NCF Nation: Jarrett Lee

QB will be key if LSU rebounds again

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even in Les Miles' worst season at LSU, he hasn't been in this position before.

The Tigers' coach has had disappointing years in Baton Rouge -- an 8-5 campaign in 2008 stands out -- but even in Miles' worst fall, when the Tigers posted their only losing record in SEC play under his leadership, they still finished third in the Western Division. If Arkansas beats Missouri this week and LSU loses to Texas A&M, Miles' Tigers will essentially finish last in the West at 3-5 in the division.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles may be forced to examine whether recruiting a more dynamic, playmaking quarterback is what it will take to stay atop the SEC West.
It would also mark LSU's first three-game losing streak since Miles arrived in 2005 -- a stretch of futility that seemed unthinkable for most of his decade at the school. But that is the harsh reality that LSU faces these days, the product of a roster that was far too young to contend in arguably college football's toughest division.

Let's not chalk up the Thanksgiving night visit to A&M as an automatic loss, however. The Aggies are in no better shape than the Tigers with an identical 7-4 overall record and 3-4 mark in SEC play. In fact, LSU opened as a narrow favorite to win Thursday's game.

Win or lose, LSU will still be at a crossroads as it nears the conclusion of the 2014 season. Winning in College Station would be a nice way to conclude the regular season, and it would prevent the Tigers from posting a losing conference record and plummeting into the division cellar, but Miles and his staff still have plenty to sort out between now and next season's opener against McNeese State.

For starters, is what they're attempting to accomplish on offense sustainable? Is relying almost exclusively on the running game and asking from their quarterbacks only that they not commit turnovers still a strategy that can win championships? Or was this just a one-year regression to past habits based on LSU's inexperience at quarterback, with more aggressive tactics returning once Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris establishes that he can be a reliable playmaker in the SEC?

This offensive quandary feels much like the 2008 season, as well. That year, the Tigers got inconsistent play from a number of young quarterbacks -- particularly Jarrett Lee, who seemingly developed a complex over the number of his interceptions that defenders returned for touchdowns -- and eventually settled on true freshman Jordan Jefferson as the starter. For most of the ensuing six seasons, LSU has employed a run-heavy, quarterback-light offensive philosophy that frequently frustrates Tigers fans.

It's difficult to argue with the overall results, however. By 2010, an emerging defense had helped LSU climb back toward the top of the heap, and the Tigers enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history the following season. Jefferson and Lee were the starters throughout that period and neither of them played like an all-conference quarterback. Perhaps next year either Jennings or Harris will follow their lead, teaming with what should be another strong John Chavis defense to launch LSU on a similar ascent.

But what if they don't? LSU might be facing a near-total rebuild on its offensive line, and that's hardly an encouraging sign if the Tigers intend to hammer the run 70 percent of the time again next fall. And depending on which underclassmen jump to the NFL, LSU could have other gaping holes to fill -- much like it has in each of the past few years, when the Tigers failed to create the same magic as the 2011 SEC championship club.

It all boils down to the quarterback position. It's difficult to imagine LSU opening up its offense if its coaches aren't confident leaning on the quarterback, and it's apparent that Jennings and Harris don't have their full trust, yet. That makes this an enormous offseason for the position.

If Jennings or Harris or even a mystery third option fails to seize the starting job between now and next August, expect to see more of the same from the Tigers' offense next season. That isn't necessarily a death sentence in the SEC West, particularly since LSU's defense should be tough, but this won't be the West of 2011, either.

Texas A&M's pass-heavy offense is in the division now. Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all more aggressive on offense. Heck, even Alabama has opened things up under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Becoming a consistent winner in the division these days almost requires more aggression on offense than once was necessary in the West.

That will be the test for Miles and his staff next season. They felt that grinding it out on offense was the best strategy because of their experience on the offensive line and their lack thereof everywhere else. It kept them in most games, but the Tigers' record indicates this strategy wasn't effective enough.

LSU rebounded from similar circumstances after 2008 without overhauling their offensive philosophy, and Miles doesn't seem like the type to completely change course now. Developing the young skill talent at running back and receiver is important -- and there is plenty of reason to believe that youngsters such as Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn will be even better next season -- but developing a quarterback has to be the top priority.

Miles' tenure proves LSU doesn't need an all-star quarterback to win, but he can't continue to be a liability, either.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU’s head coach today, we’ll use each day this week to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at some of the wacky moments, gutsy decisions and memorable press conferences that helped define Les as the entertaining figure that he is today.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLes Miles has been known to keep things interesting on the LSU sideline.
 10. The Harlem Shake: LSU wasn’t left out of the “Harlem Shake” video craze that swept the nation last spring. In the Tigers’ version, it first appears as if they are participating in their regular “Big Cat” drill before Miles breaks into an awkward solo dance while the players “argue” behind him. Then the beat drops and mayhem ensues.

9. “It must have been the shoes:” The Legend of Les was already fully developed even before he filmed a 2011 backyard basketball video where he went from hapless to hero while playing against (and dunking on) two of his children. The secret weapon in Miles’ turnaround was a pair of purple-and-gold high tops sent by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt following an on-air conversation where he made fun of Miles’ all-white game shoes.

8. Les being Les: Unlike many of his buttoned-up counterparts, Miles has never been afraid to show off his oddball side. It’s not particularly unusual to see him answer a reporter’s phone during a press conference, clap like a weirdo or fill everyone in on the difference between Columbus Day and St. Patrick’s Day. Nor is it surprising to see him kiss a pig or rappel off the side of a 24-story building, all in the name of charity. Around Baton Rouge, that’s simply known as Les being Les.

