NCF Nation: Gary Pinkel

Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
» 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.

Tigers, Gophers can prove they belong

December, 29, 2014
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There are 38 bowl games this year, but only 10 that feature two ranked teams. That includes all five games that kick off on New Year's Day -- but only the biggest college football fans among us can probably list them without assistance.

At first it's easy. You have Alabama-Ohio State and Oregon-Florida State as the headliners, with the playoff semifinal winners advancing to play for the national championship.

You also have a pair of afternoon games that are intriguing because of the matchups.

Michigan State-Baylor pits one of the teams that had a legitimate beef with being left out of the playoff (Baylor) against a defense that should test the Bears' high-scoring offense. And Auburn-Wisconsin should provide an entertaining showcase for numerous offensive players (including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Auburn's Sammie Coates) who will play on Sundays in the near future.

But then there's the game that you might have forgotten about: the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl matchup between No. 16 Missouri and No. 25 Minnesota, which probably qualifies as the least anticipated bowl game between ranked teams.

In some ways, this is a fitting finale for Missouri and Minnesota programs that won consistently throughout the season, but mostly failed to capture the nation's attention. They're playing in an afternoon time slot on New Year's Day -- which is nearly as good as it gets in terms of postseason positioning -- and yet a significant portion of the game will air head-to-head against games (Michigan State-Baylor and Auburn-Wisconsin) that are simply more interesting to most fans.

Oddly enough, their mutual uninterestingness might be the most compelling thing about this Citrus Bowl. The Tigers and Gophers both face a bit of a perception problem, and this game provides an opportunity to prove which team is more deserving of a Jan. 1 showcase. As of now, they both have holes in their résumés.

Nobody can argue with the results for Missouri (10-3), which won the SEC East title for a second straight season. But it's more than fair to point out that Gary Pinkel's Tigers didn't exactly beat the 1985 Chicago Bears en route to an appearance in the conference's title game.

In fact, the only teams currently reanked on Missouri's schedule -- Georgia and Alabama -- beat the Tigers by a combined 76-13 margin. And while it's impressive to note that Missouri posted a 7-1 record in conference play, it also bears mentioning that the Tigers played the easiest schedule in the SEC (they drew the two worst teams in the SEC West, Arkansas and Texas A&M, in non-division play and otherwise played against teams from the much weaker Eastern Division) and their eight conference opponents posted a collective 48-47 record this season.

However, Missouri at least played nine teams that will appear in bowls this season. Minnesota (8-4) played six, and the Gophers defeated only two teams (7-5 Iowa and 9-3 Nebraska) that even had a winning record entering bowl season.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that what made Minnesota most relevant nationally in 2014 was its place in the debate over whether the Big 12's TCU or Baylor deserved a spot in the playoff. TCU's best nonconference win was 30-7 over the Gophers while Baylor ripped apart three bad non-Big-12 teams.

Otherwise, fair or unfair, Minnesota is generally viewed as a better-than-average team in the worst Power 5 conference. Which fits nicely alongside an opponent like Missouri, the most successful program in the SEC division that doesn't matter.

Thursday's loser in Orlando will be met with choruses of “I told you so” since skeptics argued all along that they were never that great. Beating a similar opponent won't entirely eliminate that criticism for the winner, but that team can at least make an argument that it deserved one of the coveted spots in the New Year's Day lineup.

Watch: Gary Pinkel is all about that swag

December, 22, 2014
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Missouri football has a fun little tradition called "NFL Day" in which players are allowed to wear what they want and celebrate how they want during the season's final practice on campus.

How do the players know this for sure?

Because their head coach leads the way.

That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.



Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.

Gary PinkelInstagram/mizzoufootballJosh Augusta's reaction to his coach's shoes was priceless.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama coach Nick Saban are two of the 10 active winningest coaches in college football.

