NCF Nation: Drake Nevis

LSU can lean on defense for a long time

September, 14, 2011
Through the first two weeks, LSU has proved it doesn’t need star power on offense to get the job done.

In fact, the second-ranked Tigers haven’t needed much offense at all as it has relied on its high-flying, dominant defense.

Against Oregon’s flashy juggernaut of an offense, LSU’s defense surrendered 335 total yards, but allowed just 95 on the ground. The Tigers also got a defensive touchdown and forced four turnovers. Last week against Northwestern State, the Tigers allowed just 95 yards, including -4 rushing.

The Tigers have one of the fastest, most athletic defenses in the country and while the offense hasn’t been tremendously exciting to look at, it might not have to be this season.

LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne said the defense has done what has been expected. It doesn’t need a high-powered offense at its side to be effective. All this defense does is focus on its play and the players understand that everything else will fall into place as long as they are hitting their assignments.

[+] EnlargeSam Montgomery
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireLSU's defense has limited opponents to just 91 yards on the ground so far this season.
“We know what we can do as a team,” Claiborne said. “As a defense, we come out, we fly around and we make plays.”

Fly around they have and make plays they’ll continue to do. But playing so physical up front has been a major reason for the Tigers’ success. Those rushing numbers from before can be hard for offensive coaches to stomach, but LSU’s linemen take pride in their carnage.

After all, this unit did lose the likes of Drake Nevis and Lazarius Levingston from the interior.

“We’re just trying to be physical and dominant this year,” sophomore defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “We’re trying to fill in those gaps that Nevis left and Levingston left and show what we have. It’s time to show the world who we are.”

People have seen … and they’re scared.

But can the defense continue to be the backbone of this team? Well, it’s not as if LSU hasn’t dealt with the defense overshadowing the offense before. Last season, LSU surrendered just 307 offensive yards a game, while generating just 341 of its own. And how about 2008? That year, the Tigers won the national championship with a defense that allowed 288 yards a game and an offense that pounded the ball and was pretty average through the air.

Sounds familiar, but things could be changing for LSU’s offense.

The offense was more efficient against Northwestern State -- as it should have been -- but coach Les Miles was happy with the growth from Week 1 to Week 2. LSU increased its offensive outage from 273 yards against the Ducks to 400 last Saturday. A week after Jarrett Lee threw for just 98 total yards, he and Zach Mettenberger combined for 225 yards and two touchdowns.

The running game was solid as well. After the Tigers pounded the Ducks for 175 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, LSU hit that number again and registered five touchdowns from its stable of running backs.

The Tigers haven’t been extravagant offensively, but their methodical approach has worked.

“We would like to be balanced, period,” Miles said of the offense.

“We’re confident that we can throw it and run it. That is really what we want to accomplish.”

Wide receiver Rueben Randle, who enjoyed a five-catch, 121-yard outing against Northwestern State, said the offense expanded more in the second week and expects the playbook to open up more Thursday against Mississippi State and beyond.

He isn’t worried about the low offensive numbers (LSU ranks ninth in the league with 336.5 yards per game) because he’s confident the coaches will start letting the passing game fly more as the trust builds.

Should the Tigers’ really worry about the offense? Their defense is giving up 215 yards a game and has sent two offenses home banged up and bruised. More offensive production would be nice, but it isn’t a necessity.

For now, the Tigers will lean on their defense and the only people who should be worried are their opponents.

SEC combine recap

March, 1, 2011
Some numbers and observations from the NFL combine workouts concerning former SEC defensive linemen and linebackers:
  • It sounds like Alabama's Marcell Dareus might have passed Auburn's Nick Fairley in the eyes of NFL scouts as the top interior defensive lineman in the draft. Dareus (6-foot-3 and 319 pounds) ran a 4.94 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.69 10-yard split. The Scouts Inc. guys (Todd McShay, Kevin Weidl and Steve Muench) said the combine couldn't have gone better for Dareus, who showcased a blend of quickness, power and strength during the drills.
  • Fairley (6-3 7/8 and 291 pounds) was lighter than most had expected, but still had a strong showing. He ran a 4.89 in the 40 with a 1.76 10-yard split and also had a 31-inch vertical jump. Like Dareus, Fairley also moved well in drills. Still, the feeling coming out of the combine was that Dareus would be picked higher than Fairley on draft day.
  • Georgia's Justin Houston (6-3 and 270 pounds) worked out with the linebackers, but projects as a right end in the NFL. The Scouts Inc. crew think Houston helped his chances of being a first-round pick with his performance at the combine. He ran a 4.68 in the 40 and posted a 10-5 broad jump and 36.5-inch vertical jump. He also has huge hands (10.^ inches), long arms (34) and a wide wingspan (81]).
  • The Scouts Inc. crew reported that LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis didn't look as explosive or agile as expected and had to re-start two different drills.
  • Also, Baylor's Phil Taylor (6-3 and 344) continued to separate himself from Ole Miss' Jerrell Powe (6-1 and 335) at the nose guard position, according to the Scouts Inc. guys. Taylor had the better frame, was in better shape and didn't appear to wear down as quickly as Powe.
  • Mississippi State's Chris White posted a 4.68 in the 40, which was tied for seventh fastest among the linebackers.
  • Georgia's Akeem Dent had a 10-3 broad jump, which was fourth among the linebackers.

Fairley moves up to No. 2 on Big Board

January, 8, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- With Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck staying in school, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley is one of the prime candidates to go No. 1 overall in April's NFL draft.

Fairley, a junior, has repeated several times this week that he hasn't given much thought to whether or not he's going to turn pro, but several in and around the Auburn program feel that he will declare for early entry.

