NCF Nation: Onterio McCalebb

After a very slow start in the first half, Auburn scored a season-high 42 points in a crucial 42-7 win over New Mexico State.

The Tigers (2-7, 0-6 SEC) finally found big plays from both sides of the field. Freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace, who made his first-career start, was shaky at times, but finished with 164 passing yards with a touchdown and an interception. He really didn't have to do a ton for the Tigers with the running game moving so well.

Auburn racked up a season-high 311 rushing yards, with Tre Mason leading all rushers with 152 yards and Onterio McCalebb notching 113 yards on the ground. Mason ran for one touchdown and McCalebb had two.

The defense even showed some progress. The Tigers limited New Mexico State to just 305 yards of offense and 83 yards on the ground. Linebacker Daren Bates really helped spark Auburn's big second half when he recovered a New Mexico State fumble and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 21-0 lead.

In what has been a disaster of a season for the Tigers, this was about as big of a must-win as you could find. Coach Gene Chizik was feeling monster heat coming into the weekend, and while this win won't propel Auburn onto a road to a bowl game, it adds a "W" in the win column and it was one that Chizik desperately needed when it comes to his job security.

Will it keep Chizik's job? That's yet to be seen, but a loss might have made pressure from Auburn supports unbearable. Auburn still has a few tough decisions to make when it comes to the future of this program, but right now, everyone at Auburn should be happy to finally see another win come back to the Plains.

Auburn with a new sense of urgency

October, 4, 2012
Gene Chizik is hoping that his Tigers used their bye week to their full advantage.

With all the issues Auburn had through the first four weeks of the season, Chizik made sure players and coaches saw all the glaring mistakes that put his team in bad situations. He wanted them to see those mistakes and learn from them before the bye was over with.

[+] EnlargeChizik
AP Photo/Dave MartinFollowing his team's 1-3 start, Gene Chizik said there's an "urgency to win" around Auburn.
Changes and tweaks were made, and Chizik hopes they work on Saturday, especially against an Arkansas team that really has nothing to lose with its 1-4 record.

Chizik said his team knows where it stands with its own 1-3 record. Auburn is on the verge of being on the outside when it comes to the postseason. Chizik said neither he nor his team are running from the realization of how big Saturday's game against the Razorbacks is.

"There's an urgency around Auburn, without question, when you're 1-3," Chizik said. "And there's an urgency to win."

With a loss, Auburn will likely miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2008 and it doesn't help that the Tigers own the SEC's worst offense (297.8 yards per game) and the third-worst defense (419.3).

But the defense looked much better against LSU last week, holding the Tigers to just 12 points and forced LSU into a handful of mistakes.

Chizik said his team was more than energized in that game, and the hope is that it carries over to this weekend.

"Our kids are hungry and they want to win," he said. "That's the expectation this Saturday as well."

He's even seen an increase in leadership. Guys like Corey Lemonier, Jeff Whitaker, Onterio McCalebb and T'Sharven Bell have all stepped up to guide this team. Having these vets step up will go a long way if they can really take hold of their teammates.

Even with all the issues Auburn has had, the Tigers have to feel confident facing the SEC's worst defense. Arkansas is allowing more than 500 yards and 40 points a game. Even Auburn's offense should be able to do something with that.

And a fast start against a reeling team is what Chizik said his team needs if it's going to pull out a must-win on the Plains. Arkansas' offensive talent can't be forgotten, and Chizik doesn't want to have to play catchup with the Hogs.

"Certainly for us, forget about the opponent, we need to have a great start," he said. "We need to have something good happen. We need to be able to get a little bit of momentum for our football team."

SEC power rankings: Week 2

September, 4, 2012
The first weekend of the college football season brought some changes to our power rankings. As we enter Week 2, some teams are trending down, while others are on the up. And some look pretty much like we thought they'd look in their first games.

It's still early, but this weekend could help to better shape the conference race, especially in the SEC East where Florida travels to Texas A&M and Georgia heads to Missouri. Also, keep an eye on Mississippi State's home game with Auburn.

OK, time for the rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0): The Crimson Tide made quite the statement by absolutely dominating No. 8 Michigan inside Cowboys Stadium. The defense, which lost a host of top talent from last year's national championship team, took Denard Robinson out of the game from the start. The offense should be fun to watch this fall with freshman T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy carrying the ball and AJ McCarron throwing to those young, explosive receivers.

