NCF Nation: Michael Sam

SEC helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
Nov 2
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Saturday's SEC games were loaded with players who deserved helmet stickers, including Arkansas' Hunter Henry (seven catches for 110 yards) and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace (341 passing yards, 2 TDs, 61 rushing yards, TD) in losing causes.

We should also mention the impacts that Mississippi State defensive back Will Redmond (intercepted a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 17-10 win over Arkansas), Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (notched 3.5 sacks to bring his season total to 11, a new record for SEC freshmen) and Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary (matched a school record with five touchdown passes) made on their teams' respective wins, but we can only make five sticker picks.

Here are our choices from another memorable Saturday in college football's toughest conference:

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: We easily could have gone with running back Cameron Artis-Payne (27 carries, 143 yards, TD) or receiver Sammie Coates (five catches, 122 yards, TD), but we'll take Marshall. The senior coolly led the Tigers back from a 10-point deficit in the second half by repeatedly converting on third down (the Tigers were 5-for-7 in the second half) against No. 4 Ole Miss. Marshall led the No. 3 Tigers to a huge SEC win by completing 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushing for 50 yards and two scores.

QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: Making his first start of the season, the sophomore helped Tennessee rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the last five minutes of regulation and then beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime. Dobbs set a new single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (166 yards, including touchdowns of 7, 36 and 3 yards) and passed for 301 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He hit Jason Croom with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

WR Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Normally we wouldn't hand a helmet sticker to a guy on a losing team, but Cooper can't play defense, too. He caught 11 passes for a school-record 233 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 85 yards. He ran for an 11-yard score. He tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds. And he even recovered a late onside kick. South Carolina surrendered 645 yards to Tennessee, which obviously put a damper on the evening for the Gamecocks, but Cooper was simply phenomenal.

Florida's running game: We're not just giving stickers to running backs Kelvin Taylor (25 carries for 197 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 65 yards) and Matt Jones (25 carries for 192 yards and touchdowns of 44 and 1 yards) in Saturday's 38-20 rout of No. 11 Georgia. Florida's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, helping their tailback tandem roll up most of the Gators' 60 rushing attempts for 418 yards. Only one opponent (Auburn with 430 yards in 1978) has ever run for more yards against a Georgia defense. Everyone involved with Florida's running game deserves recognition after Saturday's upset win.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri: The Tigers' offense was slightly improved in Saturday's 20-10 win against Kentucky, but the day belonged to Ray and the defense. Ray notched a pair of sacks -- including a fourth-down sack of Patrick Towles on Kentucky's final play -- to raise his season total to 12. In the process, he broke Missouri's single-season record of 11.5 sacks previously held by Aldon Smith and Michael Sam.


By the end of the day Saturday, there might be a clear front-runner in the SEC East race -- and that team will likely be the winner of the matchup between No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).

With help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's take a look at key factors in Saturday's game in Columbia:

No Gurley, what now?: By now it's no secret that Georgia's offense will operate without the dominant running ability of tailback Todd Gurley (94 carries, 773 yards, 8 TDs, SEC-high 154.6 rushing yards per game). The guy was a Heisman Trophy front-runner for good reason, but now Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must assemble a game plan against Missouri for the second straight year without his most potent weapon.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will miss the unique ability of Todd Gurley (above) to gain yards after contact, but freshman Nick Chubb is a suitable replacement.
The Bulldogs played without injured backs Gurley and Keith Marshall last season and actually fared OK on the ground against Missouri. Then-freshmen J.J. Green (12 carries, 87 yards) and Brendan Douglas (14-70) enjoyed success on the ground against Mizzou last season and Georgia now must turn to Plans B, C and D against the Tigers again.

Green is now playing defense, so he's out of the picture. But Nick Chubb provides a fairly decent resemblance to Gurley. The freshman (31-224, 7.2 yards per carry) is Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Gurley. Marshall and Sony Michel remain sidelined by injuries, so Chubb and Douglas (sixth on the team with 47 rushing yards in limited duty) might be in line for the biggest workloads out of the backfield -- particularly Chubb.

