in particular, they’ve struggled in the red zone. Both teams have dominant defenses with difference-makers all over the field on that side of the ball. They both have dangerous return men and reliable kickers, although Florida is better in its coverage units and better across the board on special teams. Alabama looks to be the more physical team, but the great equalizer is the guy pulling the trigger at quarterback for Florida. He’s the reason the Gators beat the Crimson Tide last season in Atlanta. Tim Tebow made some pinpoint throws in the fourth quarter, especially on third down. And, remember, Percy Harvin had a bum ankle and didn’t play in that game. Let the hype begin. Dec. 5 can’t get here soon enough.

2. Gators get defensive: Lost in all the questions about Florida’s offense not being as explosive and all the hubbub over Brandon Spikes’ suspension and Urban Meyer being fined $30,000 for his public comments about the officials is the fact that the Gators are playing at a championship level defensively. Their 27-3 win over Vanderbilt marked the fifth time this season that they haven’t given up a touchdown in a game. Spikes watched the game from the sideline, but the Gators didn’t skip a beat. Ryan Stamper started at middle linebacker in Spikes’ place and came up with his second career interception to set up a touchdown. This is a defense that’s given up just six touchdowns all season and a team that has a much different identity than a year ago, more of a grind-it-out identity. Meyer knows that, and he’s going to play to his strength the rest of the way -- his defense.

3. Quarterbacks make a comeback: Take a quick gander around the league at some of the numbers the quarterbacks are generating. The feeling at the beginning of the season was that this league had never been more unsettled at the quarterback position outside of Tebow and Jevan Snead. But with three weeks left in the regular season, there’s a chance that five different quarterbacks may end up with at least 20 touchdown passes this season. Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton leads the way with 21. Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett has 18, and Georgia’s Joe Cox, Auburn’s Chris Todd and Ole Miss’ Snead each have 17. South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia has 13 and has an outside chance to get there with a strong finish in his last three games, which would include a bowl game. Did you notice who’s not among the leaders in touchdown passes? Tebow has just 11 touchdown passes. But with at least five games to play, he could also easily get to the 20-touchdown plateau. A year ago, only three quarterbacks in the league accomplished that feat -- Matthew Stafford, Snead and Tebow.

4. Mallett’s impact: Speaking of quality quarterback play, what about the impact Mallett has had at Arkansas? He’s really starting to blossom in Bobby Petrino’s system and has gone 121 pass attempts without an interception. The school record is 134 straight, which was set by Clint Stoerner during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Mallett was 23-of-27 against South Carolina, and it’s obvious his understanding of the offense right now is as good as it’s been all season. With Joe Adams back healthy and tight end D.J. Williams having his best game of the season, Mallett now has all of his weapons at his disposal, too. If he continues to progress at this rate, this offense is going to be the one nobody wants to face next season, not to mention an offense that may put up its biggest numbers this season in these last few games.

5. More officiating questions: Maybe it’s come to this. Every week, there’s going to be some controversy in the SEC about the officials. The latest involved LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson’s interception on the sideline -- or non-interception -- as was the ruling on the field in the 24-15 loss to Alabama and then upheld by the replay official. There was a mark left on the field (assuming that it was indeed the mark left by Peterson’s shoe) that certainly suggested that Peterson got a foot down before going out of bounds. He insisted afterward that he did. The replays also seemed to support him. But there has to be inconclusive video evidence, and the replay official in this case, Gerald Hodges, obviously didn’t feel like the video was convincing enough to overturn the call. Therefore, Alabama retained possession and moved into position for Leigh Tiffin’s clinching field goal. And we’re left to debate another disputed call. It’s become life as we know it in the SEC.

SEC helmet stickers

November, 8, 2009
Posted by's Chris Low

On a weekend where there were more mismatches than legitimate matchups in the SEC, we still saw some outstanding performances.

That said, let’s pass out a few helmet stickers for Week 10 in the SEC:

Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton: What a turnaround it’s been for Crompton during the second half of the season. The much maligned fifth-year senior passed for a career-high 331 yards and five touchdowns in the 56-28 win over Memphis. It’s the second time he’s thrown for five touchdowns in a game this season. He also did it in the opener against Western Kentucky and now has an SEC-high 21 touchdown passes on the season. Crompton has 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in the Vols’ five wins this season.

Alabama’s offensive line: The Crimson Tide lost a couple of All-Americans off last season’s offensive line, but they’ve been solid all season up front and took the game over Saturday in the second half of Alabama's 24-15 win over LSU. Alabama gained 121 of its 176 rushing yards after halftime, and left tackle James Carpenter released and took care of two men on Julio Jones’ 73-yard touchdown romp down the sideline on a wide receiver screen. These guys may not be mashing people like the Tide did a year ago, but they’re getting it done when it counts.

Ole Miss receiver Shay Hodge: With Dexter McCluster taking most of the night off, Hodge stepped front and center with a career-high 169 receiving yards on seven catches, including two touchdowns. His 65-yard touchdown catch from Jevan Snead capped the Rebels’ scoring in their 38-14 victory over Northern Arizona. It was Hodge’s second straight 100-yard receiving game.

Auburn quarterback Chris Todd: For the longest time, it looked like Todd wasn’t going to throw an incompletion in Auburn’s 63-31 rout of Furman. He completed his first 14 passes before throwing his first incompletion with just under three minutes to play in the first half. He finished 17-of-18, breaking Jason Campbell’s school record for completion percentage in a game (94.4 percent), and threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns before halftime. Todd’s 17 touchdown passes are tied for fourth on Auburn’s single-season list.

Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams: We’ve been waiting on this kind of performance from the Hogs’ ultra-talented tight end this season, and he delivered in a game that was crucial to Arkansas’ bowl hopes. Williams caught seven passes for a season-high 137 yards and hauled in a 69-yard catch right before half to set up a key field goal in the Hogs’ 33-16 win over South Carolina. Williams only had 16 catches on the season entering Saturday’s game. But when he’s getting the ball with a chance to run after the catch, he opens up a lot of things for everybody else around him.

A very spooky look at the SEC

October, 30, 2009
Posted by's Chris Low

In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a different kind of look at the SEC:

 Doug Benc/Getty Images
 Beware The Swamp, which has been a house of horrors for opposing teams lately.
Haunted House: The official name is Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, but it’s best known as the Swamp. There’s something inherently spooky about any swamp, and Florida’s Swamp is no different. Entire defenses have been known to disappear amid the sweltering heat and ear-splitting noise.