2. LSU (1-0): It's not like the Tigers looked bad against overmatched North Texas, but Alabama's performance was just that good. Zach Mettenberger did well in his LSU debut, passing for 192 yards and a touchdown, while running backs Kenny Hilliard (141 yards) and Alfred Blue (123) pounded away at North Texas' defense. The Tigers racked up 508 total yards and limited North Texas to just nine first downs and 219 total yards.

3. Arkansas (1-0): We know Arkansas can score and churn out yards. The Hogs made both of those things look very easy against Jacksonville State, especially quarterback Tyler Wilson, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. But the defense still has some questions surrounding it, as the Hogs gave up 24 points. The defense settled down the second half and gave up 322 total yards, which was one yard less than the average given up by top 15 teams this weekend.

4. Georgia (1-0): The Bulldogs' defense is obviously hurting without Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree and it showed in the win over Buffalo. There was a lot of give in the pass defense and the Bulldogs struggled stopping quarterback runs. Improving in both of those areas will be crucial heading into the Missouri game. The offense looked pretty good, especially with freshman running back Todd Gurley carrying the ball. He registered 100 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.

5. South Carolina (1-0): The offense was shaky when it came to throwing the ball, and it certainly wasn't any better after quarterback Connor Shaw went down with that shoulder injury. His health is critical, as there isn't much experience at all behind him. Running back Marcus Lattimore looked solid in his return and was back to his workhorse ways. The defense played well overall, but the secondary still has concerns.

6. Tennessee (1-0): Everything went right for the Vols against NC State. It became blatenly obvious that they have more depth across the board now than they've had during Derek Dooley's tenure. Getting the tough yards running the ball was still an issue at times, but Marlin Lane showed that he might have what it takes to be that explosive running back Tennessee needs. Tyler Bray had no issue throwing the ball with Justin Hunter back and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson going off.

7. Florida (1-0): There was more bend in Florida's defense than the coaches would like, but it looked like players were more disinterested than anything else. Expect a little more enthusiasm from that group this week. The offense, however, has major work to do. Mike Gillislee can run, but the passing game was nonexistent. Jeff Driskel was named the starting quarterback and the Gators should open things up more this weekend at Texas A&M, but it'll be a tough road game.

8. Mississippi State (1-0): The Bulldogs were pretty balanced on offense against Jackson State, getting 193 passing yards and 202 rushing yards in their 56-9 win. The Bulldogs have a major test this Saturday with Auburn coming to town. Dan Mullen has yet to win a game in the West against someone not named Ole Miss. This game could go a long way to shaping the Bulldogs' season, kind of like last year's game at Auburn.

9. Missouri (1-0): The Tigers might not have all the size that other SEC teams possess, but this team showed it has some quality speed -- and some quality playmakers. The defense displayed some grit as well, forcing four turnovers in the blowout win over Southeastern Louisiana. But the real test is this weekend with Georgia coming to town. We'll see that high-flying spread offense battle one of the SEC's top defenses. Should be fun.

10. Texas A&M (0-0): The Aggies had their opener with Louisiana Tech postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That gave Texas A&M a couple more days to game plan for Florida, but all the kinks and mistakes that you'd like to get out of the way early will now come in the Aggies' SEC opener against Florida. The Gators might not have much offense, but expect that defense to put a lot of pressure on first-year starting quarterback Johnny Manziel.

11. Auburn (0-1): These Tigers have clearly improved on defense under Brian VanGorder, but their "tackling" in Week 1 was ugly. Just ask Clemson running back Andre Ellington, who rushed for 231 yards in the win over Auburn Saturday. Kiehl Frazier looked more comfortable throwing the ball, and Auburn has a solid rushing tandem in Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, but offensive efficiency has to improve. Auburn settled for too many field goals Saturday.

12. Vanderbilt (0-1): Thursday's loss to South Carolina was tough for this team to swallow. The swagger and talent is there in Nashville, but the little things that have plagued this program continue. Still, you can tell that with the offensive weapons and a hungry defense, this team has what it takes to beat one of the top teams in the SEC East. A trip to Northwestern this weekend is a must-win for the Commodores as far as confidence and making a bowl are concerned.

13. Ole Miss (1-0): The Rebels ended a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season in Hugh Freeze's debut. For the first time in a long time, Ole Miss' offense showed up, as the Rebels registered 565 yards of offense against Central Arkansas. Quarterback Bo Wallace also had a tremendous debut for the Rebels, with his 264 passing yards and 82 rushing yards. UTEP provides a bigger test, as the Rebels look for their first two-game winning streak since September 2010.

