NCF Nation: Derrick Henry

Overreacting in the SEC

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
10:30
AM ET
Our world is full of overreactions. The slightest flap of a butterfly's wings has us all in a tizzy.

That's why we were so quick to jump on Texas A&M as a title contender after Week 1. That's why the SEC was thrashed after going 7-5 in bowl season. It's a never-ending cycle of instant hyperbole, and it usually comes back to haunt us.

The 2014 SEC season certainly didn't lack overreaction during an exciting year, and here are some of the major ones we got wrong:

The Magnolia State takeover

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanA promising start for Bo Wallace and Ole Miss fell apart with consecutive losses to LSU and Auburn.
After Mississippi State and Ole Miss beat Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, at home on the same day, the state of college football resided in the 20th state admitted to the Union. The Bulldogs thrashed A&M 48-31, and Ole Miss topped Alabama 23-17 at home and watched the Grove overflow onto the field inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. The schools then tied for third in the Associated Press Poll, and Mississippi State would eventually rank No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

All was good in Mississippi until Ole Miss lost an ugly one at LSU and a heartbreaker at home to Auburn in consecutive weeks. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the season at Alabama. The regular season culminated with neither Mississippi team in the SEC title game after the Rebels were blown out at Arkansas 30-0, then eliminated Mississippi State from the race with a 31-17 win at home.

Bowl season erased any remnants of that magical Magnolia run, as Ole Miss was demolished 42-3 by TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and Mississippi State surrendered 452 rushing yards in a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Kenny Thrill for Heisman

After a record-setting 511-yard passing debut by Kenny Hill in Texas A&M's 52-28 drubbing of South Carolina in Columbia, we all thought we were seeing another College Station Heisman winner. And he just kept bringing us back in with more jaw-dropping performances. By the start of October, Hill had thrown for 1,745 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also had a QBR that didn't dip below 91.5 at any point during the Aggies' 5-0 start, which pushed them to No. 6 in the country -- another thing that caused us to overreact.

Then the meat of the SEC season arrived, and the Thrill was gone. During three straight blowout losses, Hill turned it over seven times with just six touchdowns. After a disastrous 59-0 loss at Alabama, Hill was benched for freshman Kyle Allen and would never see the field again. He dealt with a suspension and decided to transfer from A&M after the season.

South Carolina's East run

We in the media picked South Carolina and Steve Spurrier to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. After opening night, that prediction imploded. Despite sporting a record-setting offense, the defense was atrocious, ranking 13th in the SEC (432.7 yards allowed per game). South Carolina surrendered 36.8 points per game in SEC play; made choking in the fourth quarter with double-digit leads an art; and finished the season 7-6 (3-5, SEC). Not exactly title-worthy.

The SEC West

The SEC West took a lot of heat for its embarrassing 2-5 bowl record. Arkansas and Texas A&M -- the only winners -- were ashamed of their division mates, and the 5-0 SEC East was left smiling after being lambasted for most of the season. Chants of "overrated" rained down around the SEC, especially after No. 1 Alabama was left out of the national title game after losing to Ohio State -- the eventual champion -- in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. All that talk of how great the West was during the season went out the window because of its bowl showing. Is the SEC still the deepest conference? Yes, but when your star attraction (the West) fails to show up against everyone else, it's hard to call it the best division ever. It's hard not to at least listen to some of those "overrated" chants. It puts a damper on such an exciting regular season from that side of the conference. And I don't buy the excuse that the division was beaten up from the regular season.

Save it. A few teams played better opponents, and others just fell flat at the worst time.

The conference certainly isn't in ruins now, but the gap between the SEC and the rest of the nation is closing.

Some early overreactions for 2015

Alabama's run of dominance is over

You never quite got the feeling that you were looking at a dominant Alabama team in 2014, and Ohio State's 42-35 College Football Playoff Semifinal win against the Crimson Tide supported those feelings. The Tide was the No. 1 team in the country, but couldn't make it to the final game. Now, Alabama loses a lot of what pushed the team to a No. 1 ranking. Only two starters -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- return on offense, and four very valuable defensive starters are gone, including safety Landon Collins and linebacker Trey DePriest. Plus, two defensive coaches left.

Are we seeing the demise of the Tide? Heck, no! Don't throw dirt on Nick Saban and his squad just yet. The Tide will rebuild on offense, still has some young talent to work with, and running back Derrick Henry might as well have been a starter last season. The defense has some work to do, yes, but if you think Saban is going to let his program leave the realm of relevance, you are greatly mistaken.

Steve Spurrier is done

From three straight 11-win seasons to a disappointing 7-6, the Head Ball Coach has seen better days. Rumors swirled about his possible retirement, but Spurrier will return in 2015, and like Saban, he is not one to just let his program fall apart. The defense will be older in 2015, and you better believe that Spurrier will be coaching with a chip on his shoulder this fall. Will the Gamecocks win the East? Not gonna put money on it, but Spurrier will make his squad much more competitive in 2015.