7. Crazy wins vs. Tennessee, Florida: Another example of Les being Les is how his teams have found some wild ways to win (and occasionally lose) ballgames. Two perfect examples came in back-to-back weeks in 2010, when LSU beat Tennessee and Florida to miraculously improve to 6-0.

First, the Tigers were on the verge of a devastating home loss to Tennessee -- and it looked like that’s exactly what happened when the Volunteers thwarted LSU’s last-gasp effort to score at the goal line. However, the referees determined that on the chaotic final play, the Vols actually had 13 defenders on the field instead of the allowed limit of 11. The ensuing penalty gave LSU one final chance to score, and Stevan Ridley plowed into the end zone on that play to give LSU a 16-14 victory.

Miles caught plenty of grief over the next week about LSU’s sloppy final moments in regulation before the Tennessee penalty bailed out the Tigers. It would have been understandable if he became a bit gun shy, but timidity is not in Miles’ DNA. When the Tigers’ final drive stalled late in the Florida game, Miles sent out Josh Jasper to attempt the game-tying field goal -- or so we all thought. Instead, holder Derek Helton flipped the ball over his head to Jasper on a fake field goal, and the kicker’s 5-yard run achieved a first down that kept the drive alive.

The Tigers eventually scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Jarrett Lee to Terrence Toliver with six seconds to play. It was yet another example of how you never know what to expect when Miles is making decisions on the sideline.

6. Fourth downs vs. Florida: Miles already had an SEC West title on his résumé when his third team at LSU in 2007 became one of the most impressive college football squads of the 2000s. There are plenty of moments from that BCS championship season that helped cement Miles’ risk-taking reputation, but among the most memorable were his decisions to go for it on fourth down against Florida over and over. In all, Miles and the Jacob Hester-led Tigers went for it on fourth down five times. They achieved a first down or a touchdown all five times in knocking off the defending BCS-champion Gators 28-24 in one of the greatest games ever played at Tiger Stadium.

 5. “Give them a big kiss on the mouth:” It’s difficult to say whether Miles is better known for the wacky things he says behind a microphone or for the gutsy -- and sometimes crazy -- calls he makes on the field.

We’ve already discussed a couple of the crazy calls. Now let’s touch on one of the most memorable press conferences. Following a narrow 2012 win over Ole Miss, he launched into a profane rant that evolved into a standup comedy routine. In response to a story that characterized receiver (and former hotshot recruit) Russell Shepard’s college career as a disappointment, Miles vehemently defended the contributions his seniors (including Shepard) had made to the program.

The rant ended with Miles instructing those within earshot, “You go find them, you throw your arms around them, you give them a big kiss on the mouth … if you’re a girl,” before breaking into a wacky grin as the reporters in attendance laughed.

4. Touchdown bomb against Auburn: In yet another perfectly Les moment from the 2007 season, Miles’ Tigers were in position to kick the game-winning field goal while trailing Auburn 24-23 in the final minute.

Tommy Tuberville’s defense might have expected LSU to down the ball in the middle of the field to set up a more manageable kick, but Miles had other ideas -- and the unorthodox call caught Auburn off guard. LSU quarterback Matt Flynn dropped back and hit Demetrius Byrd with a 22-yard touchdown pass with just 1 second showing on the clock. The enormous risk had paid off, and two weeks after the amazing Florida win, the Tigers delivered some more Miles magic.

3. The Mad Hatter: Miles has been given plenty of nicknames through the years -- some more family-friendly than others -- but the one that seems to resonate most is “The Mad Hatter.” ESPN’s Rece Davis apparently gave Miles that one, in part because of the white ball caps that awkwardly sit atop his head each fall Saturday and in part because of Miles’ general craziness that we’ve already covered, even if he once told sideline reporter Holly Rowe, “Understand something, it’s the hat I wear. There’s nothing mad underneath it.”

2. Eating grass: Shortly after LSU scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 2010 win against Alabama – just before the Tigers attempted a two-point pass that would put them up 21-14 – CBS’ TV cameras caught Miles in the middle of an unusual ritual that he said dates back to adolescence. He leaned down, pinched a blade or two of grass and put it in his mouth.

Miles has made hay out of his grass-eating ways since then, even participating in an ESPN commercial that gleefully ridiculed the practice.

1. “Have a great day:” One of the most unorthodox moments from Miles’ first nine seasons at LSU came when he participated in an impromptu press conference BEFORE the 2007 SEC championship game in order to shoot down a report that he was preparing to leave to coach at his alma mater, Michigan.

Miles told those in attendance that, “I’ve got a championship game to play, and I’m excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it. … Please ask me [about Michigan] after. I’m busy.”

His smirking line to close, “Have a great day,” was so memorable that LSU added those words to the rear door of the football team’s equipment hauler.

Tide, Tigers contrast in QB stability

November, 5, 2013

When AJ McCarron steps behind center on Saturday night for Alabama's first offensive snap in its showdown against LSU, he'll be making his fourth start against the Tigers.

The senior has been the picture of stability the last three years as Alabama’s starting quarterback. His first start against LSU was Nov. 5, 2011, dubbed "The Game of the Century," one that LSU won 9-6 in overtime at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, McCarron's counterpart on Saturday night, will make his second start against the Tide. LSU hasn't quite enjoyed the same stability that Alabama has, though Mettenberger has provided a steady hand and productive play this season, making LSU's offense the talk of the program for once; hard to do in a program known for its defense.

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger was 28-of-35 for 298 yards and a score in his first start against Alabama.
But in the same time span that McCarron has served as Alabama's lone starter in the Tide-Tigers showdowns, LSU has had three different starting quarterbacks. Mettenberger started last season's game but when the teams met twice in 2011 – in November and in January for the BCS championship – the Tigers had a different starter each time.