Saban’s team is No. 1 in the country, recruits five-star prospects with regularity and has a habit of winning championships. Pinkel’s squad is searching for its first conference title since 1969, doesn’t have high-ranked recruiting classes and rarely is met with championship expectations from outsiders. But, each has made his mark on multiple programs while compiling a combined 361 victories (185 for Pinkel, 176 for Saban).

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
AP Photo/Butch DillGary Pinkel got his start in coaching under Don James and spent 12 years with him at Washington.
There is one common thread between Pinkel and Saban, though, that dates to their playing days and early coaching days. Both played for and got their coaching starts from the late Don James.

James, a longtime Washington coach who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title, died at the age of 80 last year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was during James’ time at Kent State, from 1971-74 that he coached Pinkel and Saban. When James earned his first college head-coaching job in 1971 at Kent State, Pinkel and Saban were on that team, which won the school’s first and only MAC championship.

“He's had a huge effect on me personally,” Pinkel said of James. “I mean, I'm indebted to him forever.”

Pinkel got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Kent State under James in 1974. He later joined James, a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, as a GA for a year in 1976 at Washington then again in 1979 as a Huskies full-time assistant, where he remained with James for a dozen years before landing his first head coaching job, at Toledo in 1991.

“I coached with him for 12 years at the University of Washington, the last five years as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach,” Pinkel said. “The program that we put in at Toledo where I was coach for 10 years, then we brought it here to Missouri, the infrastructure is [based] on James' program.”

It has worked well for Pinkel, who is 185-102-3 in 24 years as a head coach and is taking Missouri to its fourth conference championship game since 2007.

Saban, who was a year ahead of Pinkel at Kent State, said coaching wasn’t a desired career path for him until James offered him his first job.

“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn't want to go to graduate school.”

Turns out that Saban enjoyed the job and it began the journey that put him to where he is now, with an impressive .751 winning percentage in 18 years as a head coach (176-58-1).

“I really liked it,” Saban said of his first job under James. “I have thanked Coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it. Also a lot of the lessons that I learned from him starting out as a young coach.”

Saban said there are several aspects of his program that are rooted in things he learned from James, who was 178-76-3 in his head coaching career.

Rodriguez

Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time. He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

-- Nick Saban
“It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude, how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program,” Saban said. “That was a big thing that Don always emphasized. He was really, really well organized. That's something that we've always tried to be and do. Some of the things we did in the offseason program we still do. Some of the conditioning things we do during the season we still do.”

Pinkel also said his recruiting philosophy is based on the teachings of his longtime mentor.

“We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country,” Pinkel said. “We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that, professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better.”

Like Saban, Pinkel also praised James’ organizational skills.

“He was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. ... I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I've done, I've learned from him.”

Pinkel and Saban may have traveled different journeys to get to this point, but James’ influence on both is clear as they prepare to square off in Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

“A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”
Missouri still remembers the Georgia Dome – not because of the experience of playing in an NFL stadium or the atmosphere from last year’s SEC championship – the players remember it more for the empty feeling they felt in the locker room following a 59-42 loss to Auburn.

It was the first time the Tigers had ever played in the SEC title game, but they weren’t about to pat themselves on the back for making it that far. They were mad they didn’t win, mad they weren’t going to be the team to represent the conference in the BCS national championship.

[+] EnlargeBud Sasser
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBud Sasser and Missouri are back in the SEC championship game and hope to reel in an upset of No. 1 Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta.
“Of course, we weren't too happy because we worked hard to get there,” defensive end Markus Golden said. “We're a competitive team. So we weren't too happy. At the end of the day, we were telling each other we're going to make it back next year and be in the same position.”

That feeling after the game, that low point, motivated Missouri this season. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, but they rallied after losses to Indiana and Georgia. In similar fashion to last year, they won six straight SEC games to finish the season, and that dream of getting back to Atlanta became a reality with last Saturday’s victory over Arkansas.

“It was such a devastating loss last year,” senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “We had so much emotionally invested in that game and it didn't turn out our way, but it meant the world to this team that we were able to come back to Atlanta.

“We harnessed what we felt after that game last year, and it’s definitely going to help us drive through this week.”