Will Muschamp will turn Auburn's defense around

Regardless of what you think of Will Muschamp's head-coaching job at Florida, he's an excellent defensive mind. And his hiring as Auburn's defensive coordinator has the Plains all abuzz with the thought of an SEC and playoff run with only three starters departing on the defensive side. But not so fast, Auburn fans. Can Muschamp have the same sort of success Lane Kiffin did in his first year at Alabama? Kiffin wasn't exactly working with an inept offense when he arrived. Muschamp must turn around one of the SEC's worst defensive units. I'm not saying Auburn won't challenge for the West, but let's be careful immediately crowning the Tigers this early.

Nick Chubb for Heisman

Yeah, he's the best running back returning in the SEC and should be one of the nation's best ... again ... but come on, this a quarterback award.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

For most big-time college football programs, January is a time of letting go.

On Friday, Alabama had to do just that as three of the program's most prolific underclassmen -- Landon Collins, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon -- announced that they would forgo their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWithout Landon Collins, Alabama's secondary enters a period of uncertainty that it hasn't experienced in some time.
Really, who can blame them? For three years they've been an integral part of the Crimson Tide's success, leaving no stone left unturned in their careers.

Yeldon ran for 100 yards in his first game and has proved himself ever since. Cooper caught the game-winning pass in the SEC title game as a freshman and made it all the way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December. Collins may have taken a little longer to develop than his fellow juniors, but when he shifted from special-teams stud to a starting safety as a sophomore, you knew he would become an All-American.

But now they must move on.

And now Alabama must move on.

While no one should weep for coach Nick Saban as he sends this latest trio of underclassmen off to the pros, it should be said that his job of replacing them won't be easy. Granted, the duo of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake should pick up right where Yeldon left off, but in the case of Cooper at receiver and Collins at safety, there are no obvious replacements.

Three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes have assured Alabama plenty of talent from which to draw, but there's a difference between a potential star and an already-known commodity.

In fact, what's known about the secondary without Collins isn't necessarily promising. Setting aside the rocky situation at cornerback, there are two vacant safety positions ahead of spring practice, and there's no clue who will fill them.

Alabama's amazing run of continuity at the position is over. This won't be 2011 when Mark Barron returned for another year. It won't be 2012, with a seasoned Robert Lester. It won't be 2013 with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, and it won't be this past season with Collins stabilizing the back end of the defense as a veteran starter.

While there's Geno Smith, who has played at safety and nickel, and Hootie Jones, who saw the field as a true freshman, neither has shown he's ready for the spotlight. It could be a wild card who ends up starting, such as redshirt freshman Ronnie Clark or one of the two top-10 rated safeties Alabama has committed in its 2015 signing class (four-star Deionte Thompson is already on campus).

The situation at receiver without Cooper is just as murky, because it's not just Cooper and his 124 receptions heading out the door. It's the next two leading receivers, too, as Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have moved on.

So who is Alabama's top returning receiver? That would be Chris Black, who caught 19 passes this past season. Besides him, there's ArDarius Stewart, who caught 12 balls, Cam Sims (seven) and Robert Foster (six). It's a talented group, to be sure, but none of the four underclassmen has had to deliver in crunch time.

With a new quarterback set to take snaps under center, it will be interesting to see who develops into the go-to targets in the passing game.

Don't discount someone like the 6-foot-4 Raheem Falkins or the 6-5 Derek Kief getting into the mix. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 receiver in the 2015 class and an Alabama verbal commitment, could vie for playing time right away, too.

With so much up in the air, stay tuned for what unfolds during spring and fall practice.

It will be a different group of playmakers leading Alabama next season now that Collins, Cooper and Yeldon are gone, but by now Saban and his staff should be used to this game of plug-and-play.

It's January, which is as good a time as any to start anew.
The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.
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NEW ORLEANS -- Never mind the score, Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal was an Alabama-style manhandling. Only this time, Alabama was on the receiving end of the beating.

Under Nick Saban, the top-ranked Crimson Tide simply doesn't lose games of this magnitude. But not only did No. 1 Alabama fall 42-35 to No. 4 Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it surrendered an enormous yardage total (537 yards) and completely got away from the staples of Saban's best seasons in Tuscaloosa.

"It's not really about what you do most of the time, it's really more about how you do it," Saban said. "And they did a better job of executing what they do than what we did."

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry against Ohio State, but Alabama insisted on putting the ball in the air Thursday.
From an execution standpoint, this was nothing like what we've come to expect from Alabama, which won three BCS championships in Saban's first six seasons. And yet it is incorrect to attempt to apply previous templates to this Alabama team.

Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama's offense no longer runs to set up the pass. Quite the opposite. Although the run worked well at times Thursday -- for instance, Derrick Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry but ran just 13 times -- Kiffin kept putting the ball in the air.

And yet out of all those Blake Sims passes, Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper -- who already held the SEC single-season receptions record with 115 entering the game -- didn't get his customary frequent touches. With Ohio State understandably shading its pass coverage his way, Cooper made only three receptions in the second half.

"Every time Blake looked at me, a safety would run full speed over there and got a little bit of double coverage," said Cooper, who finished with nine receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns.

"It was frustrating, but at the same time, I expected it."