That's simply a microcosm of these two power programs. Both are championship-caliber teams that are annually in the BCS national championship discussion. Both have stable coaching staffs and a foundation built on great defense and the ability to run the football. Both recruit at a high level and, of course, play in the same division, the SEC West.

But since the Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have had just three quarterbacks start against LSU: McCarron, Greg McElroy (2009-10) and John Parker Wilson, who predated Saban and started for the Tide from 2006-08.

In that same time span, the Tigers have had a different starter vs. Alabama six times. In 2007 it was Matt Flynn, who was a senior. Jarrett Lee started the 2008 game, while Jordan Jefferson started in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 Lee started the November "Game of the Century," and Jefferson started the BCS national championship later that season. Though the Tigers have had four different quarterbacks in that span, it's been rare that the same one has started twice in a row against the Tide like Mettenberger will do Saturday.

Despite that contrast, the series has been back-and-forth. Alabama has won four times since 2007, LSU three. The Tigers' success despite quarterback turnover is even more fascinating in an age where quarterbacks dominate the headlines and up-tempo spread offenses are en vogue.

Take last season as an example, one in which the Tigers didn't make a change at quarterback but didn't get strong play from the position either. Florida (3rd), Oregon State (13th) and Kent State (25th) were the only schools other than LSU with a Total QBR of less than 55 for the season to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. The team with the worst QBR of thos, LSU (38), finished eighth in the final BCS standings last season.

Even in 2011, when the Tigers went 13-1 and went to the BCS title game before falling to Alabama, the quarterback situation was far from stable. Lee made nine starts that season, Jefferson made five. There was even discussion in the aftermath of the 21-0 title game loss to the Crimson Tide about LSU coach Les Miles' decision to not play Lee at all that night and leave Jefferson in, which Miles later said was because he wanted a mobile quarterback who could avoid Alabama's tenacious pass rush in the game.

The reason the Tigers were able to succeed despite a sometimes uncertain quarterback situation is their defense. LSU finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense each season from 2010-2012 and had a 34-5 record in that time span. They've also had a reliable running game to turn to move the chains offensively.

Alabama has enjoyed the fruits of both of those traits during their run of three BCS titles in four seasons, but the stability at quarterback is evident. The Tide have finished the season with a better QBR than LSU each of the last five seasons.

Stable or not, life is tough for the quarterbacks in this game. During the Saban era, Alabama quarterbacks have a QBR of 42.8 against LSU, while LSU's is 33.1 against the Tide. The touchdown-to-interception ratios aren't pretty (8-to-6 for Alabama, 7-to-11 for LSU) as the defenses take center stage in this matchup.

But the Tigers have shown that even in this era of offensive dominance, good defense can still get you far. And now, they just might have the quarterback to knock off the nation’s top team.
1. In the 15-year life of the BCS, only three schools from AQ conferences have never appeared in the standings: Duke, Indiana and Vanderbilt (Iowa State broke its schneid last fall). It’s a quirky thing. For the BCS’ first five years, the ratings stopped at No. 15. And, of course, the ratings don’t appear until midseason. All three teams are improving. Vandy, in fact, is No. 25 in Mark Schlabach’s most recent way-too-early rankings. The Commodores -- and the others -- have one more year to break through.

2. Zach Lee, the No. 3 quarterback recruit in 2010, left LSU right before classes began to sign a $5.25 million deal to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his last six starts at Class AA Chattanooga last season, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA and a 0.917 WHIP, so he’s not coming back soon. No one knows if Lee would have overtaken Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee or Zach Mettenberger. But LSU’s quarterbacking has yet to return to the level where Matt Flynn played in taking the Tigers to the 2007 BCS title.

3. There will be 14 Saturdays between Labor Day weekend and Thanksgiving weekend, which we haven’t had since 2008. That eased the task of assembling an ACC schedule that includes new members Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Orange will close the season at home against the Panthers and Boston College. The Eagles last went to the Carrier Dome a decade ago, in the same week that Boston College announced it would leave for the ACC. With Syracuse fans mocking the Eagles by chanting “A-C-C!”, Syracuse grabbed an emotional 39-14 victory.
1. Why did the Football Bowl Association hire an executive director two weeks ago? According to two bowl officials, the FBA didn’t feel that it got a bang from the reported $200,000 annually it spent on Ari Fleischer, the former presidential press secretary whose public-relations firm also represents the BCS. The FBA instead put that money toward hiring Wright Waters away from his job as Sun Belt Conference commissioner. Waters will be the voice/face of the entire (not just the BCS) bowl business.

2. Les Miles reminded me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast that LSU threw the ball well for much of last season. The Tigers finished second in the SEC in pass efficiency (147.53), a stat obscured by the memory of the offense’s performance against Georgia and Alabama at year’s end (combined 83 yards passing). “There were nine games where we didn’t have to throw the ball in the fourth quarter to ensure victory,” Miles said. “It’s a very difficult way to be judgmental on a team that won 13 straight.”

3. That said, Miles is confident that junior Zach Mettenberger, the Georgia transfer, will perform better than the senior tandem, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, that he backed up a year ago. “We’ll move the football more in the air with Zach than we did in the past. His strength is the ability to throw," Miles said. "Certainly we want to throw the football better. I think our quarterback’s skill set will be such that we’ll throw the football more and more efficiently than we did a year ago.”

Mettenberger ready for new start at LSU

February, 29, 2012
MettenbergerDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireZach Mettenberger said the adversity he's dealt with in his past has prepared him for this season.