About one of every five of Chubb's carries (six out of 31) has gone for at least 10 yards, and he's averaging 3.77 yards after contact per carry, which isn't much worse than Gurley's 3.9 YAC -- the best among all Power 5 backs with at least 50 carries. Nonetheless, Gurley's absence is devastating for Georgia and will require massive adjustments late in the week in order for the Bulldogs to get out of Columbia with a win.

One thing that helps the Bulldogs' cause is that Missouri's defense has had mixed results against the run.

Indiana ran 50 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns in its upset win over the Tigers. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman averaged 3.95 yards after contact per run that day en route to rushing 19 times for 132 yards and a score. As we've already discussed, YAC is one of power runner Chubb's trademarks, so Missouri tacklers are going to have to bring it Saturday. He's not Gurley, but he ain't bad, either.

Mizzou pass rush: Although Georgia has been more run-heavy compared to recent seasons -- the team is running the ball 64 percent of the time this season compared to 51 percent in 2013 -- the Bulldogs need to produce more in the passing game with Gurley out of the picture.

And Missouri -- particularly star defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- would be perfectly happy to see the Bulldogs try to air it out. Ray ranks second in the FBS and leads the SEC with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Golden is third in the SEC with four sacks and fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Georgia fans might remember Ray as the pass-rusher who laid a crushing hit on quarterback Aaron Murray last season, forcing a fumble that Mizzou end Michael Sam scooped up and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 28-10 lead.

Ray had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards in the Tigers' comeback win against South Carolina. Between Ray, Matt Hoch and Harold Brantley, Mizzou had four sacks for 37 yards of lost ground for the Gamecocks.

More good news for Mizzou: It hasn't needed to blitz in order to generate effective pressure. Since the start of last season, the Tigers have 50 sacks when sending four pass-rushers or fewer, the most of any Power 5 school.

QB comparison: Georgia and Missouri both expected more productivity from the quarterback position than what they've gotten so far.

The issue might be slightly more alarming with Mizzou's Maty Mauk (1,110 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs), whom many college football analysts expected to have a big season. Thus far, Mauk has a 47.1 score in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, which is the third-worst in the SEC and more than 30 points lower than his 77.9 from last season.

Third down in particular has been an issue for the Mizzou QB. Mauk is completing an SEC-low 38.1 percent of his third-down passes and ranks 10th among SEC quarterbacks in conversion percentage (29 percent).

Georgia's beleaguered secondary is vulnerable to a strong passing attack, but will Mauk -- whose breakout game last season was against Georgia -- take advantage? That might be the determining factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs are in the middle of the SEC pack in pass defense (seventh at 223 YPG), but they have surrendered 284 passing yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win against Tennessee, and 271 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to South Carolina. Doing a better job against Mauk, receiver Bud Sasser (fourth in the SEC with averages of six catches and 90.8 yards per game), and the rest of Mizzou's receivers would greatly improve Georgia's chances of victory.

We've already discussed the challenge Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will face from Missouri's dynamic pass rush. Aside from avoiding mistakes with Ray and Golden breathing down his neck, how much will Georgia expect from Mason and the passing game? Mason (687 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) ranks 55th in the Total QBR standings with a 59.7 score -- not horrible, but not particularly impressive, either.

Mason hasn't worked with a full complement of receivers yet, but that's starting to change. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell played for the first time in more than a year last week against Vanderbilt, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt expects receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome to be back for the Missouri game, too.
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams

It has been a special few months for former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, and on Wednesday, he received a very special honor when he was selected as the winner of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

The reigning SEC defensive player of the year announced that he's gay following the 2013 season and has a chance to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Sam, who could be drafted in this week's NFL draft, will receive the award, which is given to individuals who transcend sports, at the 2014 ESPYs on July 16.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonWith his NFL career on the verge of starting, Michael Sam's is being honored for his courage.
Here's what executive producer of the ESPYs, Maura Mandt said about Sam winning the award:
"In deciding to give Michael this honor, while his courageous act of coming out is a part of it, the story is about the life he led growing up. A man who has consistently lived his life with integrity is never afraid of living this truth."