14. Kentucky (0-1): Not a lot went right for the Wildcats in their loss to Louisville. The offense moved the ball through the air at times, but couldn't make plays when it had to and rushed for just 93 yards. The defense was gutted up front, as two of Louisville's backs rushed for more than 100 yards. As far as making it back to the postseason, this was a game that Joker Phillips' team had to have. Line work on both sides has to get better if Kentucky is going to improve on last year's 5-7 season.
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning kickoff returners.

Past producers:
The SEC returns seven of the top 10 kick returners from 2011. The top three returners are back, so kickers beware. However, the ball will now be moved forward five yards to the 35-yard line for kickoffs, meaning returns should occur less often. But that also means they'll now be more important. We're going by average per return. Note: To qualify, a player must have at least one return per team's games played. This is one of the most exciting plays in football and here's a look at the SEC's top returner:

Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: He returned 24 kicks for an average of 26.4 yards per return, had a long of 97 yards and recorded a touchdown. Mason dealt with being in a crowded backfield by making a name for himself in the return game during the first half of the season. He did most of his damage in the first two weeks, grabbing 10 returns for 348 yards and had a touchdown in the season opener against Utah State. He saw his production dip as the season went on because of injuries and his fumbling issues. He eventually lost his job, but could he make a comeback for his crown in 2012?

The SEC returns six more of the top kickoff returners in 2012:

Andre Debose, WR, Florida: He returned 19 kicks for an average of 26.1 yards per return, had a long of 99 yards and registered one touchdown.

Dennis Johnson, RB, Arkansas: He returned 18 kicks for an average of 25.6 yards per return, had a long of 98 yards and registered one touchdown.

Tobias Singleton, RB, Ole Miss: He returned 21 kicks for an average of 24.6 yards per return and had a long of 47 yards.

Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt: He returned 31 kicks for an average of 23.8 yards per return, had a long of 96 yards and registered one touchdown.

Devrin Young, RB, Tennessee: He returned 27 kicks for an average of 23.3 yards per return and had a long of 67 yards.

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina: He returned 20 kicks for an average of 23.2 yards and had a long of 45 yards.

With kickoffs being moved up, we might see even less in the kick return game this fall. We could also see a new winner for this category if Mason doesn't get his job back. And with the amount of production he'll have on offense, his returns might get cut short anyway. Keep an eye on Mason's teammates, Onterio McCalebb and Quan Bray. McCalebb averaged 30.1 yards per return and had a touchdown on just 11 returns, while Bray averaged 24.2 on 10 returns.

Johnson has always been very dangerous in the return game. He entered the 2011 season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014 and he added 461 last fall. Johnson will likely have more steam to work with this fall with Knile Davis eating into his carries at running back. That will make him even tougher to stop in the return game and counting him out of the race for the return crown is just silly.

Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010, but has always had some issues with his decision-making in the return game. Still, there's no doubting his speed when he finds a hole. When he's focused, he's exciting to watch, but he's yet to keep his focus for an entire season as a returner.

LaDarius Perkins will have more responsibility in Mississippi State's offense, but he was sometimes fun to watch in the return game.

Missouri receiver T.J. Moe averaged 23.3 yards on 26 kicks, but didn't return a kick longer than 49 yards. Still, he's shifty enough and has the vision to make a run at this thing.
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally weigh in on different questions facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same opinion. We'll let you decide who's right.

Today's Take Two topic: Auburn's Scot Loeffler and Florida's Brent Pease are two of six new offensive coordinators in the league. Who faces the steeper challenge in 2012 -- Loeffler or Pease?

Take 1: Chris Low

[+] EnlargeOnterio McCalebb
AP Photo/Austin McAfeeRB Onterio McCalebb should provide Auburn explosiveness out of the backfield in 2012.
The truth is that both offenses were hard to watch last season, and Auburn’s 17-6 victory over Florida was a clinic in bad offensive football. The two teams were a combined 4-of-26 on third down, and there were 16 punts in the game. Neither team passed for more than 128 yards. Loeffler takes over an Auburn offense that’s losing its most productive player by far. Running back Michael Dyer was suspended for the bowl game and then wound up transferring to Arkansas State. He rushed for 1,242 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Loeffler wants to bring a more physical style to Auburn’s offense, and even without Dyer, wants to be a run-first team. The Tigers aren’t lacking in talent at the running back position, and Onterio McCalebb has quietly been one of the league’s best breakaway threats the last two seasons. But the trick may be finding somebody who can make the tough yards and get it done between the tackles. Maybe that somebody is Florida transfer Mike Blakely. That’s what this spring is for.