Ask LSU’s Zach Mettenberger if he’s ready, and you hear the hunger, pain and focus -- all wrapped up into one -- very clearly in his voice.

It wasn’t supposed to take this long for him to get his first real taste of being a starting quarterback in the SEC.

Not even close.

“It’s been a long and winding road in my college career so far, and I’ve gone through the trials and tribulations just to get here,” Mettenberger said.

He never envisioned it going the way it did when he graduated early from Oconee County (Ga.) High School in December 2008, but he also wasn’t banking on running afoul of the law thanks to a night of partying.

So here he is, going on four years removed from high school, and still waiting to take his first meaningful snap in an SEC game.

That’s about to change as LSU opens spring practice on Thursday, and while Mettenberger’s not into making a bunch of promises, he does promise one thing: He’s determined to do everything in his power to prove to everybody that there’s a lot more to him than what’s stated in that Remerton, Ga., arrest report from the spring of 2010.

“People remember me as the talented guy who got kicked off the team at Georgia,” Mettenberger said. “It sucks that it’s that way, but that’s the way the world is until I go out there and show who I really am and then hopefully people will forget about it. I made a mistake, and I had to pay for it.

“The only way anybody’s going to move on is when I get back on the field and start playing again.”

Mettenberger was dismissed from Georgia’s team in April 2010, a little more than a week after putting up better numbers than Aaron Murray in the Bulldogs’ G-Day spring game.

At the time, Mettenberger’s March arrest in a bar outside of Valdosta, Ga., was already public knowledge, and Georgia coach Mark Richt had already said that Mettenberger faced at least a one-game suspension.

But the police investigation also turned up sexual battery charges against Mettenberger in addition to underage alcohol consumption and disorderly conduct charges. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Mettenberger, especially given the rash of alcohol-related arrests involving Georgia football players. Richt announced in April that Mettenberger had been dismissed.

Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to two concurrent 12-month probationary periods under the state of Georgia’s first-offender act. All of the alcohol-related charges were later dropped.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Courtesy Cody FryeZach Mettenberger threw 32 TD passes for Butler (Kan.) Community College in 2010.
Having spent two springs at Georgia (but never playing in a game), Mettenberger headed to Butler (Kan.) Community College and threw 32 touchdown passes during the 2010 season. He emerged as the top junior college quarterback prospect in the country and picked LSU over offers from Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

He spent last season watching senior quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson guide the LSU offense and only threw 11 passes in five games.

So when Mettenberger says it’s been a long time coming, he means it.

He also understands the meaning of not getting too high with the highs and too low with the lows.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity in my past, and feel like no matter what happens, through the good times and the bad, that I can keep a level head,” Mettenberger said. “I feel like I can still be a good player no matter what. If I throw a pick, I think I’m going to go out and lead our team on a touchdown drive that next series.

“All the stuff I’ve been through has helped mold and prepare me for next season.”

While at Georgia, the 6-foot-5 Mettenberger says he was pushing 260 pounds. He weighed in at 225 last week and hopes to play somewhere in the 225-230 range this fall.

“I’m a lot quicker, and my overall game has improved since losing that weight,” said Mettenberger, whose mother, Tammy, has worked in the Georgia football office under Richt for the past decade.

And speaking of Georgia, the coaches and players there still rave about Mettenberger’s arm strength and his undying work ethic. He was oftentimes the last player to leave the practice field.

That hasn’t changed at LSU.

“The way I look at it is that you’ve got to always prepare yourself like you’re the starter no matter if you’re first string, fourth string or a walk-on,” Mettenberger said. “It shouldn’t matter. You always have to prepare. Anything can happen in this game, and I think people have seen that over the years. So I always want to feel like I’m ready.

“I was ready last year if Coach [Les] Miles had needed me and feel confident that I could have gone in there and won games.”

His big right arm may be what people know him by, but Mettenberger has also been around the SEC long enough to know that you don’t make it in this league by trying to squeeze the ball in tight spaces all the time.

“I always tell people that it takes two things: heart and brains,” Mettenberger said. “There are so many guys who didn’t have the measurables. Look at the Drew Brees and Joe Montanas at the pro level and then a guy like Kellen Moore in college. Look at the job he did against the Georgia defense last year.

“If you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how hard you can throw the ball or how far you can throw it or whether you can run a 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash]. If you know where you’re supposed to go with the ball in every situation and minimize your mistakes, you’re going to be a good quarterback no matter where you are.”

Mettenberger is well aware that people will be watching his every step -- both on and off the field.

“I’ll just use it as motivation,” he said.

In a lot of ways, the doubters have been his fuel for his entire career.

“Growing up, I was the short, fat kid,” Mettenberger explained. “I didn’t start at quarterback until I got to be a junior in high school. I was always a backup to one of my best friends.

“I’ve always been told that I couldn’t do something, that I couldn’t do this or do that and that I wouldn’t be able to play quarterback. That’s been my motivation and makes me work every day. Even with my off-the-field troubles, that’s motivation to prove people wrong and really just get people to shut up and move on.

“I moved on a long time ago and am just looking forward to getting back out there and having fun again and showing everybody what I can do … and who I am.”

SEC postseason position rankings: QBs

January, 31, 2012
Everybody loves position rankings. Well, most everybody.

We presented our preseason rankings back in June on the SEC blog, and like most preseason predictions, we wished we had a lot of those picks back by the second or third week of the season.

Now that we’ve actually played the 2011 season, we’ll do it all over again, and we’ll kick if off with the quarterbacks.

At most positions, depth will be the most important factor, and if there’s a superstar in the group, that’s going to carry a lot of weight, too.

