NCF Nation: Michael Ford

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.
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.

But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.

It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
Oh, and a not-so-tretcherous schedule won't hurt the Tide's chances either.

But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.

South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.

LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.

The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.

It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.

The defense will lose a lot up front, but linebacker Archibald Barnes and cornerback Trey Wilson are the only other significant losses.

There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
Watching film of last year's LSU game must be traumatizing for Florida's defense.

All the Gators will notice is the constant pounding LSU's run game put on it. All those defenders were good for was getting pushed around and making each of LSU’s running backs look like a Heisman candidate.

That film is probably burning in a trash heap this very moment. And that's perfectly acceptable when you consider the Gators surrendered 238 rushing yards to the Tigers last season.

For as much push as Florida tried to give LSU up front, the Tigers doubled that intensity, constantly knocking the Gators back as they cruised to a 41-14 win at Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRonald Powell
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Tigers gashed the Gators defense for 238 yards on the ground in last year's meeting.
If the Gators are going to pull off the upset in the Swamp this weekend, the rush defense has to be infinitely better, and it's tangling with basically the same backfield that wore it out last year. LSU's multiback system is alive and pounding, as the Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 229.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

"They're a team that really likes to run the ball and grind down a team and win the game in the third and fourth quarter,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.

"We have to come out and make plays, too. We can't just let them come out and run the ball down our throats."

And that's exactly what happened to the Gators last year in October. In back-to-back weeks against the league's strongest running teams in Alabama and LSU, the Gators gave up a combined 464 yards and allowed both teams to run for more than 4 yards per carry.

It's obvious that toughness in the trenches was lacking. As the Gators enter the first weekend in October, they are light-years ahead of last year's squad in the toughness department. The blue-collar approach Will Muschamp wants from his defense is finally starting to come together, and that will go a long way against LSU.

"Toughness is everything," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said of stopping the run. "You have to have toughness, smartness and discipline. We're working on all of it. Toughness is a big factor when the run game is involved."

Florida is allowing a little less than 120 rushing yards a game and just 3.8 yards per carry, but the Gators have yet to play a team as physical and as deep in the run game.

LSU can throw four backs out on any given drive. There's the quick bruiser in Kenny Hilliard, the speedy Michael Ford, the pounding Spencer Ware and the dynamic Jeremy Hill, who has yet to really be unleashed this year. Also, the Tigers have a certified battering ram in 272-pound fullback J.C. Copeland.

All five are averaging more than 4 yards per carry, with Hilliard leading the group with 6.9 yards per rush.

"We have guys who can run fast and run hard. It's hard for defenses to prepare for," said Ford, who has 224 yards, but is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

"Even our defense, it's kind of hard because they always get a different look."

Fresh legs against huffing, puffing defenders is never a fair fight, and that's why the Gators found themselves on defense for the majority of the second half in last season’s game. Florida's defense couldn't get off the field on third downs, and you can’t win games like that.

"That's just an important storyline in this game -- winning on third down -- because this is a team that knows how to run it, and if they can possess the ball and continue to convert on third downs, it's a hard day," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.

The good news for Florida is that opponents have converted on third downs just 29 percent of the time this fall.

Part of Muschamp’s plan against the rush is to add defensive backs to the box and control the perimeter. He’s also harping on gap control.

But to Bostic, positioning isn’t everything. The mental side will be just as important and he wants players to have more composure and be more restrained this time. Overzealous play in pursuit could be detrimental against this running game, so patience is key.

"A lot of guys will get antsy and want to go make a play," he said. "You've got to let the big plays come to you."

LSU will go right at them ... again and again.

SEC mailbag: Florida a BCS buster?

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
5:00
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It's time to take some questions as we enter the weekend:

Robert in Salt Lake City writes: How much of a role does UF have in determining who plays for the national title? Will possibly knocking off FSU put someone in it, or will FSU be on the outside looking in at that point?

Edward Aschoff: The Gators could be a real BCS buster for a few teams. For starters, Florida hosts LSU next week and a Gator win could throw a wrench in the Tigers' plans for a return to the national championship. Oh, and there are the games against Georgia and South Carolina. All three of those teams are ranked within the top 6, so the Gators are very much going to be a part of the national championship picture in some form or fashion. That doesn't mean Florida will be competing for it, but it could determine who plays in it because the Gators have a chance to beat each one of those teams. Now, will they? I don't know, but this team is better equipped to than it has been in the past two years. As for Florida State, the Seminoles still have to prove to me that they're back. Yes, they beat Clemson, but wasn't that supposed to be a vaunted defense? I believe it gave up 462 yards and gave up 37 points in the process. Also, beware of the Thursday night game at Virginia Tech. FSU has a way of losing those games it shouldn't …




Bobby in Ludowici, Ga., writes: Kentucky, Vandy, Arkansas, and Auburn are clearly the most struggling teams in the SEC, who has the best chance at making a bowl game?