Cursed: The dreaded Chicken Curse has haunted South Carolina ever since the Gamecocks started playing football more than 100 years ago. Legend has it that they’ve been doomed to mediocrity. Only twice in school history have they ever won more than eight games. And in their best season, which saw them start out 9-0 and go to No. 2 in the polls in 1984, they somehow managed to lose to Navy.

Monster Mash: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is still picking out the cobwebs after being leveled in the pocket by Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham on Sept. 26. The whole scene was scary. Tebow, who on the way down hit his head on the leg of one of his linemen, lay motionless on the turf for what seemed like an eternity before being helped up and taken to the hospital. He suffered a concussion, but came back and played two weeks later against LSU.

Boo (Boo): Alabama sophomore linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of the most versatile defenders on the Crimson Tide’s team, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas on Sept. 26. He tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee and underwent reconstructive surgery. He hopes to be back in full by the start of preseason practice next August.

Night of the living dead: Ole Miss is getting good at this second life stuff. The Rebels won their last six games a year ago and look like they might be finding a second life again this season after a disappointing start. They’ve won their last two games in impressive fashion and will try to make it three in a row this weekend at Auburn.

Scary Movie: If you’re looking for one of those slasher movies that makes you sick, Tennessee would probably “volunteer” the last four seconds of its Alabama game. The Vols were on the cusp of pulling off the upset of the season, but Alabama’s Terrence Cody had other plans when he bulled his way through and blocked Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired to preserve the Crimson Tide’s 12-10 victory.

Jack-o-lantern: Auburn quarterback Chris Todd could use a light going off in his head, and for that matter, so could the entire Auburn offense after a brutal last three weeks. The Tigers started the season as one of the most balanced offenses in the league. They’ve looked like one of the worst during their three-game losing streak.

Nightmare on Broad Street: It’s been a nightmarish season and a half for Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who’s really feeling the heat. The Bulldogs have given up 37 or more points in eight of their last 16 games. They desperately need a good defensive performance Saturday against Florida.

Ghosts, Goblins and Ghouls: Among those SEC players you wouldn’t want on your bad side and certainly wouldn’t want to meet up with in a dark alley include Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, Mississippi State defensive end Pernell McPhee, Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba and Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson.

Favorite costumes: Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain/Darth Vader; Florida quarterback Tim Tebow/Superman (way too easy); LSU running back Trindon Holliday/Speedy Gonzalez; South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier/Happy Gilmore and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin/Eddie Haskell.
Posted by's Chris Low

One of the Big Two is off this week in the SEC. Alabama has a bye.

But Florida faces a key showdown with archrival Georgia. South Carolina and Tennessee square off in a game that could have bowl implications, and Ole Miss is looking to get on the kind of roll it did last season about this time.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 9:

1. Halloween tricks: What trick might we see in Jacksonville this Saturday other than gridlock traffic on the way to the game? Two years ago, it was Georgia’s sideline emptying and the players dancing in the Gators’ end zone following the Bulldogs’ first touchdown. Georgia was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but went on to win for only the second time in 10 years against Florida. It goes without saying that Urban Meyer wasn’t amused. In fact, he was livid and exacted a little payback last year when he called a pair of timeouts in the final seconds of Florida’s 49-10 blowout victory just to rub it in. The wand is in Georgia’s hand this year. Of course, the real trick may be simply winning the game. The Gators have won 17 in a row, are huge favorites, and the Bulldogs have lost 16 of the last 19 games in the series.

2. Halloween treats: Any time you get a receiver like Georgia’s A.J. Green and a cornerback like Florida’s Joe Haden on the same field, it’s a treat. Green leads the SEC in receiving with 41 catches for 682 yards and six touchdowns. He’ll go up and get the football no matter where it’s thrown and is just as accomplished at running by someone as he is making a move and running around someone. Haden has been the Gators’ best defensive player this season. Teams don’t like throwing to his side. But sophomore cornerback Janoris Jenkins on the other side is just about as good. Haden’s fast, physical and athletic enough to play man coverage against anybody, including Green. Let’s hope they’re matched up often Saturday in Jacksonville, because they’re two of the best in the college game.

3. Tebow through the air: Tim Tebow’s passing numbers are pretty pedestrian. OK, they’re bordering on anemic. He’s ninth in the league with an average of 165.6 passing yards per game and has thrown just eight touchdowns. In fact, he’s thrown as many touchdowns to the other team in his last three games (two) as he has for his own team. Maybe this is the game where Tebow and the Gators’ passing game gets well. They’re ranked 80th nationally in passing offense. Georgia is ranked 90th nationally in passing defense. Tebow has still been plenty effective running the ball. But he knows as well as anyone that the Gators have to be more effective throwing the ball down the field if they want to win another championship.

4. Show Dogs: Georgia’s much more talented than it’s played this season on both sides of the ball. If ever there was a time to put it all together, it’s this Saturday in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs have had an extra week to prepare for this game and should be as healthy as they’ve been all season. They’re also due to play a complete football game. That starts up front on offense and defense. The Bulldogs haven’t been as consistent on the offensive line as anybody would have thought, and on defense, this has to be a game where Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston play like the best tackle rotation in the SEC and consistently push Tebow out of the pocket. He’s been sacked nine times in his last two games.

5. Mallett’s accuracy: Ryan Mallett has been the best pure passer in the league this season, and as crazy as it sounds, he could make a case for first-team All-SEC honors at quarterback with a strong close to the season. He’s passed for 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns, while throwing just three interceptions. But to take that next step, he has to be more consistent, which means he has to be more accurate. Eastern Michigan should make for some good target practice, and look for Mallett to try and spread the ball around to his receivers. The Hogs need to find a way to get junior tight end D.J. Williams more involved this second half of the season. He instantly helps a quarterback’s accuracy and his productivity. There’s definitely another level for Mallett, and we’ll see if he can get there this season.

6. Rebels’ ‘D’ digging in: There was a time this season when the Rebels looked like they might be in the middle of Pacific Ocean without a life preserver. Fortunately for them, they had their defense to cling on to. The Rebels are tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense and have allowed just eight touchdowns in seven games. They’ve given up more than 17 points only once all season, and that was to Alabama in a 22-3 loss. They face an Auburn offense on Saturday that is coming off its worst stretch of the season. The Tigers were held to a season-low 193 yards of total offense last week in a 31-10 loss to LSU. If the Rebels’ defense continues to get the kind of help it got from its offense the last two weeks, Tyrone Nix’s guys should really turn up the heat during the stretch drive.