Although Alabama led 21-6 at one point in the first half, Ohio State's offense moved the ball effectively throughout. The Buckeyes settled for early field goals and turned the ball over in their own territory, paving the way for Alabama to claim the big lead.

Eventually, the Buckeyes' trips into Alabama territory yielded touchdowns, and they sprinkled in a couple of big-play scores, as well. Meanwhile, Alabama's offense bogged down, allowing Ohio State to mount a 28-0 run between the second and third quarters.

Alabama led 21-20 at halftime, but the yardage total told a completely different story. Ohio State outgained Alabama 348 yards to 139 in the first half, with that 209-yard differential representing the greatest disparity the Tide have ever faced in a first half under Saban.

Oddly enough, Auburn outgained Alabama by 200-plus yards in the first half just two games ago, but the Tide were able to rally and win that game 55-44. There would be no such comeback against Ohio State with the Buckeyes shutting down the staples of the Alabama offense.

"Their front did a really good job," Saban said. "We didn't handle them well in running the football like we thought we might be able to when we spread them out, and they did a good job on our perimeter screens and smokes. And we made the blocks, but they made the plays, and you've got to give their players a lot of credit for the way they executed."

Conversely, Sims was unable to bounce back the way he did against Auburn, when after tossing three interceptions he led the Tide's comeback bid. With Ohio State largely taking away Cooper, he struggled to keep drives alive. The Tide converted just twice in 13 attempts on third down -- and Sims even tossed a third-down interception that Steve Miler returned 41 yards for a touchdown that put Ohio State up 34-21 late in the third quarter.

He also threw an ugly pick on the first play after a horrendous Ohio State punt gave Alabama possession at the Buckeyes' 23-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Alabama's senior quarterback pointed the finger at himself after the game.

"We weren't having no problems. It was all on me," said Sims, who finished 22-for-36 for 237 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. "I take full responsibility for everything that happened tonight. It was no other person's fault but mine."

There was more than enough blame to go around, however.

Philosophically, this was not the ruthless Alabama machine Saban has built in his eight seasons in Tuscaloosa. Certainly, Ohio State deserves credit for taking away what Alabama has done well this season -- and in the recent past -- but Saban's staff will also face reasonable scrutiny over their decision-making when a victory was within grasp.

"I think that we're certainly capable of playing a little better than we played tonight," Saban said, "and I think everybody would say the same if you asked them that, from player to coach."
Now that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has strutted away with the Heisman Trophy in an utter landslide, it's time to look into the future to see who could be up for that bronze beauty next year.

What's that? We haven't gotten to bowl season? Santa hasn't even come to fill our stockings?

Pssssh! It's never too early for some prognostication that has nothing to do with the current season. And looking ahead to the Heisman is so much fun.

So who could be in the mix for a trip to Times Square next December? I think the SEC has a few candidates to keep an eye on. Too bad Todd Gurley isn't returning, because he would be at the top of this list. In fact, if he didn't deal with that NCAA suspension or lose his season to an ACL injury, Gurley might have won the Heisman over Mariota. But that's a story for another day.

Also, Heisman finalist Amari Cooper isn't on our list because he would be crazy not to bolt to the NFL.

Here's our very early list of possible SEC Heisman candidates in 2015:
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: This hinges on Prescott's NFL prospects. He is awaiting his draft grade, but if Prescott isn't projected to go in the first or second round, expect him to come back for his senior year. Prescott was an early Heisman front-runner in 2014, but his numbers fell in the final month of the season. Still, if he returns, he will be a favorite from the SEC after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014: total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9), touchdowns responsible for (37), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (2,996), passing yards per game (249.7), 200-yard passing games (11), passing touchdowns (24), passing efficiency (151.3) and rushing yards by a quarterback (939).
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: With Gurley sidelined for the second half of the season, Chubb took off. Already impressing everyone when he came in to relieve Gurley, Chubb finished the season with seven straight 100-yard games (all starts), was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged a league-high 6.9 yards per carry. Chubb is explosive and powerful with his runs, and his vision is incredible.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Another special sophomore-to-be to keep an eye on, Fournette needed some time to really get going. But when he did, he was usually the best player on the field. He finished the season with 891 yards and capped the season with 146 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a dominating performance against Texas A&M. Avert your eyes, Aggies! Fournette is a special talent who will be doing a lot more of this in the next couple of years.
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Before his season was cut short by a devastating ankle injury against Auburn, Treadwell was one of the SEC's best overall players. With Cooper most likely jetting for the NFL, Treadwell will return as the SEC's best receiver in 2015. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Treadwell, who has incredible athleticism, led the Rebels with 48 catches. He finished with 632 yards and five touchdowns.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Though he didn't have the season most -- including me -- expected, Henry is a freak of an athlete capable of having a special season. If he is the lead guy in Alabama's backfield next fall, he should compete for the title of best running back in the SEC and improve on the 895 yards and 10 touchdowns he had while splitting carries this fall.
  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The bowling ball had a fantastic season in Starkville, rushing for 1,128 yards (third in the SEC) and 11 touchdowns. Robinson was at the top of the SEC's rushing chart for most of the season and rushed for at least 100 yards four times. His numbers fell off during the final portion of the season, but Robinson is a big-play machine. Small in stature, he is a bull of a runner with a knack for tossing defenders off him or slipping out of their grasp for extra yards.
The NFL could claim these guys:
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: He leads Alabama with 932 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns, but he could take his game to the next level. He wasn't completely healthy this season, but his vision and ball security improved a lot in 2014.
  • D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: He missed two games but still led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Another top-tier athlete, Williams made a ton of clutch plays for Auburn this fall. But with his incredible athleticism and size, he's very much a candidate to leave early.
Keep an eye on:
  • Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M: He had only 559 receiving yards and five touchdowns, but when you are regularly making plays like this, people better be on the lookout for you. Noil is a supreme athlete who will grow with more time in the Aggies' offense.