Missouri didn’t get run out of the building last year, either. Granted, the defense gave up 59 points and a record 545 yards rushing to Auburn, but the Tigers were within a field goal heading into the fourth quarter.

This year presents a new challenge, though. This year Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama, a team that’s fresh off a 55-44 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide are among the SEC leaders in both offense and defense, and they have been playing as well as anybody down the stretch.

“I think you watch this Alabama team, they're just a phenomenal football team,” Morse said. “You get what you hear when you watch film.”

But regardless of whether it’s Alabama, Auburn or any other team, the Tigers know what to expect on Saturday. That loss last year paved the way for this Missouri team to make it back to Atlanta, but it also gave them valuable experience that they can lean on this year.

“I think obviously when you’ve been in that environment before, the players now have experience,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The older ones have experience. I think that certainly helps. Anytime you gain experience, whether it was a good experience or bad, you can learn from it and apply it to the next time.”

“It's going to be a big atmosphere,” Golden said. “[There’s] going to be a lot of people there. [It’s] going to be crazy, a lot of fans. We already know that now, so it won't be a surprise for us. We've been there before. Now we've got to get out there and play the Mizzou way -- be tough and physical, and do everything the coaches asked us to. We’re going to be OK.”

Most people aren’t giving Missouri a chance against Alabama, but that’s nothing new. The Tigers were underdogs in six of their eight SEC games this season and went 5-1 in those games. They relish that role.

One thing is for sure. This team doesn't want to experience that same empty feeling in the locker room after Saturday’s game.
Early Saturday morning, college football enthusiasts were still contemplating the prospects of the SEC getting two teams into the College Football Playoff. Then, Ole Miss upset then-No. 4 Mississippi State, and now we're seriously considering the absence of the SEC in this sport's inarguable playoff.

The conference that has ruled college football for the better part of the last decade and flexed its muscles with an early scrum for the top four spots in the early College Football Playoff Rankings is in danger of being left out of the four-team party. After the East sputtered along and the West bludgeoned itself into that thick southern clay, the SEC's last hope is No. 1 Alabama.

While the league has gotten used to hearing Alabama associated with the national championship, the Crimson Tide's job isn't done -- not with white-hot Missouri meeting the Tide in Saturday's SEC championship game. Though this game could be quite entertaining, a victory by No. 16 Missouri would almost certainly end the SEC's streak of competing for a national championship.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper and Alabama are assured of a College Football Playoff berth with a victory over Missouri. A loss, and it seems likely the SEC would get shut out.
These uncomfortable circumstances now has SEC purists yelling -- or at least thinking -- "Roll Tide" heading into Saturday's showdown inside the Georgia Dome.

It's the ultimate doomsday scenario for a conference that has gone back-and-forth between elite and overrated all year, yet has been the only conference to feature two and three teams ranked in the top four of the playoff rankings at any point this season.

An Alabama win, and the SEC is in. But a Missouri win, and the conference is in serious danger of being left out in the mild cold below the Mason-Dixon Line.

So why is Missouri such a playoff eliminator? Well, the Tigers might own an impressive 10-2 record, but those two losses resonate much more than the accomplishment of winning the East for the second straight year or the fact that Mizzou is one of only three SEC teams with 10 wins.

Mizzou's reward for winning a down East was moving up from 17th to 16th in the College Football Playoff Rankings. The Tigers have zero wins against current top-25 teams, they're currently rank 27th in ESPN's Football Power Index (which is lower than 6-5 Florida) and their strength of schedule currently ranks 32nd nationally.

Despite what happened in November, Missouri just hasn't done enough to thrust itself into the playoff, and a victory over Alabama, while a major signature win for the Tigers, just wouldn't be good enough to catapult Missouri from 16th into the top four.

"Honestly, those things take care of themselves," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. "I don't make predictions. We're just doing what we do. It's the next game we're focusing on. We want to play well, and whatever happens, happens."

