NCF Nation: Marquis Maze

SEC postseason position rankings: ST

February, 10, 2012
We've come to the end of our postseason position rankings. Special teams don't get a ton of credit when things go right, but we all know how much grief they get when things go wrong. Just look at all those shanks we saw from kickers last season.

Fortunately, there are other aspects of special teams that involve more exciting plays, like returns that can change the dynamic of a game or are just really easy on the eyes (just take a look at what Joe Adams did to Tennessee last fall).

You can see how we ranked the SEC's special teams units before the season here.

Here are our final rankings:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/John BazemoreTyrann Mathieu's punt return for a touchdown against Georgia turned the momentum in the game.
1. LSU: All-American punter Brad Wing averaged 44.4 yards per kick, had 20 punts of 50-plus yards and pinned 27 kicks inside the opposing 20-yard line. His long of 73 yards completely changed LSU's first game with Alabama. Tyrann Mathieu had two clutch punt returns for touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia at the end of the season and was fifth nationally averaging 15.6 yards per return. Morris Claiborne also returned a kickoff for a touchdown and averaged 25.1 yards per return. Opponents averaged 3.7 yards per punt return and just 20 yards per kickoff against LSU. Drew Alleman led the SEC in field goal percentage (88.9), hitting 16-of-18 kicks.

2. Arkansas: Adams was one of the best punt returners in the country, averaging 16.9 yards per return and taking four to the house for scores. The Hogs were just as dangerous on kickoffs, as Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade both returned kicks for touchdowns and ranked in the top five in the SEC in return average. Zach Hocker hit 21-of-27 kicks and led all kickers by averaging 9.1 points per game. Dylan Breeding led the SEC in punting (45.3) and downed 16 inside the 20. Arkansas was one of the best in the SEC in kickoff coverage, but did allow two punt returns to go for scores in the two biggest games of the season.

3. Auburn: Auburn had Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason take kickoffs back for touchdowns, as the Tigers led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.7) and also in kickoff coverage. Auburn wasn't great returning punts, but punter Steven Clark was a Ray Guy Award finalist and pinned 33 punts inside the 20. Cody Parkey ranked sixth in the league in field-goal kicking, connecting on 13-of-18 kicks (72.2).

4. Florida: Even without Urban Meyer running the show, the Gators were still pretty successful in this department. Florida was first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally with six blocked kicks. Two punt blocks went for touchdowns. Caleb Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist, hitting 22-of-26 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards. Florida was also solid in kickoff coverage and got kickoff touchdowns of their own from Andre Debose, who was third in the league in return average, and Jeff Demps. Florida averaged 7.2 yards per punt return and averaged 39.8 yards per punt.

5. Ole Miss: If not for special teams, Ole Miss would have been even worse in 2011. Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt on his 72 attempts and pinned 28 inside the 20. The Rebels also had two different players -- Nickolas Brassell and Jeff Scott -- return punts for touchdowns and Ole Miss was near the top of the league in kickoff coverage and had a net punting average of 38 yards. Bryson Rose also hit nine of his 11 field-goal attempts.

6. Vanderbilt: It was a mixed bag for the Commodores when it came to special teams. Vanderbilt was second in the league in opponent punt return average (3.9), but allowed a touchdown, and gave up another touchdown on kickoff coverage. Vanderbilt also blocked two kicks. Missed field goals haunted Vanderbilt, as the Commodores missed two in the six-point loss to Tennessee and one at the end of regulation in a three-point loss to Arkansas. Andre Hal logged a kickoff touchdown, but Vandy was 11th in the league in punt return average.

7. Alabama: Before the national championship game, Alabama's field-goal kicking game received a ton of criticism, especially for the four misses in the 9-6 loss to LSU. But Jeremy Shelley redeemed the unit by hitting 5-of-7 in the rematch. Alabama's kickers missed 13 kicks. Marquis Maze only had 12 kickoff returns, but averaged 28.5 yards per return, was third in the SEC in punt return average (13.2) and had that nifty touchdown against Arkansas. However, Alabama was 11th in the league in kickoff coverage and 10th in punt average.

8. Kentucky: Punter Ryan Tydlacka was fourth in the league in punting (43.6), had 20 punts of 50-plus yards and had 19 of his punts downed inside the 20. Craig McIntosh connected on 12-of-14 field-goal attempts (.857). Kentucky was in the middle of the pack in kickoff coverage. The Wildcats weren't so good at returning kicks, ranking 11th in the SEC in kickoff returns and last in punt returns, averaging 1.8 yards per return.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were last in the league in kickoff returns and were the only team to average fewer than 20 yards a return. The Bulldogs were better on punts, getting touchdowns from Chad Bumphis and Johnthan Banks, and ranked fifth in the league in punt return average. Punter Baker Swedenburg ranked seventh in punting and pinned 19 punts inside the 20. Derek DePasquale hit 12-of-18 field goals.

