NCF Nation: Jeremy Hill

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles’ official title is head football coach at LSU, but he might as well add "fortune teller" to the list of roles he fills in his job.

On some level, every big-time college football coaching staff deals with the dilemma that Miles currently faces, but a spate of NFL early entries in recent seasons has made predicting the future an even more vital element in LSU’s success. Specifically, Miles and his staff must lead an incomplete 2014 squad through 15 spring practices while also attempting to project whether players who aren’t yet on campus will be ready to play key roles this fall.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre
ESPNMalachi Dupre won't be on campus until this summer, but he's one of several LSU freshmen who could vie for playing time immediately.
“We absolutely have to,” Miles said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “I think we’re trying make a determination as we design the summer plans that, 'This is where this guy’s going to be, this is where this guy’s going to be’ and how to operate it.

“I think the skill players on offense are going to be musts and I think the skill players on defense, with the safeties stepping in there and being able to play -- I just think the recruiting class will hit us just where we need to be hit.”

At some positions, LSU’s needs are great. At others, it’s simply that the caliber of athlete is high enough that Miles’ staff knows to include him in its 2014 plans. In some cases, both scenarios are in play.

Take receiver and running back, for example.

When 2014 signees Malachi Dupre -- the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect -- and tailback Darrel Williams showed up to observe the Tigers’ first spring practice, Miles joked afterward that he wished the two players could have participated in the team’s workout.

The Tigers are short on proven performers at receiver -- and thanks to several recent injuries at the position, they’ve been short on warm bodies to even run through drills -- and have only two scholarship tailbacks available this spring.

Those depth shortages are a direct result of several NFL draft early entries in the last couple of seasons. LSU lost two tailbacks to the draft after the 2012 season and two more this year when Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both turned pro. It's a similar story at wideout, where the only two accomplished players on the roster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, opted to skip their senior seasons.

Miles’ staff addressed those issues in phenomenal fashion on signing day, adding Williams and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, at tailback, plus arguably the top collection of receivers that any program signed in 2014 -- a group that also includes No. 3 wideout Trey Quinn and two more ESPN 300 recruits in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

The problem is that no member of that group is on campus yet, forcing LSU’s coaches to both evaluate what they have at present and how the signees’ summer arrival will affect the group dynamic.

“I just think that some of those guys are going to get first-[team] snaps,” Miles said of the receiver signees. “They’re going to be advantages for us and we’ve got to use them well.”

As Miles mentioned, a high-quality group of safety signees could dent the depth chart in similar fashion. The Tigers have a few returning veterans and have moved Jalen Mills over from cornerback to shore up their needs at safety, but signees such as No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and John Battle could shake up the competition in August.

It’s not that those players’ absences have made this spring useless for LSU. But Miles and his staff must function this spring with the knowledge that they’re coaching an incomplete roster.

That’s not much different from Alabama or Texas A&M or Auburn, which also lost players to the draft and have key signees who haven't arrived, but the situation is more extreme in Baton Rouge. If Miles balances the magician part of his job correctly, perhaps he can pull a rabbit out of his famous hat by the end of August, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston.

“Here’s what you get out of 15 practices in the spring of the year: You practice the team that you have with you and you advance them and get them taught and get them improved. You teach technique and whatever you can get to, you get to with that team,” Miles said recently.

“Before the next team, that next part of your team, shows up, you anticipate where your direction goes. You anticipate that, ‘That guy goes here and that guy goes here’ and you fit it. Then in the first game, you hope that you prepared them well enough to win and play well in the first game. If you win and play well in the first game, you’re all on track.”

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

The SEC lost another talented offensive stud on Monday when LSU sophomore Jeremy Hill announced via Twitter that he will skip his junior year and declare for the NFL draft.

Though just a sophomore, Hill is three years removed from his graduating high school class after sitting out the 2011 season due to legal issues.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWith LSU running back Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to replace the 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns he accumulated this season.
The loss of Hill can't be understated for an offense that is already losing its starting quarterback and top two receivers. Hill was a beast during his freshman year but turned into a certified monster in 2013. He finished the season with a bruising 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, both ranked second in the SEC this year. As a freshman, Hill rushed for a team-high 755 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Hill was a special talent in the SEC, with a powerful blend of speed, agility and strength that frustrated defenses to no end. Only rarely could defenses stop him with one tackler. You needed assistance -- and then some -- to stop Hill when he got a full head of steam.