The starting quarterback job is also up for grabs, although Loefller said he’s not in a rush to name a starter this spring. The Tigers also have to replace both offensive tackles. So there’s not a lot for Loeffler to hang his hat on this first season, at least in the way of proven offensive players. Loeffler has a vast coaching background, but he prefers more of a pro-style attack. It will help if the Tigers’ receivers can stay healthy. The passing game a year ago rarely produced any big plays down the field. Loeffler’s smart enough to realize that he has to play to his personnel. What makes that so difficult, though, is that it’s hard to say right now that the Tigers do anything particularly well on offense given what they have returning. Loeffler’s definitely going to need some new faces to emerge. He's also going to need a lot of focus out of everybody on offense this spring as the Tigers make the transition from Gus Malzahn's system. That transition isn't going to happen overnight, meaning it could take the Tigers a few games next season before they figure out what they do best.

Take 2: Edward Aschoff

I think both of these coaches will have their hands full this spring and fall. Both have to deal with inexperience at just about every position. But for Pease, he has to deal with more unproven players than Loeffler. Loeffler might have an interesting quarterback battle on his hands, but he at least has a proven running back in Onterio McCalebb and a proven receiver in Emory Blake. Pease has neither. Florida has three young quarterbacks -- Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy -- running backs that have had consistency issues, unproven wide receivers and an offensive line that returns most of the parts of a unit that struggled mightily last season. The good news is that it sounds like the offensive line added some bulk during the offseason, and when you have four starters returning, improvements are inevitable.

Florida still isn't sure which quarterback will step up and lead this team. Brissett had the edge heading into spring, but Driskel was the top high school quarterback in his class for a reason. No matter which one prevails, baby steps will still have to be taken this fall because the winner will still be a little bug-eyed come SEC play. What would help is if a receiver or two steps up during the offseason. Since Riley Cooper left after the 2009 season, the Gators have lacked a consistent go-to receiver. Quinton Dunbar has shown flashes this spring, but he did last spring as well and caught just 14 passes in 2011. Frankie Hammond gets a lot of praise in practice, too, but it hasn't consistently translated onto the field. Andre Debose was Florida's best deep threat, but it's time for him to do more for this offense and be more reliable in all types of situations, not just deep throws. One thing that will help is that the tight end position should be solid with Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard coming back. As for running back, Mike Gillislee has the talent to be a solid starter this fall, but he has to do more than just carry the rock. He has to improve his blocking as well. Mack Brown has the tools as well, but getting the offense down is his first objective because it has kept him off the field for two years. Pease is Florida's third offensive coordinator in three years and brings new elements like the others did, so the Gators are having to learn even more. It will be a challenge, but there are bodies to work with. It's all about getting his guys to understand things before the season starts or Florida's offense will continue to struggle.

SEC postseason position rankings: ST

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

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

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

Here are our final rankings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2011 SEC All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
We're taking one last look at the SEC's postseason by putting together our All-SEC bowl team:


QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina: Shaw didn't seem to feel the pressure of a bowl game, completing 11 of 17 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 42 yards and another score in the Gamecocks' win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He even gave South Carolina the momentum going into the second half with a touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Vick Ballard rushed for 180 yards against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.
RB: Vick Ballard, Mississippi State: Ballard ended his career with the Bulldogs with one of his best performances, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries in Mississippi State's win against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl. His touchdowns went for 72 and 60 yards.

RB: Onterio McCalebb, Auburn: As the Tigers' lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60. He also recorded a three-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in Auburn's win against Virginia.

WR: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina: Jeffery's day would have been even better if he hadn't been ejected. However, he still caught four passes for a game-high 148 yards and snagged Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. He also had a 78-yard reception.

WR: Tavarres King, Georgia: King tried his best to get Georgia a victory in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. He was Aaron Murray's best friend, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass that at one point stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

TE: Brad Smelley, Alabama: The Crimson Tide got its passing game going with Smelley in Monday's Allstate BCS National Championship win against LSU. He was AJ McCarron's safety net when plays broke down, and the young quarterback also used Smelley on rollouts. Smelley finished the game with seven catches for 39 yards.

OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama: Behind one of the most versatile linemen in the entire country, Alabama's line held back LSU's defensive front for most of Monday night's game. Alabama ran for 150 yards against LSU's vaunted defense. He also kept McCarron safe, as the youngster was sacked only twice while throwing for 234 yards.

OL: Alvin Bailey, Arkansas: He just keeps looking better and better for the Razorbacks. In Arkansas' AT&T Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State, he helped Arkansas churn out 129 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry and helped give quarterback Tyler Wilson enough time to pass for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

OL: Kyle Nunn, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' offensive line gave up four sacks to Nebraska, but Shaw was still able to throw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. With Nunn's help, the Gamecocks also rushed for 121 yards against the Cornhuskers.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: Ballard's outstanding performance for the Bulldogs wouldn't have been possible if not for some solid line play. Jackson had one of his best outings, as he helped Mississippi State rush for 253 yards and pass for another 129. Mississippi State gave up just one sack to Wake Forest.

C: William Vlachos, Alabama: Vlachos had his hands full with the interior of LSU's defensive line, but he more than held his own. He battled all night with LSU's Michael Brockers and allowed him to assist on just one tackle for loss. He provided a ton of protection in the passing game and helped Alabama rush for 150 yards on LSU's defense.


DE: Jake Bequette, Arkansas: Bequette said before Arkansas' bowl game that the Hogs' defense needed to make a statement. Bequette certainly made a few in his final game with the Razorbacks, registering two sacks, forcing a fumble and totaling three tackles.

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: The freshman put a nice bow on his first season with the Gamecocks. He put a ton of pressure on Nebraska's backfield with two sacks for a loss of 13 yards and finished the game with four tackles.

DT: Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox wanted to make a lasting impression in his final game with the Bulldogs, and he certainly did by disrupting Wake Forest's offensive line in the Music City Bowl. He finished the game with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and blocked his fifth career kick, which is a Mississippi State record.

DT: Michael Brockers, LSU: Brockers had a tough time with Vlachos in the middle, but that didn't stop him from making plays. He did a tremendous job of clogging holes in the middle for the Tigers and finished the game with seven tackles, assisting on one for loss, and blocked a field goal attempt.

LB: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: It came as no surprise that Upshaw was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. He was nearly unblockable for LSU on Monday night. He put immense pressure on LSU's backfield and finished the game with six tackles, including a sack.

LB: Archibald Barnes, Vanderbilt: Barnes was a true rover for Vanderbilt against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. He had a game-high 10 tackles, assisting on one for a loss, and blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.

LB: Alec Ogletree, Georgia: Georgia might not have come up with the win in the Outback Bowl, but it wasn't because of how Ogletree played. He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, grabbing a game-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, breaking up two passes and getting a sack.

CB: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt: Yet again, Hayward was tremendous in coverage for the Commodores. He grabbed two interceptions and broke up another pass. He was also second on the team with eight tackles, including one for loss. Cincinnati threw for just 80 yards against the Commodores.

CB: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Gilmore ended his South Carolina career on a high note. He recorded five tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. He also returned a blocked extra point for South Carolina's first points of the game. Nebraska threw for just 116 yards on the Gamecocks' secondary.

S: Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron recorded just two tackles, including a sack, but he was outstanding in coverage. He roamed the back part of the field for the Crimson Tide and didn't allow LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson to stretch the field at all because of his positioning. Jefferson threw for just 53 yards on Alabama.

S: Matt Elam, Florida: Elam was Florida's most consistent player during the regular season, and he was all over the field for the Gators in the Gator Bowl against Ohio State. He finished the game with six tackles, two for loss and a sack.


PK: Jeremy Shelley, Alabama: Talk about redeeming the position that spoiled Alabama's first game against LSU. Shelley hit five of his seven field goal attempts against the Tigers and even rebounded to hit four of his final five after having his second attempt blocked in the second quarter.

P: Dylan Breeding, Arkansas: He punted four times for an average of 46.8 yards per kick. He had a long of 63 yards and dropped two inside the 20-yard line against Kansas State.

RS: Joe Adams, Arkansas: Surprise, surprise, Adams made another special teams unit look silly. Against Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Adams got things started for the Hogs with a nifty 51-yard punt return for a touchdown. His return sparked a 16-point second quarter for the Hogs.