7. Kiffin vs. Spurrier: Lane Kiffin has said lots of nice things about Steve Spurrier this week. Spurrier has said very little about Kiffin. They might be separated by 30 years, but they’re very much alike in that they both have a fondness for wearing visors and will say exactly what’s on their mind … even if it gets them reprimanded and even if it makes them an enemy in opposing SEC camps. They traded a few barbs back in the offseason, and then Spurrier confronted Kiffin in front of several media members at the SEC spring meetings. Spurrier is still looking for his first SEC championship at South Carolina after winning six at Florida. Kiffin is looking for his second SEC win at Tennessee after playing Alabama to the wire last week and clobbering Georgia three weeks ago. In no way does the Head Ball Coach want to lose to the Kid, and the Kid in the worst way would love to take down the Head Ball Coach.

8. Rapping with Lane: Kiffin was already pretty popular with the high school generation based on the way the Vols’ recruiting is going. They were fifth in’s latest ranking of the 2010 class. But wait until the recruits get a load of Lil Wayne’s newest song. The popular rapper mentions Kiffin in his song “Banned From TV” and raps, “Smoke weed, talk [expletive] like Coach Kiffin.” Needless to say, Kiffin is eating it up and joked with reporters that the Vols were getting a little “street cred.” They began practice Wednesday with the song blaring, but there is no truth to the rumor that Lil Wayne will replace the sounds of the Pride of the Southland Band when the Vols run through the “T” on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. Now, if only that rumor about black jerseys would go away.

9. McPhee a must-see: When you started listing the most dominant defensive linemen in the league back in August, Pernell McPhee wasn’t at the head of the list. After coming over from junior college, he’d made a few waves during spring practice, but hadn’t done it on an SEC stage. Well, he’s now done it on an SEC stage -- for eight weeks to be exact -- and is one of the up-and-coming stars in this league at defensive end. He’s a wrecking machine whether he’s rushing the passer or playing the run and never takes a play off. He’s second among SEC defensive ends with 7.5 tackles for loss and is only going to get better as he becomes more fundamentally sound. The matchup with Kentucky’s offensive line should be a good one. The Wildcats have given up only seven sacks all season, which is the second fewest in the league behind Georgia’s seven.

10. Todd’s final chance? It’s not a coincidence that Chris Todd’s three worst games of the season have all resulted in Auburn losses. He hasn’t thrown for more than 133 yards in any of his last three games, and Auburn heads into Saturday’s home contest with Ole Miss riding a three-game losing streak. This may be Todd’s final chance to hold onto his starting spot. There was a lot of chatter earlier this week that the Tigers might go with junior Neil Caudle after Todd completed just eight passes for 47 yards and an interception in the 31-10 loss to LSU. Auburn coach Gene Chizik, though, said Todd still gives the Tigers the best chance to win despite his recent struggles. That vote of confidence will only go so far. Todd has to find a way to regain the form that saw him throw 12 touchdown passes and only one interception in his first five games.
Posted by's Chris Low

Alabama and Florida are both still unbeaten as we head to November. But are they genuinely the two best teams in the country?

Neither team made a very convincing argument Saturday. Survival was the name of the game.

Will simply surviving be good enough the rest of the way? Stay tuned.

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 8:

1. Tebow is human: First of all, Tim Tebow is the epitome of a man. Anybody who’s watched him play football knows that. But for him not to man up and face the media Saturday after throwing not one, but two pick six’s in Florida’s 29-19 win over Mississippi State makes you wonder if the pressure is starting to get to Tebow. Florida coach Urban Meyer admitted afterward that a lot of people, including him, were pressing. Well, Tebow made a couple of awful decisions in that game, the kind that would have beaten the Gators had they been playing a more talented team or a team capable of moving the ball and scoring points. Keep in mind that Florida’s defense didn’t allow a touchdown. Only Tebow did, two to be exact. For a team ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and riding a 17-game winning streak, the Gators looked and sounded pretty frustrated late Saturday night. But, then, some of the issues they’re having right now offensively will do that to you. Just ask Tebow … when you get a chance.

2. Leaning on the ‘D’: The burden is getting heavier every week for the Alabama defense. And the more Alabama struggles in the passing game, the heavier it’s going to get. If the Crimson Tide are indeed going to win a championship -- an SEC championship or a national championship -- it’s pretty obvious that the defense is going to have to do all the heavy lifting. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of the 1992 season when Alabama went unbeaten and won it all with one of the strongest defenses in school history. Is this defense as good as that one? It looks like we might find out. This much we know: The Crimson Tide managed to win against Tennessee on Saturday despite not scoring a touchdown and did so with noseguard Terrence Cody blocking two field goals in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Greg McElroy was ineffective throwing the ball for the third straight game, finishing with just 120 passing yards, and Alabama doesn’t have a lot of margin for error playing this way. The Crimson Tide are going to have to be special on defense to keep it going. So far, they have been. The bye couldn’t come at a better time with LSU coming to town on Nov. 7.

3. Auburn is teetering: The Tigers’ bubble hasn’t just burst. It’s completely evaporated. After starting the season 5-0, they’ve now lost three in a row after dropping a 31-10 decision to LSU on Saturday, and if you look at their remaining SEC schedule, it’s difficult to see them winning another game in the conference. They’ve got Ole Miss at home next week, travel to Georgia on Nov. 14 and then end the season at home against Alabama on Nov. 27. It’s a little bit of everything right now for Gene Chizik, too. Quarterback Chris Todd all of a sudden looks like he did last year before he had shoulder surgery, and the defense has been spotty all season. That’s not a good combination. If Gus Malzahn and the Auburn offense, which looked like one of the most balanced units in the country during its five-game winning streak, can’t get back to scoring points and moving the ball, then it’s really going to get ugly on the Plains the rest of the way.

4. Kiffin still learning: His Tennessee team is playing its guts out, and the Vols have really responded to his style of coaching. But Lane Kiffin has now twice made questionable decisions at the end of games that might have cost the Vols a pair of wins. His play calling inside the 3-yard line against UCLA in Week 2 was iffy, and his decision to play for a long field goal in the final minute of the Alabama game -- especially when his kicker, Daniel Lincoln, had already missed one from that range and had another one blocked -- was a move that Kiffin himself was second guessing in the immediate aftermath of Tennessee’s bitter 12-10 loss to Alabama. In that situation, a 44-yard field goal is anything but a sure thing, something Kiffin learned the hard way. He obviously didn’t have enough confidence in quarterback Jonathan Crompton to throw the ball a couple of times there and try to get closer. That’s despite Crompton playing two of the best games of his career the past two weeks. The result was another moral victory. The Vols may end up leading the country in moral victories at this rate.