But with the quarterbacks, we’re mostly concerned with how the main guy fared this season.

For all positions, performance in conference games is where we’ll start, and how a unit closed the season, including the bowl games, will also be a determining factor.

You can go here to see our preseason quarterback rankings.

Our focus now is how they did this season. Here goes:

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Beth Hall/US PresswireTyler Wilson surprised the conference and pundits and is one of the SEC's top quarterbacks.
1. Arkansas: In his first full season as a starter, Tyler Wilson was outstanding. He led the SEC in passing with 3,638 yards to go along with 24 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. He thought about declaring for the NFL draft, but elected to return and was rated recently by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 3 rising senior quarterback in the country. We didn't give Wilson nearly enough love in the preseason. Shame on us. He's the real deal.

2. Georgia: Aaron Murray had a record-setting season for the Bulldogs and tossed 35 touchdown passes. He was instrumental in their turnaround and had a big hand in their 10-game winning streak. He also threw 16 interceptions and had two costly picks in the bowl game that helped trigger Michigan State’s comeback. Five of Murray’s picks came in his last three games. All in all, it was still a splendid season for a second-year starter in this league.

3. Alabama: AJ McCarron gets bonus points for the way he played in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. He earned Offensive MVP honors in leading Alabama to a 21-0 victory over LSU. It wasn't just that one game that has the Crimson Tide in the No. 3 spot. McCarron was solid all season long and didn't turn the ball over. In 234 passing attempts against SEC competition, he only threw three interceptions and averaged 207.2 passing yards.

4. South Carolina: The first half of the season belonged to Stephen Garcia, and it wasn't pretty. In retrospect, Garcia's dismissal might have been the best thing to happen to the Gamecocks. Connor Shaw took over and just got better and better as the season progressed. In his last three games, including wins over Clemson and Nebraska, Shaw completed 75 percent of his passes for 657 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception. He also rushed for 239 yards in those three games.

5. LSU: It says something about the quarterback play in the SEC that the Tigers are ranked this high, especially with the egg Jordan Jefferson laid in the BCS National Championship Game and how poorly he played in the first half of the SEC championship game. But Jarrett Lee deserves props for stepping in there and playing the way he did in the first eight games, and Jefferson's ability to run the option made a big difference in the first Alabama game. Still, it's hard to get over that stinker in New Orleans.

6. Tennessee: The Vols were dealt a tough blow when Tyler Bray broke his thumb in the Georgia game. He had 14 touchdown passes and only two interceptions going into that game, but wound up missing the next five games. The Vols tried senior Matt Simms and then went with true freshman Justin Worley, but had trouble mustering any offense. Bray came back and played the final two games, although he was a shadow of what he was before the injury. He ended the season with a woeful performance against Kentucky.

7. Florida: When John Brantley went down with a high ankle sprain in the Alabama game, he was throwing the ball as well as he had since coming to Florida. But from that point on, the Gators were a train wreck on offense. True freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel took a beating while filling in for Brantley, and even when Brantley did come back against Georgia, he wasn't close to 100 percent. Brantley still averaged 175.8 passing yards in league play, which was fourth in the SEC.

8. Vanderbilt: We had the Commodores ranked last in the preseason, and that's because Larry Smith had come off two rocky seasons in a row. He also opened this season as the Commodores' starter, and the passing game once again never took flight. Jordan Rodgers stepped in at the midway point and immediately pumped new life into the Commodores' offense. He was able to generate a lot more big plays down the field and also made things happen with his legs. He didn't end the season on a high note and played poorly in the bowl game.

9. Mississippi State: After finishing his junior season with a bang against Michigan in the Gator Bowl, Chris Relf just didn't take the kind of step during his senior season that a lot of people in and around the program thought he would. The Bulldogs also played Tyler Russell a bunch at quarterback, and he's got a big arm. It's just that much of his damage came against weaker competition in nonconference games. The Bulldogs were one of seven SEC teams that finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes in league play.

10. Auburn: The Tigers finished dead last against SEC foes in passing offense. Their vertical passing game was non-existent, and it was a struggle to complete anything down the field. They averaged just 126.5 passing yards per game against league foes. Three different players split the quarterback duties. Barrett Trotter opened the season as the starter, and Clint Moseley finished it. The Tigers also used true freshman Kiehl Frazier in specialty situations. Despite who was in there at quarterback, nothing came easy for the Tigers this season in the passing game.

11. Kentucky: The Wildcats had high hopes for Morgan Newton entering the season, and Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was pleased with the the way Newton had taken command of the offense in the spring and preseason. It just never translated during the season, though. Newton didn't throw the ball with any confidence and was also saddled with injuries. True freshman Maxwell Smith showed some promise toward the end of the season, but was also banged up. The Wildcats found a way to beat Tennessee in the finale with receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback.

12. Ole Miss: The truth is that there were several candidates for the cellar. It's not like anybody is going to remember 2011 as the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC. In the case of the Rebels, they struggled to find a quarterback all season. Three different players started games, and Ole Miss finished with six touchdown passes and 12 interceptions against SEC foes. Randall Mackey looked like he might be starting to get it once November rolled around, but was then suspended for the last two games.
There were plenty of SEC players who made improvements in 2011. Complacency wasn't an option for these players, therefore, they made tremendous strides.

Today, we'll look at players who either improved their play, rose from the ranks of reserve to really impress or returned from injury. I'll go first with my five players who I thought made the most improvement from 2010 to 2011. Chris will follow up with his top five later today. We haven't communicated about our choices, so we could have some that overlap or we could have five completely different picks.

Regardless, this should create some pretty fun debate for readers.

