NCF Nation: P.J. Lonergan

SEC West post-spring notes

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

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

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

“I liked practice today,” coach Les Miles said. “We are getting better. I like the improvement that some of our young offense and defensive linemen are making. I think we threw the ball extremely well today considering how early we are in spring. It was a good, physical practice. We started well and finished on a good note.”

The guy throwing the ball the best this spring is new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger. So far, he has really impressed his head coach with both his passing ability and his leadership skills. That's certainly a good thing, considering how much both of those areas were criticized when Jordan Jefferson was under center for the Tigers last season.

“He has command of the huddle and it appears that he has anticipation as to where the ball is going,” Miles said. “He’s throwing it pretty well.”

Miles also complimented the play of sophomore offensive lineman Elliott Porter, who worked out at center.

“I liked the way he practiced today,” Miles said. “He got better today and he continues to improve. I think he will challenge for playing time.”

The Tigers return a solid, veteran line in 2012, but it never hurts to have depth up front. Depth helped LSU out in 2011 when top lineman Josh Dworaczyk went down with a season-ending injury last year. T-Bob Hebert started the season off in Dworaczyk's spot at left guard, but Will Blackwell eventually moved there and had an All-American season.

LSU also moved pieces around when center P.J. Lonergan went down with an ankle injury halfway through the season. LSU had seven different offensive linemen make starts last season.

Miles also talked about the on-going tryout at kicker, where former LSU women’s soccer keeper Mo Isom stole all the headlines. Miles said there isn't a timetable on making a decision about the kicking participants, including Isom, but he won't hesitate to use her if he feels she can be a real asset for the Tigers.

“If she gave us an opportunity and an advantage, we will certainly consider that,” he said. “There has to be an advantage to the team.

"The good thing about this is that she’s an athlete. She’s been through a team before and she understands commitment. I would have much less reservations with her than I would with any number of other people who frankly didn’t know what they were getting in to.”

If she makes LSU's team, she would be the first female football player in school history. However, she'd have some tough competition this fall with rising senior Drew Alleman returning. He is coming off the most accurate season by an LSU kicker in school history, after hitting 16-of-18 field goals and 62-of-63 extra points in 2011.

The tryouts for placekicker will continue Thursday. For more information on Isom and her tryout with the Tigers, check out what GeauxTigerNation's David Helman wrote about her Tuesday.

LSU will take Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday. The Tigers will wrap up their first full week of spring practice Saturday and are scheduled to practice three times a week for the next three weeks.
LSU offensive guard Josh Dworaczyk has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, the NCAA and LSU announced Wednesday.

Dworaczyk, who was arguably the Tigers' top lineman heading into last season, suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp in August and missed all of the 2011 season.
“I’m excited to be able to get another year so that I can finish my career on the field,” Dworaczyk said in a release through the school. “I felt like I had some unfinished business, so being able to get this additional year is a blessing.

“Watching from the sidelines last year wasn’t always easy, because I was so used to being a contributor on the field. Getting another year means that I get to wear the Purple and Gold again, and for that I’m very thankful.

“Getting to see the game through the eyes of a coach and understanding what they are looking for from the players on the field, it helped me fully understand our offense. It also gave me a different relationship with my teammates. As a player, I was a leader on the field. Last year, I couldn’t be in the huddle with my teammates so I tried to be a motivator, giving words of advice or encouragement and doing whatever I could to help from the sidelines.”

Dworaczyk's return will ease the loss of All-American Will Blackwell, who took over at left guard halfway through his past season.

Dworaczyk has started in 26 of the 38 games (all at left guard) that he's played in, and will add to an already experienced returning line. The addition of Dworaczyk means LSU's offensive line will enter the fall with 105 combined starts -- Dworaczyk (26), center P.J. Lonergan (26), right tackle Alex Hurst (24), left tackle Chris Faulk (15), and right guard Josh Williford (14) -- and will yet again cement itself as one of the top offensive lines in the SEC.