10. Tennessee: The Vols didn't record any special teams touchdowns, but were fifth in the league in kickoff returns and seventh in punt returns. As far as defending returns, Tennessee allowed just 18.1 yards per return, but was 10th in punt return coverage and gave up a touchdown. Michael Palardy hit of nine of his 14 field-goal attempts and punter Matt Darr was 10th in the SEC in punt average (38.1).

11. South Carolina: The Gamecocks struggled in the kicking game, but did have a bright spot in Ace Sanders recording a touchdown on a punt return and South Carolina blocked two kicks. However, South Carolina was seventh and eighth in the SEC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. South Carolina was last in kickoff coverage and gave up a touchdown. Jay Wooten missed four field goals and three extra points, while punter Joey Scribner-Howard was ninth in the SEC in punting, averaging 38.9 yards per punt.

12. Georgia: Outside of Brandon Boykin's 92-yard touchdown return in the Outback Bowl, his 22.4-yard average on kick returns and Drew Butler's 44.2 yards per punt, Georgia didn't do much at all on special teams. The group that was supposed to be first in the league allowed two kickoffs and punts to go for touchdowns and allowed a fake punt for a touchdown against South Carolina. Blair Walsh entered the season as one of the nation's top kickers, but hit just 21-of-35 kicks, including missing two in overtime in the bowl loss to Michigan State.

SEC postseason position rankings: WR/TE

February, 3, 2012
The receivers/tight ends are on the docket Friday in our SEC postseason position rankings. The top two spots were easy. But after that, it gets a lot harder.

You can see our preseason rankings here.

Here's what we came up with for the postseason:

[+] EnlargeJarius Wright
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJarius Wright's 12 touchdowns and 1,117 yards led Arkansas' talented receiving corps.
1. Arkansas: An easy call here for the top spot. Even though Greg Childs was unable to return to his pre-injury form, the duo of Jarius Wright and Joe Adams was outstanding. Wright set school records with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. Don’t forget about Cobi Hamilton, either, or tight end Chris Gragg, who was third on the team behind Wright and Adams with 41 catches. There’s younger talent on the roster coming, too.

2. Georgia: One of the reasons Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray spread it around so much this season was because of the depth of his receiving corps, and it’s always nice to have the top pass-catching tight end in the league. Orson Charles caught 45 passes, including five touchdowns. The Bulldogs had five different players with at least four touchdown catches. Tavarres King led the way with eight, and freshman Malcolm Mitchell is a budding star in this league.

3. Alabama: The Alabama pass-catchers didn’t rack up a bunch of touchdown catches, but they made plays when they had to. It was a deeper unit than given credit for as evidenced by the play of Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell in the BCS National Championship Game. Marquis Maze was Alabama’s top playmaker at receiver and one of the more underrated players in the league, and the Tide had two good tight ends in Brad Smelley and Michael Williams.

4. LSU: Rueben Randle is the reason the Tigers are this high. He led the SEC in league games with an average of 78.6 receiving yards per game and also averaged 19.1 yards per catch. Odell Beckham, Jr. was one of the league’s best freshman receivers, and even though Russell Shepard only caught 14 passes, four went for touchdowns. Look for Jarvis Landry to play a much bigger role next season.

5. Tennessee: The Vols should really be loaded at receiver in 2012 if Justin Hunter comes back healthy. He was off to a great start this season, but injured his knee in the third game. Da'Rick Rogers led the SEC with 67 catches, including nine touchdowns, and tight end Mychal Rivera was second on the team with 29 catches. The Vols added top junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson on signing day.

6. South Carolina: Alshon Jeffery alone puts the Gamecocks in the top half of the league. His numbers were down from his fabulous 2011 season, but he still caught eight touchdown passes. Ace Sanders provided some help underneath, but the Gamecocks didn’t have enough depth at the position to keep teams from shadowing Jeffery.

7. Vanderbilt: The Commodores made a big jump from where they were ranked in the preseason (11th). Sophomore Jordan Matthews was one of the most improved receivers in the league and gave the Commodores that big-play threat down the field they’d been missing. He had five touchdown catches and averaged 19 yards per catch. Redshirt freshman Chris Boyd also had a big season with a team-leading eight touchdown catches, and Brandon Barden was a nice target at tight end.

8. Auburn: Injuries killed the Tigers, especially with Emory Blake and Trovon Reed being out at the same time during one stretch. When healthy, Blake is one of the most dependable receivers in the league. Reed has yet to prove he can stay healthy, and there was really nobody else to provide any firepower in the deep passing game. The Tigers get bonus points here for Philip Lutzenkirchen, who had seven touchdown catches and is a terrific pass-catching tight end.

9. Florida: The Gators would appear to more talented than they’ve played at receiver the last couple of years. Andre Debose did come on this season and catch a few deep passes for touchdowns, and Jordan Reed has the tools to be one of the best tight ends in the league. The bottom line is that the Gators simply didn’t make much happen in the passing game all season long. In fact, none of the wide receivers on the roster caught more than 21 passes.