Here's a look at my five most improved players in the SEC:

    [+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
    Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMississippi State's Fletcher Cox is projected to be a first-round pick in April's draft.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: As a sophomore, Cox started 11 games and accumulated 29 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. But last year, he proved to be one of the top defensive tackles in the SEC. He had 56 total tackles, including 14.5 for loss and five sacks. He also blocked two kicks, recovered a fumble and forced a fumble. He's expected to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
  • Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU: As a reserve, Mathieu had a productive year in 2010, when he ranked first in the SEC and fifth nationally with five forced fumbles and tied for first in the league with three fumble recoveries. He also led LSU with seven pass breakups. He became a national star and a Heisman finalist in 2011, as he tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, tied for first nationally with five fumble recoveries, and tied for fourth with six forced fumbles. He was also fifth nationally with a 15.6 average on punt returns and took two back for touchdowns.
  • Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Montgomery missed most of 2010 with a knee injury, but still managed two sacks. Last season, you would have never guessed that he was coming off an injury. Montgomery was one of the league's most productive players off the edge, ranking sixth in the SEC with nine sacks and had 13.5 tackles for loss.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: He finished the 2010 season as Vanderbilt's second leading rusher with 331 yards and had three touchdowns. He looked like a completely different player in 2011, becoming one of the top running backs in the SEC. He was third in the SEC with 1,193 rushing yards and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 5.7 yards per carry in conference play.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Wright left Arkansas as one of the best receivers to ever step foot in Fayetteville, but he saved his best season for last. After catching 42 passes for 788 yards and five touchdowns in 2010, Wright was the SEC's top receiver last season with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the league with 93.1 yards per game.

Here are 10 more that just missed the cut:
Since LSU's 21-0 loss to Alabama in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game last week, much has been made about the Tigers' ineffective game plan against the Crimson Tide.

The team we saw trample just about every prior opponent, was dominated in its own backyard of New Orleans. The defense held its ground for as long as it could, while the offense failed to adjust throughout the game and for some reason kept trying to run the option over and over again.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireLSU coach Les Miles stands by some of the decisions, right or wrong, he made during the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 9.
While LSU looked lost with the ball, LSU coach Les Miles said Tuesday that his team's struggles didn't happen because of a lack of effort.

"I have a difficult time people moaning my effort and my coaches' effort and the want to win," Miles said during his first interview with the media since his postgame press conference following the loss to Alabama. "I felt that they did everything that they could, that they were asked to do. I don’t think we played perfectly. I don’t think there’s anybody would say that this was something that was representative of our best play, but I can tell you that our guys gave everything that they had."

Miles defended his quarterback decision. Miles left Jordan Jefferson in the entire game even as he struggled throughout. There were plenty of opportunities for Miles to put fellow senior Jarrett Lee in, but never did.

Instead of handing the ball over to the quarterback that led the Tigers to an 8-0 start, averaging 156.3 passing yards per game and tossing 13 touchdowns to one interception along the way, Miles stayed with Jefferson and saw him pass for 53 yards and an interception. LSU finished the game with just 92 total yards and didn't cross into Alabama's territory until the fourth quarter.

"I can tell you that Jarrett Lee did come to mind," Miles said. "We do have confidence in Jarrett, we just felt like we needed that guy who might be able to get loose with his feet."

Alabama's pass rush might have been ferocious, but LSU's lack of offensive change truly was mind-boggling.

But Miles couldn't put everything on his quarterback. Miles said the defense played well as a whole, but struggled to put Alabama away on critical third downs.

(Alabama converted 3-of-14 third downs, with all three coming in the first half, though two came on drives that ended in field goals.)

Miles pointed out other mistakes, such as pres-snap penalties, the long punt return given up early, and a lack of big plays on offense.

"There were certainly a number of uncharacteristic mistakes by our guys," he said. "We ended up in some first down and 15’s that we didn’t need to. There were some snaps that hit the ground, some guys that had made big plays, not the quarterback, big plays throughout the year made some mistakes. Guys that we needed to count on in that game."

Now, Miles turns his focus to 2012, and he's excited. He's excited to see JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger take over at quarterback and expects to see much more passing from the Tigers. He's also excited about the attitude of the team and the 16 starters returning.

Last Monday hurt those in and around LSU, but Miles said it won't erase what the Tigers did before. There is still plenty to celebrate from 2011.

"The fundamentals of this program are to win championships," Miles said, "and this team is a championship team. We won the (SEC) West. Now, in the West you have at one point and time, 1-2-3 (in the country). So when you win the West, anyway you cut it, you are in the top four in the country.

"Later this spring, our team will take a day and hang the Western Division championship and the conference championship banners in our indoor facility. I have to be very honest to tell you that I cannot bemoan this team’s success.

"By any measure, this is a great year."

Saban, Alabama aren't going away

January, 10, 2012
Now that I’m back from the Big Easy and had my last cup of gumbo for a while, I wanted to reflect one last time on Alabama’s 21-0 victory over LSU in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For starters, Alabama was the better team, the better-prepared team and played to win from the opening kickoff.

What do you say to the LSU defense? Those guys did everything they could to keep the Tigers in the game, but LSU’s offensive game plan was abysmal.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama coach Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron celebrated winning a national title last season despite not claiming the SEC crown.
Alabama was ready. The Crimson Tide used their 40-plus days to prepare. They executed a fake field goal. They came out throwing on first down and wisely got sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron into an early rhythm.

Listen, McCarron can play. He’s confident and has a big arm. The Crimson Tide simply didn’t ask him to win a lot of games throwing the football this season.

As soon as you say that, though, you remember that Alabama was the only team in the SEC to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game this season.