ESPN's Mel Kiper in his latest Big Board of the top 25 NFL prospects has Fairley No. 2 overall behind Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers.

Fairley is one of 11 SEC players cracking Kiper's latest Big Board.

Georgia receiver A.J. Green is No. 3 and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson No. 4. Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus also made the top 10 at No. 6.

Rounding out the SEC players are Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at No. 12, Alabama receiver Julio Jones at No. 13, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett at No. 16, LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis at No. 17, Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins at No. 22, Alabama running back Mark Ingram at No. 23 and Florida center Mike Pouncey at No. 25.

SEC superlative tracker

November, 24, 2010
We take our weekly look at the offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and coach of the year races in the SEC:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: Not only has he been the best player in the SEC this season, but he’s put together one of the more dominant seasons in SEC history. Accounting for 39 touchdowns in 11 games, Newton has been the player nobody in the league has an answer for this season.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: His versatility and his consistency have been remarkable. He’s accounted for at least one score in all 11 games this season and has accounted for touchdowns four different ways -- rushing, passing, receiving and punt return. Cobb is the only player in the SEC with more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and is second in the SEC with 66 catches.

3. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore: It’s no coincidence that when Lattimore has a big game running the football, the Gamecocks win. He leads all SEC running backs with 1,066 rushing yards and leads the league with 19 touchdowns. He needs two more to break the SEC freshman record for single-season touchdowns.

4. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: With the Hogs playing their best football here at the end of the season, so is Mallett. He leads the SEC with 3,272 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes and is completing 67.2 percent of his passes. Mallett is third nationally in passing efficiency.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He’s the kind of disrupter in the middle all defenses are looking for and the kind of player that blows up plays from the start with his inside push. Fairley leads all SEC players with 18 tackles for loss and leads all defensive tackles with 7.5 sacks.

2. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson: His four interceptions this season don’t begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Not only is he the best cornerback in college football and outstanding in man coverage, but he’s also one of the surest tacklers in the game.

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: The 3-4 defense has obviously been good for Houston, who leads the SEC with 10 sacks. He’s second to Fairley with 17.5 tackles for loss and has developed his game to where he’s more than just a pass-rusher.

4. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: Outside of Fairley, there hasn’t been a more dominant interior lineman in the SEC this season than Nevis. He leads all SEC defensive linemen (ends and tackles) with 53 total tackles, including 12.5 for loss.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: A finalist for the Eddie Robinson national coach of the year award, Chizik has the Tigers two wins away from playing for their first national championship since 1957.

2. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: He has the Gamecocks in the SEC championship game for the first time in school history. They also have a chance to win 10 or more games for only the second time in school history.

3. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: Two consecutive losses haven’t soiled the job Mullen has done this season with the Bulldogs, who are already bowl-eligible and can get to eight wins by taking care of arch-rival Ole Miss on Saturday.

4. LSU’s Les Miles: If the Tigers win Saturday at Arkansas and finish 11-1 in the regular season, the Mad Hatter deserves some consideration. He’s kept this team together and on point despite all the negativity that gripped the program earlier this season.

SEC superlative tracker

November, 17, 2010
Our weekly look at the offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and coach of the year races in the SEC:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He became the SEC’s first player to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season in last week’s win against Georgia. Newton’s assault on the SEC record books continues.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: After rolling up a career-high 170 rushing yards last week against Vanderbilt, Cobb now leads the country in all-purpose yardage (2,047). He’s also accounted for 16 touchdowns four different ways.

3. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore: His 40-carry, 212-yard rushing effort last week in the 36-14 win over Florida vaults the true freshman into the top three. Lattimore leads all SEC running backs in league games with an average of 114.2 rushing yards per game.

4. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: Without him, where would the Gamecocks be? Jeffery’s seven touchdown catches have all come in SEC games, and he also leads the league with 1,087 receiving yards.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: No defender in the SEC has been as consistently disruptive as Fairley, who leads the league with 18 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks.

2. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: He’s been running a close race with Fairley all season. LSU coach Les Miles says Nevis’ impact on the Tigers’ defense can’t be measured.

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: He’s still the SEC sacks leader with 10 and is second with 17.5 tackles for loss. As outside pass-rushers go, Houston is one of the best out there.

4. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson: Don’t look at his statistics. Look at how few passes are completed to his side of the field when he’s in coverage, and look at what a sure tackler he is.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: His job just got tougher with all the Newton allegations swirling. But the bottom line is that his team continues to perform, and the Tigers have been absolutely clutch in the fourth quarter.

2. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: The Head Ball Coach vaults into the No. 2 spot this week after guiding his Gamecocks to a 36-14 win over his old team, Florida, and a berth in the school’s first-ever SEC championship game.

3. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: The Bulldogs had their six-game winning streak snapped last week at Alabama, but still have a chance to finish this season up with eight or nine wins.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 11

November, 8, 2010
It wouldn’t be a Monday without our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:


The Mad Hatter: As Les Miles says himself, it’s not the way he wears his hat or what’s in his hat … or even in some of the odd things he says. It’s more about getting a team to believe, getting a team to play its best in the biggest games and getting a team to a point where it has a chance to either win a championship or play in a BCS bowl. For all the things that have been said about Miles (many of them by his own fans), the one thing you can’t say about him is that doesn’t play to win. The fourth-down play call on the reverse was as good as it gets, maybe the play call of the year in college football.

[+] EnlargeDrake Nevis
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDefensive tackle Drake Nevis, 92, was a force in LSU's win against Alabama.

LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: After having a down game for his standards two weeks ago against Auburn, Nevis made life miserable for the middle of the Alabama offensive line last Saturday.