He rushed for 100-plus yards 11 times during his college career, including seven times this season.

The thing to watch with Hill is how he transitions to the pro level off the field. He was arrested last April following his role in an alleged fight outside an off-campus bar, and in July pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple battery. This after already being on legal probation in connection with a 2011 arrest for an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. (In January 2012, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile.)

Hill's off-field transgression last year almost cost him his LSU football career, but he more than took advantage of his return to the football field. He trained like a madman when he was away from the team in order to stay in prime shape for football season. He then showed focus and determination on the field when he returned. You can't average 116 yards per game without having the right focus.

Whether Hill has truly learned something from his mistakes is unknown. Until he gets back on the field, he'll have plenty of time to face distractions and temptations. His growth as a player is unquestioned, but his growth as a person is still unknown. Now is when we'll find out what Hill is really made of.

As for LSU, the Tigers welcome the nation's No. 1 recruit, running back Leonard Fournette, who is being called the second coming of just about every great college football running back. He has the right measurables, speed and strength to make an instant impact, as Hill did. Having Hill to learn from would have been a huge win for Fournette, who will now have to deal with overwhelming hype and expectations that will follow him from his outstanding high school career. Hill would have helped deflect some of the pressure that Fournette will now undoubtedly be showered with.

The good news for him is that he'll have two rising seniors -- Terrence Magee, who was second on the team with 626 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season, and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven touchdowns) -- to work with in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers should have good depth at running back without Hill and might have their running back of the future in Fournette. Still, Hill will no doubt be missed on the Bayou.
Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.

SEC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
9:00
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Catch your breath yet?

What a bowl season, starting really with Texas A&M's heart-stopping comeback to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and carrying all the way through the VIZIO BCS National Championship with Florida State's last-minute drive to beat Auburn 34-31.

The SEC finished 7-3 in the postseason, and we're honoring some of the best individual performances with our all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel's final game at Texas A&M was a memorable one as he threw four TDs and rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit.
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Yes, Connor Shaw was sensational, too, but Manziel brought the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit. He threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in a memorable farewell for Johnny Football.

RB: Tre Mason, Auburn: Until Florida State's late touchdown drive, it looked as if Mason's 37-yard touchdown run would be what everyone was talking about from the BCS title game. He finished with 195 rushing yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU: LSU fans got a nice surprise this week when reports surfaced that Hill planned to return for his junior season. A few days earlier, he gave them a memorable performance in the Outback Bowl with 216 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

WR: Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: The Rice secondary had no answers for the speedy Lewis, who finished with nine catches for a school-record 220 yards. He had a 28-yard catch to set up the Bulldogs' first touchdown, a 35-yard catch to set up their second touchdown and a 65-yard catch to set up their fourth touchdown, all in first half.

WR: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: Ellington is leaving early for the NFL and made some NFL-like catches in his farewell. His one-handed, bobbling catch on the fourth-and-7 play was huge. He finished with six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a touchdown pass.

TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia: Lynch would love to have that last pass back, but he still hauled in six catches for 69 yards, including receptions to help set up a couple of field goals.

All-purpose: Derrick Henry, Alabama: Get ready to see a lot of Henry next season for the Tide. The freshman running back rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run, and also had a 61-yard touchdown catch.

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: As left tackles go, Matthews set the standard this season. He was pretty close to flawless in the bowl game, as the Aggies rolled up 541 total yards in their stirring comeback against Duke.

OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn: The BCS title game turned out to be Robinson's final game for Auburn. The junior left tackle is turning pro and heads to the next level on the heels of the kind of performance that became the norm for him this season.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs racked up 533 yards of total offense in their 44-7 rout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Jackson was his usual dominant self at left guard.

OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt: The veteran of that Vanderbilt offensive line asserted himself in the fourth quarter when Houston climbed back into it, and the Commodores made a living running behind him.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: There aren't many centers in America better than Dismukes, and he can hold his head high over the way he played against a talented Florida State interior on defense.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAuburn's Dee Ford showed why he is one of the nation's best when he recorded two sacks against FSU in the national title game.
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn: Ford had already established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC this season and then went out and showed it on the biggest stage with two sacks in BCS title game.

DL: D.T. Shackelford, Ole Miss: The Rebels' resilient senior defensive end went out in style with seven total tackles, including a sack, and also had two quarterback hurries.