10. Mississippi State: The receiver position is an area that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is still looking to bolster. Chad Bumphis hasn’t been the kind of difference-maker most predicted when he signed with the Bulldogs. Perhaps 2012 will be the season he changes that. Freshman tight end Malcolm Johnson showed a lot of promise and caught three touchdown passes, while Arceto Clark and Chris Smith each hauled in 30 or more receptions.

11. Ole Miss: Granted, the Rebels had issues at quarterback, which was a big reason they never established much of a passing game. But here’s the most telling stat: Ole Miss finished the season with nine touchdown passes, and six of those went to true freshmen Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell. Opposing defenses are bound to see even more of those two youngsters next season.

12. Kentucky: Everybody beats up on the quarterback when the passing game is ineffective, but the Wildcats simply didn’t have a lot of guys consistently making plays at the receiver position. There were too many drops across the board, and even though La'Rod King did catch seven touchdown passes, he was quiet in SEC games.

The SEC's top 10 moments in 2011

January, 12, 2012
As we take another look at the 2011 season, we'll check out the top 10 moments from the SEC's year.

It's not as easy as it looks, but someone has to do it.

I'm sure we'll think of a couple more as the days go by, but here are our top 10 moments from 2011 in reverse order:

10. Houston Nutt's dismissal:
Ole Miss said goodbye to its head coach after Nutt was fired toward the end of the season. After back-to-back nine-win seasons that ended with Cotton Bowl victories, Nutt was fired after two dismal seasons in Oxford. He coached the entire season, but ended his tenure with 14 straight losses to SEC opponents.

9. Kentucky's last stand: There wasn't much for the Wildcats to be proud of in 2011, but Kentucky's 10-7 win over Tennessee was truly memorable. It snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Vols (dating back to when Joker Phillips played at Kentucky) and eliminated Tennessee from postseason play.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt and the Bulldogs overcame an 0-2 start to the season to win the SEC's Eastern Division.
8. Georgia clinching the East: After starting the season 0-2, Georgia won 10 straight, but its ninth win meant the most. Georgia's 19-10 win over Kentucky on Nov. 19 clinched the SEC Eastern Division and sent the Bulldogs back to the SEC championship for the first time since 2005.

7. Vandy's bowl bid: Coach James Franklin promised change at Vanderbilt and he got it in his first year. The Commodores reeled off six wins and their 41-7 win over Wake Forest on the last weekend of the regular season sent Vandy bowling for the first time since 2008.

6. Richardson's run: Trent Richardson's Heisman moment came on a run and a move for the ages. Before he could finish off his eventual 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against Ole Miss, he had to embarrass defender Senquez Golson by cutting back and then immediately forward, leaving the rookie stumbling to the turf just before the end zone.

5. Adams' return: No plays were as exciting to watch in the SEC -- and probably nationally -- than Joe Adams' amazing punt return against Tennessee. Adams was scintillating, as he reversed field 10 yards and shook off five tackles before darting down the right sideline for what stood as a 60-yard touchdown return.

4. South Carolina's 11th win: Last year, the Gamecocks made history when they made it to their first SEC championship game. In 2011, South Carolina won 11 games in a season for the first time when the Gamecocks routed Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It also ended a streak of three straight bowl losses.

3. Reid's interception: When you think back at the 2011 season, Eric Reid's interception against Alabama at LSU's own 1-yard line has to be one of the first images you see. With the Tide running a trick play involving a pass from receiver Marquis Maze to tight end Michael Williams, Reid out-muscled Williams for the ball in midair. The play propelled LSU on its magical run and sent Alabama home with what seemed like a season-changing loss.

2. LSU's magical run ends: LSU was a win away from entering the "best ever" conversation, with eight wins over ranked teams, but LSU ran into a freight train named Alabama in the hated rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. LSU's offense fell flat as the Tide ran over the Tigers 21-0 in their own backyard of New Orleans.

1. Alabama hoists the crystal football ... again:
The state of Alabama clearly owns college football at the moment. Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the national championship gave the state three straight crystal footballs and was the second for the Crimson Tide in three years. Nick Saban admitted that this championship (his third) was the sweetest and you could tell because he actually smiled afterward and took his Gatorade bath like a true champ.
NEW ORLEANS -- Well, it looks like Alabama studied up on how to contain Jordan Jefferson better.

LSU's quarterback has carried the ball four times for just 5 yards and has a long of 6. His best run came up the middle, and Alabama has done a great job of taking away any sort of outside running for Jefferson.

Really, Alabama has eliminated any sort of outside running for the Tigers. LSU has just 10 yards on seven carries and has yet to convert a third down, although Jefferson has completed all four of his passes for 18 yards. Slants and screens will be Jefferson's best friend tonight.

As for Alabama, quarterback AJ McCarron has been as poised as he can be out on the field. He's avoided a few tackles and has been spot-on with his passes. He finished the quarter completing a nice 26-yard pass down the right sideline to Kevin Norwood. The pass somehow made it right over Tyrann Mathieu.