Translation: This team is much better than it was a month ago, but the committee just isn't impressed with the second half of their season.

The fact of the matter is, you can't lose at home to a bad Indiana team (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten) and you can't get crushed 34-0 by Georgia at home. Those losses outweigh all the good that Mizzou has done since in the playoff picture, especially when you consider the Georgia loss looks even worse because of the Bulldogs' losses to South Carolina (6-6, 3-5 SEC) and Florida (6-5, 4-4).

If Mizzou had lost to Arkansas last week and Georgia hadn't have lost to Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs would have a chance at the playoff as the SEC champion because they were ninth in the rankings last week. And if Mississippi State didn't lose to Ole Miss, those Bulldogs would have had a great chance with an Alabama loss this weekend.

Mizzou hasn't been elite since the Georgia loss, but it's been winning better than anyone in the SEC other than Alabama. Six straight wins, three coming on the road, isn't easy in this league -- no matter which side you're on -- but the wins haven't been pretty and the playoff selection committee just isn't impressed. Say what you will about how great the defense has been in conference play -- the committee is likely stuck on the fact that the offense has been inconsistent this season.

As far as a playoff run goes, the Tigers just haven't passed the eye test. Mizzou proved it wasn't a one-hit wonder this year, but when it comes to a playoff spot, the early season is haunting it.
Missouri didn’t get to the SEC championship game for a second consecutive season by accident.

Contrary to how some might feel about the Tigers’ deservedness, they simply did what they had to do – win the SEC East – and earned the right to square off against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

It’s also becoming a habit that the Tigers are here, again, in a conference championship game. This season marked the fifth time Missouri has won at least a share of a division title in the last eight seasons and it will be Missouri’s fourth conference championship game appearance since 2007. Three of those division titles and two of the conference title game appearances occurred in the Big 12; the last two of each have been in the SEC.

Only two Power 5 conference teams can match Missouri’s five division titles since 2007: Alabama and Florida State. The kicker is that they're still seeking their first conference championship since 1969.

[+] Enlarge Gary Pinkel
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsContinuity has Gary Pinkel and Missouri in yet another conference championship game. Now the challenge is to win one.
“We haven't won a championship in the Big 12 or the SEC,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That's my responsibility. Hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”

How have the Tigers sustained success? There are several factors, but coaching stability means a lot to Missouri’s ability to win divisions and punch tickets to conference title games.

Of Pinkel’s nine full-time assistants, five have remained at Mizzou with Pinkel since he arrived in 2001: defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, quarterbacks coach Andy Hill, running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. Ford, Jones and Kuligowski were also with Pinkel at Toledo and Hill was at Mizzou before Pinkel arrived and is in his 19th season in Columbia.

Only one of the other four assistants – offensive line coach A.J. Ricker – is in his first season with the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson is in his sixth season, safeties coach Alex Grinch is in his third and receivers coach Pat Washington is in his second year at Missouri.

“I think it's been really important,” Pinkel said of the staff stability. “I've had five coaches leave, one of which retired, in the years that I've been here. That's very, very unusual. I would say it's one of the least numbers in the country.

“Certainly the consistency of staff, the consistency of attention to detail, how we do things in our program -- we have certain ways we do absolutely everything. Having that continuity also in recruiting has been really important for us.”

It also helps when the consistency starts at the top. Since 1991, Pinkel has coached at only two places: Toledo and Missouri. In an era when it’s common to see coaches jump from job to job, climbing the ladder (or in some cases, getting fired for not living up to expectations), it’s noteworthy to see a coach stay in one place as long as Pinkel stayed at Toledo and now, Missouri, where he is finishing his 14th season.

He has the sixth-most wins of any active FBS head coach with a 185-102-3 record. At Missouri, Pinkel is 112-65.

Notably, Pinkel has achieved that record without highly regarded recruiting classes. Since 2006, when ESPN began its recruiting rankings, the Tigers haven’t had a signing class ranked in the top 25 nationally. Their last two classes, ranked 33rd in 2014 and 38th in 2013, were 12th and 14th in the SEC, respectively.