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri: Michael Sam received most of the publicity this season for the Tigers, but Ealy was equally productive. He closed out his career with two sacks in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, giving him 9.5 on the season.

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State: Smith spearheaded a suffocating defensive effort by the Bulldogs with six total tackles and a quarterback hurry. Rice, after scoring a touchdown on its second possession, was held to 66 total yards the rest of the way.

LB: Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss: Bryant tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including two for loss, and also forced a fumble that led to a safety. The Rebels limited Georgia Tech's option offense to 17 points and 151 rushing yards.

LB: Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The Tigers' senior middle linebacker was everywhere against the Cowboys with 15 total tackles to earn Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP honors.

LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina: Only a freshman, Moore had two interceptions in the Capital One Bowl, the last one coming in the end zone in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin driving.

CB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Gaines was one of the most complete cornerbacks in the SEC this season. He capped his career with seven tackles against the Cowboys and an interception at midfield that helped set up a touchdown.

CB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt: Despite playing with a brace on his elbow, Hal led Vanderbilt with nine total tackles, including an interception to seal the game, and also broke up three passes.

S: Craig Loston, LSU: Loston finished with six total tackles, including three for loss. He also had a key interception in the fourth quarter with Iowa threatening on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 16.

S: Toney Hurd, Jr., Texas A&M: Even though Texas A&M was torched on defense, Hurd's 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:33 to play was the decisive blow for the Aggies.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: Morgan kept the Bulldogs in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl by making all four of his field-goal attempts.

P: Steven Clark, Auburn: Clark kept Florida State pinned deep most of the night with perfectly placed punts that looked like pitching wedges. He dropped five of his six punts inside the 20, including one at the 6, one at the 4 and one at the 2.

RS: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: One of the top return specialists in the conference, Murphy combined for 136 yards on kickoff and punt returns against Oklahoma State. He had a long of 38 yards on a first-quarter punt return.

TAMPA, Fla. -- How did Jeremy Hill get so good at closing out wins? Years of practice.

The junior tailback hasn't just been an effective clock-eater at the end of a victory since he arrived at LSU. He's been doing this since his days at Redemptorist High School in Baton Rouge, La.

“It's just something that I took way back in high school. Our coaches just put it in my hands and just told me to go win the football game,” Hill said after putting away Iowa in the Tigers' 21-14 victory in Wednesday's Outback Bowl. “You just have to have that mentality. Great players have that mentality. When everyone's looking for someone to make a play, just being in a tight game the whole time ... I just took it on my shoulders that I needed to make plays to win this football game, and that's exactly what happened.”

If Wednesday's performance -- 28 carries, 216 yards, two touchdowns -- was Hill's last as a college player, he made it one to remember. Hill is among a host of draft-eligible players on the Tigers' roster who could leave for the NFL. LSU coach Les Miles said afterward that “there's a chance” star receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham could declare for the draft, but Hill said while accepting bowl MVP honors that he still must weigh his decision.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLSU's Jeremy Hill earned Outback Bowl MVP honors, rushing for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
Among the factors he said he will consider: the NFL draft advisory board's feedback on where he might be drafted, his family's input and his role within the LSU offense, should he opt to return.

“There's a lot that goes into it. It's a big decision, but like I said, I'm not thinking about it right now,” Hill said. “I'm just enjoying this win, and when we get back to Baton Rouge, we'll figure all that out.”

His role on Wednesday was as a battering ram. By becoming the first LSU back since Alley Broussard in 2004 to crack the 200-yard mark in a game, Hill finished the season with 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, totals that rank second and fourth, respectively, on LSU's single-season lists.

And it was his tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, putting LSU ahead 21-7, that all but sealed the victory.

“Given the opportunity to close out a game, he knows what to do,” Miles said. “He made some nice cuts, and you get him that spot, that opportunity to extend the play, he can score. And he did.”

LSU's offensive production mirrored the soggy, dreary weather in Tampa on Wednesday, with first-time starting quarterback Anthony Jennings struggling to generate much in the passing game. But Hill and a dominant defense were the sledgehammers that put away pesky Iowa, particularly on LSU's first and final full possessions.

The Tigers pounded the run early, keeping it on the ground for the first 12 plays before an incomplete pass. Jennings capped the game-opening 77-yard drive, which started with a 42-yard Hill run, with a 2-yard touchdown dive.