Alabama’s running game: The Crimson Tide were held to a mere 30 yards rushing in the second half against LSU. There was a time when two plays might have netted the Tide 30 yards.


Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: Talk about successful debuts. Bray, making his first start, threw five touchdown passes in the first half against Memphis. Looks like the Vols have their quarterback of the future and present.


November patsies: Some of these November nonconference games around the league are embarrassing, and there were three of them last week. Auburn routed Chattanooga. Georgia beat up on Idaho State, and Kentucky did the same to Charleston Southern. It doesn’t stop there. Florida’s gearing up for Appalachian State next week, and Alabama is bracing for Georgia State.


Arkansas running back Knile Davis: Arkansas was looking for some pop in its running game and found it in Davis, who’s scored eight rushing touchdowns in his past three games. He’s also averaging 6.2 yards per carry.


South Carolina’s defense: For some reason, the Gamecocks have lost their edge on defense. The biggest problem has been pass defense, but Arkansas also managed 140 yards on the ground last week. The Gamecocks are playing beneath their talent level on defense right now.


LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson: It’s been a tough season for Jefferson throwing the football, but he came through with some clutch throws last week in the 24-21 win against Alabama. He’s handled the criticism like a champ, too, which tells you a lot about his character.


Vanderbilt’s kicking game: The Commodores had a pair of punts blocked in their 55-14 loss to Florida. The first blocked punt was recovered at the 3 and led to an easy Florida touchdown. The second blocked punt was returned for a touchdown.


Eastern Division: Never has the Eastern Division been this down. We already know that for the first time ever the East champion will have three SEC losses. But after the Florida-South Carolina game this Saturday, which will determine who goes to the SEC championship game, everybody in the East but the divisional champ will have four SEC losses. The West has dominated the East in inter-divisional play. In fact, the East’s only two wins this season were South Carolina beating Alabama and Vanderbilt beating Ole Miss. So, is it the “East” or the “Least?”

SEC superlative tracker

October, 27, 2010
Our weekly look at the offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and coach of the year races in the SEC:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He carved apart the best defense he’s faced last week against LSU with a career-high 217 rushing yards. He’s already rushed for 1,000 yards this season and has accounted for 27 touchdowns.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: Last week wasn’t Cobb’s best game, and he didn’t score a touchdown for a change. But he’s still second in the league with 47 catches, third in all-purpose yardage and one of college football’s best players with the ball in his hands.

3. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: Every week, Jeffery makes a big play for the Gamecocks and is making a strong case as the best receiver in this league. He’s averaging 121.1 receiving yards per game to lead the league.

4. Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: He’s the hottest player in the league right now, having thrown eight touchdown passes in his last two games. Hartline leads the league with 2,144 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes.

5. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: Returning to the lineup last week after suffering a concussion against Auburn, Mallett still leads the SEC with an average of 291.4 passing yards per game and is second with 15 touchdown passes.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: His dominance up front was a major reason Auburn was able to beat LSU last week. Fairley is now second in the country with 17 tackles for loss.

2. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: He’s been running a close race with Fairley as the top interior defensive lineman in the league. Nevis still leads all SEC tackles with 40 total tackles.

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: The SEC’s sacks leader with 8.5, Houston is playing his best football right now. He’s second in the league with 14 tackles for loss.

4. Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: Another 14-tackle effort for White last week has established him as one of the best linebackers in the league. He’s third in the SEC with 12 tackles for loss.

5. Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward: He’s been one of the more productive cornerbacks in the league. He’s tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions and leads all cornerbacks with 43 total tackles.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: The Tigers keep finding ways to win close games, which is always a mark of quality coaching.

2. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: He has the Bulldogs ranked for the first time in nine years and riding a five-game winning streak.

3. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier: The Head Ball Coach is trying to get to an SEC championship game with his second different team.

SEC superlative tracker

October, 20, 2010
Our weekly look at the offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and coach of the year races in the SEC:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He stepped up his Heisman Trophy campaign with four more touchdowns (three rushing and one passing) last week in the 65-43 win over Arkansas. He’s less than 150 yards away from becoming the second quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

[+] EnlargeRandall Cobb
Jim Rinaldi/Icon SMIRandall Cobb (18) has a rushing or receiving TD in five of the Wildcats' six games this season.
2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: He had the game-winning 24-yard touchdown catch in the 31-28 win over South Carolina and also scored the ensuing two-point conversion. When Cobb’s in the lineup, you can count on at least one touchdown from him in some capacity.

3. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: He leads the SEC with 40 catches for 690 yards and also has five touchdown catches. Nobody in the league is close to his receiving average of 115 yards per game.

4. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: The good news for the Hogs is that Mallett returned to practice Tuesday and expects to play this weekend against Ole Miss after suffering a concussion last week. He still leads the SEC in passing yards (1,844) and touchdown passes (14).

5. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore: Who knows what Lattimore’s numbers would have been had he not been injured in the first half last week? He’s tied for the SEC lead with 12 touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: It continues to be a close race for the top spot. Nevis stays on top again this week. He leads all SEC interior linemen with 38 total tackles.

2. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He’s the SEC’s leader with 13.5 tackles for loss and is tied for second in sacks with five. He and Nevis have both been forces in the middle this season.

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: The Bulldogs’ defense is starting to come around, and Houston now leads the SEC with 6.5 sacks.

4. Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: Watch out for this guy. He erupted with 4.5 tackles for loss last week in the win over Florida and is now second in the SEC with 12 tackles for loss.

5. LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard: Nobody in the SEC is playing better defense than LSU, and Sheppard has been a rock in the middle for the Tigers. He’s second in the league with 66 total tackles.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: We know this about Chizik: His teams finish. The Tigers have owned the fourth quarter this season, which is why they’re still unbeaten.

2. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: He has the Bulldogs playing their best football in some time. They’ve won four in a row, including last week’s 10-7 win at Florida, and are getting better every game.

3. LSU’s Les Miles: The Mad Hatter gets his share of abuse, but maybe he’s mad like a fox. If you’re truly judged as a coach on how much you win, then Miles has to be right up there this season.

4. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: Some of the luster wore off last week with that 31-28 loss at Kentucky, but the Head Ball Coach still has the Gamecocks in great position to win the East.

5. Kentucky’s Joker Phillips: Kudos to Phillips for keeping his team together and making sure they kept the faith after some tough losses. Don’t count the Wildcats out of the East race, either.

SEC superlative tracker

October, 13, 2010
We take our weekly look at the offensive and defensive player of the year races in the SEC and also take our first look at the coach of the year race.

Offensive Player of the Year

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Cam Newton leads the SEC in rushing with 672 yards through six games.
1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He’s going to be hard to beat if he keeps this up. The 6-6, 250-pound Newton has accounted for 21 touchdowns and is leading the SEC in rushing with 672 yards through six games.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: In reality, he doesn’t have a position, which is part of what makes him so good. Cobb has accounted for 13 touchdowns -- four receiving, three rushing, three passing and one on a punt return.

3. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: Nobody’s been able to cover him yet. The 6-4, 230-pound sophomore is averaging 125 receiving yards per game, which is nearly 45 yards more than the No. 2 guy listed among the SEC leaders.

4. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: He’s improved his completion percentage from a year ago (.693) and leads the SEC with 1,748 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes. He’s on track to throw 30 touchdowns for the second straight year.

5. Alabama running back Mark Ingram: Even though he missed the first two games while recovering from knee surgery, Ingram has come back strong to average 99 rushing yards and score six touchdowns. He’s been relatively quiet the last two games.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: Coming off a dominant performance against Florida in which he had 4.5 tackles for loss, Nevis has been a nightmare to block all season. He leads all SEC interior linemen with 33 total tackles and is tied for second among all players in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5).

2. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He’s running a close race with Nevis for that top spot and may eventually get it. Easily one of the most improved players in the league, Fairley leads the SEC in tackles for loss (12.5) and is tied with Nevis for second in sacks (5).

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: One of the best pass-rushers in the league, Houston leads the SEC with six sacks and has 10 solo tackles for loss, which is second only to Fairley.

4. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson: His greatest value is that he takes one whole side of the field away and can match up with anybody. Peterson has two interceptions. He’s also blocked a field goal and returned two punts for touchdowns.

5. Florida safety Ahmad Black: In a talented Florida secondary, Black has been the top playmaker. His 33 solo tackles rank him second in the SEC, and he also has three interceptions.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: He has the Tigers 6-0, ranked in the Top 10, and they’re winning the close games, always a sign of good coaching.

2. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: His play-calling against Alabama was circa 1996. He was a step ahead the entire game and kept the Crimson Tide’s attacking defense off balance.

3. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: The Bulldogs are the most improved team at the midway point, and give Mullen props for hiring defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

4. Alabama’s Nick Saban: Prior to last weekend, the Crimson Tide were being hailed as the best team in the country and the most physical team. That’s despite missing nine defensive starters from a year ago.

5. LSU’s Les Miles: Yes, clock management nearly cost the Tigers against Tennessee. Again. And, yes, his own fans were ready to run him out of town. But the guy is fearless when it comes to making calls. His team plays hard, and the Tigers also happen to be unbeaten.


SEC midseason overview

October, 11, 2010
We’re at the midway point of the SEC football season, and all of a sudden, the mighty in this league don’t look quite as mighty as they once did.

Maybe it’s not a two-team league after all.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban & Urban Meyer
AP Photo/Dave MartinWill Alabama coach Nick Saban (right) and Florida's Urban Meyer cede control of the SEC this season?
During the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Alabama and Florida were a combined 33-3 in all SEC games, and two of those losses were to each other.

Through six games this season, the Crimson Tide and Gators have already combined to lose three SEC games, paving the way for somebody else to break the Alabama/Florida stranglehold in this league.

Who’s it going to be?

For starters, don’t count out Alabama or Florida.

The Crimson Tide had their 19-game winning streak stopped last Saturday by South Carolina, illustrating once and for all that this isn’t the same defense that spearheaded the national championship run a year ago. Still, Alabama remains the most talented team in the league and isn’t going anywhere.

The Gators, despite losing consecutive games for the first time since the 2007 season, still technically control their own fate in the Eastern Division race. But they’ll have to do it with the weakest offense Urban Meyer has had since taking the job in 2005.

And the new guys on the block?

Auburn is unbeaten with a favorable schedule. The Tigers get Arkansas and LSU at home each of the next two weeks. Like all of Alabama’s SEC opponents the rest of the way, the Tigers get a bye the week before they face the Crimson Tide. That rivalry game is the regular-season finale.

That Nov. 26 game in Tuscaloosa could easily decide the West champ.

That is, if LSU doesn’t have something to say about it. The bounces have gone Les Miles’ way. The penalties have gone his way, and he has one gem of a defense.

So don’t count out the Tigers, who should go to 7-0 this week with McNeese State coming to town.

And in the East, Steve Spurrier has his Gamecocks positioned to do something everybody said they couldn’t do -- get to Atlanta and play for the SEC championship.

Fresh off taking down then No. 1-ranked Alabama, the Gamecocks won’t be sneaking up on anybody the rest of the way. We’ll see how they handle prosperity, something that hasn’t been that program’s strong suit historically.