AP: Brandon Boykin, Georgia: Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. He forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play, returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

Instant Analysis: Auburn 43, Virginia 24

December, 31, 2011

After falling behind early, Auburn emptied out its playbook on offense and dominated the kicking game to charge past Virginia 43-24 on Saturday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: Auburn was truly special in special teams, and Virginia was utterly awful. The Tigers blocked two punts -- one leading to a touchdown and another resulting in a safety. They perfectly executed an onside kick to lead to another touchdown, snuffed out a Virginia fake field goal and also returned a free kick 62 yards to set up a field goal. The Tigers, who led 28-17 at the half, also played much better defensively in the second half and held the Cavaliers to 140 total yards after the break.

Turning point: Cody Parkey’s onside kick came right after Auburn had tied the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter. On the second offensive play, Barrett Trotter hit Emory Blake on a 50-yard pass. Three plays later, Kiehl Frazier scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge to give Auburn the lead for good.

Player of the game: Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb said prior to the game that he wanted to prove to everybody that he could be the go-to running back with Michael Dyer indefinitely suspended. McCalebb delivered for the Tigers with 109 rushing yards on 10 carries and two catches for 53 yards. He ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Unsung hero: After Auburn starting quarterback Clint Moseley went down with an injury in the second quarter, Trotter came off the bench to throw the ball as well as has all season. He finished 11-of-18 for 175 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also scrambled for 32 yards and kept several plays alive.

Stat of the game: Auburn’s 43 points were a season high.

Stat of the game II: Auburn coach Gene Chizik ran his bowl record to 9-0. He’s now 6-0 as an assistant coach in bowl games and 3-0 as a head coach.

Stat of the game III: Auburn (8-5) avoided the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending national champion since Ohio State in 1943 to lose six games.

Best call: Just about everything Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn dialed up. The Tigers ran statue-of-liberty plays, reverses, throwback screens, wrap-around handoffs and halfback passes. Malzahn, who will move on to be the head coach at Arkansas State, went out in style.

Second guessing: In one of several special teams blunders by the Cavaliers, coach Mike London called for a fake field goal in the second quarter with Auburn leading 21-14. The Tigers had all the momentum at the time, and the Cavaliers needed some points. But their fake from the 15-yard line was snuffed out by Auburn’s Chris Davis, and the Tigers answered with a touchdown drive of their own to take a 28-14 lead.

What it means: Auburn heads into the offseason with some momentum, not to mention its third straight season of at least eight wins under Chizik. The finish to the 2011 regular season for the Tigers was anything but memorable, as they were blown out by LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at UCF. Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State, and Dyer was indefinitely suspended. But the Tigers overcame the distractions to play one of their most complete games of the season and win their fifth straight bowl game. The Cavaliers (8-5) are still looking for their first bowl win since the 2007 season and will go into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths. Counting the 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech to end the regular season, they lost their last two by a combined 81-24 margin.

Chick-fil-A Bowl: Auburn vs. Virginia

December, 30, 2011
No. 25 Auburn (7-5) makes it back to Atlanta to take on Virginia (8-4) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Saturday night. Here's a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Auburn sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier showed how to avoid the sophomore slump this season. Despite the Tigers' defensive troubles, Lemonier was an absolute stud, finishing second in the SEC in sacks with 9.5, getting 8.5 of those in SEC play. He also tied for fifth with 13.5 tackles for loss. Against Virginia, Lemonier will have to be able to generate some pressure in the Cavaliers' backfield to take pressure off the rest of the defense. Virginia isn't great throwing the ball, but the Cavaliers are averaging 232 passing yards per game and are rushing for 165 yards a contest. Getting stops up front will go a long way for Auburn's defense Saturday.

WHAT TO WATCH: With Michael Dyer suspended for the bowl game, Auburn will turn to junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason to carry the rushing load. Dyer was Auburn's top offensive player and was a much more complete back than the others in the Tigers' stable. However, McCalebb and Mason have the talent to be a formidable one-two punch, but Mason is still very inexperienced. Freshman Quan Bray, who has a ton of athleticism, could get some work as well out of the backfield. Awaiting this running game is a Virginia defense that ranks 33rd nationally in rushing defense and is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry.