Hill capped a 39-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, capitalizing on a lost fumble by Iowa punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley, with a 14-yard scoring run that put the Tigers ahead 14-0.

The Hawkeyes rallied to make it 14-7 when Mark Weisman pounded in a 2-yard touchdown after John Lowdermilk returned a Jennings interception to the LSU 1. And they nearly tied it before LSU's Craig Loston intercepted a C.J. Beathard pass at the LSU 8 with 5:04 remaining.

Hill and the Tigers made Iowa pay for its miscue. The Tigers kept it on the ground for all six plays on a touchdown drive that nearly iced the win -- including Hill runs of 28 yards, 20 yards and the scoring run of 37 yards -- with its backfield closer playing the leading role.

“They started adjusting and it just became a chess match,” Hill said. “I think we won when on that last drive we got a checkmate and we made the right calls, made the right checks and we won the game.”

Instant Analysis: LSU 21, Iowa 14

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Chilly, wet conditions bogged down Wednesday's Outback Bowl, but No. 16 LSU used Jeremy Hill's tough running and a stifling defense to outlast Iowa 21-14 and earn its 10th win of the season for a school-record fourth straight season.

Here's how the Tigers earned the win:

It was over when: Jeremy Hill broke three long runs -- including a 37-yard touchdown -- on LSU's final possession, allowing the Tigers to run three minutes off the clock and go up 21-7 with 2:02 to play. Hill finished with 216 yards, becoming the first LSU back since 2004 to crack the 200-yard mark in a game.

Game ball goes to: Jamie Keehn and LSU's punt coverage team. While neither team's offense was able to get it in gear consistently, Keehn's overall consistency kept Iowa deep in its own territory. The Tigers' James Wright recovered Kevonte Martin-Manley's muffed punt at the Iowa 39, setting up a Hill touchdown run that made it 14-0 LSU in the second quarter.

Stat of the game: Three. Iowa's three turnovers -- the fumbled punt, Tre'Davious White's second-quarter interception and Craig Loston's fourth-quarter interception deep in LSU territory -- were the difference in the game. The offenses combined to generate just 535 yards (302 by LSU and 233 by Iowa), so the turnover battle played a major role on Wednesday.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Outback Bowl, click here.

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

Aggies road streak put to stiff test

November, 20, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Call them the road warriors.

Since coach Kevin Sumlin took over at Texas A&M, the Aggies have been perfect on the road. That run of success will be put to the test on Saturday when the No. 12 Aggies travel to No. 22 LSU to play in Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTexas A&M doesn't lose on the road under Kevin Sumlin, but LSU doesn't lose at home very often. Something has to give on Saturday.
As LSU coach Les Miles once said "It's truly a place where opponents’ dreams come to die."

On Tuesday, Sumlin said "We're trying to keep our dreams alive.”

The task is a tall one for sure. Under Miles, LSU is 55-7 at Tiger Stadium. Since 2010, the Tigers are 25-1 at home, with the lone loss coming to No. 1 Alabama last season.

But the Aggies are pretty good on the road. Since Sumlin took over, the Aggies are 9-0 away from Kyle Field.

Something's got to give.

"It's a tough environment," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's probably one of the top-five toughest environments for an opposing team to actually go in there and win. Not a lot of people go into Death Valley and win. If you go into Death Valley and win, you've got to beat those guys. It's something we're looking forward to."

The challenges for the Aggies are plentiful, especially when looking back at last season's meeting. LSU was one of two teams to defeat the Aggies last year, doing so 24-19 at Kyle Field. It was a game which Texas A&M lost the turnover battle by a wide margin (5-0) and it was a day of struggles for eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who threw three interceptions that day. Special teams were also an issue, as the Aggies left points on the board with two missed field goals and a missed point after touchdown kick.

All of those things will have to be corrected if the Aggies are to keep their dreams alive. They'll also have to defend a strong LSU running game, led by Jeremy Hill, much better than they've defended the run all season (the Aggies are 105th nationally, allowing 210.7 rush yards per game).

Sumlin spoke with a level of confidence about his group heading into the tough tilt on Saturday. The Aggies have gone and won SEC road games at Arkansas and Ole Miss this year; Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State last year. This test will be a unique one for sure.