ATLANTA -- In one of Alabama's most complete performances of the season, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) took home the SEC title and clinched a spot in the College Football Playoff with a resounding 42-13 win over No. 16 Missouri (10-3, 7-1) inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday.

Missouri has now given up 101 points and 1,181 yards in back-to-back SEC championship appearances -- both losses.

Once again, Alabama's offense, beautifully organized by coordinator Lane Kiffin, pushed he tempo, mixed up formations and wore down the Tigers' front line. On the other side, Alabama's defense dominated for most of the game up front, but did get beat on a few deep passes. Maty Mauk and Jimmie Hunt made the deep jump ball look easy. Still, it wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the Tide Saturday.

Here's how Alabama took home yet another SEC championship:

How the game was won: Alabama's offense got off to a fast start with a touchdown on the game's opening drive. The Tide then raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead thanks to 160 first-half passing yards from Blake Sims. Missouri lost a major part of its defense when star defensive end Shane Ray was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Mizzou outscored the Tide 10-0 in the third, but thanks to a 10-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that ended the third and started the fourth, Alabama pushed its lead to 28-13. Alabama sealed things after a nifty 17-yard run from Sims and a 26-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry with 7:38 remaining. Alabama's offense is fun to watch, but the defense deserves credit for holding the Missouri running game to a season-low 41 yards and forcing Mauk to press throughout.

Game ball goes to: How about the visor-wearing, touchdown-signaling playcaller who made Mizzou's defense absolutely miserable for most of the day? Kiffin was brilliant for just about the entire game, throwing in some misdirection, using quick passes, and even calling the quarterback draw with an empty backfield on third down. He put his players in great positions to make plays against one of the SEC's best defenses. Once again, Kiffin was dialed in as Alabama outgained Missouri 252-108 in the first half, before finishing the game with 504 yards and 28 first downs. That game plan helped star wide receiver Amari Cooper finish with an SEC championship-record 12 catches, along with 83 yards.

What it means: The SEC is in the playoff and will be competing for its eighth national title in nine years. The SEC Western Division has now won six straight SEC championship games. Alabama is almost guaranteed to stay within the top two of the College Football Playoff rankings, and coach Nick Saban is now 3-1 in SEC title games at the school.

Playoff implication: Alabama has clinched a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Tide entered the game as the No. 1 team in the CFP rankings, but with Oregon's 51-13 win over Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday, there's a chance the Ducks could jump Alabama. Still the Crimson Tide are all but guaranteed a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

What's next: Alabama sits back and awaits its opponent in the first round of the playoff to be announced on Sunday, while Mizzou awaits its bowl bid.

Alabama lets loose on Texas A&M

October, 18, 2014
10/18/14
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Let your horses run. Let them jump and dance and dominate.

Nick Saban wanted that. He wanted his guys loose. Forget being anxious, he said, and just play football. Have fun. Be fast. Recalling the story of Secretariat he hoped to "just let 'em run."

Alabama hit its stride on Saturday afternoon, blowing past Texas A&M for a 59-0 win that had the previously sluggish Crimson Tide looking like playoff contenders once again.

T.J. Yeldon dodged and darted his way to 114 yards and two touchdowns.

Derrick Henry churned his long legs for 70 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Even Blake Sims let loose in the second quarter, running by a slew of defenders for a spectacular 43-yard touchdown.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Austin Shepherd
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonT.J. Yeldon and Austin Shepard celebrate one of Yeldon's two touchdowns against Texas A&M.
Alabama fired on all cylinders while Texas A&M flamed out. It proved to be the Tide’s largest margin of victory in more than 30 years.

The emotion Saban said his team had been lacking was instead ramped up to an 11. The normally business-like Crimson Tide played the game like kids again.

If you’ve never seen a group of 280-pound men jump up and down to a beat, it really is something. A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama’s defensive linemen couldn’t sit still. During each kickoff, they huddled on the edge of the field and danced to the music played over the loudspeaker.

Amped up, they took the field and held Texas A&M to 31 yards rushing on 24 carries. They sacked Kenny Hill six times and forced an interception. The Aggies were shut out for the first time since 2003.

It wasn’t just emotion, though. Alabama won by being faster, stronger and more aggressive. It was smarter, with no turnovers and zero penalties.