It's only fitting that Sam be named this year's recipient of such a special award. It took a lot of courage for him to come out publicly in the first place with him being such a high-profile player last season. The strength to come out before even having a job in the NFL locked up was tremendous as well. It also took a lot for him to come out to his teammates and coaches before last season. That certainly couldn't have been easy with the thought of the locker room pushing him away after his announcement.

But it didn't. The Tigers actually got closer.

A year after a 5-7 debut in the SEC, the Tigers won the SEC Eastern Division crown, going 12-2 on the season.

Sam broke a huge barrier within his own locker room, and is now hoping to break a major one in the NFL while inspiring others at the same time.

"I just feel like, you know, because I came out, was the first one to do it -- I think I can be a beacon for others, young athletes ... who are maybe gay or maybe not," Sam said in an interview with ABC's 'Good Morning America' on Tuesday. "And I think I could be a beacon for these people -- a light that, like, 'Hey, I could be comfortable in my own skin and be like Michael Sam.'"
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
1. Back to football on Michael Sam for a moment. Even as SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the Missouri defensive end is projected as a middle-round pick because he hasn’t shown the flexibility or the lateral movement that NFL scouts want at that position. From what I am told of his work at the Senior Bowl, he had trouble changing direction. Sam’s strengths: good hands, which are critical to his demonstrated ability to get off blocks.

2. What a year the California Golden Bears have had: a new coach and a new coaching staff, a 1-11 record, with the victory coming against an FCS team, an average losing margin of 28 points in the Pac-12, a revamped coaching staff, massive debt, dwindling crowds, and all of that pales in comparison to the death of defensive end Ted Agu after he collapsed during conditioning on Friday. It simply has to start getting better.

3. The graduate-and-transfer rule that Jacob Coker (Florida State to Alabama) and Max Wittek (USC to …?) are using is eight years old, and it seems to me that football coaches are finally accepting it. I like what North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren said when graduate quarterback Pete Thomas decided to transfer. “I have really enjoyed coaching him and want him to be successful as a player and in life. Going forward I will do anything I can to help him through his transition as a transfer.” Here’s hoping Thomas has as much success as the last Wolfpack quarterback to use the rule: Russell Wilson.

In interviews with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and the New York Times, Missouri defensive end and All-American Michael Sam said that he's gay.

Shortly after the news broke, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mike Alden released statements supporting Sam and his decision to come out publicly.

Here's what Pinkel said:
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou. Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other. If Michael doesn’t have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don’t think there’s any way he has the type of season he put together.

We talk all the time here in our program about how one of our core values is to respect the cultural differences of others, and this certainly applies. We view ourselves as one big family that has a very diverse collection of people from all walks of life, and if you’re part of our family, we support you.

Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation. This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay. We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that’s a great example of the kind of person he is. We left it that whenever he felt the time was right, however he wanted to make the announcement, that we had his back and we’d be right there with him.

We’re very proud of Michael and the courage he has displayed for coming out. We look forward to following his career, and the success he’s going to have.”

Here's what Alden said:
“We are so proud of Michael for what he has accomplished at Mizzou academically, socially and competitively. This is a young man who earned his degree from MU, was a unanimous All-American on the football field and now he’s being a leader in his personal life. He continues to display great character, courage and compassion. We are proud of him on every level.

We work very hard at the University of Missouri to provide an environment that is respectful and inclusive of all people. We’re pleased with the strides we’ve made over the years with our student-athletes, coaches and staff about respecting and celebrating our differences. We continue to grow every day. We talk all the time about our core value of respect, and we emphasize that in a number of ways, whether it’s through individual actions, team settings, public efforts such as our ‘If You Can Play, You Can Play’ video, and even our Men-for-Men and Women-for-Women programs.

The University’s theme is called ‘One Mizzou.’ What that theme represents is that we are all family, we are all Tigers, and we should all respect and appreciate each other.

We wish Michael all the best in all that he does.”

Michael Sam says he's gay

February, 9, 2014
Feb 9
8:14
PM ET
video Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from Missouri Tigers and the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year, said that he is gay in interviews with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and the New York Times on Sunday.