"It'll take a really good effort from all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- for us to go in there and win," Sumlin said. "Right now where we are, we're about as healthy as we've been. We've got a lot of energy. Our guys understand our schemes as much as any time this year. Even though I said it's going to take a lot, I think right now we're in a position where guys understand what we're doing and we're looking forward to going and playing."
Now that the college football season is drawing to a close, I thought I'd throw out a highly-contested question: Who is the SEC's best running back?

There are a handful of good choices in 2013 so we had to bring in multiple experts to tackle this one. With injuries and elevated play all around, this year's No. 1 isn't so cut and dry.

Along with four other SEC minds, we're taking on the question of which running back is the baddest of them all in the deep South. Because I'm such a southern gentleman, I'll let my esteemed colleagues go first before I state my case for the league's top running back in 2013:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/Stephen MortonInjuries have slowed Georgia's Todd Gurley down, but when healthy, he may be the nation's best RB.
David Ching: This is a fine subject of conversation, but I think we all know it wouldn't be much of an argument had Todd Gurley not injured his ankle in a Sept. 28 win against LSU. He was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at the time because he's the total package, possessing a combination of breakaway speed and physical running ability that few backs in the country can match. When healthy, Gurley is simply the best running back in the nation. Even now when he's playing at less than 100 percent, he's still better than most. His 274 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in the two games since he returned can attest to that. Once he gets back to full strength, it's hard to imagine that there will be much debate here.

Alex Scarborough: T.J. Yeldon isn't a one-man show at Alabama. That's not the way Nick Saban likes to run his program, as evidenced by the Eddie Lacy-Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram-Richardson tandems of seasons past. So putting Yeldon's numbers up against other top rushers in the SEC can be deceiving. He doesn't have nearly the same number of carries as Tre Mason or Mike Davis. In fact, he ranks sixth in the SEC in rushing attempts (140) this season. He's not the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic, but in terms of production over the past two seasons, it's hard to take any tailback over Yeldon and his 1,970 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's only been stopped for zero or negative yards 34 times, the best in the country among those with at least 300 carries. His 47.8 percent of rushes for five or more yards is fifth best nationally and trails only Johnny Manziel for tops in the SEC. Those numbers might not wow you, but he's been steadily impressive since Day 1, which not every tailback in the conference can say.

Greg Ostendorf: Tre Mason wasn’t a five-star recruit. He’s not a guaranteed first-round draft pick. But you wouldn’t know it by watching him on Saturdays. The Auburn running back piles up the yards week after week, and he has a knack for finding the end zone. He’s second in the SEC with 1,038 rushing yards, and he leads the conference with 16 rushing touchdowns. As a sophomore, Mason quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards on a 3-9 football team. This year, the secret is out. The junior is the lead back in an offense that’s averaging 320 yards per game on the ground. That’s tops in the SEC and No. 3 nationally. Consequently, the Tigers are 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS and they control their own destiny in the West. Mason might not regarded as the most talented back in the league, but as far as production and consistency, nobody has been better.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis, A.J. Johnson and Brent Brewer
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Mike Davis has had an impressive season with 1,058 yards and 10 TDs.
Jeff Barlis: With 1,058 yards on 166 carries in his first season as a starter, South Carolina's Mike Davis is the SEC's top rusher. Need we say more? The sophomore, who was a midseason addition to the Maxwell Award watch list, is everything you'd want in a bell-cow running back. At 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds he has the size and power to take on SEC defenses. He has the speed to hit the home run, as evidenced by his five rushes of 40 or more yards. And he is a complete back. In fact, Davis is the Gamecocks' second-leading receiver with 29 catches for 326 yards. Davis' 117.6 yards per game and 10 touchdowns have paced the Gamecocks' high-powered offense, one that averages 456.4 yards a game, which would shatter the school record (428.8 YPG in 1995). While Davis' achievements are not yet approaching Gamecocks legend and 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, he is just 139 yards away from Marcus Lattimore's best season -- 1,197-yards as a freshman in 2010. Eclipsing Lattimore's mark would put Davis' season among the three best in South Carolina history, behind only Rogers. Heady company indeed.

