NCF Nation: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Auburn's miraculous, last-second "Kick Six" against Alabama was a sinfully sweet ending to the Tigers' 2013 regular season.

Well, Chris Davis' phenomenal play literally got even sweeter for one couple, as Auburn fan Billy Gilley received an amazing "Kick-Six" groom's cake for his wedding.

Alabama fans might want to avert their eyes, but this really is a thing of beauty by Cobalt Connections. The cake is complete with thousands of tiny orange-and-blue clad fans, an autograph area for Gus Malzahn and a scoreboard featuring the 28-28 score with one second remaining on the clock from last season's Iron Bowl.

I don't know what all the fillings were for this cake, but the inside looked delicious once everyone dug into it. (To my future wife: A miniature, chocolate-filled Godzilla cake is the way to my heart.)

The details are good enough that even Nick Saban would take a bite out of that bad boy!

When I was little, I had plenty of awesome cakes, thanks to my incredibly creative parents and the talented folks at Deanna's Confections in Oxford, Miss. My cakes featured, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, killer whales, and dinosaurs, but never had this detail.

But while Auburn had the Homer drooling effect on people, Alabama touched everyone's heart with cuteness explosion of the kitten variety.

Green Bay Packers fan Stephanie Van Groll might even get a hug from Malzahn with the new addition to her family: Ha Ha Kitten-Dix. Yes, this little bundle of fur is named after former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was drafted by the Packers in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

As a proud cat owner, I fully understand that cats are far superior to dogs, and a kitten will tug at everyone's heart.
As the 2014 NFL draft drew to a close last Saturday, I could still hear Joe Pendry’s prophetic words in the press box on Nov. 5, 2011.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIC.J. Mosley was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pendry, who had just retired the previous year as Alabama’s offensive line coach, said there was a very simple reason that nobody could score a touchdown that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.

Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.

In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.

The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”

Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.

“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.

The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.

Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.

In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.

Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.

But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.

As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.

Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.

Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
AP Photo/David RichardBarkevious Mingo was one of the many LSU defenders on the 2011 team that was drafted.
2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
LSU

2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the biggest storylines in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Oklahoma:

The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide coming out flat against OU in the Sugar Bowl.
Alex Scarborough: With AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley guiding their respective units, I don't think motivation will be a problem. The leadership on this team is too strong for Alabama to come out flat emotionally. There are too many seniors who don't want to go out on a sour note with back-to-back losses. Revenge, even though it can't come in the form of a national championship, is at play against the Sooners. That loss on the road at Auburn has eaten away at the Tide for a month now, and I believe this team is eager to get that monkey off its back and change the narrative of its season. As Brian Vogler told the media a short while back, this game is all about respect and proving again that Alabama is one of the best teams in the country.

Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.

For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?

Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight and the Sooners need to get off to a good start if Oklahoma is going to pull off the upset.
Trotter: The Sooners have got to get off to a good start. Whether Knight or Bell (or both) is at quarterback, this is not an offense built to come back from behind. After falling behind early to Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma had to scrap the game plan and start throwing the ball. And the end-result was a pair of blowouts. Conversely, if Oklahoma can start fast, then hang in the game past halftime, the pressure will swing on Alabama, which is expected to win this game big. And like at Oklahoma State, the Sooners would be a successful trick play or big turnover away from taking the Tide to the wire.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.

Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Oklahoma focused on stopping Mosley

December, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- When asked about his very first impression of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was as concise as he could be, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
AP Photo/Dave MartinButkus Award winner C.J. Mosley leads Alabama in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries this season.
"That dude's good; very, very good," Ikard, an All-American, said.

"He's obviously the most talented linebacker in the country."

Mosley, an All-American himself and the recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, is quiet and gentle away from the field but a thunderous wrecking ball on it. He can cover the field from side to side, drop back to defend the pass, rush the passer and stuff the run.

He's the heart of Alabama's staunch defense and enemy No. 1 for Oklahoma's offense.

Ikard and his teammates agreed they'll game plan to try and thwart Mosley's effectiveness in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl. You'd think that added attention would put some pressure on Mosley, but this is nothing new for the nation's best.