"There was a lot of anxiety on our team," Saban said, "a lot of guys worrying about expectations, about being defined by external factors.

"Everybody has to forget about all that other stuff," he added. "It does affect you. It affects a lot of teams. That’s why you see these top teams struggling."

On a day when Alabama could do no wrong, Texas A&M was left with nothing but second-guessing.

The Aggies ran defender after defender at Amari Cooper but never could wrangle the junior receiver as he racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns. Keeping up with all their missed tackles was a dizzying task. Mark Snyder’s defense gave up 45 points and 449 yards of offense -- in the first half.

"However you cut it, that performance was unacceptable and embarrassing," said coach Kevin Sumlin. "Alabama had a lot to do with that, but we have to get back to work and examine where we are right now and how we can get better."

Given the stark contrast in the quality of play, it’s hard to make any sweeping statements about the prospects of Alabama. It’s surely back in the playoff conversation, but this is still the same team that lost at Ole Miss and nearly fell to unranked Arkansas a week later.

But for now the critics should be silenced.

Saban wanted more emotion. He wanted his horses to run.

On Saturday, he got the right attitude and the right results.

The winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to win or play for the national championship in each of the last five seasons, and this season was supposed to make it six. The November showdown in Tuscaloosa was thought to be a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff, a winner-take-all matchup similar to last year.

Through the first six games, there has been a slight hiccup by way of the Magnolia State, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama and Auburn aren't still a part of the conversation when it comes time to choose the top four teams in college football.

So we ask the question: Which team is in better shape today to reach the playoff?

Ostendorf: The team that showed up Saturday did not look like the Auburn team we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past year and a half, did it? Silly turnovers and struggles in the red zone took away from what actually wasn't a half-bad performance. You can't spot the other team 21 points and expect to come back and win.

Maybe Mississippi State is just that good, or maybe Auburn simply had an off day. Either way, I expect Gus Malzahn and his team to use the upcoming bye week to regroup and right the ship. Remember the last time the Tigers lost an SEC game? It was last September at LSU, and they proceeded to win nine straight games en route to the BCS title game.

Now, this isn't last year's team. Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Dee Ford are all gone. But I argue that the addition of D'haquille Williams, the team's leading wide receiver through the first six games, makes the passing game that much better, and the difference between last year's defense and this year's defense is night and day. Last year's group relied too much on getting pressure up front. This year, Auburn is getting quality play from the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary, and it has already forced 13 turnovers.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe winner of the past five Auburn-Alabama games has played for the national title. Will this year's winner make the College Football Playoff?
Also, it's not like Alabama's offense is off to a record-setting pace. The offseason hire of Lane Kiffin looked promising at the time, but after 227 yards and 14 points against Arkansas on Saturday, maybe it's time to admit that we were wrong about him. Maybe he's not the answer to all of the Tide's woes on offense.

Scarborough: While I'm not ready to say Kiffin isn't the right guy to lead Alabama's offense, he has struggled in pivotal moments late in each of the last two games. The offensive output against Arkansas -- fewer than 70 yards rushing, two touchdowns -- was about as bad as it gets. But I think with Ryan Kelly eventually sliding back in at center, some of those issues will be settled. It's hard to imagine that running game with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be kept down for long.

With that said, Blake Sims needs to play better. His confidence and decision-making in recent games have been lacking. The fact that Amari Cooper caught just two passes against Arkansas is inexcusable. He's arguably the best player on either side of the Iron Bowl rivalry.

The thing that should concern Alabama fans the most, though, is the execution from this team. If you didn't know it was Nick Saban on the sideline, you would wonder about the coaching. Mental errors, penalties and fumbles have been pervasive. The crisp play of Alabama teams in the past simply hasn't been there this season.

But for those very reasons, I see Alabama as having a higher ceiling than Auburn. The Tide's issues are fixable with practice and good coaching. The Tigers' problems, on the other hand, strike me as more personnel based, whether that's not enough quality players on the offensive line or playmakers on defense.

Ostendorf: Higher ceiling? Maybe. But this Alabama team will go only as far as Sims takes it, and if I'm picking a quarterback, it's not Sims. It's Nick Marshall. He might not be the best passer in the SEC, but he's the perfect fit for what Malzahn wants to do offensively. When Marshall gets going, Auburn is hard to stop. Say what you will about his passing, but he has thrown for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns in three of the last four games. He's much better than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for the Tide considering he accounted for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns in last year's game.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that winning last year's game will give Auburn more confidence heading into this year's game. This team now knows what it takes to beat Alabama, and it won't be afraid to play on the road in Tuscaloosa. If the Iron Bowl does become a play-in game for the playoff, I like the Tigers' chances.

Scarborough: That's great and all. I'm sure we'll see the replay of Chris Davis' 100-plus-yard kick return hundreds of times before the Iron Bowl, as if we had somehow forgotten how that game ended. But while I don't doubt that Auburn's confidence should be high, I'm not sure how much it will matter by that point in the season. The Tigers' schedule is brutal with games against South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia -- in consecutive weeks. After what they have already gone through (Kansas State, Mississippi State), I'm not sure there will be enough gas in the tank come late November.