Edward Aschoff: I've said over and over that Gurley is the best running back in the country when he's fully healthy. I still believe that, but with him not at 100 percent and after watching LSU's offense fade the less Jeremy Hill touched it against Alabama, I can't help but think that Hill is the most valuable running back in the SEC. Keeping the ball out of his hands is a mistake. He's third in the league with 964 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he leads all running backs who have at least 100 carries with 6.8 yards per carry. In league play, he has eight touchdowns and averages nearly six yards per carry. He has a magnificent blend of power and speed with his 6-2, 235-pound frame. He can grind out tough yards and gash defenses with his breakaway ability. But he means so much to LSU's offense. He pulverized Florida's top-ranked rush defense for 121 yards and 6.4 yards per carry, and in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama, his carries dropped to 16 and 13 carries for a combined 106 yards and two touchdowns, resulting in LSU's two worst offensive performances. If he isn't continuously touching the ball, LSU's offense stalls.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Standing at the front of a cramped room filled with a throng of media members, LSU coach Les Miles gazed toward the back wall as he recalled two gut-wrenching plays that changed the complexion of Saturday night's game against top-ranked Alabama.

It appeared as though he was struggling with the images of a J.C. Copeland fumble at the goal line and an early snap that ricocheted off Zach Mettenberger before being scooped up by Crimson Tide linebacker Trey DePriest on back-to-back drives in the first quarter.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger and the offense were stifled in the second half.
They happened in an instant but would linger for three more quarters, as LSU dropped its third straight to Alabama with a 38-17 loss inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The scoreboard showed a 21-point defeat, and those two plays easily could have cost the Tigers an early double-digit lead against the No. 1 team in the nation.

"Here we are, frankly going off left tackle here to take the lead 7-0," Miles said of Copeland's careless fumble on second and goal at Alabama's 3 with more than 8 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

LSU coaches were seen tossing their headsets after Copeland's turnover. Maybe it was because the miscue came on only his 13th carry of the season, or because star back Jeremy Hill wasn't in the game. Nevertheless, it played out like the same old story with this year's LSU team. Mistakes have crippled it in big games, leaving so many questions about what this squad could and should look like right now.

In the loss to Georgia, an Odell Beckham Jr. fumble on a punt return led to a Georgia touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a late third-quarter lead. Three weeks ago, Mettenberger dug his team into a major hole with three first-half interceptions at Ole Miss. Both games ended in LSU losses.

"Going back to every loss we've had this season, the turnovers have just killed us," said Hill, who ran for a season-low 42 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. "You take the turnovers away from us this season, and who knows what our record would be right now?"

On paper, Saturday's loss knocked 13th-ranked LSU to 7-3 on the season and 3-3 in SEC play. But when you look closer, it's tough to say where this team might be without those costly errors. Saturday night clearly showed that LSU can play with the best. The Tigers held Alabama to just 372 yards, grabbed the lead once and tied the game once before the Crimson Tide broke things open with a 14-point fourth quarter.

If Copeland doesn't fumble, the Tigers go up seven and put a damper on Alabama's raucous crowd. If Mettenberger and center Elliott Porter don't botch the exchange a drive later, Alabama isn't put in great position to take a 3-0 lead with Cade Foster's 41-yard field goal.

That's a 10-point swing that eventually changed everything.

"When you play in games like this, you just can't turn the ball over," receiver Jarvis Landry said. "We put ourselves into bad position.

"When you turn the ball over ... it's hard to beat a team like Alabama."

What made things that much more frustrating for the Tigers was the defense's inability to get off of the field. Alabama owned nearly 34 minutes of the clock, leaving LSU's potent offense to stew on the sideline. As badly as that unit wanted to make up for its early mistakes, it had to suffer through watching the Tide work like an efficient, mistake-free football team should.

It didn't help that penalties and missed tackles added to the offense's stay on the sideline. The defense's play was frustrating, but Landry showed his displeasure for calls that only added to his irritation.

"It was kind of sad and made me kind of mad looking at it from the sideline," Landry said. "There were a lot of calls toward Alabama's favor that were kind of questionable and kept their drives alive."

Landry can scoff at the officiating and vent about the defense's struggles, but the early offensive mistakes cost this team. The Tigers rebounded to an extent, but you could feel the deflation after both fumbles. This could have been a special night for LSU, but devastating turnovers only fueled Alabama and left the Tigers once again asking, "What if?"

"You can't turn the ball over," Hill said. "If we don't turn the ball over, there's no telling what this team could do."


When Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley looks at film of LSU's offense, he can find time to smile and grimace.

On one hand, Mosley likes the fact that the Tigers run a more traditional pro-style approach, but on the other, he's fully aware of the vast offensive improvements LSU has made.