"I can't really control that," Mosley said. "I just gotta do what I have to do and make plays when my name is called."

He's made plenty of plays this year for the Crimson Tide. A year removed from leading the Tide with 107 tackles while sharing time, Mosley leads Alabama this season in tackles (102), tackles for loss (nine) and quarterback hurries (eight) as a full-time starter at weakside linebacker. He's also defended five passes and forced a fumble.

"C.J. Mosley is probably the best player we've played against this year, probably one of the best I've played against in my four and a half years here," Ikard said.

"You always have to be aware of where 32 is at."

And that isn't easy to do. He's so active that one blink and you'll lose him. But spend too much time locking in on him and you'll lose focus, making it easier to blow an assignment. It puts many offensive players, especially offensive linemen, in precarious situations.

Like a playmaking receiver who can line up inside, outside or in the backfield, you have to account for Mosley in some form or fashion whenever he's on the field or he'll make you pay.

"Your eyes are just attracted to him just by the way he runs around and makes big plays," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said.

"We're going to account for him like anybody else, but he's definitely a force to be reckoned with. He's all over the field and he's a great leader out there."

Despite lining up in the middle of Alabama's defense, the Tide's defensive quarterback finds ways to get to the ball, no matter where it is. He's so dangerous because he's so multitalented. He pores over extra film for hours each week, while still trying to motivate and push his teammates with his relentless practice habits.

The quiet tone and smoother demeanor he shows the media is only a small part of who Mosley is. He's an animal on the field, and the Sooners understand the challenge of making him obsolete is quite an undertaking.

"He's a great player. He won the Butkus Award for a reason," Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay said. "He's fundamentally sound, he gets to the ball, his technique is great."

But for all the good Mosley does, he admits he isn't perfect. He's actually pretty goofy in the way he looks when he plays. Though he carries an impressive, stone-like 6-foot-2, 238-pound frame, his legs can get the best of him at times with his "unorthodox" running style that gives him some awkward-looking strides when he runs. His legs sometimes get caught under him, making sprinting tough.

It doesn't impede his pursuit too much, but it does receive a few giggles in the film room from his teammates.

"I've been doing that since high school," Mosley said with a laugh.

The Sooners might have 10 other players to account for when Alabama's defense takes the field, but everyone knows the Tide's defense goes the way of its commander. Mosley is the linchpin, and disengaging his playmaking ability will go a long way for the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"That kid is the defense, if you ask me," Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said.

"It's been a blessing having him on this team, and I'm definitely going to miss him next year."

2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team

December, 16, 2013
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We still have the bowls to play, but we've gone ahead and selected our 2013 All-SEC team at ESPN.com.

Some of the selections were no-brainers. Others were agonizingly difficult to make. We placed a heavy emphasis on performance in big games, consistency and how a player impacted his team both on and off the field. Durability and being in the lineup the entire season was also a factor. In other words, if a player missed three or four games, we took that into account. And when it was close everywhere else, we looked at SEC-only statistics as the tiebreaker.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas

DEFENSE

DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
KR: Solomon Patton, Florida
PR: Chris Davis, Auburn

2013 AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 14, 2013
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Offense
QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State
RB: Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona, Andre Williams, Boston College
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M, Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
OT: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor; David Yankey, Stanford
C: Bryan Stork, Florida State

Defense
DE: Michael Sam, Missouri; Leonard Williams, USC
DT: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, Trent Murphy, Stanford
CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
FS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
SS: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
K: Nate Freese, Boston College
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One by one, teammates stopped and patted Vinnie Sunseri on the shoulder. Alabama's starting safety was in street clothes, limping gingerly with a bum knee. "How bad is it?" they wanted to know. And from high up in the stands, it was obvious. Their body language in response said it all: A quick shake of the head, a long hug and a slow walk away.

Not Sunseri. Not this season.