WHY TO WATCH: Until a winner is crowned between LSU and Alabama, these Tigers are still the defending national champs. On the other side, Virginia was a pleasant surprise in the ACC this season. A year removed from a 4-8 start to his coaching career at Virginia, Mike London guided the Cavaliers to an 8-4 regular season and they were in the mix for the ACC championship game until the final week. These two teams are similar in some ways. They are both young, rotated quarterbacks and had a knack for pulling out close games in 2011. Auburn's Gene Chizik is also pulling double duty as head coach and defensive coordinator, so it'll be interesting to see how the defense plays now after a season where it was near the bottom of the SEC in every statistical category.

PREDICTION: Virginia 31, Auburn 17. Thirty-one points for the Cavaliers is probably a little high, but I'll stay with my original prediction. Both teams are dealing with a youth movement, but Auburn's youngsters hit the wall at the midpoint of the season, while Virginia almost made the ACC title game. I'm not sure Chizik can turn this defense around that quickly and Dyer won't be around. Advantage: Cavaliers.

What to watch in the SEC: Bowls

December, 15, 2011
The bowl season doesn't get started in the SEC for another couple of weeks, but there are still things to keep an eye on around the league until then:

1. Coordinator shuffle: It's that time of year when coaches are not only getting bowl preparation in order, but also having to set up job interviews. For Alabama, Auburn and Florida, the next few weeks will be devoted to not only figuring out game strategies, but trying to find the right men to take over coordinating positions. Auburn is in the hunt for both an offensive and defensive coordinator, while Alabama and Florida are searching for offensive coordinators. With all three teams in the market right now, you have to wonder if there could be a bidding war or two in the near future. One lucky person has to draw the straw of being in line for all three offensive coordinating jobs, right? Wouldn't that be fun? For Florida's Will Muschamp, this is a major hire. His first year in Gainesville didn't go well, and now that Charlie Weis is gone, it's time for Muschamp to find someone who can get this offense back on track. He has the defense to compete, but he has to find the offense or things won't get better in the Swamp. Also, South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is a candidate for the Southern Miss job, so the Gamecocks could get in on the coordinator scramble as well.

2. Tyler Russell's knee: While there has been no official word that Russell's knee injury in practice is serious, Mississippi State's quarterback was very limited Wednesday. He wore a brace and found it hard to put a lot of weight on his leg. Sure, it's early in the healing process and it could just be sore, but knee injuries are nothing to just glance over. Russell is the Bulldogs' best passing threat, and the offense runs at its best when he's in the pocket. They'll need him for the bowl game, as Chris Relf just hasn't been the same quarterback he was a season ago. The Bulldogs don't exactly have the depth they had at the position for most of the season, either, as Dylan Favre decided to transfer after the regular season.

3. The grade game: Final grades for the semester are upon us and that can be a nerve-racking time for coaches. There are going to be some players flirting with being academically ineligible for bowl games, and some who just don't make it at all. It happens to nearly every program every season. It can be hard to stomach for coaches, but it's how college athletics work. Sometimes it' a big player or two, and rumors will definitely begin to swirl about players not being eligible for bowl games because of academics. Now, we'll know for sure once final grades are in the hands of the head coaches.

4. Auburn's running back situation: With starter Michael Dyer officially ruled out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia for violating unspecified team rules, the Tigers will look to Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason to handle the bulk of the rushing load. Coach Gene Chizik said he'd work with other offensive players in the backfield as well, but is staying tight-lipped on who might get some carries here and there. Dyer was Auburn's best offensive weapon and one of the most complete backs in the SEC. He was not only powerful between the tackles, but he has the speed to take a run outside and around the corner for a big play. McCalebb is a home run threat, but isn't much of a downhill runner. Mason rushed for just 97 yards this season, but made his mark on special teams. He was Auburn's top kickoff return man and recorded a touchdown. He has big-play ability, but he'll need to get more work in the backfield leading up to the bowl game to be more of a factor on offense.

5. Urban Meyer's southern recruiting success: The former Florida coach has been doing pretty well recruiting for Ohio State recently, and it wouldn't shock anyone if his efforts slowly started to creep back down south. He had loads of success in this part of the country when he was with the Gators, and while most of Ohio State's class is made up of northern prospects, that's sure to change under Meyer. The little he can do right now in recruiting is working, and from what prospects are saying, you can tell that SEC coaches are starting to feel his presence more and more. Meyer is too smart and too good of a recruiter to just leave the South alone. He'll be putting a lot of pressure on SEC coaches in the recruiting world in no time.