Outgoing offensive coordinator Jim McElwain went out in style. He’s leaving to take the Colorado State head coaching job, and his players were singing his praises late Monday night.

At a place like Alabama, where defense is king, the offense sometimes becomes the stepchild. But McElwain worked diligently to bring balance to Alabama’s offense and wasn’t afraid to jump out there and let McCarron throw it in the biggest game of the year.

On the other hand, what did LSU do during all of its extra preparation time to help its offense?

You knew the Crimson Tide would have an answer for the option, but the Tigers kept pounding away to see if they could get something outside.

It’s inexplicable that LSU coach Les Miles didn’t at least give Jarrett Lee a chance to see if he could get something going in the passing game.

Take a few deep shots. Go with the three-step passing game. Try something.

Even Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was stunned afterward that LSU didn’t try and go up top.

I thought this season was absolutely one of Miles’ shining moments, the way he navigated his team to a 13-0 record despite the deck being stacked against the Tigers much of the way.

Monday night was certainly not one of his shining moments, while it was truly a masterpiece by the entire Alabama staff.

Nick Saban has three national championships now and counting. Anybody taking bets that he gets to five before his work in Tuscaloosa is finished?

He’s a great coach, no doubt, and a great defensive mind. But don’t underestimate the importance of his hiring good coaches and letting those coaches coach.

Saban’s one of those guys who believes that you’ve never arrived. In fact, he was already thinking about this offseason and spring ball as soon as he finished his press conference Tuesday morning.

He won’t say it, so I’ll say it for him: Alabama football has most definitely arrived. Consider it a re-arrival of sorts, and the Tide are now prominently perched in college football’s throne.
Jordan JeffersonChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 53 yards passing and 15 yards rushing against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS -- The ride is over.

The emotional roller coaster that was LSU’s season ended tragically inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The team that had shaken off a plethora of distractions and back-to-back games with double-digit, first-half deficits never made its way out of the French Quarter as No. 1 LSU (13-1, 8-0) fell to second-ranked Alabama (12-1, 7-1) 21-0 in Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For once, there was no spark for the Bayou Bengals. The team that had rolled over each and every opponent it faced this season -- and seemed on its way to a historic finish -- fell flat when it mattered the most.

“You have to play through adversity,” LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “That’s what our coaches teach us.

“[Alabama] made all the big plays and made all the tough plays tonight, and [I] tip my hat off to them for making all the big plays and winning tonight.”

The defense had more bend on Monday than it had been accustomed to, allowing nearly 400 yards, five field goals and a late-game touchdown. Still, for staying on the field for 35 minutes that’s pretty good.

For everything the defense did for the offense, it got nothing in return. It got no adjustments, no originality. What it did get was five first downs, 92 total yards, 2.1 yards per play and zero points.

It got an offense that crossed into Alabama territory just once … and that came in the fourth quarter.

Followed by criticism throughout the season, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson couldn’t get his offense moving. He couldn’t run and his arm didn’t help. The vertical passing game LSU promised wasn’t there because Jefferson admitted to holding onto the ball too long on designed deep passes because he wasn’t confident in where Alabama’s defenders were.

Some of his passes ranged from erratic to short. He was sacked four times and heard boos late in the first half and throughout the second when he took snaps instead of demoted quarterback Jarrett Lee.

Jefferson threw for 53 yards and an interception, and was beautifully contained by Alabama’s defense, which allowed him to rush for only 15 yards on 14 carries.

“I was seeing things clearly,” Jefferson said. “Making decisions with the ball wasn’t an issue.”

Jefferson turned the ball over twice, but it was his ill-advised flip-pass to an unsuspecting Spencer Ware that was devastating. Jefferson thought Ware was ready for the pass, but Ware had turned up field to block before Jefferson released the ball, which was intercepted.

“Other than that, I made great decisions with the ball,” Jefferson said. “Offensively, we just fell short.”

Very short.

Though there was no sign of Lee. He just stood on the sidelines, tossing the ball occasionally to keep his arm warm.

“It’s disappointing,” Lee said. “I would have liked to have gotten some snaps, but it is what it is. Didn’t get any snaps, so you gotta move on past that.”

LSU coach Les Miles' only explanation for not playing Lee was that with Lee’s lack of mobility he didn’t feel as though he could sustain Alabama’s pass rush.

Even with as poorly as Jefferson played, the pounding, wear-‘em-down running game that moved this offense never arrived. The Tigers got 12 carries from their running backs. (Leading rusher Michael Ford got four carries but managed only 1 yard.)

Offensive lineman Will Blackwell said the plan was to run the ball up the middle, but that never materialized so the staff directed runs to outside. Even after those didn't work, adjustments weren't made.

“I feel like we got away from our game plan a little bit,” Blackwell said. “We planned on running it inside and pounding them to maybe get the edge.

“We fell away from that and I don’t know what the reason for that is. Our game plan just fell apart.

“We got away from the things we’ve been doing all season, and whenever you do that in a championship game it usually doesn’t work out for you very well.”

LSU finally succumbed to all the adversity. For a team that fed off the negativity, the Tigers weren’t ready for Alabama. There was no game-changing play from the Honey Badger, the defense didn’t force any turnovers, there was no emotion in the second half and the offense never showed up.

For the defense, Monday must have hurt the most. They hunkered down near their own end zone and played well enough to win.

In the end, LSU’s defense just couldn’t play both ways for the Tigers.

“It was very disappointing,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We were clawing and fighting out there and we were just sitting back watching them go three-and-out.”