The Tide's schedule, on the other hand, isn't nearly as daunting. There's this weekend's game against Texas A&M, but after that it's a pair of unranked teams in Tennessee and LSU. Mississippi State will be an enormous challenge, but that game is at home. As is the Iron Bowl. Alabama's home-field advantage could prove to be the difference in both games.

Week 6 roundtable: Breakout player

October, 2, 2014
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Derrick HenryKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry has 320 yards and two scores on 53 carries this season.

Saturday should be fun -- a full-scale clash of the SEC West titans. We're focused on three games from the nation's toughest division featuring six top-15 teams -- Alabama-Ole Miss, Auburn-LSU and Mississippi State-Texas A&M. So far, our roundtables have discussed the game we'd pay to see, the team with the most to prove and the best clutch quarterback.

The West crown, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, a berth in the College Football Playoff … it all hangs in the balance on Saturday. With that in mind, here are our SEC writers' picks for the breakout players whose performances will carry the day.

Alex Scarborough: Call him Megaquon. Laquon Treadwell is the star no one is talking about, and against Alabama, that's going to change. Ole Miss' sophomore receiver is the complete package: big, physical and explosive. Just look at his stat line last week: Five receptions, 123 yards, two touchdowns. Alabama's cornerbacks can't handle that. Cyrus Jones gives up four inches and 30 pounds to Treadwell. Eddie Jackson is a better matchup physically, but we don’t know how his body will hold up. Tony Brown is on a level playing field as far as talent goes, but the true freshman lacks experience. All that adds up to a matchup nightmare for Alabama.

Greg Ostendorf: If Alabama wants to beat Ole Miss on Saturday, it has to run the football. There, I said it. I don't care how good Blake Sims looked against Florida, this Ole Miss secondary is no joke. AJ McCarron struggled against the Rebels last year, and I can see Sims having a rough day on the road. That means it's up to T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry to carry the load. Take your pick for breakout player -- they're all good -- but I'm going with Henry. He's averaging 6.0 yards per carry, had a big game against Florida and has a knack for ripping off long runs. The only question is do the coaches trust him? I say yes.

David Ching: Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne, Mississippi State's Josh Robinson and Treadwell all came to mind as I considered this question, but I'm going with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. He'll get his first career start on Saturday at Auburn, which is a tall order for anybody. But this kid possesses special talent. Even if he makes some mistakes or if LSU fails to pull the upset, he's going to become a star eventually. My bet is he will validate Les Miles' decision to allow him to guide the Tigers offense by keeping Saturday's game competitive.

Jeff Barlis: I knew I wouldn't be alone in choosing Harris. He just oozes athleticism, has an efficient delivery and poise beyond his years. Despite being a true freshman, Harris has looked worlds better than LSU's previous starter, sophomore Anthony Jennings. When Harris has been in the game, the LSU offense has come alive, as evidenced by his touchdown on all seven of his possessions after relieving Jennings last week. The Tigers have plenty of skilled athletes in Cam Cameron's offense. With Harris at the reins, LSU flat out has a better chance to go into Auburn and pull off the upset.

Sam Khan: Keep an eye on Mississippi State sophomore wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's coming off a good game at LSU (four catches, 91 yards and a touchdown) and he looks like a budding star for the Bulldogs. He had success against Texas A&M last season, catching seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 51-41 loss at Kyle Field. He's big (6-foot-5), athletic and has a large catch radius, which is perfect when Mississippi State needs to move the chains on third down or get in the end zone. He leads the team in catches of 20-plus yards this year (four), and this game looks to be a shootout, so he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impression.

Edward Aschoff: My breakout player is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones. He was supposed to be an All-American this year, but he's yet to really get things going for the Bulldogs. He does have two sacks on the season, but those came against cupcakes. Texas A&M’s offensive line presents a great test for the sophomore, who I think will put some nice pressure on A&M quarterback Kenny Hill and force him into some tough situations. It's time for him to impress us. His bulky, 6-5, 308-pound frame will clog the middle against the run, but where I see him standing out is against the pass, which is the key to stopping the Aggies' offense.

SEC slant: More RBs the better

September, 4, 2014
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Gone are the days of Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders. We may never see another Eddie George or Ron Dayne pounding between the tackles for four quarters. Feature backs have gone the way of the dodo as more and more teams have moved toward multiple-back offenses. Part of it is the position's devaluation, part of it is getting the most bang for your buck.

There are no more workhorses

College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Terrell Chestnut
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's T.J. Yeldon was one of four players to notch rushing carries in the Crimson Tide's win against West Virginia in Week 1.
Thirteen backs averaged 20 carries per game last season. In 2004, that total number was 23.

Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.

By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.

In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.

Two backs means double trouble for defenses

Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.

In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.

When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.

And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.

"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.

Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.

During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.

The NFL agrees

If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."

ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.

Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.

It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.

Missing the good 'ol days

The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.

Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.

Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.

The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.

There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.
You shouldn’t have much trouble remembering the year 2011. It wasn’t that long ago. There was an NBA work stoppage, the NFL threatened a lockout and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State rocked the college football world. Jack Kevorkian passed away, Aaron Sorkin released the film “Moneyball” and Miley Cyrus was only beginning to embrace her inner crazy.