EA: Right now, it's hard to say if any will make a bowl game. All sit at 1-3, and all have tough roads ahead. Arkansas has four home games left, but could drop to 1-5 with back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn coming up. Auburn has five home games left, but Georgia and Texas A&M are on that list and Alabama is on the road. Three of Kentucky's remaining five home opponents are currently ranked, and Vanderbilt ends the season with three road games in the final four weeks. For Arkansas and Auburn, next week's matchup between the two will make or break the Hogs' bowl chances. A loss will likely terminate Arkansas' real bowl chances. Same for when Vandy plays Kentucky. At this point, I'm going to go with Auburn because of those five home games and road games at Ole Miss and Vandy. Auburn has to at least split those two road games and win three of its final five home games.




Steve in Virginia writes: Just from looking at the stats this year, it's starting to look like the Gamecocks might be more of a pass first team this year instead of a run first team. Do you think this will continue, or will the Gamecocks have to adjust back more to the running game against teams with solid DBs?

EA: I think as Marcus Lattimore gets stronger and healthier, Steve Spurrier will go back to him more. He was South Carolina's bread and butter for a year and a half, and once this team gets into the meat of the SEC season, look for him to get more carries. He's already starting to look stronger out there, and he carried the ball 21 times against Missouri. Connor Shaw has done a good job of spreading the wealth around in the passing game, but I'm sure he'd like to see someone other than Ace Sanders step up as a consistent target. If that doesn't happen, expect more from the running game.




Scott in Atlanta writes: Other than perhaps money, what are teams like Vandy and Kentucky (or even Ole Miss/Miss St) missing to consistently catch up to the rest of the SEC considering the amount of exposure the SEC has now after winning so many championships? Certainly they should be able to get some great kids that were not picked up by other SEC teams that want to play in the SEC instead of other conferences.

EA: Well, you have to consider that schools like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU don't really recruit, they just kind of gather talent. When you have that ability, you can pluck kids from just about anywhere. And that means schools like the ones you mentioned get hurt in the process. The schools you mentioned have to do a better job of developing players once their on campus. These schools won't just automatically start out-recruiting the Alabamas and LSUs. They have to start with development and getting more wins and getting signature wins over the big guys in the league. That will attract better players. They also have to fend off bigger schools from out side of the SEC. That's where you see a lot of the "great" players you referred to go. I think development will help with recruiting, but I don't see those schools getting to "plucking" status in this league.




Mark inTulsa, Okla., writes: I'm just curious to know how you can have a QB poll and NOT have A&M's Manziel on a list of the seven QB's. I mean, I could understand leaving him off of a Top 2 or even a Top 3 list, but Top 5? Look at the numbers per game.

EA: There's no doubt that Johnny Manziel has been impressive. He's really picked up on A&M's offense and brings a great element to it with his legs. But he was a no-show in the second half of the Aggies' loss to Florida -- the only real competition for Texas A&M this year. He was tremendous against SMU and South Carolina State, but the other quarterbacks on our list have done more against better competition. That's not to say Manziel won't make this last at the end of the year, but for now we want to see more from him against better talent.




Jblackburner in Atlanta writes: Which SEC team has the best RB depth, top-to-bottom, in your opinion? I say Bama.

EA: I'm still going with LSU. While I'm impressed with the slew of talent in Alabama's backfield, I just think the Tigers have a little more punch in their group. And both have injuries to key players in Jalston Fowler and Alfred Blue. Take Blue out of the equation, and Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford Spencer Ware and Jeremy Hill have rushed for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. Not to mention, they are averaging 6.3 yards per carry. But look beyond stats. These guys are absolute animals on the field. Ware just never goes down after one hit. It takes a couple of guys to bring him down, while Hilliard is more of the complete package with his strength and speed. Ford led the team in rushing last year and really looks like he's getting his burst back And Hill might be the most talented, but hasn't really been able to show all of his stuff. Also, add fullback J.C. Copeland to the mix and this is the tough backfield to face. With Fowler out, Alabama doesn't have the same big-bodied blocker and pounder that LSU has in Copeland.

Instant analysis: LSU 12, Auburn 10

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
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No. 2 LSU entered Jordan-Hare Stadium as a 20-point favorite Saturday night against Auburn. Instead, the Tigers escaped by the skin of their teeth with a 12-10 victory.

Here's how it transpired in a classic, defensive SEC nail-biter on the Plains.

It was over when: LSU cornerback Tharold Simon intercepted Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier on a fourth down desperation heave to end Auburn's bid at a last-second miracle win.

Game ball goes to: LSU running back Spencer Ware announced his return to college football with a hard-nosed night in place of injured starter Alfred Blue. Ware beat up on Auburn for 90 hard-earned yards on 16 carries. He also caught two passes for 44 yards, one of which was a 33-yard gain on a crucial third and four late in the fourth quarter.