Sam stated publicly what his teammates and coaches at Mizzou have known since August: "I am an openly, proud gay man."

Sam is eligible for the NFL draft in May. Assuming that he is drafted, Sam could become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL.

"I understand how big this is," he said. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

In 2014, "Gay Man to Enter Workforce" has the everyday-occurrence sound of a headline in The Onion. But when the NFL is involved, it's a first -- and potentially a landmark moment -- in the history of American sports.

Sam's decision to speak out now comes after his experience two weeks ago at the Senior Bowl, where, he said, many already seemed aware of his sexual orientation.

"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he said. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."

To continue reading this story, click here.
Recently, Michael Sam let members of the media in on a little secret behind Missouri's impressive season along the defensive line in 2013: They felt disrespected.

"Everybody thought our D-line was doomed because Sheldon Richardson was gone," Sam told reporters during Senior Bowl practices. "I kind of took that as disrespectful."

After 2012's unsatisfactory 5-7 SEC debut, on the outside it looked like the Tigers could be in more trouble in 2013 with Richardson, a first-round NFL draft pick, gone. What was left was a lot of potential but no proven playmakers.

[+] EnlargeMissouri Tigers
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarkus Golden, right, and the rest of the Missouri defensive line had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2013. With Michael Sam and Kony Ealy gone, Golden could be the star of the show this fall.
Then the actual football started, and the Tigers were a menace up front, leading the SEC with 41 sacks and 107 tackles for loss during their fantastic SEC Year 2 turnaround. Sam, who was one of the nation's biggest surprises, led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Fellow linemen Kony Ealy and Markus Golden combined for 14.5 more sacks and 27 tackles for loss.

That was a ton of production from arguably the SEC's best defensive line. Now, most of it is gone, as Sam graduated and Ealy declared for the NFL draft. But Tigers fans certainly shouldn't fret -- Missouri still has a lot of talent to work with in the trenches in 2014.

It starts with Golden, who didn't get as much love as Sam or Ealy but still managed to record 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss this past season. He has the makings of being a star in the SEC this fall. It was a bit of a surprise to even see him stay, which is a huge win for the Tigers but a loss for the rest of the league. You should be hearing his name a lot this fall.

And you can't double-team him, either. Not with the soon-to-be-not-so-unknown Shane Ray, who collected 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season, coming back at the other end position. He was also second on the team behind Ealy with 11 quarterback hurries. Yep, that was even better than Sam.

Ray, who will be a junior this fall, was a solid reserve for Mizzou last season and flashed signs of being a real handful for offensive linemen to handle. He went five straight games at one point during the season with being a part of a sack and has the chance at a nice breakout season in 2014.

Inside, Mizzou still has Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley and Lucas Vincent. All of these guys have what it takes to clog the middle yet again, and all of them have seen a good amount of time on the field. Brantley, who was a redshirt freshman last fall, could be someone to really keep an eye on going forward. He added around 20 pounds last year to get strong inside yet showed his athleticism and speed on a nifty 26-yard run on a fake punt against Ole Miss. Hoch is an underrated player who somehow figures out how to find the ball on plays, while Vincent has played in every game of his three-year career. Hoch and Vincent combined for 64 tackles, including 10 for loss, last year.

So while the Tigers will no doubt miss Sam and Ealy, they'll be just fine in 2014 with the players returning. This school has churned out defensive line studs in the past, thanks to the developmental skills of defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. With his track record, it appears he knows exactly what he's doing up front. Expect that to continue this fall.

2013 SEC Super Seniors

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
1:30
PM ET
For the fifth consecutive season, we pay homage to the top seniors in the SEC.

We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.

There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.

Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis made one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Chris Davis, CB/RS, Auburn: Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama was the play of the year in college football, maybe the play of the last quarter-century. But that's what he did -- make plays. Davis led the league in punt return average (18.7 yards), tied for the league lead in pass breakups (15) and was second on Auburn's team with 74 tackles. It goes without saying that he was one of the key figures in the Tigers' improbable run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.

Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.

Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiVanderbilt's Jordan Matthews made an SEC-record 112 receptions in the 2013 season.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt: Matthews leaves quite a legacy at Vanderbilt. Not only was he one of the centerpieces of a Vanderbilt team that won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history, but he set a slew of SEC records. His 112 catches this season were the most ever by an SEC player, and he's also the league's career leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.

SEC's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Missouri players sat and watched the Allstate Sugar Bowl with the bewildered feeling the rest of the nation was experiencing. Oklahoma was imposing its will on SEC power Alabama in the heart of SEC country, going from underdog to the talk of the nation on Thursday night.

“It was crazy, it came down to what team wanted it most,” Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham said of the Sooners' 45-31 win. “You looked at Oklahoma and they wanted to win the game, they wanted to be Sugar Bowl champs, they went out and took what was theirs.”

Thus, Missouri players woke up on Friday morning with the knowledge that the weight of an entire conference was on their shoulders. Missouri needed to grab immediate revenge with a victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl if it wanted to defend its conference’s reputation.

The SEC took a punch from the Big 12 in the Sugar Bowl, but the Tigers punched back Friday night with a 41-31 win over Big 12 foe Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium.

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey, Blake Webb
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMissouri might be new to the SEC, but the Tigers understood the importance of beating Oklahoma State and keeping the conference's rep.
“I did feel a tad bit of pressure, because I know we represent the SEC,” senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. “I think [OSU cornerback] Justin Gilbert made a statement earlier this week that the Big 12 was better than the SEC and I think we had to go out and prove the SEC is a force to be reckoned with.”

The Tigers used a combination of a relentless pass-rushing defensive line, strong running game and timely plays to earn their school record-tying 12th victory of the season, equaling the win total of the 2007 team.

Led by Cotton Bowl offensive MVP Henry Josey, Missouri rushed for 256 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry against a Cowboys’ defense that allowed 132.9 rushing yards and 3.46 per carry during the regular season. OSU quarterback Clint Chelf will have nightmares featuring Tigers pass-rushing duo Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Missouri got to Chelf for three sacks, but the Cowboys quarterback was constantly flushed out of the pocket and forced to make plays on the move thanks to the Tigers defensive line, which cemented the win when Sam forced a Chelf fumble that was returned 73 yards for a touchdown by Shane Ray to halt OSU’s hopes of a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.

“First-team All-American makes an All-American play,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.

SEC teams rejoiced as the conference escaped back-to-back losses to Big 12 opponents.

“We believe we’re the best conference,” said Andrew Wilson, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles. “And if you want to be the best conference you have to prove it, that’s why everyone is rooting for each other in these bowl games for everyone to go out and do what they can do.”

Make no mistake, the Tigers wanted the win for themselves, but they also wanted it for their conference.

“That’s something real big, representing the SEC,” Josey said. “The SEC is such a powerful conference, that’s the conference everybody looks to, that’s where the attention is. Coming into this game, that was in the back of our mind, that is always in the back of our mind that we had to hold up the rep for the SEC.”

Now, with its job done, Missouri passes the mantle to Auburn, which has the opportunity to win the eighth consecutive BCS title for the SEC when it takes on Florida State in the BCS National Championship on Monday night.

“Right now it’s up to Auburn to bring it home,” Ealy said. “We want to keep it in the SEC, that’s the most important thing as far as this conference goes.”
In case you didn't know, Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl matchup between No. 8 Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC) and 13th-ranked Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) is a bit of a reunion.

Oklahoma State, proud members of the Big 12, will meet their old brothers who jumped ship for the SEC in 2012.

While a big deal has been made of Friday's meeting and its backstory, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam isn't moved by it. He's actually bored of it.

"I don't really care," Sam said. "We used to be in the Big 12; we're not any more. I think the media is blowing it way out of proportion. I could care less."

Sam might be on to something, but it is pretty cool when you think about the last two Cotton Bowls. This year, it's Mizzou-Oklahoma State. Last year, it was Texas A&M-Oklahoma.