Marquis Maze looked to have injured his hamstring on a punt return, so it will be interesting to see who the Tide turns to there and how the passing game runs with him out.

Marquis Maze injured on return

January, 9, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama wide receiver Marquis Maze might have ripped off a nice 45-yard punt return, but it looks like he might have pulled a hamstring as well.

Maze came up lame at the end of the return and had to be helped off the field.

He was later helped to the locker room and walked with a considerable limp.

Kenny Bell has replaced him on the field at wide receiver.

Noise will be a factor tonight

January, 9, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- We are only a couple of minutes into the game, but you can already tell that noise is going to be a major factor in tonight's Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Fans from both sides are letting the opposing offenses know that they are here. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson has already struggled with trying to get plays changed and fumbled a snap with his back right up to Alabama's section.

This place erupted when Jefferson fumbled and it might have been even louder when Alabama wide receiver Marquis Maze was pushed out of bounds on a booming punt from Brad Wing. Both of these quarterbacks' ears will be ringing for days after this one.

Video: Maze looking to be playmaker

January, 9, 2012

Chris Low interviews Alabama wide receiver Marquis Maze at the Allstate BCS National Championship game media day.

Five plays that got LSU here

January, 9, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- You've already read about the five plays that got Alabama to the Allstate BCS National Championship, so now it's time to take a look at how LSU ended up in Monday's title game:

1. Eric Reid's interception: With Alabama sitting on LSU's 28-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Tide coach Nick Saban reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a play in which wide receiver Marquis Maze was supposed to take the ball and throw it to tight end Michael Williams. Maze, who was bothered by a sprained ankle, threw the ball up, but Reid wrestled it away from Williams at LSU's 1-yard line. Alabama never got inside LSU's 35-yard line again until overtime.

2. Morris Claiborne's kick return: After West Virginia scored to get within six of the Tigers late in the third quarter, Claiborne put the game away with some magic in the return game. On West Virginia's ensuing kickoff, Claiborne dazzled his way through Mountaineer players for a 99-yard touchdown return that put LSU up 34-21. That touchdown put LSU on a 20-0 run to close the game.

3. Brad Wing's punt: The drive after Reid's interception, LSU's offense failed to get much of anything backed up inside its 10-yard line. A normal punt would have given Alabama ideal field position to make up for its blown opportunity on the last drive, but Wing launched a kick from inside LSU's end zone that eventually traveled 73 yards to Alabama's 18-yard line after some very favorable rolling.

4. Tyrann Mathieu's return: Down 14-7 to Arkansas in the second quarter, the Honey Badger came through in the clutch on special teams. He took Dylan Breeding's punt 92 yards to the house and sent Tiger Stadium into a frenzy. That play paralyzed Arkansas, and led to a 34-3 run by LSU on the last Saturday of the regular season.

5. Mathieu's second return: Like the Arkansas game a week earlier, LSU was in need of a spark against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Down double digits early for the second straight game, Mathieu provided the momentum builder LSU needed when he took a punt 62 yards for a touchdown that made it 10-7 in the second quarter. The score, which sparked a 42-0 run, should have actually been overturned because replay showed that Mathieu clearly flipped the ball to the ref and out-of-bounds before he crossed the goal line.

Five plays that got Alabama here

January, 9, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — In every season, there are a handful of plays that stand out.

Here’s a look at the five plays that got Alabama to Monday night’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game:

1. Maze’s punt return: One of the most electrifying plays of the year in the SEC, Marquis Maze weaved his way 83 yards through Arkansas defenders early in the third quarter to break the game wide open and send the Crimson Tide on their way to a 38-14 beatdown of the Hogs. Maze showed his speed, open-field running ability and knack for breaking tackles all on one dazzling return.

2. Upshaw’s interception return: With the game tied at 10 early in the second quarter, Alabama’s Nick Gentry came free up the middle and hurried Florida quarterback John Brantley, whose dump pass over the middle was intercepted by Courtney Upshaw and returned 45 yards for a touchdown. The Gators were never the same, and the Crimson Tide won easily, 38-10 at the Swamp.

3. The fourth-down stop: Tennessee had played Alabama to a 6-6 tie at the half, and the Crimson Tide looked sluggish. They answered with a long touchdown drive coming out of the break to go up 13-6 and then sent the Vols packing for good after Tennessee elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches at their own 39. Josh Chapman and Dont’a Hightower stuffed Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms for no gain. The Vols challenged the spot, but the call on the field was upheld, and Alabama scored a touchdown on its next play en route to a 37-6 romp.

4. McCarron’s lazor: It wasn’t AJ McCarron’s longest pass of the season, but it was one of his most impressive and came at a time in the Penn State game when Beaver Stadium was rocking. McCarron threw a bullet between two defenders on a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams to silence the crowd and give the Crimson Tide a first-quarter lead they would never relinquish in a 27-11 victory over the Nittany Lions.