Game ball part II: You probably won't see a better performance from punters this season. LSU punter Brad Wing booted eight balls on the night for 338 yards -- a 42.3-yard average -- with three of those falling inside the Auburn 20. Auburn punter Steven Clark knocked seven punts of his own for 287 yards -- a 41-yard average -- with two of his punts downed inside the LSU 20.

Key stat: LSU committed nine penalties for 80 yards, several of them coming in dead-ball situations. The Bayou Bengals committed two costly turnovers in the first half, but they bounced back to force three Auburn turnovers in the second half.

Key stat part II: LSU scored its only touchdown of the night with 4:18 to play in the first quarter -- a one-yard run from running back Michael Ford. Auburn held the Tigers out of the end zone for the next 49 minutes of play after that.

What it means: This was LSU's first big test of the season -- the Tigers' first SEC game and their first trip outside the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium. To say they didn't live up to the No. 2 ranking is an understatement. The Tigers played ugly, and their offense at times displayed the same problems that limited LSU in 2011. That said, the LSU defense did its part by holding Auburn to a mere 183 yards of offense, and the Tigers got the all-important win.

Auburn showed resiliency in fighting to the end after a disappointing 1-2 start to the season. But moral victories don't count for much in the SEC, and Auburn is now an ugly 0-2 in SEC play. Frazier looked better than he did against Mississippi State, but he still only threw for 97 yards and threw two costly picks.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
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With several key conference tilts on tap, we take a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 2:

1. Hello Missouri, Hello Texas A&M: Even though Missouri has already played a game as an SEC member, Missouri and Texas A&M “officially” become league members Saturday when the Tigers take on Georgia and the Aggies face Florida. It’s fitting that the two newcomers would play traditional powers in their first league games, and it’s also fitting that both would open SEC play at home. The eyes of the league will turn to College Station, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. ET and then to Columbia, Mo., at 7:45 p.m. ET. It is indeed a new day in the SEC.

2. Missouri’s inexperience up front: Blocking Georgia’s defensive front with a veteran offensive line is no easy task, but the Tigers will try to do it a bit short-handed. Senior right guard Jack Meiners is questionable for the game with a knee injury. His size and strength inside would be invaluable against the Bulldogs. Former walk-on Max Copeland is scheduled to start in Meiners’ place. And at left guard, true freshman Evan Boehm is the starter. Senior Travis Ruth was slated to be the starter at left guard, but tore his left triceps tendon in August and underwent surgery.

3. More touches for Gurley: In his debut last week, Georgia freshman running back Todd Gurley carried the ball eight times for 100 yards and had touchdown runs of 55 and 10 yards. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Coach Mark Richt said he would “definitely” like to see Gurley touch the ball more Saturday against Missouri than he did last week. But the Bulldogs aren’t going to forget about fellow freshman Keith Marshall and sophomore Ken Malcome. Richt said Gurley probably would have carried it a few more times last week but that he got a little light-headed after his 100-yard kickoff return.

4. Driskel takes the reins: It’s Jeff Driskel's job, and Florida coach Will Muschamp has told him that there’s no need to be looking over his shoulder Saturday. It was important that the Gators settle on a starting quarterback prior to going to Texas A&M, and that’s exactly what Muschamp did coming out of Florida’s ho-hum 27-14 season-opening victory over Bowling Green. Driskel is a better runner than Jacoby Brissett and has a better chance of extending the play when things break down. More than anything, though, it’s going to be imperative that the Gators play well around Driskel. The running game looks to be in good hands with Mike Gillislee, but the Gators are going to need more big plays like the one Frankie Hammond turned in against Bowling Green. He took a quick out, shook a tackle and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown. It’s been a while since the Florida receivers have made those kind of plays consistently.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel earned the nod as Florida's starting quarterback heading into the SEC opener at Texas A&M; can his receivers step up?
5. More first-timers: In Week 1, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, Georgia’s Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace stole the show among the newcomers in the league. There are sure to be a few more that break out this week. Keep an eye on Missouri freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The Tigers will look to get him more involved in the offense. And at Texas A&M, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel makes his debut along with true freshman cornerback De'Vante Harris, who earned his way into the starting lineup soon after preseason camp began. Two other true freshmen worth watching at Texas A&M are both known for their big-play skills -- receiver Thomas Johnson and running back Trey Williams.

6. Ascending to No. 1: Alabama coach Nick Saban scolded the media this week for not giving Western Kentucky proper respect. That said, we’ll change the subject a little bit from the impending blowout this Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide moved to No. 1 in both polls after routing then-No. 8 Michigan 41-14 in the season opener. Since the preseason Associated Press poll began in 1950, only two teams have ascended to No. 1 in the poll after Week 1 and stayed there the rest of the season. Nebraska did it in 1971 after Notre Dame was the preseason No. 1 selection, and USC did it in 1972 after Nebraska was tabbed preseason No. 1.