Conversely, Alabama is annually at or near the top of the rankings.

“I've never looked at a recruiting ranking since I've been coaching,” Pinkel said. “We have an evaluation system we use. ... We never talked about stars on any player, ever.

“We do a thing called 'Mizzou Made' here. We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country. We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that -- professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better. ... We just do what we do. I think it would be hard to say that we haven't had a little bit of success doing it our way.”

The Tigers have been on an ongoing journey to earn respect in their new league, and Pinkel knows winning is the way to do it.

“It's a consistency of winning, winning at a high level, in a very, very difficult league, very competitive league; I've always sort of brought up [that] you earn respect; that's how you get it," Pinkel said. “Hopefully we've gained some respect. We'll see how it goes from here.”

National links: Michigan steals spotlight 

December, 2, 2014
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Since late October, Tuesday has been reserved for speculation and anticipation over the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. But not this week.

Michigan reluctantly takes center stage hours before the committee releases its sixth set of rankings.

Next week, the four-team playoff will be set. If things fall right Friday and Saturday in each of the Power 5 leagues, next Tuesday could be epic.

TCU or Baylor? Will Ohio State remain a factor? The debate alone over the order of the top four, which determine the semifinal matchups, will make it a day like no other in college football history.

Sadly, though, we’ve seen plenty of days like this Tuesday.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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A wild final weekend of the regular season in the SEC ended with Alabama's 55-44 win over rival Auburn in a memorable Iron Bowl on Saturday night.

Let's recap five things we learned:

Bow down to the ACC: Well this is new. A couple of the games were close, but the ACC won all four of its rivalry games against SEC opponents on Saturday. With Louisville joining the ACC this year and moving its rivalry game with Kentucky to the final weekend of the regular season, that brought the number of ACC-SEC finales to four (joining Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson). The SEC hadn't gone 0-4 in those games since 2000 and hadn't done any worse than 2-2 since 2003.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper and Alabama are now the SEC's only legitimate candidate for the College Football Playoff.
Postseason picture: With Ole Miss knocking off No. 4 Mississippi State 31-17 the SEC is down to one legit playoff contender: No. 1 Alabama, which had to rally to beat Auburn on Saturday. The Crimson Tide will assuredly remain in the top four if they beat Missouri in next Saturday's SEC championship game, but if they don't? Gasp ... the SEC will likely be left out of the playoff. On the brighter side from an SEC perspective, Tennessee's 24-17 win over Vanderbilt gave the conference 12 bowl-eligible teams. It would have been 13 if Kentucky hadn't fallen just short in its upset bid against Louisville, losing 44-40.

Mizzou got it done: Let's take a moment to celebrate Missouri. The Tigers sit in the middle of the pack (or worse) in the vast majority of SEC team statistical categories, but Gary Pinkel's Tigers still bounced back from ugly losses to Indiana and Georgia to win the East for a second straight season. Did they play the easiest conference schedule in the league? Without question. Should they apologize for that? Absolutely not. Georgia blew it. South Carolina and Florida stunk up the division for most of the year. Mizzou was the only one that did what it needed to do, and kudos to Pinkel's team for getting the job done.

No excuses, Georgia: Saturday's 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech -- which went to overtime on Georgia Tech's 53-yard field goal at the buzzer and ended with a Hutson Mason interception at the Georgia Tech 5 -- added insult to injury for Georgia. The Bulldogs' error-filled loss was a reminder of their many missed opportunities. Georgia beat the team that will represent the SEC East in the conference championship game, Missouri, 34-0 on the road. And yet it lost to South Carolina and Florida, which were mediocre at best. This Georgia team should have been in the conversation for a playoff berth, but some seriously uninspired football allowed Missouri to slip into the SEC title game and let Georgia Tech snap a five-game series losing streak on Saturday.