The destiny of a championship hopeful is precarious at best. Ask Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel fell awkwardly on his arm, hurt his elbow and was forced to the sidelines late against Auburn. His backup came on and the offense went three and out. Auburn took the ball and marched the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. A valiant return by Manziel proved too little, too late. With two losses, the Aggies have to hope for chaos to reenter the SEC West race.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri holds his knee after being injured on a kickoff in the first half.
Top-ranked Alabama didn't suffer the same fate against Arkansas. With Sunseri watching from the sideline, the Crimson Tide took care of business and dominated the Razorbacks, 52-0, to remain comfortably in the driver's seat to reach Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship. But with its most experienced safety's season suddenly in doubt, the ride will be shakier than expected.

"It could be serious," UA coach Nick Saban said of Sunseri's injury, listlessly noting that an MRI would deliver the final verdict on Sunday.

"We need some guys to get some experience because we're going to need some depth. Obviously as you lose players, other guys have to step up and play. We had to do a lot of shuffling in the secondary tonight."

If there was a list of the top three defenders Alabama couldn't afford to lose, Sunseri's name would have been on it. Mark Barron and Robert Lester are gone to the NFL. Dee Milliner is gone, too. Alabama has tried John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve out to fill his shoes, and none has panned out. Nick Perry, a veteran safety, had season-ending surgery on his shoulder last month. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, regarded as one of the best safeties in the country, was suspended for the past two weeks.

Sunseri, an impact player from the day he signed with Alabama in 2011, had brought stability to the carousel known as Alabama's secondary. His leadership and big-play ability have been huge. When the Tide needed something to happen against Texas A&M early in the season, he intercepted a pass, shook Manziel out of his shoes and scampered the length of the field for a touchdown.

Without Sunseri, who knows what Alabama's fate will be? Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins and Geno Smith are all talented replacements, but there's a reason none of the three was starting in his spot coming into the weekend. Sunseri was supposed to be the one they'd follow. He was supposed to be the anchor.

"There's not a guy on our team that does a better job of setting an example when it comes to trying to be everything he can be," Saban said of Sunseri. "He's just a phenomenal guy to have on your team all the way around.

"He's going to be a part of our team whether he can play or not."

Sunseri put on his best happy face in the second half, smacking teammates on the behind after delivering the bad news during the game. He sat by Collins, smiled and told him it would be OK. When Jones came off the field after a late interception, Sunseri was the first one to greet him, delivering a bear hug to the true sophomore who was playing wide receiver only a year ago.

"Great leader, great leader," Collins said. "I looked up to him. He's helped me out at free safety with the calls and getting me to settle down. He's going to be missed."

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "Whether he's playing or not, he's going to be on the sideline helping the young players out."

Against Arkansas, the defense looked fine. Sunseri's absence wasn't felt in the box score. Alabama forced three turnovers while limiting Brandon Allen to 7 completions on 25 attempts. The Razorbacks' two talented tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- rushed for just 125 yards on 31 carries. The two came into the weekend ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing.

Alabama's offense, meanwhile, continued humming along. Quarterback AJ McCarron toyed with the defense, picking apart Arkansas for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Kenyan Drake ran for 104 yards and two scores, while T.J. Yeldon rushed for another 88 yards and a touchdown. Alabama's third-string tailback, Derrick Henry, had 115 yards on six carries. All told, the Tide accounted for 532 total yards of offense.

But the tone after the game was stoic. The win against Arkansas came at a cost. A number of players were banged up after facing one of the more physical teams they'll see all year. Ice baths and hot tubs will be in high demand over the next 24 hours.

Sunseri, though, will face the trainer's table.

Only a week ago, Sunseri was throwing wads of paper at wide receiver Kevin Norwood, jumping up and down like a giddy child. He would be a key part of Alabama's quest for a third consecutive national championship. Another win on the road ensured it.

On Saturday, he was hobbling from teammate to teammate to tell them the bad news. He finally ventured to the far end of the bench and watched the rest of the game in silence. Alabama was moving on without him.

How far the Tide will go remains to be seen. What happens next is destiny.