5. Mississippi State on its way: Nobody was happy about the 29-19 loss to No. 1 Florida, but Mississippi State has plenty to be happy about when you look at the direction of this football program right now. What a great atmosphere Saturday night at Scott Field where a record crowd of 57,178 was as loud as a crowd twice that size when freshman safety Johnathan Banks took that interception back 100 yards for a touchdown right before halftime. First-year coach Dan Mullen is playing a lot of freshmen, and more importantly, a lot of freshmen with promise. He needs to keep having the kind of recruiting years in-state that he did this past year, and if so, the Bulldogs will have a chance to make some noise in the Western Division down the road. Athletic director Greg Byrne and his staff have done a great job of marketing the program, building support for the program and rallying the Mississippi State community. The next step is building on the Bulldogs’ talent level, which makes this recruiting class coming up probably even more important than Mullen’s first one in Starkville.

Posted by's Chris Low

Popularity contests can be a funny thing when hiring football coaches.

Take Auburn’s Gene Chizik for example.

Had they been taking a straw poll in Auburn, Knoxville and Starkville last December when the three new coaches were announced in the SEC, Chizik would have finished a distant third to Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin in terms of approval rating.
 Jim Brown/US Presswire
 Gene Chizik is off to a 5-0 start as Auburn’s head coach.

Plus, Mullen had the connection to Urban Meyer, and Lane Kiffin had his legendary father, Monte Kiffin, joining him as defensive coordinator.

Chizik had a 5-19 record he was dragging around as the head coach at Iowa State the previous two years.

Even for some of the most loyal Auburn supporters, Chizik’s hiring came out of left field.

But now that we’re out of the court of public opinion and on the (football) field of tangible results, it’s clear that Chizik has made a more profound impact than any of his first-year cohorts.

The Tigers (5-0) are unbeaten and ranked 17th nationally this week. They own one of the most balanced offenses in the country, and they’ve already beaten Mississippi State and Tennessee head-to-head.

Kiffin’s Vols have burned it up on the recruiting trail here recently, but the Tigers haven’t been too far behind. In the latest ESPN rankings, Auburn was 12th nationally and sixth in the SEC behind Florida at No. 1, Georgia at No. 3, Alabama at No. 4, Tennessee at No. 5 and LSU at No. 6.

We can sit here all day and debate which of the three new head coaches faced the greatest challenge this first year in terms of personnel and talent.

The reality is that all three faced major rebuilding jobs and had to overcome a lack of depth and experience in key spots.

To this point, Chizik and his staff have been able to provide more answers.

It’s not like there weren’t question marks, either, when Chizik arrived on the Plains.

The quarterback situation back in the spring was as unsettled as it was anywhere in the league. Senior Chris Todd was coming off shoulder surgery and really a long shot at that point to win the job. But he’s healthy now and playing the best football of his career. He’s ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency with 12 touchdown passes and only one interception.

There wasn’t much depth on the offensive line or at linebacker, and the leading returning receiver, Montez Billings, was initially suspended for four games and has since left the team. That meant the Tigers started this season with no true wide receiver on the team who caught more than eight passes last season. And the guy who caught eight passes a year ago, Tim Hawthorne, injured himself in the preseason and has played sparingly.

Remember, too, that two of the Tigers’ most experienced defensive backs, Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage, have also not played this season because of injuries. Savage was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Both were starters throughout much of their careers.

The Tigers were short in numbers, period, to start the season. They had about 75 scholarship players and have since put some walk-ons on scholarship.

Chizik said 27 players who had never played in a college football road game made the trip to Tennessee last weekend.

Suffice it to say that it’s been an impressive start to this season for Chizik and his entire staff. He wasn’t a guy who created much of a buzz in the offseason, but he’s creating one now … when it counts.

“Coach Chizik has brought so much energy to the team, and he brought in a coaching staff that we all can relate to,” Auburn senior running back Ben Tate said. “People forget that this is basically the same team from last season, the one everybody picked to go to the SEC championship.

“We lost a few guys here and there. But other than that, it’s pretty much the same team, and now we have a great coaching staff behind us. We’re not surprised at all. This is what we were expecting. We were expecting to win this year.”

What we learned in the SEC

October, 4, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

On a weekend when No. 1-ranked Florida was idle, the rest of the league had the spotlight to itself.

LSU made good on its end of the bargain, setting up a huge showdown of top 5 teams in Tiger Stadium next Saturday night. Auburn is obviously serious about making some noise in the Western Division race, and Alabama rolls into its toughest road test of the season at Ole Miss on the heels of another runaway victory.

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 5:

1. Resolve over luck: LSU has been called overrated, even lucky by some. Could it be, though, that these Tigers simply know how to win? There’s something to be said for having the ability to make plays when you need them, and LSU has certainly shown that ability in starting this season 5-0. It hasn’t always been pretty and hasn’t always been textbook. But the bottom line is that different guys have stepped to the plate all season long for LSU when called upon. In the 20-13 win over Georgia, it was senior running back Charles Scott who came through, but what about the poise of sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson in those final minutes? And do the Tigers win without freshman Rueben Randle’s sweet 16-yard catch over the middle on third-and-10 in the drive to go ahead 12-7? LSU coach Les Miles said it best: “Our football team, if you turn your back on them, they’re going to beat you up and steal a victory.”

2. Quick-strike Tide: After seeing Alabama mash people on offense a year ago, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this version of the Crimson Tide is a bit different. And nobody at the Capstone is complaining. This team can score points in bunches, and everybody gets into the act. The most encouraging thing about Saturday’s 38-20 win over Kentucky was that the offense sort of bumbled along in the first half, but the Crimson Tide still managed to send the Wildcats reeling with a head-spinning flurry that turned a 7-6 game into a 31-6 romp in a span of fewer than five minutes of actual game time. Alabama had ranked 11th in the SEC in takeaways entering the game, but scored 17 points off turnovers. The 45-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Courtney Upshaw with 21 seconds to play in the first half is the play that broke Kentucky’s back, but then Mark Ingram answered for the offense with a 32-yard touchdown run in the first 80 seconds of the second half. The Crimson Tide can get you in a lot of different ways.