Home field matters: Think home-field advantage doesn't matter in a rivalry game? Look down Saturday's results: Out of seven traditional rivalry games played Saturday, five home teams (Alabama, Ole Miss, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State) won. It could have been six if Georgia hadn't choked away a lead in the final 18 seconds of regulation. That includes two huge games in the playoff picture (Alabama and Ole Miss) and another (Clemson over South Carolina) that snapped a five-game series losing streak.
It's rivalry week in the SEC, but there's one game that deserves more respect than it's getting.

I'm talking about little ol' Arkansas vs. Missouri, a game with all brash and no flash. Playoff implications? Eh, maybe, but it really is a long shot if the Tigers win Friday and then top the West Division champion in Atlanta.

But right now, who cares about that? This is the game no one was talking about in August and hardly registered on anyone's radar as recently as Halloween.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBret Bielema kept Arkansas motivated through some tough losses, and now the Razorbacks are bowl eligible.
Now, the SEC East is on the line and Arkansas is playing with house money after becoming bowl eligible a year after winning just three games and after snapping a 17-game SEC losing streak by winning their last two conference contests. This game is so 2014 SEC it isn't funny.

In a season that has been so much fun to watch -- even through some of the bad play -- and so nail-biting, this game shows you just how little we really knew about this conference during fall camp and how competitive the SEC has been from top to bottom.

With the schedule Arkansas had, it was hard seeing the Razorbacks make a bowl game. Sure, this team was better mentally and physically, but no way Arkansas was making it through the SEC West gauntlet with a bowl berth. There were just too many questions across the board, and those running backs couldn't do it all.

And while we could see the pieces slowly falling into place for the Hogs, the wins just weren't coming. Somehow, Bret Bielema kept his guys going. It would have been so easy for the Hogs to get down on themselves and just embrace that snake-bitten mentality, the goal-line stands and the turnovers in the end zone.

Instead, this team has become the SEC's most dangerous squad heading into the final week of the regular season. Arkansas turned things around and became bowl eligible with a 17-0 win over LSU and then a 30-0 beatdown of Ole Miss. Both teams were ranked, and both left Fayetteville absolutely stunned. It's not like those were bad teams. Were they at 100 percent? No. But they weren't overrated or undeserving of their place in the polls.

They were beaten by a team getting better and better, a team that now has a chance to send another squad into a disappointing funk. The Hogs have nothing to lose Friday in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of making a bowl game has been accomplished, so there's no pressure. This team should be loose, carefree and ready to roll.

But the team lining up on the other side has been quietly rolling to its own methodical tune the last five games. After getting thrashed 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight by grinding games out thanks to a fantastic coaching job by Gary Pinkel. He has rallied a team that lost to Indiana, for crying out loud!

Last season, we admired the Tigers' explosive offense and dominating defense. This year, we're just wondering how the cardiac cats continue to win. The offense isn't exciting, but that defense has been spectacular in conference play. Missouri's games can weigh heavy on your eyelids, but winning ugly is still winning, folks.

Missouri is 9-2 in its third season in the SEC. Last year, the new kids on the block tortured SEC traditionalists with their trip to Atlanta. Now, they've broken them with the potential of back-to-back trips. The majority of SEC followers looked down on Mizzou when it first arrived. Well, now the Tigers are looking down on the rest of the league and smirking with an emphatic Hi, hater!

Someone's magic will die out Friday, but to see these two teams actually be in this position is fascinating. Relatively little star power has propelled both squads into what's turned into a huge game for the SEC.

This game doesn't have the vitriol or popularity of the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, but this season it deserves the respect.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 22, 2014
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It was a relatively weak slate for the SEC, but we still learned a few things about the league as we head into the final week of the regular season:

    [+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
    Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsTrey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have been downright nasty the past two weeks, when they shut out LSU and Ole Miss, respectively.
  • If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
  • Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
  • Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
  • Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
  • Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.

Ray and Golden producing for Mizzou

November, 20, 2014
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The tradition continues.