Strap it on tight, because with five teams ranked in the top 12 nationally, the finish this season in the SEC ought to be one for the ages.

Offensive MVP: Auburn QB Cameron Newton

With everything he’s meant to Auburn to this point, Newton would factor into the national conversation when you start talking about college football’s most valuable player. He’s also a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Simply, he’s one of those players you just don’t see come along very often. He’s 250 pounds, runs with the expertise, power and confidence of a tailback and has a cannon for an arm. He’s already accounted for 21 touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who’s been an absolute force for the Gamecocks.

Defensive MVP: LSU DT Drake Nevis

This was a two-man race the whole way. Nevis just barely nudged past Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley because LSU’s defense is better overall. The Tigers are ranked fifth nationally and first in the SEC in total defense, and the havoc that Nevis has wreaked up front is a big reason why. He leads all SEC interior defensive linemen with 33 total tackles and he was unblockable last week with 4.5 tackles for loss against a veteran Florida offensive line. He and Fairley are tied for second in the league with five sacks apiece, and Nevis is tied for second with 10.5 tackles for loss. Fairley’s 12.5 tackles for loss leads the SEC.

Biggest surprise: South Carolina

[+] EnlargeGarcia
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainStephen Garcia and the Gamecocks are pushing for a spot in the SEC title game.
The talk before the season was that this might be the Gamecocks’ best chance yet under Steve Spurrier to make a run at the Eastern Division championship. But the Head Ball Coach was down on quarterback Stephen Garcia and not sure his offensive line was made of the right stuff. Well, here the Gamecocks are, ranked in the Top 10 nationally and leading the East at the midway point. They have some of the best young talent in the league and are playing with a ton of confidence right now.

Biggest disappointment: Georgia

Even though the Bulldogs wrestled out from under their four-game losing streak last week with a 41-14 win against Tennessee, they’ve still woefully underachieved this season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray has been one of the bright spots. He sure isn’t the reason Georgia’s 2-4 heading into the second half of the season. It’s more an offensive line that hasn’t lived up to its billing, critical fumbles by the running backs and a defense that has given up way too many big plays.

Best game: LSU at Florida, Oct. 2

This one had it all -- a game-winning touchdown pass on the final offensive play of the game, a fake field goal to keep that game-winning drive alive, a little controversy and a divine bounce. LSU rallied to beat Florida 33-29 in the Swamp last weekend. Les Miles called for a fake field goal in the final minutes, and the Tigers got a great bounce on the over-the-head-flip to kicker Josh Jasper, who picked up the first down. The flip was close to being a forward lateral, but was too close to overturn by the replay official. Jarrett Lee then capped what was a wild game by lofting a strike to Terrence Toliver, who was able to get one foot down in the end zone to keep the Tigers unbeaten.

Best coach: Auburn’s Gene Chizik

Two years on the job, Chizik has this Auburn program rolling. He was able to keep his entire staff intact during the offseason, the only one in the SEC that didn’t have any turnover, and the Tigers have been a resilient, tough football team in the second half. They rallied in the second half to beat both Clemson and South Carolina, and showed enough poise on the road last week to come up with a pressure drive at the end and hold off Kentucky. The defense still isn’t great, but it’s gotten better and has produced big plays when Auburn has needed them. Of course, the best move Chizik’s made was getting Newton to sign with the Tigers last December.

SEC stock report: Week 6

October, 6, 2010
The bell is ringing, which means it’s stock report time in the SEC:

Stock up

1. LSU’s defense: Yes, the Tigers are hard to watch on offense. But they’re hard to play against on defense. John Chavis’ unit is ranked sixth nationally in total defense and leads the SEC in that category.

Steve Spurrier
Kevin Liles/US PresswireCoach Steve Spurrier still has a great sense of humor, adding another classic one-liner this week.
2. Steve Spurrier’s wit: The Head Ball Coach isn’t winning as many championships as he once did, but he hasn’t lost that sharp wit. His “sometimes you can win and still be a dummy” comment Tuesday rates up there with “you can’t spell Citrus without a ‘U’ and a ‘T.’ ”

3. A.J. Green: We’ve only seen him for one game this season, but one game was enough to re-establish the Georgia junior as the best receiver in the SEC. He made his one-handed touchdown catch last week against Colorado look easy.

4. Vick Ballard: Don’t look now, but Ballard has an SEC-leading nine touchdowns and has been Mississippi State’s go-to guy around the goal line. He’s also averaging 6.5 yards per rush.

Stock down

1. Les Miles: For a guy whose team has yet to lose a football game this season, Miles is catching more heat than any coach in recent SEC history. Of course, there is that little clock thing he might want to wrap his hands around.

2. Gary Crowton: He’s LSU’s offensive coordinator and certainly doesn’t get a free pass in the Tigers’ continued mismanagement of end-of-game situations.

3. Mark Richt: He’s the dean of SEC coaches, and right now, his seat has never been hotter. Georgia has lost four straight games, and even a coach as successful as Richt may not be able to survive a losing season.

4. Tennessee’s unlucky 13: Amid all LSU’s confusion last week, Tennessee got caught up in the act and had 13 men on the field there at the end, wiping out what would have been a huge win for the Vols.

Player of the Year race: Offense

1. Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn: Catching Newton won’t be easy. He’s accounted for 17 touchdowns (12 passing and five running) and just keeps making big plays.

2. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: He didn’t put up big rushing numbers against Florida, but still leads the SEC with 118.3 rushing yards per game and has also scored six touchdowns in three games.

3. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: After a week off, Mallett gets a chance against Texas A&M to make amends for his three interceptions against Alabama. He’s still on track for another huge season.

4. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: He’s averaging 124.5 receiving yards per game, which leads the SEC, and is terrific after the catch.

5. Derrick Locke, RB, Kentucky: Randall Cobb gets a lot of the pub at Kentucky and deservedly so. But Locke leads the SEC in all-purpose yardage, is second in rushing and has also scored seven touchdowns.

Player of the Year race: Defense

1. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The Tigers’ enforcer inside remains the SEC leader in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (11.5).

2. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: Not many teams throw his way, which underscores his value. He typically takes away one whole side of the field.

3. Janoris Jenkins, CB, Florida: The Gators have one of the best defensive backfields in the country, and Jenkins’ ability to cover and tackle is a big reason why.

4. Mark Barron, S, Alabama: He’s the veteran back there for the Crimson Tide in the secondary and is playing like one. He had 11 tackles last week against the Gators.

5. Drake Nevis, DT, LSU: He’s been a disrupter up front all season for the Tigers and leads all SEC interior defensive linemen with 26 total tackles.

SEC stock report, Week 5

September, 29, 2010
I can hear the bell ringing. It’s time for a stock report, something we’ll do every week in the SEC now that we’re far enough into the season to get a read on things:

Stock up

1. Robert Lester: One of the many new faces in the Alabama secondary, Lester had two interceptions in the 24-20 win over Arkansas and returned his second one 33 yards to the Hogs’ 12 to set up the game-winning touchdown. The sophomore safety leads the SEC with four interceptions.

2. Trey Burton: The Gators’ true freshman quarterback/receiver scored a school-record six touchdowns in the 48-14 win over Kentucky. It looks like he’s the answer in the Tebow package.

[+] Enlarge Robert Lester
Nelson Chenault/US Presswire Robert Lester leads the SEC with four interceptions.
3. Jonathan Cornell: It hasn’t been a good start for the Ole Miss defense, but Cornell has been all over the field for the Rebels. The senior linebacker is tied for the SEC lead with Tennessee’s Nick Reveiz in tackles (39) and is second in tackles for loss (8).

4. Stevan Ridley: Lost in Patrick Peterson’s spectacular play and LSU’s struggles in the passing game has been the steady improvement of Ridley, the Tigers’ bruising junior tailback. He’s third in the SEC with 434 rushing yards and averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

Stock down

1. Tennessee’s third-down offense: The Vols are 119th nationally out of 120 teams in third-down conversions. They’re 11-of-58 (18.9 percent) and have converted only one third down longer than 5 yards all season, that coming near the end of regulation in the UAB game.

2. LSU’s passing game: The Tigers are ranked 115th nationally in passing offense. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has not reached 100 yards passing in his last three games while throwing three interceptions and no touchdown passes.

3. Washaun Ealey: After losing another fumble near the goal line last week against Mississippi State, Ealey is being replaced as Georgia’s starting tailback. He also fumbled inside the 5 against South Carolina and missed a key block in the Arkansas game that led to a sack of quarterback Aaron Murray.

4. South Carolina in the fourth quarter: The Gamecocks appeared to be in good shape on the Plains last week after going up 20-7 in the first half. But they gagged in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over on their last four possessions and falling 35-27.

Player of the Year race: Offense

1. Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn: He’s passed for nine touchdowns and run for five touchdowns while leading the SEC in rushing. Nobody has meant more to his team.

2. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Even though he’s played in only two games, Ingram has been a force. He already has 308 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

3. Ryan Mallett, WR, Arkansas: The three interceptions against Alabama were disappointing, but he has 1,438 passing yards and 10 touchdown passes.

4. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the toughest receivers to match up with in college football. He leads the SEC in receiving by more than 100 yards.

5. Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Even though he wasn’t a huge factor in the Florida loss, he’s still the most versatile player in the SEC. He’s accounted for touchdowns five different ways, the latest a fake field goal last week.

Player of the Year race: Defense

1. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: A dominant presence in the interior for the Tigers, Fairley leads the SEC in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (8.5). At times, he’s been unblockable.

2. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: He’s college football’s best cornerback and has also been electric in the return game. Teams don’t throw his way. When they do, see the Mississippi State game when he had two highlight-reel interceptions.

3. Janoris Jenkins, CB, Florida: He’s right there behind Peterson when it comes to the premier cornerbacks nationally. Jenkins is tied for the SEC lead with seven passes defended and also has two interceptions.

4. Drake Nevis, DT, LSU: He’s been a big part of LSU’s dominance on defense the last few weeks with his constant push up the middle. Nevis is second in the league in sacks (3.5) and leads all SEC defensive tackles with 21 total tackles.

5. Josh Bynes, LB, Auburn: One of the SEC’s true iron men, Bynes has been on the field for just about every meaningful snap and has consistently come up with big plays for the Tigers.

LSU's defense streaking right along

September, 23, 2010
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis knew he had some pillars to build around on defense this season.

He also knew he was going to be frighteningly young in spots.

“We have a chance. It all depends on some of these young guys and how they develop,” Chavis said just prior to the start of the season when assessing his second defense at LSU.

Well, the young guys have come around just fine in the first three games, and a lot of them are still coming.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Sheppard
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireLinebacker Kelvin Sheppard is tied for third in the SEC in tackles with 27.
And the older guys?

It’s difficult to find a tackle-linebacker-cornerback combo anywhere in the country that’s playing better right now than Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson.

Granted, the fourth quarter against North Carolina in the season opener was shaky. But if you take that one away, the Tigers have played 11 quarters of suffocating defense so far heading into what should be their stiffest test of the season Saturday night against Noel Devine and that West Virginia offense.