Collision course: SEC

October, 8, 2013
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Sometimes you can see the matchups coming. In college football, every so often you know when the big games, the ones that will determine conference and national championships, will be. In the SEC, we're only halfway through the season and already we can look ahead to two key games that should determine who travels to Atlanta to compete for the conference championship:

Games: Florida-Georgia and LSU-Alabama.

What’s at stake: In a word, "everything," seeing as the winner of these two games will likely represent their divisions in the SEC title game. Whether it's Florida or Georgia from the East or LSU or Alabama out of the West, the two teams that make it to Atlanta will be playing for not just a conference title come December, but likely a shot at the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., as well. All four teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, with only top-ranked Alabama remaining undefeated. But one loss (so long as it doesn't come in the Georgia Dome) won't keep an SEC team out of the national title picture, as seven consecutive seasons with an SEC team hoisting the crystal football can attest.

Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Alabama needs only to avoid the proverbial banana peel in the road with three more games against unranked opponents (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before it hosts LSU. Star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and starting center Ryan Kelly should be back with the Tide by then, and an extra week to rest and prepare always helps. But for LSU, the road to Tuscaloosa, Ala., is not so simple, as it must first deal with No. 6 Florida at home on Saturday and then a trip to Ole Miss the following week. The way LSU's defense has played of late, neither game seems like a cinch victory.

Obviously, Florida's biggest obstacle is this weekend as well. The Gators are still breaking in a young, inexperienced quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and while the defense has played well, it has not faced an offense like LSU's yet. Past LSU, Florida will go on the road to face a surprisingly unbeaten Missouri team that has momentum squarely on its side. Georgia, though, will get Missouri first this weekend. And after the litany of injuries the Bulldogs have experienced in recent weeks, it will be a wonder if Mark Richt's team can hobble its way to Jacksonville without another loss.

How it unfolds: There's no easy way to determine how the Georgia-Florida game will go, as both teams have serious concerns to address in the short term before they make it to Week 9. The Bulldogs aren't getting many of their injured stars back until next season, and the Gators are stuck with Murphy and an inconsistent offense for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Florida seems like a precarious contender after losing to Miami, but at the same time those Gators beat Tennessee by two touchdowns. Georgia, meanwhile, needed overtime to edge out the Vols by 3 points.

Like their counterparts in the East, neither Alabama nor LSU are without their fair share of flaws. The Tide has been inconsistent thus far, failing to put together a truly complete game until this past weekend against lowly Georgia State. The passing game has shown flashes, but the rebuilt offensive line has been disappointing at times. And LSU, which struggled to score points in recent years, is suddenly an offensive powerhouse. But an up-and-down defense, one that allowed nearly 500 total yards to Mississippi State this past weekend, needs work. With the game at home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama likely will be favored, but the way this series has unfolded in recent years we're likely looking at a toss-up.
Landon Collins AP Photo/Butch DillWith suspended safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's future status up in the air, sophomores Landon Collins (pictured) and Geno Smith made their career debuts at free safety Saturday against Georgia State.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Getting more insight into the suspension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wasn't going to happen Saturday afternoon. No. 1-ranked Alabama had just finished throttling Georgia State 45-3 to cap off the school's homecoming game, and Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban wasn't in the sharing mood when he was asked for an update on his star safety's status.

"I don't have any new information," he told reporters in Tuscaloosa. "And when we get new information, I'll certainly pass it along to you."

And with that, the matter of Clinton-Dix's future with the team was put on hold for another day. Nearly a week after it was announced, neither the nature of the suspension or its intended duration have been officially announced by UA.

But the matter of life without Clinton-Dix was addressed on Saturday when Landon Collins and Geno Smith took up for their departed teammate in the secondary, filling in for him at free safety. Clinton-Dix was on the sidelines, but all he could provide his teammates with was advice.

It was an awkward position for both sophomores to be in. Neither had started a game or played a meaningful snap at free safety in their careers. Smith was a cornerback all of last season before being moved to safety this fall. Collins, meanwhile, played almost every position but free safety prior to this week. The former five-star athlete learned cornerback, money, star and strong safety already, but he'd never tackled Clinton-Dix's position.