Missouri has a knack for producing elite pass rushers, and 2014 is no different. Shane Ray and Markus Golden picked up where their predecessors, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, left off. The Tigers continue to attack opposing quarterbacks proficiently and get in opposing backfields frequently, with Ray and Golden leading the efforts this season.

Missouri ranks first in the SEC in sacks (34) and second in sack percentage (nine percent). This is the eighth time in the past 10 seasons Missouri will finish with 30 or more sacks as a team. A defensive line that has had six first-team all-conference selections since Gary Pinkel was hired in 2000 seems certain to add its seventh such member, with Ray putting together the kind of season he has.

Ray, a junior, already holds the school’s single-season record for sacks with 13 and has had five games of at least two sacks, the only FBS player this season with that distinction. He also has 18 tackles for loss.

Ray continues to produce even as opponents try to scheme for him weekly.

“Every week somebody throws something kind of different at me,” Ray said. “They might keep a fullback in or slide my way and do things to keep me away from the quarterback. But the best thing I can do is just continuing to play as hard as I can. When the plays present themselves, just make the play. Schemes are tough to combat sometimes but you just have to keep going.”

Golden, meanwhile, was bothered by a hamstring injury suffered in September that forced him to miss Missouri’s loss to Indiana but has played through the injury since. He showed no ill effects of the ailment last week, however, picking up nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Tigers’ 34-27 win over Texas A&M, a night he spent matched up mostly against NFL draft prospect and preseason first-team All-SEC offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.

“I'm back healthy,” Golden said afterward. “I'm 100 percent now, and I feel good. My hamstring feels good, and I was able to play the way I play all the time. I was myself [on Saturday].”

Despite the injury, Golden has compiled a respectable 53 tackles (one more than Ray), 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

“They are great competitors, and they're great teammates, and they have a great friendship,” Pinkel said. “They're also competitive with one another. I think it's great.”

Pinkel said the extra focus Texas A&M gave Ray allowed Golden to excel.

“There's more attention sometimes, and they had a back over there to help a little bit with that offensive tackle with Shane and that allows Markus to be single-covered, so he got to do some of the things he did,” Pinkel said. “Just really, really good stuff.”

Golden said he has seen his fair share of double teams this season, too. Still, with 105 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss between them, the defensive end tandem has produced, and if Missouri is to win its final two games and return to the SEC championship game, those two will be a big reason for it.

"They scheme both of us: Some games I got double teamed; some games he got double teamed,” Golden said. “But it's no excuse. We don't make excuses around here. So whatever you do to us, we still have to get after the quarterback. That's our job, and we take pride in that.”

Since Gary Pinkel arrived at Missouri in 2000, he’s had six first-team all-conference selections on the defensive line. Four of those players went on to be first-round NFL draft picks, and there are currently eight former Tigers defensive linemen playing in the NFL.

“There’s two things I’ve been fortunate with most of my career,” Pinkel said last month. “Having good quarterbacks and having guys on defense that can get the other guys’ good quarterbacks.”

Getting to opponents’ quarterbacks has never been a problem for Missouri under Pinkel. Last year, the Tigers led the SEC with 41 sacks, which marked the seventh time in the past nine seasons that they finished with 30 or more sacks as a team. Michael Sam (12) and Kony Ealy (9) were both among the conference leaders in sacks, but they have moved on to greener pastures and will be playing their football on Sundays this fall.

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonShane Ray has proven the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. Just ask Johnny Manziel.
That leaves a rather large void at defensive end. A dilemma for most schools, sure, but not at Missouri. Not where strong, fast, 6-foot-3 defensive linemen seem to grow on trees. Not where Markus Golden and Shane Ray are patiently waiting for their chance to shine.

How good are Golden and Ray? There were NFL scouts who came to Missouri last season to see Ealy and Sam, but left wondering if the two behind them weren’t better.

Golden, specifically, might have been the Tigers' most productive defensive lineman last year. Despite playing only about 40 percent of the snaps, he still led all ends with 55 tackles. He also had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.