3. Early dibs to Chizik: Everybody wondered which one of the three new head coaches in the league would make the quickest impact. We now have our answer. Gene Chizik has Auburn 5-0 and playing the kind of football they’re used to on the Plains. The Tigers beat Tennessee 26-22 on Saturday night in their first road game of the season and are building confidence each week. That’s the thing that jumps out when you talk to any of the Auburn players right now, how confident they are in Chizik, his staff and the system. The defense isn’t dominant, but has been good enough so far. And Gus Malzahn’s offense epitomizes balance. Quarterback Chris Todd hit 19 of 32 passes against the Vols for 218 yards, and running back Ben Tate rushed for 128 yards. The 459 total yards by the Tigers were the most Monte Kiffin’s defense has given up this season by more than 100 yards.

4. Props for Ole Miss’ defense: While there’s still some concern in Oxford about the Ole Miss offense, specifically quarterback Jevan Snead’s inability to put together a whole game, it’s time to give it up for Tyrone Nix’s defense. The Rebels have played well enough on defense this season to still be unbeaten right now. The 16-10 loss at South Carolina was hardly their fault, and the D was dominant Saturday in a 23-7 victory at Vanderbilt. Granted, the Commodores aren't going to be confused with an offensive juggernaut, but the Ole Miss offense put the defense in some tough spots in the second half, and Nix’s guys responded every time. There are a lot of teams who’d be willing to trade for the Rebels’ front seven on defense, which is the best thing Ole Miss has going for it next Saturday entering one of the biggest games the Rebels have played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the past 40 years. Beating Alabama starts up front on defense, and Ole Miss has what it takes there to get it done.

5. Tough season for the Vols: It’s shaping up as what could be a second straight non-winning regular season for Tennessee following the 26-22 home loss to Auburn. The Vols (2-3, 0-2) will have a difficult time getting out of October with a win. Georgia comes to town next weekend, and then Tennessee goes to Alabama following a bye and gets South Carolina at home on the final day of the month. There were some good signs against Auburn. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton played the best game of his career against an SEC opponent, and Tennessee has continued to get after people. Lane Kiffin has seen to it that this team is going to play hard. But as the losses and injuries continue to mount, you wonder if the Vols will be able to sustain that same intensity. If they can get to 6-6, that could still get them into a bowl game, which would be huge with all the younger players playing key roles this season. But they sure don’t want to be 2-6 heading into that final month. They need to find at least one win somewhere in October, and that won’t be easy.

Posted by's Mark Schlabach

It's a slim menu of marquee matchups in college football this weekend, which might be a prelude to the Oct. 10 battles in the SEC.

Here's a look at 10 things to watch around the country this weekend:

1. Which team will win the battle of Michigan?

Michigan was supposed to be rebuilding after last season's 3-9 debacle. Michigan State was a supposed to be a darkhorse contender for a Big Ten title after playing in a New Year's Day bowl game in 2008.

Instead, the teams have reversed roles after four games. The No. 22 Wolverines are 4-0 and back in the national rankings. The Spartans are 1-3 and look like one of the country's most disappointing teams.

Michigan will be trying to avenge last season's 35-21 loss to the Spartans, which ended the Wolverines' six-game winning streak in the intrastate series. Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier should be OK after spraining his right shoulder in last week's 36-33 win over Indiana. He'll face an MSU defense that has allowed a Big Ten-high 10 touchdown passes.

Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker leads the Gophers superb offense.
2. Who will win Paul Bunyan's axe?

Minnesota and Wisconsin have largely been overlooked in the Big Ten, but both teams are off to good starts heading into Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN/, noon ET). Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien has been a big surprise, completing 66.7 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Wisconsin's offensive line has done a great job protecting him, allowing only two sacks in four games.

The Gophers have a high-powered offense, too. Receiver Eric Decker already has 35 catches for 499 yards with four touchdowns, and has caught at least eight passes in each of the first four games.

Wisconsin has won five games in a row against their border rivals, including a 35-32 victory in 2008. The Gophers blew a 21-7 halftime lead against the Badgers last season.

3. Can Penn State's offense get it going against Illinois?

Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno sure needs more from his team's offense when they play at Illinois on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Quarterback Daryll Clark has completed 59.7 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Tailback Evan Royster has been held to less than 70 yards in three of four games this season.

Illinois' defense might be just what the No. 15 Nittany Lions need. The Illini are giving up 28 points and 386 yards per game, both second-worst in the Big Ten.

Stopping Georgia receiver A.J. Green will be a tall task for LSU.
4. Can LSU stop Georgia receiver A.J. Green?

Green was one of the country's top freshman receivers last season, and he's well on his way to becoming one of the best playmakers in the country this year.

In only four games, Green has totaled nearly half his production from 13 games in 2008, with 25 catches for 428 yards with four touchdowns. He had eight catches for 153 yards and a touchdown in last week's 20-17 victory over Arizona State, and even blocked the Sun Devils' potential go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he believes Green is better than last season, even though he's getting most of the attention from opposing defenses now that former star tailback Knowshon Moreno and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi are playing in the NFL. Richt said Green added about 20 pounds during the offseason, but didn't lose much of his speed or agility.

"I think he's earning every yard he has maybe more than he did a year ago," Richt said.

Green figures to get a stiff test from No. 4 LSU's defense in Saturday's SEC showdown at Sanford Stadium. The Tigers have one of the country's biggest secondaries. Patrick Peterson is a 6-foot-1, 211-pound cornerback, and Chad Jones is a 6-foot-3, 231-pound safety.

"I like big challenges like that," Green said. "It takes my game to a new level."

5. Can Auburn win away from home?

The Tigers are off to a surprising 4-0 start under first-year coach Gene Chizik, but they'll play their first road game at Tennessee on Saturday night (ESPN/, 7:45 p.m. ET).

Under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have one of the country's most balanced offenses -- they average 261 rushing yards and 265 passing. Look for the Volunteer defense to try to take away running backs Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb, forcing quarterback Chris Todd to beat them. Todd has thrown for 1,012 yards with 11 touchdowns, including nine touchdown passes in the last two games.

6. How will Landry Jones perform in his first road start at Miami?

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops decided to go with Landry Jones instead of Sam Bradford, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, for the No. 8 Sooners' game at No. 17 Miami on Saturday night (ABC/, 8 p.m. ET).

Bradford hasn't played since spraining the AC joint in his right shoulder in Oklahoma's season-opening 14-13 loss to BYU. He visited orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., last week, but
has reportedly thrown the football well in practice.

"Sam has made daily progress, but we don't feel like he's quite where he needs to be yet," Stoops said in a statement. "Our team has a lot of confidence in Landry's ability and we're looking forward to going into
the game with him at quarterback."