7. Connor Shaw’s status: There’s still no final word on whether South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw will play Saturday against East Carolina, but he gave a thumbs-up to reporters as he left the practice field Wednesday. Coach Steve Spurrier said it could be a game-time decision. Spurrier said the key was Shaw being able to throw effectively Wednesday and Thursday in practice without considerable pain. Shaw’s teammates said he looked like his old self Wednesday in practice. Shaw is dealing with a bruised right (throwing) shoulder after taking a knee to the shoulder area last Thursday against Vanderbilt. Wednesday was the first time he’d done anything in practice since the season-opening victory over the Commodores. Sophomore Dylan Thompson is Shaw’s backup.

8. Breaking through in the SEC opener: Dropping the SEC opener hasn’t just been a problem for Mississippi State since Dan Mullen has been on the job. The Bulldogs haven’t won their SEC opener since 1999, when they beat South Carolina 17-0. They started 8-0 that season. Under Mullen, they’ve lost their past three SEC openers to Auburn, including the past two by a combined 10 points. The Bulldogs get a chance to end that drought Saturday when Auburn visits Scott Field. It’s also a chance for Mullen to break through in the West. His only three wins over Western Division foes since taking the job in 2009 have been over Ole Miss. He’s 0-12 against everybody else in the West.

9. LSU’s running back carousel: As problems go in this league, it’s a great one to have. LSU may have too many good running backs ... if that’s possible. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue each rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU’s opener. Hilliard had 141, and Blue, who started the game, had 123. A year ago, it was Michael Ford and Spencer Ware carrying most of the load for the Tigers in the running game, although Hilliard’s role grew later in the season. Ford led the team with 756 yards in 2011, and Ware had 707 yards. Ford had eight carries for 50 yards in the opener. His eligibility had been in question until he won an appeal the week before the game. Ware didn’t play in the opener after he was slowed by a thigh injury. Can you play four running backs and keep them all happy? Something says the Tigers are going to find out. Either way, it’s a sweet luxury to have.

10. Hamilton does Little Rock: Arkansas senior receiver Cobi Hamilton left the Hogs’ opener last week in the first quarter after catching two passes for 13 yards. Arkansas didn’t specify his injury other than to say it was above his shoulders. Coach John L. Smith said Hamilton should be fine for this week, which goes without saying. The game is in Little Rock, and Hamilton has been at his best in War Memorial Stadium. He’s played in six games there for the Hogs and has 22 catches for 644 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of his five 100-yard receiving games have come in Little Rock. In other words, if you have Hamilton on your fantasy team, you might want to be sure he’s in your lineup this week.

SEC West post-spring notes

May, 8, 2012
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The good folks over at the SEC office delivered a plethora of post-spring notes for us to dive into as summer creeps closer and closer.

I've split it up by division, so you all aren't overwhelmed. We'll start with the SEC West:

ALABAMA
  • The attendance for A-Day was 78,526 (1st in the SEC and 2nd nationally this year to Ohio State) which was the fifth-largest in school history. Each spring game under coach Nick Saban has had an attendance of 78,200 (2008) or higher.
  • As an SEC head coach (beginning in 2001 at LSU and 2007 at Alabama), Saban has totaled 73 NFL draft picks with 20 first-round selections and 10 among the top 10 overall.
  • During the last academic year, Alabama’s football program led the SEC (in what is believed to be a conference record) with a total of 38 student-athletes on the Academic All-SEC Honor Roll. A total of 22 players were on the bowl roster who had already earned their degrees, which was tied for first nationally in terms of graduates on bowl rosters.
  • Of Alabama’s 13 starters lost, all were either drafted or signed free -agent contracts with the NFL. Included among those 13 were the four first-rounders along with LB Courtney Upshaw (2nd round), NG Josh Chapman (5th round), DB DeQuan Menzie (5th round) and TE Brad Smelley (7th round). OG Alfred McCullough, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, C William Vlachos and LB Jerrell Harris each signed as free agents following the draft.
ARKANSAS
  • Arkansas is the only team in the SEC to return a quarterback (Tyler Wilson) with a 3,000-yard passing season in his career and a running back (Knile Davis) with a 1,000-yard rushing season.
  • Arkansas has been ranked in 32 straight Associated Press polls, tied for the seventh-longest active streak in the nation, and in the top 10 for nine straight polls, which also ranks seventh among active streaks in the country.
  • Arkansas finished the 2011 season undefeated at home for the first time since 1999. With seven home victories in 2011, the Razorbacks have 19 wins at home in the past three years, which is tied for the fourth-highest total in the NCAA. Arkansas enters the 2012 season with an 11-game home winning streak, the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
  • Kicker Zach Hocker enters his junior season as Arkansas' record holder for career field goal percentage with his success rate of 80.4 percent. He also ranks in the top 10 in school history in six other categories and finished the 2011 season second in the SEC in points per game, field goals made per game and touchback percentage.
AUBURN
  • Auburn returns 48 lettermen (20 offense, 26 defense, 2 specialists). Of the 68 scholarship players who participated in spring drills, 61 percent (38) were underclassmen.
  • The Tigers start the 2012 season in the same location as they finished the 2011 campaign, playing in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. On Sept. 1, Auburn opens with Clemson in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game. The Tigers completed the 2011 season with a 43-24 victory over Virginia in the Chick-fil-a Bowl on Dec. 31. Auburn’s 2012 schedule features eight games against bowl participants from a year ago, including five that played in traditional New Year’s games.
  • Junior punter Steven Clark, one of three finalists for last year’s Ray Guy Award, is one of two returning first team All-SEC honorees for Auburn, along with junior defensive end Corey Lemonier. Returnees Philip Lutzenkirchen (senior tight end) and Onterio McCalebb (senior all-purpose back) were second team all-SEC selections in 2011.
LSU
  • The Tigers have four running backs coming back who had seven or more rushing touchdowns (Spencer Ware 8, Kenny Hilliard 8, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue 7).
  • LSU has five returning offensive linemen with starts to their credit, led by C P.J. Lonergan with 26 and OG Josh Dworczyk with 26. Other linemen with career starts to their credit include LT Chris Faulk (13), RT Alex Hurst (23) and RG Josh Williford (9). A sixth offensive lineman – La’el Collins – came out of spring practice as possibly the starter at left guard.
  • Defensively, LSU returns its top two tacklers (Tyrann Mathieu 76, Eric Reid 76) and its top two leaders in both tackles for loss (Barkevious Mingo 15.0, Sam Montgomery 13.5) and sacks (Montgomery 9.0, Mingo 8.0).
  • LSU returns 11 players on defense that started at least one game a year ago, including five defensive linemen.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Mississippi State is one of only two SEC teams to bring back all 10 on-field coaches from last season. The entire staff continuity is a first in more than a decade (1999-2000) for the Bulldogs.
  • Dan Mullen enters the 2012 campaign with 21 wins in his first three seasons, the second most in school history (Alllyn McKeen, 26, 1939-41). Mississippi State had only won 21 games over any three-year stretch eight times prior to Mullen’s arrival.
  • Wide receiver Chad Bumphis enters the season with 101 career receptions, good for eighth in school history and 61 shy of David Smith’s (1968-70) record of 162. The Tupelo native needs five touchdowns to reach the school record of 17 held by Eric Moulds (1993-95) and Justin Jenkins (2000-03).
OLE MISS
  • Five returning offensive linemen have each started five or more games in their career, including junior starting center Evan Swindall. Senior A.J. Hawkins and sophomore Aaron Morris settled in at the guards during the spring, while a pair of potential first-time starters, junior Emmanuel McCray and mid-year JUCO transfer Pierce Burton, have taken the lead at the tackles.
  • Special teams remains a strength of the Rebels, led by 2010 NCAA punting champion and two-time All-SEC senior Tyler Campbell. In addition, senior K Bryson Rose has made 25 of 29 career field goals and 65-of-67 PATs.
  • In the return game, junior running back Jeff Scott has established himself as a weapon during his career, ranking 20th in the country in kickoff returns in 2010 and helping Ole Miss finish third as a team nationally in punt returns in 2011.
TEXAS A&M
  • Senior Dustin Harris enters the 2012 football season as the reigning punt return average statistical champion. The cornerback from Livingston, Texas, led the NCAA with a 18.9 average on 18 returns in 2011, with a 72-yard touchdown return against Kansas. Against the Jayhawks, Harris set a school record with 162 punt return yards.
  • Senior Ryan Swope, from Austin, Texas, has career numbers of 180 catches for 2,204 yards and is chasing Jeff Fuller’s school records of 233 catches for 3,092 yards. Fuller’s records would appear to be within range after Swope’s record-setting junior season that saw him set school standards with 89 catches for 1,207 yards.
  • The Aggies led the nation with 51 sacks in 2011 (six more than the second-best team), and A&M’s top two pass-rushing threats return in 2012. In fact, Texas A&M is the only team in the nation with two returnees that posted 8.5 or more sacks in 2011. Senior Sean Porter led the Big 12 with .73 sacks per game (No. 19 nationally), while junior Damontre Moore chipped in .71 per game (No. 21 nationally).
  • Despite attempting the ninth most pass attempts in the NCAA FBS, the Aggies did a remarkable job of protecting their quarterback in 2011. In 13 games, A&M allowed just nine sacks for a NCAA-low 44 lost yards. Four of five starters return from the 2011 offensive front, including juniors-to-be OTs Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who have been mentioned as first-round draft picks in several early 2013 mock drafts.
  • The offensive line was penalized for holding just twice in 2011 and enters 2012 with a streak of 11 straight games without a holding call against a lineman.