Video: LSU's Jarrett Lee

January, 10, 2012
AM ET's Edward Aschoff talks with LSU QB Jarrett Lee following the Tigers' loss to Alabama in the BCS title game.

NEW ORLEANS -- College football has a new national champion and its name is Alabama. The second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1) totally dominated the night as Alabama came away with the 21-0 win over No. 1 LSU (13-1, 8-0) in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

We even had a touchdown in the rematch, as Alabama running back Trent Richardson put the game away with his 34-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. After kicking killed the Tide in the first go-round between these two teams, Jeremy Shelley hit five of his seven field-goal attempts.

How it was won: Alabama's defense entered the game as the nation's best and it showed exactly why Monday night. LSU's offense did absolutely nothing for four quarters. The Crimson Tide contained LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson all night and forced him to have his worst game of the year. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was outstanding as well. He was cool and collected in the huddle and never looked like the youngster that he is. He finished the game with 234 yards passing. LSU's defense wasn't bad either, allowing only the five field goals before Richardson's touchdown run with 4:36 left.

Turning point: Jefferson's interception in the third quarter stopped any chance of LSU making any sort of run in the second half. Honestly, the turning point might have been when LSU coach Les Miles sent Jefferson out to take the snaps at quarterback in the second half.

Stat of the game: LSU ran the ball so well against Alabama earlier this year, but the Crimson Tide's defense absolutely manhandled LSU's offensive line and held the Tigers to a season-low 39 yards rushing.

Player of the game: Shelley tied a bowl record with five field goals and scored the only points of the game until late in the fourth. After Alabama's kicking game was a disaster last time these teams played, he was the Tide's best offensive player.

Unsung hero: Courtney Upshaw was a monster on Monday. He recorded seven tackles, six solo and a sack. He couldn't be contained by LSU's offensive line.

Second guessing: Miles always has been very loyal to Jefferson, but it cost him Monday. He should have turned to Jarrett Lee at some point in the second half after a simply awful performance by Jefferson. Lee struggled against Alabama earlier this year, but he couldn't have been worse than Jefferson, right? Jefferson passed for 53 yards and an interception and ran for 15 yards.

What it means: Alabama now enters the offseason with Nick Saban's second national championship as the Tide's head coach. That's No. 13 in the Alabama record books. The Tide will lose some key pieces to this team, especially on defense, but the offense might be better with four of five linemen coming back and McCarron being much improved. Alabama should also have some better play at wide receiver. For LSU, this was a great season until Monday night. But the Tigers return the core of this team and will most certainly get better quarterback play from junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger. Both of these teams will be ranked right at the top of the polls to begin next season.

Record performance: Shelley's five field goals tied the record for most in a bowl game. His seven attempts set a bowl record.

Third quarter: Alabama 15, LSU 0

January, 9, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- It might be time for Les Miles to hand the ball off to Jarrett Lee.

Fans booed Jordan Jefferson after he returned to the field following a terribly thrown ball that was intercepted by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and those boos got even louder after he was sacked to end that drive.

Jefferson now has 48 passing yards, an interception and 3 yards rushing. Alabama's defense hasn't given him much to work with at all, but Jefferson has been awful tonight.

Jefferson returned to the huddle just before the fourth quarter and received more boos from the LSU fans

So, will Miles think of going with Lee, who began the year as the starter? He struggled mightily last time he played against Alabama, but he couldn't do any worse than Jefferson, right?

As the fourth quarter started, LSU's players trudged over to its side of the field with absolutely no emotion.

Alabama continues to take the ball out of Trent Richardson's hands inside the 30-yard line, but kicker Jeremy Shelley has been bailing the offense out on LSU's side of the field. He has now hit five field goals in this one.

We came close to our first touchdown, but Brandon Gibson dropped AJ McCarron's pass at the goal line.

Honestly, with the way LSU's offense is playing, 15 points might be enough for Alabama. The Crimson Tide has all of the momentum and all of the emotion. LSU also has just 66 yards of offense.

Tide bracing for more 'shots' from LSU

January, 8, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart isn’t into making guarantees.

But he is convinced that Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game will feature a pair of offenses that are far more aggressive than they were in the first game on Nov. 5.

In his words, there’s “no way” it will be another 9-6 game with both teams being kept out of the end zone.

“It ain’t going to happen,” said Smart, whose Alabama defense hasn’t given up more than 14 points in a game all season. “I don’t think both teams will play it as close to the vest.”

Smart said LSU was more conservative the first time because the Tigers felt like they could control the game with their defense.

“They didn’t throw the ball vertically much on us,” Smart said. “Every game since ours, they’ve taken shots. They didn’t take a whole lot of shots against us. They probably got a little gun-shy early, because when they did, they threw the two picks and got away from it and won the game on defense. I don’t think it will be that way this time.

“They’ll take shots. We’ll be one-on-one, and we’ll either win them or we won’t.”

Smart said the Crimson Tide would be prepared for both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at quarterback, but he doesn’t see it as having to prepare for two different guys.

“They run the same offenses. They just have more plays,” Smart said. “The preparation is very similar. You just have to be more prepared for the option with Jordan, and we will be.”

Alabama was the team that tried a few trick plays in the first game and not LSU and Les Miles, who’s renowned for rolling the dice.

With more than a month to prepare, Miles will undoubtedly have a few things up his sleeve for this game.

“They’ve got a ton of trick plays, but you can’t prepare for trick plays because you have no idea what they’re going to run,” Smart said. “You go through their history. You go through each coach’s history, where has he been, what has he run. But they’re going to run something based on something they’ve seen against us, an area where they say we’re vulnerable.

“We have no idea where that is. You try to do your job, but you can’t over-coach that because you’re playing scared.”