5. Going for a ride: Alabama running back Trent Richardson had so many spectacular runs this season that it’s impossible to pick just one. But a 16-yard run he had against Auburn says everything you need to know about him as a competitor. Auburn had just pulled within 24-14 on a kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half, and Alabama needed to answer. Richardson exploded up the middle on a third-and-4 play and was met by a cluster of Auburn defenders at the 20. He dragged four of them with him for 7 more yards before they finally got him on the ground, setting up a Jeremy Shelley 28-yard field goal. The Crimson Tide never looked back in cruising to a 42-14 win.

BCS National Championship: Alabama keys

January, 9, 2012
A look at three keys for Alabama in Monday night’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game:

1. Finish drives: Alabama moved the football in the first game, but hurt itself with penalties, negative-yardage plays and turnovers from the 30-yard line on in. Give LSU’s defense credit for some of that, but the Crimson Tide also have to make sure they’re doing the little things right to finish drives. They can’t repeatedly misfire on first down every time they move close to the red zone. And even if their drives don’t end in touchdowns, they need to give their kickers a better chance with 30- and 35-yard field goals as opposed to 45- and 50-yarders.

2. Play even in special teams: Nobody in Alabama’s camp is conceding the special-teams battle to LSU, but the Tigers kick and punt the ball better, not to mention cover punts and kickoffs better. What Alabama can’t have happen is a critical breakdown in the kicking game, or more precisely, to get pummeled in the kicking game the way the Crimson Tide did the last time these two teams met. Alabama doesn’t necessarily have to win the special-teams battle to win the game, but the Crimson Tide could sure help themselves by making a few plays in special teams and playing the Tigers to a draw. Return specialist Marquis Maze could be huge in this game.

3. Force Jefferson to throw: As much time as Alabama has had to prepare for this game, it would be a major surprise if LSU has as much success running the option as it did the last time. The Crimson Tide will do everything they can to put this game on Jordan Jefferson’s right arm (instead of his legs) and make him throw. They don’t think Jefferson can beat them throwing the ball from the pocket. In particular, Alabama wants to get Jefferson in a steady dose of third-and-long situations, which is where this defense is most lethal.

Season report card: Alabama

January, 2, 2012
The grade that counts for Alabama won’t come until next Monday night, but the regular-season grades have already been posted for the Crimson Tide.


Alabama wasn’t known this season for its offense, and there were times that the Crimson Tide looked limited in the passing game. But when you step back and look at the results (and the stats), Alabama deserves an A. The minus is for not being able to score a touchdown at home against LSU and for a passing game that was hit and miss. Nonetheless, the Crimson Tide were second in the SEC in total offense, averaging 433.4 yards per game, and their balance was what was so impressive. They were the only team in the league to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game. Junior running back Trent Richardson led the SEC with 1,583 rushing yards, and the Crimson Tide turned the ball over only 12 times in 12 games. And against SEC competition, Alabama led the league in total offense (414 yards) and was second in scoring offense (33.9 points).


Perfection is what every football team seeks, and Alabama was about as close as it gets this season on defense. The Crimson Tide head into the Allstate BCS National Championship Game ranked No. 1 nationally in all four of the major statistical categories on defense -- total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Oklahoma is the only school to accomplish that feat since the NCAA began keeping records in 1937. Alabama is allowing just 191.3 yards per game, which is more than 60 yards fewer than the second-place team nationally (LSU) is averaging giving up per game. What’s more, Alabama opponents are averaging just 8.8 points per game, making the Crimson Tide the only team nationally to hold foes to single digits. Defensively, Alabama didn’t allow more than 14 points in a game all season.


It didn’t go the way Nick Saban would have drawn it up in the kicking game. It wasn’t all bad. Marquis Maze led the SEC in kickoff return average and was third in punt return average. He had an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas. But aside from Maze, the Crimson Tide had their struggles on special teams. They were ninth in the SEC in net punting and 11th in kickoff coverage. They gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and were 18-of-29 on field goals. Cade Foster, who handles the longer field goals, had seven of the Tide’s 11 misses. Of course, the killer for Alabama was missing four field goals in the loss to LSU.


The only glitch was special teams. Otherwise, Alabama was a balanced, disciplined, well-coached football team. The job Kirby Smart did on defense speaks for itself, as Alabama is chasing history on that side of the ball. The secondary went from a liability at times in 2010 to one of the strengths of the team this season. And on offense, Jim McElwain’s guys generated the kind of balance you rarely see. The Tide ran it pretty much when they wanted to and made enough plays in the passing game to keep defenses honest. Sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron didn’t have big numbers, but he played within himself and only threw five interceptions all season. When you play defense the way Alabama does, commit the fewest number of penalties in the league and only turn it over 12 times in 12 games, you’re going to win a lot of games.

Don't blame just the Alabama kickers

November, 8, 2011
Losing the special teams battle will be what most in the Alabama camp point to when explaining the Crimson Tide’s 9-6 overtime loss to LSU Saturday.