LSU should reload in 2012

January, 11, 2012
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For those of you hoping you’ve heard the last of Les Miles and his LSU Tigers, think again.

While LSU came up short with a poor performance in its 21-0 loss to Alabama in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game Monday, the Tigers won’t be going anywhere.

In fact, they might be right back in the national title picture next season.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Matheiu is one of several stars returning to LSU next season.
LSU returns most of the talent that helped the Tigers get to New Orleans, so that trip to South Beach for next year’s championship game is very much in play.

The quarterback position should receive an upgrade with Zach Mettenberger taking over, top receiving threats Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham return and LSU’s defense should return mostly intact.

“When you look at that you think we pretty much have the same team,” said sophomore defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who had 54 tackles, including 10 for loss last season. “There are little voids in our team, but they can be filled. That’s the best part about it.”

What might be the scariest part about LSU is the fact that along with Brockers, defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan were sophomores in 2011. So were defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid, along with linebacker Kevin Minter.

Offensive players around the SEC all just shuttered at once at the thought of that, but it gets worse. Cornerback Tharold Simon, who defended 12 passes and had two interceptions, will be a junior, and defensive linemen Anthony “Freak” Johnson, Ego Ferguson and Jermauria Rasco will only be sophomores.

Offensively, LSU brings back all four members of its bullish running team. Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue were all sophomores last season and combined for 2,002 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Oh, and freshman Kenny Hilliard might have the most talent of any of his running back partners. He came on late and rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns during his first season.

Beckham appears to be a real budding star in the SEC. He was second on the team with 41 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns. He showed deep threat ability along the way, but has tremendous hands. He can really go up and get passes.

Also, keep an eye on rising sophomore receiver Jarvis Landry. He only caught four passes this season, but he flashed some pretty good speed at times in 2011 and with his 6-foot, 190-pound frame, he’ll be able to get pretty physical with opposing defensive backs.

With the recruiting class Miles hauled in 2011, there will naturally be more names that emerge in 2012, and this year's recruiting class looks to be another stellar one for The Hat.

Monday was rough for the Tigers, but Mathieu said there is hope for the immediate future. There is certainly motivation in the loss to the Crimson Tide after what was turning into a truly historic season, but the Tigers will have no problem picking their heads up in 2012.

“Those guys are ready to get on the field, ready to make their mark,” Mathieu said. “That’s something to lean on right now.”

“We gotta get the ball back rolling and be in the same position next year and hopefully win it.”
Jordan JeffersonChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 53 yards passing and 15 yards rushing against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS -- The ride is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three keys for No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) in Monday night's Allstate BCS National Championship Game against No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1):

Jordan Jefferson's play: You never quite know which Jefferson will show up in games. Will it be the one who stumbled through the first half of the SEC championship game against Georgia? Or, as he did against Arkansas, will it be the one who threw for 208 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 48 yards and another score? Jefferson has that Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde quality. Alabama's players lauded Jefferson's running ability and referred to him as the Tigers' X-factor on offense. While he can hurt teams with his feet, he can also scare his team with his passing decisions. He isn't a top-notch thrower, so keeping him comfortable will be key and it will also be important to make him effective in the option game.

Put pressure on AJ McCarron: You know Alabama's offense will go through running back Trent Richardson, but Alabama is going to look to stretch the field with its young quarterback. McCarron was flustered for most of the night when these two teams met back in November. He'll already be in a pretty hostile environment inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, so making him uncomfortable in the pocket will really benefit LSU's defense. McCarron has the skill to make some plays against the Tigers' defense, but this is still his first year as Alabama's starter and this is the biggest game he's ever been in. Mistakes will occur if he loses the mental game.

Continue to pound the ball on the ground: LSU made its mark on offense by wearing down defenses with its running game. What made the Tigers so successful in this area was their ability to throw out multiple backs at a time. Spencer Ware entered the year as the starter, but LSU got solid production out of three other running backs and now have a new leading rusher in Michael Ford and have found the back of the future in Kenny Hilliard. LSU was one of just two FBS schools to rush for more than 100 yards on Alabama's top-ranked rushing defense this season after churning out 148 yards on the ground in November.
NEW ORLEANS -- When Alabama’s defensive players think about Round 1 with LSU, all those blown assignments in the running game stand out.

LSU was one of only two FBS teams to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama’s defense. The Tigers rushed for 148 yards on 41 carries and wore down one of the best front sevens in the nation.

No matter how good or gritty the defense is, it’s tough to stop a running game that throws fresh legs out there like LSU does. The Tigers can have four to five backs carry the ball on any given drive. It keeps the Tigers’ legs fresh and defenders exhausted.