So like any college student would, Smith and Collins put in extra hours during the week studying. Under the direction of Professor Saban and his assistant, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, they took a crash course Free Safety 101. The syllabus might have read something like: Basic understanding of coverages with an emphasis on footwork, alignment and communication.

"Those guys came in at 1:15 every day, so for 45 minutes I would just meet with them about basic fundamental things," Saban said. "I would show teaching tapes of guys doing it correctly, whether it's hitting your mark in Cover 2 or how to play Cover 7. Whatever the circumstance was.

"Those days really helped those guys, because it gave them a visual of this is how we're supposed to do it and why. I think that extra time is just really beneficial to helping the players."

Collins said the one-on-one work made him more confident when game day finally arrived. Sure it was just Georgia State, a team in its first year in the FBS, but Collins felt some anxiousness when he took the field.

"It was my first start, so yeah I had some butterflies," he said.

It took only one play for those feelings to evaporate according to Collins, who said he thought he played well and made the right calls working alongside veteran strong safety Vinnie Sunseri.

Georgia State amassed all of 160 yards through the air, completing just 12 of 22 passes. Alabama gave up just two passing plays of 20 or more yards and, more importantly, no touchdowns.

Saban lauded the effort of both of his young safeties, saying of Smith that there were only "a couple of things that we'd like for him to do better." In the ultra-critical world of Alabama, that might be considered a compliment.

"I'm hopeful that they continue to improve," Saban said. "Landon Collins has been a really good player for us in whatever role we put him in. He's a fantastic special teams player. He also has played with six defensive backs in the game, so he's played a significant role and he does a great job at that. He hasn't had to play a lot of safety, but now he's playing safety and he did a good job out there today. I think that experience will help him feel more comfortable and confident.

"Geno hasn't played safety as long, so that will continue to be a work in progress. But Geno's got a great attitude and wants to do well and works hard. "

Smith and Collins did inspire some confidence in their opening auditions, but it's still unclear whether they'll be ready when the main event arrives in the form of LSU on Nov. 9. While it's expected that Clinton-Dix will return to the starting lineup by then, without official word from UA the future remains somewhat in doubt.

Saban and Alabama can take heart, though, as there will be plenty more opportunities for Smith and Collins to prepare in the meantime with three more unranked teams (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before LSU.

Games like Saturday's against Georgia State might not be inspiring in the grand scheme of things, but the opponent doesn't matter. The experience, for players like Smith and Collins, is what does.

"It's a mental thing," Collins said. "We always say we play against ourselves."
1. Given the tenor of the times, the suspension of Alabama defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will cast a dimmer light on the NCAA than on the player. The Tuscaloosa News reported that Clinton-Dix took a loan of less than $500 from assistant strength coach Corey Harris during the summer and repaid it before the season. The bottom line is that Clinton-Dix and Harris knew the rules and ignored them. But the small amount of money, and the fact that it was a one-time transaction, highlight how the needs of student-athletes are not being met.

2. West Virginia's upset of Oklahoma State provided a ray of hope in Morgantown as the Mountaineers prepare to play at No. 17 Baylor, which is 15-1 at home since the beginning 2011. It's no coincidence that the struggles of the Mountaineers coincide with the departure of top recruiter Doc Holliday to become head coach of Marshall three years ago. Holliday is well-known for his ability to recruit in Florida, where the Mountaineers found quarterback Geno Smith and wide receiver Stedman Bailey. They left last season, and no one as talented has appeared to replace them.

3. The disappearance of tough intersectional games has led to grade inflation at the football stadium. I looked at the Week 6 AP poll for each of the last 10 seasons. From 2004-11, the average number of undefeated teams is a shade under 14. Last season, 18 teams made it to Week 6 without a blemish. This season, it's 17. It must be the disappearance of tough intersectional games. Let's hope that nine-game conference schedules and the College Football Playoff force teams to play up, and do it earlier.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
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1. Avoiding the letdown: Georgia and LSU played a thrilling, memorable contest last weekend. But the Bulldogs and Tigers have SEC opponents on the docket Saturday, and it's imperative for each to not have a hangover from the previous week. Georgia travels to Tennessee, which struggled to beat South Alabama. LSU heads to Starkville, Miss., to meet Mississippi State.