"We already know what we're going to get," Mosley said. "They're going to line up and try to run the ball down our throats and, when they get the chance, go deep over our heads. It's not really too much that we haven't seen or something that they're going to do that we haven't seen before. It's all about who's going to be the most physical team."

That pretty much has summed up this game since Nick Saban and Les Miles joined this series a few years ago. Both teams are going to get punched in the mouth, bleed and limp out of the stadium.

[+] EnlargeJeoffrey Pagan, Jarrick Williams, Brandon Ivory, C.J. Mosley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSay what you will about Alabama's opponents of late. Its defense nevertheless has been smothering.
This year won't be any different, but Alabama's defense understands that it will have a little more work on its hands. For the first time in a while, the Tigers possess one of the SEC's most balanced offensive attacks. Heading into Saturday's showdown, the 13th-ranked Tigers (7-2, 3-2 SEC) sit in the top half of the SEC in rushing (200.6 yards per game), passing (279.4), total offense (480) and scoring (40.2).

"I think this is one of the best offensive teams, probably, we've faced all year," Saban said.

He's absolutely right. This will be the third time No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) has faced a team averaging more than 400 yards a game, and it's easily the most potent offense the Crimson Tide have played since Texas A&M.

This is an LSU offense that wants to bulldoze you up front then dismantle you with its vertical passing game. Running back Jeremy Hill is second in the SEC with 922 rushing yards, while quarterback Zach Mettenberger is second in passing, averaging 276.9 yards per game.

"Any chance you go out there and you're seeing yourself make these plays over and over again, it gets to a point where it doesn't matter who you're going against," LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "It's just what we do, and it's what we're built to do."

Compare that to recent offenses the Tide have faced and it's not really close. Of Alabama's six opponents since A&M, only Colorado State and Ole Miss rank within the top 50 nationally in total offense.

Alabama's defense has taken full advantage of the schedule. Check out these numbers ESPN Stats & Information gathered about Alabama's last six outings:
  • Alabama has outscored teams 246-26, scored five more touchdowns (31) than opponents have points and allowed two touchdowns in 67 opponent drives (3 percent).
  • Alabama hasn't allowed any first-half points in its past six games. In three, opponents didn't run a first-half play in Alabama territory.
  • There have been nine first-half pass attempts by opponents in Alabama territory, with opponents throwing more interceptions (three) than completions (one).

Say what you will about Alabama's last six opponents (a combined record of 18-34), but the defense has done exactly what has been asked and then some.

"Every offense is good that we've played; we've just prepared to perfection," safety Landon Collins said. "We tried our best not to make any mistakes or give up any big plays. When we do that, that's the outcome of our defense. If we keep doing that and keep playing to our standards -- our Alabama way -- we all know what the outcome will be."

The Tigers might have two losses, but their offense will serve as a major test on the Tide's third-straight BCS title run.

"Their offense is explosive," Collins said. "Even though you know the play and you know what they're going to do, they're still going to execute to their full advantage. It's unstoppable sometimes."

LSU is second in the league at 7.4 yards per play and is averaging 106 more yards per game than last year and almost 130 more than 2011. One reason has been the maturation of Mettenberger, who had a breakout game against the Tide last year. He has flourished under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and has more command and comfort in the huddle.

He also has Hill to hand the ball to and Beckham and Jarvis Landry to throw to. That receiving duo has combined to catch 106 passes for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns.

"Really, my job's easy," Mettenberger said. "I just have to get [the ball] to some of the best athletes in the country and let them go to work.

"It's just my job to get those guys the ball. It's just what I have to do."

The thing is that even when Mettenberger struggles, this offense is still deadly with its running attack. It creates the conundrum of when to play two high safeties or stack the box.

So stay glued to the big uglies. Watch the trenches, because that's where Alabama wants to own things and create mayhem for the run and pass. Alabama wants to win the physical game in order to limit LSU's explosiveness.

"We know it’s going to be a dogfight, and it’s like that every year," Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said. "We want to try and come out and step on their throats, break their will and try and end the game as quick as possible and let some of our freshmen play."


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith a powerful run game, plus Jarvis Landry (pictured) and Odell Beckham Jr. stretching the secondary, LSU's offense presents a bigger challenge to Alabama's depleted secondary.
But it won't be all smash-mouth football when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if LSU coach Les Miles puts the ball in the air against the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.

"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.

"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."

LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.

Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.

"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."

Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.

Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).

"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."

It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).

Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.

"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."

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