“It’s hard for teams to prepare for us because they don’t know who they’re going to get or what they’re going to get,” said LSU running back Michael Ford, who led the Tigers with 72 rushing yards against Alabama in November.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Spruce Derden/US PresswireOne of the Crimson Tide's biggest challenges will be containing Jordan Jefferson, who thrives at escaping pressure and breaking big plays.
Tide players are certainly giving LSU’s backs their due. They understand that those guys can play. But they feel some of their own mistakes definitely helped get the Tigers rolling.

Players were out of position. Running gaps weren’t filled. Jobs didn’t get done.

“We had guys in the right spot, but then we’d have another guy who’s not,” Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. “It’s on all 11 players on defense to get to the ball and be in the right spot.”

The most frustrating part for players is that stopping the run is what Alabama does. Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense and is giving up just 2.5 yards per carry.

Defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key is to own the big uglies up front and force LSU to throw. The more teams try to beat Alabama through the air, the more mistakes are made.

“We have to go out and create a new line of scrimmage,” Chapman said. “One thing we do try to do is make teams one-dimensional, and that’s by throwing the ball. Once you throw the ball, our DBs have a mindset that once it’s in the air, it’s ours.”

But that won’t be so easy with this LSU team. The Tigers have yet another running threat that creates a supreme multiheaded backfield monster.

When asked what Alabama’s defense had to account for most during Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game, linebacker Dont’a Hightower emphatically said two words: Jordan Jefferson.

“He’s their MVP,” Hightower said. “He’s the reason why they’re doing so good right now.”

He’s become such a weapon because he has the ability to run. He can squirm his way out of tough situations when the pocket collapses, opening up running lanes and passing plays.

Defensive breakdowns helped Jefferson be successful on designed runs, options and wild scrambles. Tide players are particularly worried about the option because it brings the element of Jefferson running AND one of the many running backs right back into the picture.

For Alabama’s defense to be successful in stopping LSU’s rushing attack, which led the SEC with 220.4 yards against league opponents, Hightower said it comes down to closing in on rushing lanes, filling gaps and throwing in some tricky defensive looks to confuse Jefferson.

When Jefferson keeps the ball, it’s all about containment.

“I feel like once you keep a dual-threat quarterback inside the pocket, I feel like he’s kind of done,” Hightower said.

LSU’s ground game can hurt Alabama in so many different ways. From Jefferson’s legs, to runners that average well over 220 pounds, LSU’s backfield is a physical force that overpowered Alabama the first time.

Well, Hightower says bring it. Hightower is excited for his shot at redemption and wants to prove that Alabama is just as tough.

Hightower wants that robust running game to come right at this defense.

“I like power guys,” he said. “I don’t like chasing the guys who run the 4.23s. I don’t like that. I’d rather them line up in the I-formation and just run at me.”
The Arkansas defense wore down more and more with each bone-crushing hit delivered on the Bayou last Friday.

The Tigers’ packed running backs corps punished the Razorbacks with 286 rushing yards on 46 carries, but this wasn’t the first time LSU’s backfield took total control of a game.

LSU’s stable of running backs has pounded opposing defenses all year. The Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, churning out 216 yards on the ground a game, and have 32 rushing touchdowns.

It starts with Spencer Ware, who head coach Les Miles labeled as the hard-nosed bruiser. Then there’s Michael Ford, who packs a punch, but has a bit more acceleration. Alfred Blue is the slasher and Kenny Hilliard, a true freshman, might be the most gifted with his size, speed and power.

“They're very well equipped to run the football and to run it in such a way that they just wear you down as the game goes on from what I've seen,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who must prepare his defense for LSU’s running game in Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“Everybody's having trouble with it. That's why they're undefeated. They're big and physical.”

It almost seems unfair that LSU can rotate four quality backs throughout a game and have an offensive line that has played so well throughout the season. The O-line is pushing and pulling at the defense perfectly to get backs free and gets help from fullback James Stampley, whom Richt referred to as a “beast.”

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Jarvis Jones insists the Bulldogs are not intimidated by LSU's ground game. "We're physical, just like they are," he said.
But Saturday could be different for the Tigers. Their running dominance will face quite the challenge inside the Georgia Dome once the Bulldogs’ vaunted rushing defense says hello -- and it won’t be a very welcoming hello, either.

Georgia’s rush defense ranks sixth nationally (95 yards allowed a game) and is giving up just 2.5 yards per carry to SEC teams.

Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones said he and his teammates aren't intimidated by LSU’s power running game. He said they’re excited to see what LSU has to show and thinks Georgia can match LSU’s intensity.

“We're physical, just like they are,” said Jones, who has an SEC-high 19.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks. “I believe we've just got to penetrate, get on the ball, make plays. When we get our hand on them, we've just got to bring it to the ground no matter what.”

You have to like the confidence.

It’s no secret that Georgia won’t be favored Saturday, but the Bulldogs are riding a 10-game winning streak and have one of the most underrated defenses out there.