Jones will make his third straight start for the Sooners. The redshirt freshman has played well, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 673 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the road start against the Hurricanes will be the most difficult test Landry has faced this season. How he performs will help determine whether the Sooners stay in the race for the BCS National Championship

7. Which California team will show up against USC?

Will it be the Bears team that looked so good in its first three games, or the team that largely failed to show up for last week's embarrassing 42-3 loss at Oregon? The No. 24 Bears will need a much better effort when they host No. 7 USC at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night (ABC/, 8 p.m. ET).

Cal had only 77 rushing yards against the Ducks, and USC's vaunted defense is allowing fewer than 60 rushing yards per game. The Trojans rebounded from their 16-13 loss at unranked Washington with a 27-16 win over Washington State. USC has beaten Cal five times in a row.

8. Which team will have the Pac-10 lead on Sunday?

Surprisingly, it won't be Cal, Oregon or USC. Stanford is already 2-0 in Pac-10 play, beating Washington and Washington State. The Cardinal will try to move to 3-0 when it hosts UCLA (ABC/, 3:30 p.m. ET), which will be playing its league opener.

The Bruins will need a good defensive effort against senior tailback Toby Gerhart, who already has run for 516 yards and five touchdowns. UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft will be making his second start in place of injured Kevin Prince, who has a broken jaw.

9. Which teams will be upset?

Brace yourselves for another weekend of unpredicatable results. Three top-10 teams could be in danger of falling: No. 4 LSU plays at No. 18 Georgia; No. 7 USC plays at No. 24 California and No. 8 Oklahoma plays at No. 17 Miami.

Notre Dame could have its hands full against Washington, and Michigan State might rise up to knock off in-state rival Michigan.

10. Which coaches need victories more than others?

There are a few coaches who could use victories to quiet their critics. Maryland's Ralph Friedgen needs something good to happen against Clemson at home, and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis probably can't afford a loss at home against Washington.

Nevada's Chris Ault is under fire and can't afford a loss to in-state rival UNLV, and UTEP's Mike Price could use a big effort against Houston.

Posted by's Chris Low

For the time being, this will have to do.

It’s not the version of the spread offense Gus Malzahn would like to run at Auburn. It’s not as fast-paced, not as diverse, not as interchangeable.
  AP Photo/Dave Martin
  Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has the Tigers running all over their opponents.

“We’re still having to change personnel too much, and that’s slowing us down,” said Malzahn, whose “patchwork” version of his offense is averaging 45.2 points per game, second only to Florida in the SEC, and cranking out 526.2 yards per game, which is tied with the Gators atop the SEC.

Once the Tigers get a chance to further recruit to this offense, you’ll see the real thing.

“It will be different,” Malzahn said. “We’ll be able to do more things, run it the way we want to run it. We’re not there yet.”

Maybe not, but the Tigers (4-0) have been off-the-charts productive offensively four games into Malzahn’s second stint in the SEC as an offensive coordinator.

They’ve gained at least 400 yards of total offense and scored at least 37 points in every game.

Not bad for a “patchwork” version, huh?

“We’ll find out a lot more about where we really are this week,” Malzahn said.

Up next is a Monte Kiffin-led Tennessee defense Saturday night in Neyland Stadium (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) that held Tim Tebow and Florida to 23 points and 323 yards two weeks ago. Tebow got a bunch of those yards by scrambling around and making plays. He was held to 115 yards passing and without a touchdown pass for the first time in 30 games.

“We haven’t faced a defense like this, not even close,” Malzahn said.

Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin says the same thing about Malzahn’s offense and all the different things he makes you defend. Unabashedly, Kiffin said this has been a more difficult week of preparation for the Vols’ defense than Tebow and the Gators two weeks ago.

That’s because Malzahn, according to Kiffin, is willing to do things that nobody else has the guts to do.

“When you look at it, it’s wild and crazy thoughts, kind of like when you were little and playing in the park and you drew them up in the dirt,” Kiffin said admiringly.

“There’s no fear factor of being conservative or not trying things.”

But, then, that’s what makes Malzahn so good.

It was tagged as a gimmick offense when he was coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High School earlier this decade and winning state championships. The SEC got a taste of it in 2006 when he joined the staff at Arkansas, although the Hogs never came close to running his full package.

After the well-documented split with Houston Nutt, Malzahn took Tulsa to the top of the NCAA’s charts in total offense each of the last two seasons.

Now he’s racking up gaudy numbers at Auburn, and the most impressive thing has been how balanced the Tigers have been. They beat West Virginia with Chris Todd throwing four touchdown passes, and they’ve mauled everybody else in the running game thanks to the tandem of Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb.

“We’re going to take what they give us,” said Tate, who’s combining with McCalebb to average 194.2 rushing yards per game. “If we have the numbers, we’re going to run it. If they’re rolling down on guys trying to stop the run, then we’re going to pass it.”

It sounds so simple, but Kiffin said nothing about Malzahn’s offense is remotely simple.

“It’s really hard because guys are going every direction, and what you did all camp doesn’t really help you as you fit runs and normal runs, things you’ve seen for years that most people run,” Kiffin said. “There’s none of that. You’ve got to all of a sudden this week start practicing things our players have seen … maybe never.”

In the last 32 games in which Malzahn has coached, his offenses have produced at least 400 yards in 29 of those contests. The only time Tulsa didn’t hit that mark last season was in the bowl game against East Carolina, and the Golden Hurricane had 399 yards then.

This is exactly what Gene Chizik envisioned when he hired Malzahn in terms of being able to exploit defenses in different ways, but Chizik also knows the real season is about to begin.

“We’ll have to take our game to a new level,” Chizik said.

Given what the Tigers went through offensively a year ago, it’s a level they could only dream about until now.

Posted by's Chris Low

Is LSU overrated? Is Auburn for real? Can Ole Miss get back on track before Alabama comes to Oxford next week?

As top-ranked Florida takes the week off and Tim Tebow recovers from his concussion, the rest of the league will try to sort out a few matters.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 5:

1. Green vs. Peterson: Individual matchups can be over-hyped, but watching Georgia receiver A.J. Green and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson go at it is a treat for any football fan. Green has asserted himself as the best receiver in the league and is one of those guys few defensive coordinators would dare single cover for most of the game. But Peterson has the size, strength and speed to match up with anybody, and he’ll get his chance to show the college football world Saturday in Sanford Stadium that he is indeed one of the premier cornerbacks out there. These guys are going to be around for a while longer, too. They’re only sophomores.