Chizik moving on at RB for bowl game

December, 12, 2011
ATLANTA -- Gene Chizik isn’t happy, but he’s not letting his frustration get the best of him.

He simply doesn’t have the time.

With the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virgina to prepare for as both Auburn’s head coach and defensive coordinator, Chizik can't worry about the fact that star running back Michael Dyer will be missing on offense after being indefinitely suspended from the team for violating undisclosed team rules.

“It’s extremely disappointing, but we’re not going to dwell on the ones that aren’t here,” Chizik said at Monday’s Chick-fil-A bowl news conference.

With Dyer out for the bowl game, Chizik said he will turn to junior running back Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason to get the bulk of carries out of the backfield. He’ll also work with a few other offensive players back there, but wouldn’t disclose any names Monday.

“We have a good plan,” he said. “Both of those guys will certainly up their load. We’re committed to running the same things with different people.”

McCalebb ran for 532 yards and four touchdowns this season, while Mason ran for 97 with no touchdowns.

Chizik wouldn’t go into any details as to why Dyer was suspended and would only say that he has some work to do before he can come back to Auburn’s football team.

“He won’t be practicing for the bowl game. He won’t be playing in the bowl game,“ Chizik said. “If you see him back at Auburn, that means he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do to get back in an Auburn uniform.”

Auburn's Dyer suspended for bowl

December, 12, 2011
Auburn running back Michael Dyer has been indefinitely suspended for violating undisclosed team rules, and will miss the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia.

Dyer's absence certainly is a blow to Auburn's struggling offense. He was the most consistent player for the Tigers this season, becoming the first Auburn player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. The sophomore also went from scoring five touchdowns in his first year, to scoring 10 this season.

Dyer was the only other SEC running back besides Alabama's Trent Richardson to average more than 100 yards rushing in SEC games this season. He also accounted for more than half of Auburn's offense this season.

Now, Auburn's best weapon won't be available for a game that could set the tone for Auburn's 2012 season. With Dyer out, the Tigers will turn to junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason. McCalebb is no stranger to getting a handful of reps, as he has been Dyer's sidekick the past two seasons. McCalebb is second on the team with 532 rushing yards and four touchdowns, while Mason, who has rarely been used in the running game, has 97 rushing yards.

McCalebb is a home run threat and Mason is more of a downhill runner, but neither is as complete as Dyer. Dyer entered the season with much more responsibility thrust onto his plate after the departure of key offensive playmakers.

Dyer was second in the SEC in rushing (1,242) this season and didn't mind taking the bulk of the carries in his second season. But his mistake has cost the Tigers dearly. Auburn is looking to get some momentum going into next season, and this doesn't help. Auburn not only loses its best offensive weapon against a Virginia team with the nation's 30th-ranked defense and 34th-ranked rush defense, it loses a player who is supposed to be a leader.

All eyes have been on Dyer this season and he let his team down. Dyer is young and he'll have time to redeem himself, but he has to realize that he is the face of the Tigers' offense -- if not the entire team -- and he can't let foolish acts hurt him and his team.

Auburn needs its offense to respond

November, 26, 2011
AUBURN, Ala. -- Onterio McCalebb became the first Auburn player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in the Iron Bowl, but his return won't win the game for the Tigers.

Auburn's defense held Alabama out of the end zone for the second straight series, but even that won't win it for the Tigers.

This team needs to get more from its offense here in the second half if it thinks it has a chance against Alabama.

This game is 27-14 Alabama and while the fans are pumped up after a special teams touchdown and the previous defensive effort, Auburn's offense needs to get pumped up. The Tigers mustered just 31 total yards on 18 plays in the first half. Alabama, on the other hand, had 221 yards and 24 points.

Alabama will score points on this defense, so along with some defensive grit, the Tigers desperately need something to happen on offense.

Michael Dyer goes down in third

October, 1, 2011
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Auburn running back Michael Dyer went down halfway into the third quarter with what looked like a leg injury.

Dyer was on the ground for a couple of minutes in obvious pain before getting up and slowly walking off the field with trainers. He limped over to the training table, and before he got there, he threw his helmet down to the ground.

Trainers are still huddled around him, and if he can't return that would be a major hit to Auburn's offense. He has been a total workhorse for this team, getting the tough yards and really trying to tire this South Carolina defense. Onterio McCalebb will have to do much more if Dyer can't return. McCalebb has had spurts here and there today, but he's had a problem with wanting to run sideline to sideline as opposed to running down the field.