Four missed field goals, even though they were all from 44 yards or longer, are enough to be the difference in any game, especially against a defense bursting at the seams with future NFL talent.

But the Crimson Tide didn’t lose because they missed four field goals. They lost because they lost their poise at some of the worst times possible.

[+] EnlargeEric Reid
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEric Reid's interception in the fourth quarter was just one of many critical mistakes in Alabama's loss on Saturday.
That’s uncharacteristic of a Nick Saban-coached team, and it’s certainly uncharacteristic of this team.

Alabama entered the game with the fewest penalties (27) and fewest penalty yards (236) in the SEC.

The Crimson Tide had six penalties for 73 yards in the loss to LSU. Go back and look at when they occurred. What’s more, the Tide had several plays for negative yardage. Go back and look at when they occurred.

They lost two turnovers after losing just one in their previous five SEC games combined.

There were five different times in the game, including the overtime period, when Alabama had the ball inside the LSU 35-yard line and came away with no points.

On each of the five, there was some type of penalty, negative yardage play, dropped pass or turnover on first down.

It happened three times in the first quarter alone.

On the game’s opening drive, Alabama had it first-and-10 at the LSU 30, and Trent Richardson was thrown for a 5-yard loss.

On the Tide’s next offensive possession, they moved to the LSU 23 and had a first-and-10, but were hit with a 5-yard substitution infraction.

On their third possession, it was first-and-10 at the LSU 24 when Marquis Maze was tackled for a 6-yard loss on a reverse.

In the fourth quarter, on the heels of Richardson’s 24-yard run to the LSU 28, Maze was intercepted by Eric Reid at the 1 on a first-down play out of the Wildcat formation.

Alabama’s possession in overtime started with a dropped pass by Richardson on an inside screen. Then on second down from the 25, the Tide were hit with another 5-yard substitution infraction.

It was that kind of night for Alabama, which had specialized in not beating itself for the eight games prior to the LSU showdown.

But the bottom fell out Saturday against an LSU defense that no doubt had a lot to do with Alabama’s struggles any time the Tide looked like they might be getting near the red zone.

Perhaps the most costly blunder of the night for the Tide came when Mark Barron intercepted Jarrett Lee's pass in the third quarter and returned it to the Tigers’ 3. A block in the back penalty on Josh Chapman nullified that return and brought the ball back out to the 35.

"You know from Little League that if you see the numbers in the back, don't hit him," Chapman said. "That was an error on my behalf, a mistake."

Alabama did muster a field goal to go ahead 6-3, but would have been looking at a first-and-goal from the 3 had most of Barron’s return not been wiped out. A touchdown at that point probably changes the entire game.

How many times do you hear coaches talk about doing the little things right?

Well, there were a series of those little things that cost the Crimson Tide last Saturday.

How much it cost the Tide is still to be determined. We’ll see how the rest of this season plays out.

But this much we do know: It wasn't all on the kickers.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

November, 3, 2011
There's a rumor floating around that there's a pretty big game in Tuscaloosa this week.

Here's a look at what to watch around the league in Week 10:

1. Winning up front: With all the focus on the two defenses in the Alabama and LSU game, keep a close eye on who gets it done up front on offense, especially in the second half. Both of these offensive lines have a way of imposing their will on teams after halftime. They should be healthy, too. Guard Anthony Steen is expected back for Alabama after missing time with a concussion, and LSU will get back center P.J. Lonergan, who didn’t play in either of the Tigers’ last two games while recovering from an ankle injury. The team that plays the best on the offensive line is the team that’s going to win this game.

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMILSU receiver Rueben Randle will most likely play a big role in Saturday's game at Alabama.
2.Big-play receivers: With both the Alabama and LSU defenses being so stout, it makes sense that the team that wins is going to have to hit a few big plays in the passing game. It was Jarrett Lee completing the third-down bomb to Rueben Randle last season to ice the game for the Tigers, and two years ago, it was Julio Jones’ 73-yard catch and run that put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay. LSU’s Randle has been one of the best big-play receivers in the league this season. He has seven touchdown receptions and is averaging 19.3 yards per catch. Russell Shepard is somebody else to watch for the Tigers, while Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are also plenty capable of striking from long distance for the Crimson Tide.

3. Settling the East: It’s not an Eastern Division game, but South Carolina could take a huge step toward wrapping up its second consecutive East crown by winning in Fayetteville. The Gamecocks would then have one SEC game remaining at home against Florida. South Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Georgia, but the Bulldogs get both of their remaining SEC games at home against Auburn and Kentucky. The Gamecocks haven’t matched up well in recent years against the Hogs, but need to get over that hump if they’re going to get back to Atlanta.

4. Pressuring with four: South Carolina’s defense has been excellent the last five games. The Gamecocks haven’t given up more than 16 points during that stretch. Their defensive front has been a big reason why, although assistant head coach for the defense, Ellis Johnson, said the real test will come Saturday against Arkansas. South Carolina leads the SEC with 26 forced turnovers, but Johnson said the key against the Hogs will be getting pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson with the Gamecocks’ front four and not having to blitz a whole lot. The Hogs have struggled to protect Wilson in some games this season.