Still, Saturday poses Georgia’s toughest defensive assignment up front.

“It helps to wear down a defense in the sense that our guys don't get as tired,” LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said of the Tigers’ running game. “We got fresh legs here at the end of the season. We've got three, four, maybe five guys that can all run the ball and run it hard.

“The best thing for us is we don't have to put the whole load on one guy. When one of those guys comes in, he can just pound it as much as he can and look forward to getting a little break.”

However, Georgia is no stranger to making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs are first in the SEC, and 12th nationally, with 91 tackles for loss and opposing offenses have lost 390 yards on those tackles.

“We've prided ourselves all year on being stout against the run,” Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin said.

“If we can contain their run game, that will be a big plus for us and help us be successful.”

Containing it won’t be easy, but Georgia’s fully aware of that. A good running game not only wears down defenses but it opens up the passing game, something LSU did well against Arkansas.

For Miles, there’s no question his offense -- and team -- wouldn’t be this successful without its tough running game.

“We're fortunate there that we have guys that can step on the field and give us some advantages,” Miles said.

“We're capable any time you have those kind of guys. It allows you to run the football effectively. You have to have that matching tailback that can take a pitch and go speed or come downhill into a tight space and run with physical ability. I'd have to think that our running back group gives us that.”

Video: LSU's Michael Ford

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
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Edward Aschoff talks to LSU running back Michael Ford about Saturday's matchup with Alabama.

Running backs a driving force for LSU

November, 3, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- People usually stress quality over quantity.

It’s tough to perfect that and it’s even harder to get both.

Well, that’s what LSU is working with in its backfield.

The top-ranked Tigers (8-0, 5-0) are putting a pounding on opposing front sevens with their stable of running backs.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
AP Photo/Wade PayneSpencer Ware has been the most productive back among LSU's dangerous group of rushers.
First, there’s Spencer Ware, who is the leader of the pack and the battering ram. He runs with power and grace while continuing to get extra yardage with those fancy spin moves.

Next you have Michael Ford. He isn’t as big as Ware, but he still packs a punch. He has a little more speed and complements Ware well in the offense.

And don’t forget about Alfred Blue. Even at 6 feet 2 inches, he’s a versatile back who has as many yards for loss as touchdowns (4).

Together, these three have totaled 1,205 yards and 16 touchdowns on 264 carries this season. They are a major reason why LSU is fourth in the SEC in rushing (189 yards a game) and why the Tigers enter their showdown with No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) as the No. 1 team in the land.

“It’s nice to have a stable of running backs,” LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said.

“‘Fresh legs’ like I like to say. Guys don’t have to carry the ball 30 times a game. They can get 10 or 15 and run as hard as they can every time and you don’t have to worry about them wearing down or getting out of breathe or getting banged up.”

It’s LSU’s running backs who have done most of the roughing up this season.

Ford said he would love for he and his teammates to take the credit for a successful running game, but all of his praise was directed toward running backs coach Frank Wilson. Ford said he’s the one who comes up with the game plans and makes the decisions about who will play and when someone will play.

He keeps them fresh during games and hungry during practice.

“You might not know who it is, but Coach Frank gets us ready for anybody who goes in there during practice,” Ford said. “We just rotate, rotate, rotate.”

It’s that attitude that has this group excelling. Ware might be considered the No. 1, but all three think they’re starters.

“You never know who is going to start because practice won’t tell you,” he said. “We all have to go out there and play hard.

“It helps out a lot because when we get to the game, nobody misses a beat.”

It could get frustrating not knowing what your role will be in upcoming games, but this group doesn’t mind. Ford said any one of them could take the reins from beginning to end.

That was made pretty obvious when Ware was suspended for the Auburn game, leaving the other backs to shoulder the load. This time it was yet another running back who stepped up in during Ware’s absence. Ford gained 82 yards on 12 carries, but it was true freshman Kenny Hilliard who had a breakout game, gaining 85 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

Before the Auburn game, Hilliard had just five carries.

Having multiple backs carrying the rock during a game doesn’t mean changing offensive styles. Blackwell said that even though each back runs differently, the offense treats the running backs the same when they’re on the field and it’s all about creating holes.

“We block the same no matter who’s back there,” he said.

What can get lost in the rushing bundle is that these backs’ success helps open up the passing game. Quarterback Jarrett Lee said his job is much easier and the passing game is tougher to stop when he has the luxury of handing the ball off to a handful of running backs.

“It helps a lot. When you have a stable of backs like we do who can come in and make plays like that then it opens up the passing game,” Lee said. “It opens up the play-action passing game for us.”

Ware is back from suspension and LSU’s bye week has this group feeling better than ever. Ford said throwing multiple backs out and keeping these players vibrant can be hazardous for a defense.

“Definitely it wears them down because every time somebody goes in there, you know they’re fresh when the defense is tired,” he said.

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