Rematches of games that once had conference stakes on the line now feature bragging rights and even traitor talk in some circles. There are even whispers in Big 12 country that the Tigers ran away from their old league.

So while Sam might not care about the old Big 12 matchup, it does create an interesting storyline, and he'd be crazy to think that no one else in this game isn't intrigued by that aspect of the game.

"It is just a great opportunity to play a great Missouri team; they were in the Big 12, so it is a little rivalry there," Oklahoma State wide receiver Charlie Moore said. "You always want to play the best and always fun to play the SEC. It is going to be a good game no matter what conference they are in and it is fun to be in the Cotton Bowl."

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam is tired of the Missouri vs. Big 12 storyline, but is eager to show the Tigers defense is better than it showed against Auburn.
And, like the Big 12 that Mizzou was used to, this one has the makings of being an old-fashioned shootout in the heart of Texas.

A year removed from an injury-plagued first season in the SEC, the Tigers bit back with one of the SEC's most potent offenses. Mizzou finished the regular season ranking in the top five in the league in passing offense, rushing offense, total offense and scoring. The Tigers went from averaging 356.4 yards a game and 25.8 points in 2012 to 492.9 yards and 39 points in 2013.

The Tigers also went from missing a bowl game to winning the SEC Eastern Division, beating Florida and Georgia and ranking as high as fifth in the BCS standings along the way. If they had beaten Auburn in the SEC championship game, these Tigers would be out in sunny California for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

On the other side, the Cowboys are averaging 440.5 yards per game with an offense that features some "Air Raid," three-back and pistol. They'll throw in some zone-read just to make things interesting.

Sam said he's excited about facing Oklahoma State's passing game, which averages 268.5 yards per game. The Tigers ranked 13th in the SEC in pass defense (256 yards per game), but Sam made it clear that this defense hasn't had an issue defending the pass all season.

"We've never struggled stopping the pass," Sam said confidently. "We want to stop the run so they can be forced to pass. We hope they pass all night, to be honest with you."

Mizzou has 18 interceptions and has given up 16 passing touchdowns. But in games away from Faurot Field, the Tigers gave up 270.7 passing yards per game and quarterbacks enjoyed a combined efficiency rating of 129.3.

Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf has thrown for 200 or more yards in four of his past five games and has 11 touchdowns to four interceptions.

"It definitely takes you back, so I am excited to see the ball in the air a little bit more than the SEC does," cornerback E.J. Gaines said.

Regardless of how the Cowboys approach their offensive plan, this is a chance for Mizzou to show the country that its defense is still worthy of being called a solid unit. Before surrounding 677 yards to Auburn (545 rushing), Missouri held opponents to fewer than 400 yards in five of the previous six games. After being gashed by Auburn, the perception is that the Tigers aren't as steady on defense as they once appeared.

"We've been a great defense all season," Sam said. "We had one bad game and I don't think that should define our season."

What will help define this season is the outcome of tonight's game. A victory would serve as more validation that the new kids deserve their seat at the SEC's big-kid table.

"The win would just prove that we belong in the SEC and we should be respected by everyone in that conference," Sam said. "... I think we earned a lot of respect from our conference, [and a victory would] show we belong where we are and we are one of the best in the country.”

AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
10:00
AM ET
Oklahoma State will want to strike another blow for the Big 12, Missouri will want to defend the SEC’s reputation. It should be a good one.

OSU and Missouri battle in the AT&T Cotton Bowl (7:30 pm ET, FOX) on Friday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Here’s a preview of one of the most evenly matched games of this bowl season.

Who to Watch: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Look out Clint Chelf, Sam is coming for you and he’s been a terror for opposing offenses throughout the year. He led the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. The senior brings a combination of acceleration and athleticism to the table that is very difficult for offenses to stop. If OSU has any hope to win, it can’t let Sam spend his holiday season in the backfield in hot pursuit of Chelf, the Cowboys quarterback, and OSU's running backs.