5. Playing two halves: Arkansas got away with it last week against Vanderbilt. The Hogs did the same two weeks ago against Ole Miss. Make that ditto for the Texas A&M game a month ago. The Hogs simply haven’t answered the bell in the first half, but have found ways to battle back in the second half and win games. That’s a dangerous script to follow if you’re going to beat South Carolina. The Hogs have been one of the best teams in the league when it comes to making big plays on offense, which would be the easiest way to get off to a good start. But the Gamecocks haven’t given up big plays this season. In fact, they haven’t allowed one all season that was longer than 33 yards.

6. A different Vanderbilt: The Commodores last won at the Swamp (Florida Field) in 1945. So it’s been a while. But it’s obvious that this isn’t the same old Vandy. It’s also not the same old Florida. The Gators have lost four in a row and went winless in the month of October. It’s been a tough season for first-year coach Will Muschamp, especially with quarterback John Brantley missing much of October. But it will go from a tough season to an unbearable season if Vanderbilt comes into the Swamp and wins. The Commodores lost in the final minutes to both Arkansas and Georgia in their last two outings. They’ve been very good all season on defense and are improving on offense, but they’re still looking for their first win away from home.

7. Ending the misery: Between them, Kentucky and Ole Miss have lost nine conference games this season. The Rebels have lost 11 in a row going back to last season. Something’s gotta give Saturday when they meet up in Commonwealth Stadium. Both teams had their chances last week. In fact, Ole Miss has been in position to win each of the last two weeks, but couldn’t finish the game against Auburn or Arkansas. It looks like the Wildcats will be going with freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith in this game. Morgan Newton is battling an ankle injury. Smith came in last week against Mississippi State and showed some promise.

8. New faces for Dawgs: Get ready to see several new faces on Saturday in Georgia’s offensive backfield. The Bulldogs suspended three running backs this week, including freshman Isaiah Crowell, after they failed drug tests. Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome were also suspended for the New Mexico State game. Making matters worse, Richard Samuel will miss the rest of the regular season with a foot injury after running as hard and as well as he has in a long time last week against Florida. So who’s going to carry the football for the Dawgs? Former walk-on Brandon Harton is the leader in the clubhouse followed by freshman walk-on Kyle Karempelis. Don’t be surprised if you see the likes of Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith back there some, too.

9. Another shot for Worley: Tennessee true freshman quarterback Justin Worley will make his second straight start Saturday after suffering through a rough outing last week against South Carolina. There are never any guarantees, but going up against Middle Tennessee’s defense figures to be a little less stressful than dealing with the Gamecocks on defense. It wasn’t all on Worley last week, either. He threw a couple of nice passes, but the players around him didn’t play very well. In particular, sophomore receiver Da’Rick Rogers dropped what would have been a touchdown pass. Rogers said he told Worley after the play, “I owe you. I owe you a bunch of stuff.”

10. Russell’s impact: Mississippi State was one of the SEC’s top rushing teams each of the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs have been more successful with the pass here lately. The biggest change has been Tyler Russell and his ability to throw the football. He’s a pocket passer with a big arm, and the Bulldogs have tweaked things when he’s in the game to play to his strengths. In the 28-16 win over Kentucky last week, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen rotated Chris Relf and Russell, and they combined for 264 passing yards and two touchdowns. It looks like the Bulldogs are going to stick with the quarterback rotation. They’ve generated more passing yards than rushing yards in their last four games and are averaging 204.6 passing yards per game, which is the most they’ve averaged through the air in eight seasons.

Tide's McCarron ready for the big stage

November, 2, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron arrived at Alabama with a bit of a gunslinger reputation.

Big arm. Big numbers. Big expectations.

He could throw a ball a mile and didn’t mind trying to squeeze one into the tightest of windows.

It’s like his top receiver, Marquis Maze, said earlier this season.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Spruce Derden/US PresswireAlabama coach Nick Saban said he's still preaching patience to QB AJ McCarron.
“There aren’t many plays out there that AJ thinks he can’t make,” Maze said.

That’s not always the best way to think if you’re going to play quarterback for Nick Saban, at least if you want to play very long.

From the day McCarron went through his first practice at Alabama, Saban knew he had a special talent.

Saban also knew what kind of seasoning would be required to get McCarron to where he is today: A quarterback who can make all the throws, but also a quarterback who knows when to make those throws, and even more importantly, a quarterback who manages the offense with a steady precision.

“AJ’s played well for us,” Saban said. “I think he’s improved in every game.”

Granted, that’s not gushing praise, but Saban has been careful about the way he’s brought McCarron along. Go back to the preseason, even the first game of this season.

McCarron shared snaps with redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and really didn’t solidify himself as the Crimson Tide’s quarterback until Week 2 in a 27-11 win at Penn State.