“If our defense continues to play like we have and we continue to get turnovers, our football team will have the kind of year we all look forward to,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Defensively, I think there are a lot of young guys playing. You look at freshmen. You see the script and you want to go look at (jersey) numbers in the program to see who it is because they are making a quality play.

“That is the way it is supposed to be, and we are enjoying the fact that young players are playing and they are making special plays.”

Some of those young players on defense include ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, linebackers Lamin Barrow and Kevin Minter, tackle Michael Brockers and safety Craig Loston – all redshirt freshmen.

A pair of true freshmen – cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Eric Reid -- have made big impacts in the secondary along with sophomore cornerback Morris Claiborne.

And even though starting linebackers Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois are both juniors, neither had started a game prior to this season.

The bottom line is that the Tigers are getting production from a lot of different players, and that’s the way Chavis likes it.

But when you have a core on defense as rock solid as Nevis, Sheppard and Peterson, it makes everybody better. Among the three, they already have nine tackles for loss and three interceptions. Sheppard’s 27 total tackles tie him for third in the SEC. He’s also the Tigers’ quarterback out there on defense and has helped them avoid a bad play more than once by picking up on things and making sure everybody’s lined up correctly.

“I can’t tell you what he’s meant to us, just his leadership, when you look at all the young guys we have playing,” Chavis said. “He’s been invaluable.”

The Tigers were stingy when it came to keeping teams out of the end zone last season. They only gave up 19 touchdowns. Alabama and Florida each allowed 18. But where LSU has been even better this season on defense is getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.

The Tigers are tied for second in the SEC with 11 sacks after recording 21 all of last season. They’ve also forced nine turnovers in three games. That’s after forcing only 18 in 13 games a year ago.

Any defense will tell you, though, that you’re only as good as your last performance.

And as Peterson noted this week, Devine has made a lot of defenses look bad.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us come Saturday, but I have faith in this defense to slow him down,” Peterson said.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 3

September, 20, 2010
Who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC?

It’s that time again when we find out:


[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesRyan Mallett has already completed 70-of-100 this season and is averaging almost 11 yards per pass.
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: The guy might as well be combustible. In three games this season, Mallett has already thrown for 1,081 yards and nine touchdown passes. His 40-yard scoring toss to Greg Childs last Saturday was the game-winner in Arkansas’ 31-24 win at Georgia. And even though Mallett is on a hot streak right now, he was as cool as cool could be in that final drive against Georgia after the Bulldogs had tied the score. He found tight end D.J. Williams twice and then connected with Childs to win it for the Hogs. Something says that won't be the last time Mallett delivers in the clutch.


Alabama running back Mark Ingram: He went for 48 yards on his first carry and then 50 yards on his third carry. That’s after missing the first two games while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. The reality is that Ingram stays hot.


Georgia’s offensive line: The problem hasn’t been redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray in the Bulldogs’ two SEC losses. The problem has been a veteran offensive line that hasn’t played up to its talent level.


LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: The entire LSU defense has been red-hot since that forgettable fourth quarter against North Carolina, but Nevis has four tackles for loss in his past two games and has pretty much been unblockable.


Florida’s starts: Florida’s offense clearly has a ways to go, but the bigger problem is how poorly the Gators have started on offense in each of their first three games. Sooner or later, that’s going to catch up with them.


Vanderbilt’s running game: The Commodores piled up 227 rushing yards in their win over Ole Miss, their most against an SEC opponent since rushing for 239 yards against Kentucky in 2007. Warren Norman had an 80-yard run for a touchdown, and Zac Stacy had a 35-yard run for a touchdown. Their guys up front were getting it done.


Ole Miss’ defense: The most puzzling thing about the Rebels’ brutal start has been the play of their defense. On paper, their front seven looked as good as anybody in the SEC back in August. But they’ve been tormented by big plays.


Arkansas’ pass rush: Hey, we can’t forget about the Hogs’ defense. They lead the SEC with 12 sacks and got to Georgia quarterback Murray six times. Jake Bequette’s sack on third down with 54 seconds to play was one of the biggest plays of the game, and it came after Alfred Davis had sacked him two plays earlier.


Mississippi State’s ball security: The Bulldogs have turned the ball over seven times in their past two games, including five interceptions in the 29-7 loss to LSU. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Russell has thrown four interceptions in his past two outings after tying a school record with four touchdown passes in the season-opening rout of Memphis.


Tennessee on third down: The Vols have converted just 9 of 43 third downs this season (20.9 percent), which ranks them 118th nationally. Only Florida International and San Jose State have been worse. Even more telling, five of Tennessee’s nine third-down conversions this season came in their 50-0 blowout of FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin in the opener. The hard part for the Vols is that they haven’t been much better on third down defensively. They’re ninth in the SEC when it comes to stopping people on third down. Florida was 8-of-14 on third down in the last game, a big reason why the Gators were able to pull away and win 31-17. In the second half alone, Florida converted three times when it was third-and-8 or longer.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 16, 2010
We should know by 3:30 p.m. on Saturday if Georgia still has a heartbeat in the Eastern Division race.

The same goes for Arkansas’ defense and whether or not the Hogs are for real.

Their noon showdown highlights Week 3 in the SEC. Here’s a look at what to watch:

1. Heisman hopes gone?: Alabama’s Mark Ingram returns this Saturday against Duke after missing the first two games while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. His chances of repeating as the Heisman Trophy winner probably went out the window when he underwent surgery. But ensuring that he’s going to be 100 percent for the bulk of this season will only bolster Alabama’s chances of repeating as national champion. Ingram would choose the latter every time. Just getting him back out there for some live game snaps this week is important, especially with that Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina stretch upcoming. The big thing you look for out of Ingram this weekend is how he cuts on the knee and if he still has that same burst through the hole.