2. Georgia’s generosity: At some point, Georgia’s carelessness is going to catch up with it. Really, it’s a wonder the Bulldogs are 3-1 right now when you consider that they’ve turned it over three times in every game this season, lead the SEC with 12 turnovers and have committed more penalties (41) than every other major college team in the country with the exception of Texas Tech. It’s called sloppy football, and the Bulldogs have to cut it out starting Saturday against LSU if they want to be a player in the Eastern Division race.

3. Something to prove: No one who’s watched LSU play this season, at least no one with a conscience, can say that the Tigers are genuinely the fourth-best team in the country right now. But this is a team with a lot of talent. We’re talking numerous players that will be playing in the NFL some day, so it stands to reason that the Tigers are going to put it all together sooner rather than later. The players may still be adjusting some to John Chavis’ defensive system, and the offense also seems to be searching for its identity. Either way, this is a team that will likely play its best football in the second half of the season. If you’re going to get the Tigers, you might want to get them now.

4. Replacing Hightower: Losing a player the caliber of Alabama sophomore linebacker Dont’a Hightower was difficult enough. He was a true difference-maker on defense. But then you stop and look at all the roles he filled for the Crimson Tide, and his loss becomes even more daunting. He was as good against the run from his weakside linebacker spot as he was rushing the passer when the Tide moved him outside to jack linebacker. Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t sure one player will be able to fill his shoes. Against Kentucky, Saban is leaning toward bringing sophomore Courtney Upshaw off the bench to play jack linebacker, moving Cory Reamer to Hightower’s weakside spot and Eryk Anders to strongside.

5. Tennessee’s health: The Vols were already thin in several spots, but they enter Saturday’s home game against Auburn without several key performers. Middle linebacker Nick Reveiz is out for the season after tearing up his knee. Reveiz called all of the signals on defense, made the checks and got everybody lined up. He’s also been one of the Vols’ surest tacklers. Their best pass-rusher, sophomore defensive end Chris Walker, has a back problem and may not play. Coach Lane Kiffin also doesn’t anticipate starting guard Vladimir Richard being able to play. Richard sat out last week with a knee injury. The Vols are hopeful that receiver Quintin Hancock will be able return this week from a broken jaw.

6. Unfamiliar territory: Not only will Auburn be playing away from home for the first time this season, but Tennessee’s defense will pose the stiffest test for what’s been a well-balanced Auburn offense. Operating any offense efficiently on the road is always more difficult, but running a hurry-up, no-huddle attack with the crowd working against you can really get hairy. The only close game Auburn has been in this season was West Virginia, and the home crowd was a huge factor in that game. It remains to be seen how Auburn will react if the Tennessee game goes down to the fourth quarter and Neyland Stadium is rocking.

7. A year later: When Jonathan Crompton and Chris Todd were last seen on the same football field, it wasn’t pretty. Auburn slopped its way to a 14-12 victory over Tennessee last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium in a game that set offensive football back for decades. Crompton completed eight passes and threw for 67 yards that day, while Todd completed 14 passes for 93 yards. They meet again Saturday night, and while Crompton continues to struggle, Todd has been a different quarterback since offseason shoulder surgery. He leads the SEC with 1,012 passing yards and 11 touchdowns and is third in passing efficiency. And while Todd has thrown just one interception, Crompton has thrown eight.

8. Home sweet home: So much for a few breathers out of conference, huh? Mississippi State, on the heels of an emotional 30-26 loss to No. 4-ranked LSU last week, stays home to face No. 25-ranked Georgia Tech this week. After that comes another home game the next week against No. 12-ranked Houston. The rest of the Bulldogs’ home schedule includes No. 1-ranked Florida, No. 3-ranked Alabama and No. 21-ranked Ole Miss. That’s a sweet lineup if you happen to have Mississippi State season tickets this year, but it’s not so sweet if you’re lining up against those folks every week.

9. Third down anyone? The toughest two teams in the SEC to convert against on third down this season have been Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, who square off Saturday night in Vanderbilt Stadium. The Rebels lead the SEC, allowing opponents to convert just 21.7 percent of the time. The Commodores are right behind at 22.1 percent. Despite their troubles elsewhere, both teams are off to solid starts defensively, and a big reason why is that they’ve been able to get off the field on third down.

10. Hog Heaven: For all the gnashing of the teeth about Arkansas’ defense, the Hogs actually held in there pretty well against the run in the 35-7 loss to Alabama last week. The big plays have been killing the Hogs on defense, and it’s what they will be looking to stop against Texas A&M this Saturday. Alabama had three scoring plays of 50 yards or longer against Arkansas, which was also victimized by the big play in its 52-41 loss to Georgia. They say they do everything bigger in Texas. The Hogs better hope that doesn’t go for the Aggies’ offense, or they’ll be leaving Jerry Jones’ new palace with their third straight defeat.

Posted by's Chris Low

A month into the season, the pecking order in the SEC is starting to take shape. And at this point, it’s hard to argue that Alabama isn’t the best team in the league.

What a scary moment involving Florida’s Tim Tebow in the Gators’ 41-7 win over Kentucky. Thankfully, it looks like he’s going to be OK.

Here’s a look at what all we learned in Week 4:

1. Tebow is human after all: No matter who your allegiances are to, I think I speak for the entire conference when I say we’re all relieved to hear that Tim Tebow has been released from the hospital in Lexington, Ky. He’s been such a warrior and plays the game with such a ferocity, but seeing the vicious blindside hit he took is a reminder of how fleeting this game can be. It’s the kind of shot we haven’t seen Tebow take often during his career. He’s usually the one delivering the blow. But on this one, he was in the pocket and never saw Kentucky’s Taylor Wyndham coming. What’s important is that Tebow is OK. Seeing his neck snap back the way it did after hitting Marcus Gilbert’s knee was as frightening as it gets.

But as we all keep our fingers crossed that he won’t have any complications with the concussion, a fair question becomes: Why was he still in the game? The Gators were leading 31-7 with just under four minutes to play in the third quarter when he was hurt. He was already sick, as were several of the Florida players. Urban Meyer’s mentality is that the game is never over until it’s over, and I understand that. But this isn’t the first time Tebow has still been on the field when the outcome had long since been decided. It’s a fine line for any coach on when to pull a star player. But what’s that old saying about playing with fire?