2. First true test for Mizzou: Missouri is quietly undefeated (4-0) but has faced only one power-conference opponent so far (Indiana). Missouri hits the road for its first SEC game of the season at Vanderbilt, a team that has already suffered two SEC defeats (against Ole Miss and South Carolina). It's hard to know what to expect from the Tigers, but we know that both teams can pile up the yards and points, so it should be entertaining.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRETyler Russell is likely to return as the starter for Mississippi State on Saturday.
3. Tyler Russell returns: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen indicated that he plans to start quarterback Tyler Russell, who has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in the Bulldogs' season-opening loss to Oklahoma State on Aug. 31. Mullen did leave the door open, saying, "that’s still the plan, and we’ll see how it goes Saturday." But for now, it looks like Russell will start. Russell had a breakout season in 2012, throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns.

4. Missing Clinton-Dix: Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated that standout safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. While the timetable, and the violation itself, is unknown, don't expect it to have a major impact, at least in the short term. Alabama has a layup of a game this week against FCS foe Georgia State, and though the Crimson Tide resume SEC play after that, they'll get a struggling Kentucky team. So if anything, the timing of an absence for a star defensive player is good because the Tide can use the coming weeks to develop younger players such as Landon Collins and Geno Smith.

5. Low-scoring affair in the Swamp? Florida's methodical offense hosts an Arkansas team that isn't afraid to run the football, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be three yards and a cloud of dust Saturday evening. Arkansas showed that it can be an explosive offense and that it can throw the football when starter Brandon Allen returned from a shoulder injury last week and helped the Razorbacks keep up with No. 9 Texas A&M. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week that he still wants his team to have "explosive plays." Florida looks to remain unbeaten in SEC play; Arkansas is looking for its first SEC win under Bret Bielema.

6. Bounce back for Ole Miss? The Rebels’ offense was shut down in its showdown with No. 1 Alabama. The unit managed just 205 yards in a 25-0 loss. Now Ole Miss must go back on the road, traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face an Auburn team that's coming off an open date. Gus Malzahn's crew suffered its first loss of the season against LSU on Sept. 21 If Ole Miss plans to stay in the Top 25, it has to bounce back with a strong performance on the road against the Tigers.

7. Similar backgrounds, philosophies: Speaking of Auburn-Ole Miss, the coaching matchup is a compelling one. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn were both successful high school football coaches before finding themselves in the college ranks as rising stars. They both are believers in the uptempo style of offense that is becoming a staple in college football, so it should be interesting to see how the offenses fare on Saturday. Both teams are averaging 28.5 points per game this season.

8. Shaw to start: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw was knocked out of the Gamecocks' 28-25 victory over Central Florida with a shoulder injury and was expected to be out at least two to three weeks, but head coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday that Shaw will be able to start this Saturday when the Gamecocks host Kentucky. Shaw has practiced this week and, according to Spurrier, looks good throwing. This weekend is also a chance to finish stronger against a struggling Kentucky squad after allowing UCF to linger last week, which led Spurrier to say that he thought his team might have deserved to lose.

9. Who takes charge at QB for UK? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops would like to settle on a starting quarterback between Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow but doesn't believe that either has shown enough to make the coaching staff comfortable enough to tab one of them as the guy. Stoops said they'll continue to evaluate the quarterbacks. In the meantime, he seems to be getting more frustrated as time passes, blasting his team for a poor practice Wednesday, calling it "a wasted day."

10. Tennessee's "smokey grays": The Volunteers, who usually have a classic look in orange and white, will change things up and wear what they call "smokey gray" uniforms against Georgia on Saturday. The team unveiled the uniforms in August. They'll wear gray pants and jerseys with orange numbers and lettering. Back when the jerseys were introduced, head coach Butch Jones noted that Tennessee's 1914 team went undefeated wearing gray. He can only hope it brings similar good fortune Saturday.

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