2. Georgia’s running game: It’s disappointing enough for Georgia to be 0-1 in the SEC. But to see the Bulldogs at the bottom of the league's rushing statistics two weeks into the season is not the tone this team wanted to set offensively. It’s also a tone the Bulldogs had better change if they’re going to beat Arkansas at home Saturday and stay alive in the Eastern Division race. Getting junior tailback Caleb King back from an ankle injury will help. He and Washaun Ealey really had it going at the end of last season. But this one Saturday is on the Georgia offensive line. The Bulldogs are better up front offensively than they played last Saturday at South Carolina, and it’s time they showed it.

Arkansas Defense
AP Photo/April L BrownThe Arkansas defense will face a big test on the road against Georgia.
3. High on the Hogs: All offseason, Arkansas’ defenders answered questions about whether or not this defense would be improved enough to make a legitimate run at an SEC championship. The Hogs are ranked fourth nationally in total defense entering Saturday’s game at Georgia. A bigger question might be: Are the Hogs ready to step up on the road? They were a different team at home last season as compared to the road. In fact, they didn’t win a true road game. For that matter, they’ve lost seven consecutive true road games going back to the 2008 season. Their lone road win under Bobby Petrino was a 25-22 victory against Auburn in 2008. A year ago, they averaged 46.7 points in their seven home games and only 18.5 points in their four road games. It’s a trend the Hogs will obviously have to change if they’re going to contend in the West this season.

4. Urban and his rivals: Florida’s trip to Tennessee on Saturday gives Urban Meyer another shot at one of the Gators’ traditional rivals. He’s owned them to this point with a 15-1 record over the foursome of Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State and Miami. The only loss was to Georgia during the 2007 season, the infamous end zone celebration game by the Bulldogs. Meyer is looking for his sixth straight win against Tennessee. The Vols have scored just two touchdowns against the Gators in the past two seasons, and the combined score of the past three meetings is 112-39 in favor of Florida.

5. Evans’ slow start: Kentucky lost a ton of talent on defense last year, but the feeling around the program was that one of the Wildcats’ most talented players was returning. Defensive end DeQuin Evans racked up 12.5 tackles for loss, including six sacks, in his first season in the SEC a year ago. He was being counted on to be the anchor of the Wildcats’ defensive line this season. But through two games, he’s still looking for his first sack – and his first tackle. The Kentucky coaches aren’t worried and are confident Evans will come on, and he needs to if this defense is going to reach its potential this season. He’s that dynamic finisher off the edge that makes everybody better.

6. Masoli’s show: There’s no more easing Jeremiah Masoli into the position. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has decided to ride with Masoli as his quarterback and give him the full set of keys to the Rebels’ offense heading into Saturday’s game with Vanderbilt. Nutt likes Masoli’s ability to move around and make plays and his knack for improvising when something’s not there. Masoli’s only thrown one touchdown pass to this point to go along with two interceptions. But with the Rebels still struggling to find some stability in their offensive line, it makes sense to go with the more mobile quarterback and the quarterback with the most experience.

7. Starting a new streak: After 42 straight quarters, an Alabama offensive lineman has finally been penalized for holding. It happened in the Penn State game last week, and the guilty party was sophomore guard Chance Warmack. Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry let him have it pretty good. But, hey, it was going to end at some point. To go 42 quarters at this level without being called for holding in the offensive line is a testament to how well coached the Crimson Tide are up front. OK, maybe they were a tad lucky too, because what constitutes holding can at times be subjective. After all, it’s only holding if you’re caught. But Pendry’s influence on this offense shouldn’t be underestimated. Don’t be surprised if Alabama starts another long streak this weekend.

8. Lattimore’s encore: He’ll take a break from SEC competition, but South Carolina freshman running back Marcus Lattimore will take another crack Saturday at turning a group of defenders black and blue when the Gamecocks take on Furman. In rushing for 182 yards against Georgia last week, Lattimore had more than 100 of those yards after contact. And don’t think he’s the least bit satisfied. After watching the tape from the game, Lattimore said he left a bunch of yards on the field. For those wondering who has the South Carolina single-game record for rushing yards, it’s not Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. Brandon Bennett had 278 yards against East Tennessee State in 1991, and Bennett was only a freshman at the time.

9. Going by feel: For the time being, it sounds like Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen will play it by ear (or feel) with his quarterbacks. The Bulldogs will continue with their rotation of junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell this Saturday at LSU. Neither was real effective in throwing the ball in the loss to Auburn. Relf started the game, and he was also the one Mullen decided to go with on the final few possessions when the Bulldogs had a chance to either tie the game or take the lead. Relf and Russell combined to complete just 45.7 percent of their passes against Auburn. Russell has the bigger upside as a passer, but never found a rhythm in the last game. If the Bulldogs fall behind again in this game, it will be interesting to see which quarterback Mullen goes with in the second half.

10. LSU’s sack party: LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis felt good about his defensive line coming into this season, even though the Tigers were going to have several new faces up front. He’s not caught up in sack numbers, but he did want to get more pressure on the quarterback after LSU finished with just 21 sacks a year ago. So far, so good. The Tigers have 10 sacks in their first two games, which leads the country. The enforcer in the middle of that defensive line has been senior tackle Drake Nevis, who already has 3.5 sacks and is playing the best football of his career. Not many people have blocked him to this point. But the Tigers have also spread the wealth. Seven different players have at least half a sack heading into Saturday’s home opener against Mississippi State.