What to Watch: The interior lines. Missouri has a strong group in the trenches, and OSU’s success has mirrored its ability to control the line of scrimmage. Whoever wins the battle of the big fellas will probably win the game. Both teams have very talented skill players, like OSU receiver Josh Stewart and Missouri running back Henry Josey, who can make plays if given the chance. How do you take those explosive players out of the equation? Win the battle up front.

Why to Watch: The matchup between OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert and Mizzou receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is one reason. The battle between former Big 12 foes is another. These two teams know each other better than the normal bowl matchup, and the Cowboys will be looking to strike another blow for the Big 12 after Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win, while the Tigers will be looking to redeem the SEC. The Sooners’ win over Alabama could very well ramp up the intensity in this one.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 35, Missouri 34. The Cowboys prevail in one of the best games of the bowl season. Neither team dominates in the trenches, so this one is decided by turnovers and key plays on special teams. A late turnover by the Tigers helps OSU score a late touchdown to snatch the victory out of the hands of their former conference rival.

SEC players to watch this bowl season

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
9:00
AM ET
Bowl season is fast approaching and there are plenty of reasons to tune in, especially to your favorite SEC squads. Today, we take a look at five players to keep your eye on during the bowl games:

Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Outback Bowl

[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsOdell Beckham is a thrill a minute. The LSU wide receiver is a threat to score from everywhere on the field.
Beckham has been one of the best pure playmakers in the SEC this season. The receiver/return specialist excels in both of those roles, catching 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns while logging 806 yards on 30 kick returns, 141 yards on punt returns and a 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown. His all-purpose yardage total -- 2,222 -- broke LSU's single-season record previously held by Domanick Davis (2,120). As a result of his stellar season, the honors have rolled in for Beckham: third-team Associated Press All-American, first-team Football Writers Association of America All-American, and the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation's most versatile player.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Chick-Fil-A Bowl

He hasn't declared for the 2014 NFL draft yet, but many believe he will soon enough, which means New Year's Eve will be Johnny Football's last hurrah (how fitting is it that it's on the biggest party night of the year?). By several statistical measures (passing yards, yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns), Manziel has been a better passer than he was in his Heisman Trophy-winning season and, let's be honest, you never know what he's going to do on the field. He puts on a show almost every time he's out there and provides great theater on top of his stellar play, which earned him a return trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist this year. He is in the top 10 nationally in eight different QB-centric statistical categories and is one of college football's best and most entertaining players in recent memory. Watch him while you can.

Tre Mason, Auburn
VIZIO BCS National Championship Game

Mason made a late run at the Heisman Trophy and earned himself a spot at the finalists' table, and deservedly so. When the games have been big, so have Mason's performances: 132 yards and two touchdowns at LSU; 178 yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M; 164 yards and a touchdown versus Alabama and a whopping 304 yards and four touchdowns in the SEC championship game against Missouri. Mason has 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns and finished the regular season as the SEC's leader in both categories, something virtually nobody predicted coming into the season. His running mate, quarterback Nick Marshall, has been stellar also, so watch both of them as they make a dynamic duo that has been difficult for most to defend.

AJ McCarron, Alabama
Allstate Sugar Bowl

This will be the senior quarterback's final game, and his list of accomplishments is impressive. He started at quarterback for two national championship teams, has a 36-3 record as a starter and has a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 75-to-13. He has made plenty of big throws, led some critical drives, set records and won big games throughout his collegiate career. He hauled in several honors this season, including the Maxwell Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and finished second in the Heisman voting. After the Crimson Tide beat LSU this year, Alabama coach Nick Saban said of McCarron "All he does is win and he does what his team needs him to do to win ... I think he's the best quarterback in the country."

Michael Sam, Missouri
AT&T Cotton Bowl

Sam was named a first-team All-American on all five major All-America squads (only the second Mizzou player to achieve that feat) and was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. Those honors are well deserved as the senior finished the regular season with 45 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was part of a Missouri defense that led the SEC in sacks (38) and was in the top 10 nationally in that category. He's one of those diamonds in the rough who came to Missouri as an unheralded two-star recruit and has turned into a bona fide star and one of the country's best pass rushers. He'll leave Columbia as one of the most decorated seniors in Mizzou football history.

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