Oh, and somewhere in there the SEC landed two teams in the BCS title Game.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims is reminiscent of the "game manager" quarterback that Alabama had when it beat LSU for the 2011 national championship.
It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. The BCS system has since been retired and the perception of both Alabama and LSU have changed significantly since they met in New Orleans. AJ McCarron found a way to break free of the “game manager” label at Alabama, reaching within ear shot of a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger helped reshape the image of LSU’s offense, incorporating a more vertical, NFL-style passing game.

Now things have changed again. And in so many ways it feels like 2011.

At Alabama, the phrase “game manager” is back to being embraced. If Blake Sims can only manage the game and take care of the football, then the Crimson Tide might be capable of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Like McCarron’s first season starting, he won’t be asked to do it all. Despite hopes to the contrary, he probably won’t throw the ball deep very much. We’ll all do well to remember that 43 quarterbacks had more passes of 20-plus yards than McCarron in 2011.

With two stellar running backs to lean on, the offense should be fine either way. You think the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry isn’t comparable to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Like Richardson, Yeldon is a junior with an established resume. Like Lacy, Henry is an emerging sophomore with talent to burn.

Granted, Alabama’s defense isn’t as experienced as it was in 2011, but there’s certainly more than enough talent to draw upon with the current roster. Landon Collins looks an awful lot like a leaner Mark Barron, and Trey DePriest is the same kind of physical inside linebacker Nico Johnson was. The veteran cornerbacks might not be there, but the defensive line has the potential to be better than its ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

LSU, on the other hand, is in an eerily similar boat.

In one offseason, Les Miles saw his entire passing game head for the NFL as Mettenberger graduated and both his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, declared for the draft. Now it’s a new cast of characters, starting with quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. And judging by their play against Wisconsin, we might be looking at a return to the 2011 days of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Harris clearly wasn’t ready for the big stage on Saturday, and Jennings had trouble reading the defense and seemed limited with throws outside the standard go-route.

There’s hope at receiver, though, with Travin Dural and John Diarse, coupled with young guns Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre. Sound familiar? It should. In 2011, LSU’s leading receivers were Rueben Randle, Beckham, Deangelo Peterson and Russell Shepard, with Landry coming off the bench.

But the real heart of LSU’s offense is still at running back with a three-headed monster of Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette. In 2011, it was much of the same with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue shouldering the load.

Will the Tigers defense be as good now as it was then? Only time will tell, but there are certainly the parts in the secondary to harken back to the days of old. Jalen Mills played lights out at safety against Wisconsin, as did Ronald Martin. Between Jalen Collins, Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, we might be able to call it DBU once again.

This is all to say that while Alabama and LSU looked quite different this past weekend than we’ve become accustomed to, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their respective passing games might have taken significant steps back, but it’s not the end of the world.

It might feel like forever ago now, but in 2011 these two programs didn’t rely on quarterbacks to win football games. McCarron wasn’t a star when he took his first trip to New Orleans. Neither were Jefferson or Lee. Strong defenses and solid running games got them there.

Given the tendency toward overreaction and overanalysis this early in the season, it felt like a good time to remind everyone that three years isn’t that long ago. The SEC probably won't land two teams in a national title game again, but there's nothing to say that Alabama and LSU are out of the playoff hunt altogether.
These are the best debates to have, the ones that don't have a wrong answer.

Would you rather have Georgia's group of running backs or Alabama's?

If you gave the 120 other FBS coaches in the country a choice, their answer would likely be, "Yes."

You can't go wrong with either, you see.

But for the sake of argument, we had Edward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough take sides.

Edward Aschoff: Don't get me wrong, I love what Georgia has at tailback. I think Todd Gurley is the best player in the country, regardless of position. A healthy Keith Marshall is scary, and those freshmen could be special.

But Alabama still has the best running back duo in the SEC with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Both of those guys could start at just about any school in the country, and they have health on their side. Yeldon has carried the ball 405 times for 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career and has missed only one game because of an injury. Gurley missed a month of work last year and Marshall missed most of last season with a knee injury.

What we've seen from Yeldon and Henry in the past two games has been nothing short of fantastic. The two have combined to rush for 411 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries. That's 6.3 yards per touch. Yeldon has had fumbling issues in the past, but the Yeldon we saw against West Virginia ran with that ball tucked tightly. He also ran with a purpose and looked faster than ever. He became the first back at Alabama to ever rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and if he can continue to run with the power and speed that he displayed Saturday, he'll get to 1,000 again.

And that's even with Henry chugging right alongside him. I think Henry, who looks a like a tank on the field, could hit 1,000 yards as well. He's a bigger, more physical runner than Yeldon, but has that explosive speed to hit the home run ball. These two are going to absolutely punish defenses.

Don't forget about Kenyan Drake (982 career yards) or big ol' Jalston Fowler. When Drake gets on the field, he's the most dynamic running back the Tide has. He's the fastest and shiftiest of the three. He'll get more chances to run the ball and he'll show off that lightning speed and Playstation moves. Fowler doesn't have the speed that any of those other backs have, but he just runs people over. He's one of the toughest runners in the league.