It was major breakthrough for McCarron, to go on the road and lead Alabama to a win at a tough place to play, especially after throwing two interceptions in the opener against Kent State.

He’s thrown only one interception since and ranks second in the SEC in passing efficiency. He’s completing 67 percent of his passes, which leads all SEC starters.

And the thing that impresses his teammates the most is that he’s become a leader.

“I think the biggest change from Week 1 until now has been his leadership,” Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones said. “To have a successful offense, you have to have a leader at the quarterback position. He’s done a really good job of stepping up and being that leader.

“The other thing is that he’s done a really good job of keeping his poise and executing. I’ve been really impressed with him in these last few games when guys would try and load the box, and he’s been able to make plays for us in the passing game.”

McCarron, who’s thrown for 1,664 yards and 10 touchdowns, has been masterful at spreading the ball around. The Crimson Tide have nine players who’ve caught at least eight passes. Moreover, eight players have caught touchdown passes.

“He’s always been focused. That’s the one thing I can say about AJ,” said Alabama running back Trent Richardson, whose ability to rip off large chunks of yards in the running game has taken a lot of the pressure off McCarron.

“He’s done a tremendous job on the field and off the field with anything that has come toward him. He’s staying focused. He’s a reliable person. If you need him, he’s there. In the games, he’s a playmaker. So he’s a role model on this team as well.”

McCarron has talked only a couple of times this season to the media. Saban’s explanation is that he wants McCarron focused on doing all of the things he needs to do as a quarterback and that there will be plenty of time for him to speak publicly later.

Of course, the big question this week against No. 1 LSU will be: Is he ready for this kind of stage and ready for this kind of defense?

LSU’s secondary rivals Alabama’s as perhaps the best in college football, and the Tigers have made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks this season with their relentless pass rush.

But, then, this is McCarron’s chance to prove that he’s not just another quarterback.

“He’s going to use the playmakers around him,” Richardson said. “We know he’s going to get us the ball, and we know he’s going to keep getting back up when he does get hit.

“We’ve got his back and know he has ours.”

Halloween in the SEC

October, 31, 2011
Hey, be sure to avoid all the ghouls, goblins and witches while trick or treating later Monday night.

Here’s our annual Halloween treat for you from the SEC blog. Consider it the spookiest post of the year:

[+] EnlargeHouston Nutt
John Reed/US PresswireMississippi's losing streak against SEC teams is turning into a nightmare for coach Houston Nutt.
Cursed: Ole Miss has lost 11 straight SEC games, the longest such streak in school history, dating to last season. It’s been especially frustrating the past two weeks, because the Rebels haven’t quit fighting and played inspired football in the first half. They just haven’t been able to put two halves together.

Twilight zone: What in the world has happened to Georgia senior kicker Blair Walsh? He’s missed 10 field goal attempts this season, including a 37-yarder and 33-yarder last week in the win against Florida. This is the same guy who was a Lou Groza Award finalist two years ago. It’s been like watching a great golfer completely lose his putting stroke.

Boo (boo): Lot of choices here. South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore’s season-ending knee injury tops the list. The Gamecocks aren’t close to being the same team without him. Ole Miss has probably had as many injuries to key players as anybody, and Tennessee has been decimated by the season-ending knee injury to top receiver Justin Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray’s broken thumb that could keep him out for the rest of the regular season. If you want to go back to the preseason, Arkansas star running back Knile Davis fractured his ankle, which has put a serious dent in the Hogs’ running game.

Thriller: The most exciting play of the season so far? Marquis Maze’s brilliant 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas is hard to beat. So is “The Move” by Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who nearly broke the ankles of Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson on the tail end of a 76-yard touchdown run. And let’s not forget South Carolina’s 276-pound defensive end, Melvin Ingram, rambling 68 yards for a touchdown and even shaking Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin on the sideline while taking a fake punt to the house.

Back from the dead: Good luck in finding anybody outside the players and coaches on Georgia’s football team who didn’t think the Bulldogs were dead after those back-to-back losses to open the season. The only buzz surrounding the team following the 45-42 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 10 centered on coach Mark Richt and whether or not he was going to make it. Well, with two games to play in the SEC, the Bulldogs are alive and well in the East race and have won six straight games. There’s a mental toughness about this team that wasn’t there the past couple of seasons.

Haunted House: Alabama has won 25 of its past 26 games at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Auburn has won 13 straight games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. There’s just something about those football venues in the state of Alabama.

Graveyard: The Eastern Division might be looking at a second straight season where at least four of the teams don’t finish the regular season with a winning record. A year ago, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt all had losing seasons. This season, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will all have to close with a flurry if they’re going to finish above .500.

Halloween costumes: LSU coach Les Miles/The Mad Hatter (just too easy); Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones/Darth Vader; South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier/Sports columnist for The State newspaper; Alabama center William Vlachos/Bouncer at a frat party; LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee/Rodney Dangerfield (no respect), Vanderbilt coach James Franklin/Rocky (ain't taking nothing from nobody).