“Really, we were just competitive,” Golden said. “When you got a bunch of good players in one room, good defensive linemen in one room, we compete against each other.

“That’s what it was with Kony and Mike. It wasn’t like they were trying to teach me something -- they knew I knew what to do -- it was just like we’re going to all compete against each other and see who does the best.”

Now it’s Golden’s turn to take center stage. It’s Ray’s turn to start opposite him. Missouri might have lost a pair of elite defensive ends from last season, but that doesn’t mean the defensive line is going to take a step back. In fact, it might take a step forward.

Just ask Missouri center Evan Boehm, who goes against that group every day in practice.

“Oh, my,” he said. “As an offensive line, we’ve gone against the majority of the defensive lines in the SEC, and we firmly believe that we have one of the best in the conference, if not the nation.

“Going against guys like Markus, like Shane, like Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Josh Augusta, Harold Brantley -- you’re just swapping guys out each and every time, but they’re not skipping a beat. And when they’re doing that, we’re just getting more work each and every time. We’re getting better each and every time. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to go against the best, and I think we’re doing that.”

At SEC media days, Pinkel was already talking up Marcus Loud and Charles Harris, the next crop of redshirt freshmen defensive ends who have a chance to be special once Golden and Ray are gone. And after those two, there will be two more to follow. It's why some people have started calling Missouri "Defensive Line U."

“A lot of people try to call us that,” Golden said. “But we call it ‘D-line Zou.’ I say that because we look at it as we’re Tigers, and we say we’re a bunch of animals, a bunch of animals on that defensive line, a bunch of guys that just play hard and physical.”

This year’s version of "D-line Zou" will be critical if the Tigers want to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
HOOVER, Ala. -- SEC media days have been more about who isn’t here as opposed to who is here, and it was no different Wednesday with former Missouri Tigers wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham dominating the conversation during the Tigers’ session.

Green-Beckham was dismissed from the team in April and recently landed at Oklahoma, where he will be eligible to play in 2015.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Missouri Tigers believe they have capable replacements for receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who was dismissed from the program in April.
“I want things to work well for Dorial,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s important to me, and hopefully they will. I think that’s a good place and hopefully he learns some lessons. He’s overall a good kid, and he has a chance to turn this whole thing into a positive thing for him personally.”

It’s obviously a difficult blow for the Tigers. Green-Beckham was the top wide receiver and No. 3 overall prospect in ESPN’s 2012 recruiting rankings. He led the team last season with 59 receptions and finished with 883 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, Missouri has to move on without him, and nobody knows that better than sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk.

“Obviously, we were close,” Mauk said. “He called me his first day (at Oklahoma), said he was moved in and ready to get started, and I wished him luck. He’s going to do good down there. We’ll stay in contact. But at Missouri, we’re not worried about it. We’ve moved on. Our guys are ready. They have accepted their roles.”

The Tigers will be without their top three wide receivers from a year ago, losing L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas in addition to Green-Beckham, but that doesn’t mean it is not a position of strength heading into the fall.

Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt each had more than 20 receptions a season ago, and the addition of former Texas wide receiver Darius White, a former ESPN 150 recruit who sat out last season after transferring, could provide another weapon on the outside.

“I look at Darius White and I see a top recruit in the nation who transferred from Texas, who I know like the back of my hand and who I can throw it to and expect him to catch it every time,” Mauk said. “Bud Sasser fills in at the X, somebody that I’ve been playing with that I love. He runs tremendous routes. And then Jimmie Hunt, an inside guy that maybe last year he couldn’t do what he can do right now. He’s quick and he’s fast.”

Mauk added that he has never seen someone as fast or as quick as redshirt freshman J'Mon Moore, and he made sure to mention the trio of incoming freshmen -- DeSean Blair, Nate Brown and Lawrence Lee -- who have all impressed since they arrived on campus.

It was clear Wednesday that there are no hard feelings between Missouri and Green-Beckham, and though the Tigers will certainly miss his production on the field, they are more than pleased with the options they still have available in the passing game.

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