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Alex Scarborough: It appears Aschoff beat me to the punch. The conservative in me -- don't even think I mean politics, OK? -- says to go with the backfield less likely to fail. And that, to me, is Alabama's. Yeldon has been the most consistent tailback in the county since bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in 2012. He's never had injury concerns and can do it all on the field: run, block, catch passes. His steady hand, combined with the dynamite talents of Henry and Drake, makes for a terrific trio at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's disposal.

But if I'm going for sheer upside, there's no question in my mind Georgia is the backfield to choose. Gurley, when healthy, is the best player in the country, hands down. He's big, strong and explosive. Backs that well built aren't supposed run as fast as he does. Yet he's the one guy I look at in the SEC and know he can take over the game whenever he wants. Just look at Saturday against Clemson. He got the ball only four times in the first half. So what'd he do? He went in on special teams and took the kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown. In the second half he ran for 154 yards, doing everything he could to win the Heisman Trophy Week 1 of the season.

You think Henry is a beast? Just look at Nick Chubb. You didn't need to see the freakish Herschel Walker-type photo that surfaced of him this summer to know how physically gifted the true freshman is. All you had to do was watch Clemson's defenders struggle to tackle him Saturday. He was a bowling ball with jets, running around or right through would-be tacklers. No one in college football has a better yards per rush average (17.5) than he does (minimum four carries).

Oh, and lest we forget, there's also Keith Marshall and Sony Michel to consider. When Marshall is healthy, we all know what he brings to the table. But Michel, another freshman, has the chance to be special. He's a lot like Drake. Each time he touched the football against Clemson, it looked as if he was shot out of a cannon. Six carries for 33 yards may not sound like much, but watch the tape.

Good luck to the poor souls trying to tackle Michel, Marshall and Chubb after Gurley has pounded them for three quarters. With Georgia's emerging offensive line, it looks like power football is the way to go.

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SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2014
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What a weekend of college football. The SEC kicked off the festivities with three games on Thursday night and wrapped it all up with the Tennessee-Utah State game on Sunday night. Here's a look at the five best performances from Week 1.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.

Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.

Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.

ATLANTA -- We got a little bit of a shootout inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but No. 2 Alabama prevailed with a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Season openers can be tricky -- and sometimes ugly -- and Alabama, which is a favorite to make the College Football Playoff, had a relatively up-and-down performance in the ATL, but will head back to Tuscaloosa 1-0.

New starting quarterback Blake Sims had some rough moments against West Virginia, but regrouped well and made some big plays throughout the game with his arm and legs. Finding All-SEC receiver Amari Cooper was smart (12 catches for 130 yards), but handing the ball off to his running backs really paid off, especially when he gave the rock to Derrick Henry halfway through the third quarter.

1. Hustling Henry

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Let's face it, the third quarter of this game started off a little stale. After seeing 37 points and 500 yards of offense in the first half, we got a failed fourth-down attempt and a missed field goal. Then, things started clicking for the Crimson Tide on their second drive. With Alabama moving at will against the Mountaineers' defense, Sims handed the ball off to the super sophomore, who immediately cut to his left. As a hole opened up, Henry put on the jets and flew through both lines before pushing off one last defender and leaping into the end zone to put Alabama up 27-17 with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama only managed two more field goals after Henry's score. It proved to be the biggest score of the game for the Crimson Tide, as they fought off a valiant comeback effort from the Mountaineers.

Henry: "It was the outside zone play and the tight end made the block and I just read it. I hit the hole and [went] right into the end zone."

Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen: "It gave us more energy and more focus because once we make a big play, we want to capitalize on it and try to keep that momentum going. It really got the momentum in our favor when Derrick scored."

Right tackle Austin Shepherd: "I think we were going 'Speed Ball' or something and we were just trying to wear West Virginia down so we were just going fast. I guess the hole opened and he got out there and made it work. We were just trying to attack and we did. ... We were trying to punish them, man. Every chance you got, drive them into the ground, get in their hand and they'll start thinking about it and finally they'll wear down."

2. Slippery snap

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Henry's play didn't officially put the game away for Alabama, but a bad snap from West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky severely hurt the Mountaineers' chances of pulling of a major upset Saturday. With Alabama clinging to a 30-20 lead with 14:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers closed in on what should have been another touchdown drive. Quarterback Clint Trickett had already marched his offense down to Alabama's 5-yard line and after two tough incomplete passes that took two touchdowns off the board, Trickett lined up in the shotgun, only to have Orlosky send the snap soaring over his head and outstretched arms. The ball hit the ground and rolled a bit before Trickett landed on it 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play took the Mountaineers out of touchdown range and forced them to kick a field goal. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could barely stand to look at the field after Trickett collapsed on the ball. It swallowed up all the momentum the Mountaineers had and clearly sapped some of the offense's energy. Only a couple plays later, West Virginia got the ball back by way of a Sims interception, but went three plays and punted.

Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."

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