2. Alabama, Florida on collision course: As the calendar flips to October, two teams in the SEC have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. And they may be the two best teams in the country. Alabama and Florida appear headed for a rematch of last season’s classic showdown between the two in the SEC Championship Game. They’re clearly the class of this league right now, and while that doesn’t mean they don’t both have some holes, they’re the two teams everybody else is gunning for. That second tier of teams in the SEC is bunched up together, and depending on the week, could include any number of teams. They’re all pretty close, and they all are capable of rising up and knocking off the Gators or Crimson Tide if they play an ‘A’ game. Right now, that group includes, in alphabetical order, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and South Carolina with Arkansas and Tennessee hanging around on the fringe.

3. Something’s not right at Arkansas: It’s obvious to everyone after watching the Hogs give up 87 points in their last two games that they have issues on defense. Even though they played better against the run in the 35-7 loss to Alabama, this is a team that’s going to struggle to stop teams all season. But the deeper issues may lie in some of Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s comments after the game. When’s the last time you heard an SEC coach say publicly that his team didn’t believe it could win the game? That’s exactly what Petrino said following the Hogs’ loss to the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide, and he readily took the blame for that defeatist attitude. Still, if that’s the case in the third game of the season when there was so much hope and optimism surrounding this team back in August, what’s that mean for the rest of the season? With a brutal schedule remaining, Petrino has his work cut out to get this team back on track.

4. Overrated until proven otherwise: LSU and Ole Miss are both overrated. There’s no other way to say it. The difference between the two teams is that LSU is overrated and still unbeaten. Ole Miss is overrated and coming off a loss in its SEC opener. LSU coach Les Miles called the Tigers “vulnerable” following their 30-26 escape at Mississippi State, and he’s right. I’d go as far as to say they’re very beatable unless they find their running game and start playing with more consistency in all areas. And until Ole Miss gets its issues straightened out on offense, namely its pass protection and a passing game in general that’s gone south thanks to Jevan Snead’s slow start, the Rebels are also a team that looks extremely beatable and nothing like a top 10 team nationally.

5. Dueling quarterbacks in Alabama: The two quarterbacks in the state of Alabama are playing some pretty swell football right now. Between them, Alabama’s Greg McElroy and Auburn’s Chris Todd have combined for 18 touchdown passes and two interceptions while throwing for 1,950 yards. Of course, the most important statistic is that their two teams have combined for eight wins and no losses. Their play through four games has been infectious. The better they’ve performed, the better everybody else around them has performed. Look at the way they’ve been able to get so many different people involved in the passing game, too. At the end of last season, neither was a sure bet to even be the starter at his school. But four games in, they’ve been two of the best three quarterbacks in the league and a big reason why the Crimson Tide and Tigers both go into October unscathed.

SEC helmet stickers, Week 4

September, 26, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

The stars were out this week in the SEC. A lot of familiar names were making big plays.

Here are the helmet stickers for Week 4:

South Carolina outside linebacker Eric Norwood: He's been the SEC's best defensive player four weeks into the season. Norwood had two sacks in South Carolina's 16-10 win over Ole Miss on Thursday night to raise his league-leading total to six. He also partially blocked a punt and generally made life miserable for Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. There's not a player in the league right now who has made a bigger impact on his team to this point than Norwood.

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy: For a guy who was supposed to be one of the question marks for Alabama coming into the season, McElroy has been off-the-charts good. He threw for a career-high 291 yards and three touchdowns in the 35-7 win over Arkansas. He has seven touchdown passes and one interception this season and has gone 81 straight pass attempts now without throwing an interception. He's been terrific at spreading the ball around.

LSU safety Chad Jones: You can watch football for a long time and not see a better punt return than Jones' 93-yard gem for a touchdown in LSU's 30-26 win over Mississippi State. It accounted for LSU's only points of the fourth quarter, but Jones wasn't finished. In the final minute, he tipped away a Mississippi State pass on third down at the goal line after going skyward to stop the over-the-top play and having enough athleticism to reach out and deflect the play-action pass. The Tigers would have been toast without him Saturday.

Auburn quarterback Chris Todd: The Tigers' senior quarterback has them scrambling on the Plains to find out what the school record is for touchdown passes in a season. He threw five more Saturday in Auburn's 54-30 win over Ball State and has 11 through four games. Todd only missed seven passes all night, and four of his touchdowns were 26 yards or longer. He's easily the SEC's comeback player of the year at this point.

Georgia place-kicker Blair Walsh: Some of the special-teams units in the SEC haven't been anything to write home about this season, but Walsh saved the Bulldogs from what would have been a devastating loss with a pair of fourth-quarter field goals. His 37-yarder as time expired was the game-winner in Georgia's 20-17 win over Arizona State.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 20, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

No matter how you slice it, a pretty wild weekend in the SEC. Let’s hand out some helmet stickers:

Georgia quarterback Joe Cox: Boy, were they down on Cox in the Peach State after that season-opening loss at Oklahoma State. Then it really got crazy that next week with all kinds of rumors swirling. All he’s done since then is lead the Bulldogs to 40 or more points and a pair of wins the last two games. He tied the Georgia school record with five touchdown passes Saturday night in a 52-41 win over Arkansas. His arm strength looks fine to me.

Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin: We rarely give out helmet stickers to somebody on the losing end. But Kiffin had his Vols ready to play in some of the toughest circumstances imaginable at the Swamp, and they outplayed Florida for much of the game. If the Vols play with that kind of pride and that kind of toughness the rest of the way, they will win a lot of games this season.

Mississippi State’s defense: A week after being shredded for 589 yards of total offense by Auburn in a 49-24 loss, Mississippi State’s defense came back swinging against Vanderbilt and held the Commodores to one field goal and 157 total yards. In the first half, Vanderbilt managed just one first down against Carl Torbush’s bunch.

Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: It’s hard to find a more versatile playmaker anywhere in the country. Cobb made a couple of unbelievable plays Saturday that saved Kentucky in its 31-27 win over Louisville. His leaping 12-yard touchdown catch was the game-winner for the Wildcats. But his catch and run on a 28-yard gain on a third-and-10 play earlier in the quarter may have been the play of the game. It was an outside screen, and Cobb was swarmed by Louisville defenders. Somehow, he broke out and kept alive a key touchdown drive for the Wildcats.

Auburn quarterback Chris Todd: He looks so much better throwing the ball than he did this time a year ago that it’s hard to believe he's the same player. Todd’s offseason shoulder surgery has given him a new lease on his football life, and he’s been a big part of the Tigers’ hot start. He passed for career highs of 284 yards and four touchdowns in the 41-30 win over West Virginia. In his first three games, Todd has six touchdown passes and just one interception. But what was so important about Saturday was that the Mountaineers dared him to beat them throwing the football, and he made them pay.