“This is great news for our program,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “You never want to see a player have his career cut short because of an injury. Josh is a tremendous representative of our program, and it’s nice to see that he’s going to get a chance to finish out his LSU career on the field.”
NEW ORLEANS -- There has been no shortage of complaining since the Allstate BCS National Championship Game teams were announced.

It’s understandable when you consider that No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) have already played. But most of the protests stemmed from the fact neither team scored a touchdown when they played in November.

Something called “defense” was played in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but apparently there was too much.

Monday, you won’t see PlayStation-like numbers that have been the norm during bowl season, but both teams promise things will be different when they have the ball.

“We’re going to have a better game plan this time and hopefully put some more points on the board,” LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to come out 9-6 and win this game.”

For Monday’s rematch to look different, some things need to change on both sides. Here’s a look at why things will be different inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMI"Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started," LSU receiver Rueben Randle said.
LSU’s passing game will be more vertical

In November, LSU’s passing game was ineffective. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee combined to throw under the century mark and just four passes for double-digit yardage.

Now, the talk from LSU’s side is how vertical the Tigers want to get against Alabama’s defense. LSU ran for 148 yards last time, so Alabama will be keying in on the run.

LSU will want to start on the ground but wants Jefferson to air it out a little more.

“Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started,” Randle said. “They’re going to fill that box to stop the run, so we need to be ready as receivers to make those plays down field.”

Alabama’s wide receivers want to prove themselves

Alabama might have had 100 more passing yards than LSU in November, but it never looked great. Quarterback AJ McCarron made some mistakes, but wide receiver Darius Hanks said the ones who catch the ball need to step up.

Alabama got two catches from tight ends and eight from receivers. Hanks, who caught two, said that should improve Monday.

“Our tight ends and our receivers will be the difference-makers in this game,” he said. “They think that if they stop our run game, then they’re going to win the game, but I feel differently.

“We can see a lot of their weaknesses, so we’re going to attack those areas, go strong and put the ball in the air this time.”

He also expects to spearhead Alabama’s passing game because he feels he can beat All-American cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.

“I definitely feel like those guys, they can’t cover me,” he said.

P.J. Lonergan is 100 percent

Last time, LSU’s starting center wasn’t at full speed. He was hobbled by an ankle injury and played sparingly against Alabama.

While LSU was able to run the ball well without Lonergan, he should bolster LSU’s pass blocking, which will give Jefferson more time to look downfield.

“It’s definitely good that he’s back healthy,” LSU offensive guard Will Blackwell said.

“A healthy P.J. now will definitely be better than the P.J. that played Nov. 5.”

Alabama is prepared for the option

The Tide’s defense wasn’t as ready for Jefferson and the option in November. The team was prepared to see more of Lee, so when Jefferson came in, holes opened up in Alabama’s rush defense.

Now, Alabama knows that Jefferson will be LSU’s guy and the defense knows that Jefferson likes the option. LSU might want to throw more, but the running game is the heart of the offense.

Tide defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key will be locking up the run gaps that were open too often when Jefferson ran the ball. Players were out of position because they weren’t ready.

“If we keep our running lanes right and affect him,” he said, “we’ll have a great ballgame.”

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rick Wilson"I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said.
McCarron will have more confidence and emotion

McCarron didn’t play his game last time. He toned down the emotion and that sucked away his confidence.

His teammates had nothing to feed off of, and that hurt Alabama. McCarron has been given the green light to ramp up those emotions, and that should keep his spirits up against LSU’s defense.

“I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do,” McCarron said. “Just play my game.”

If McCarron can get going, it will help Alabama in the red zone. The Tide moved the ball well between the 30s against LSU but reached the red zone just once.

Alabama’s secondary is nicked up

LSU could move the ball through the air better this time because Alabama’s secondary is banged up. Safety Mark Barron injured his ribs against Auburn, while cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have leg injuries.

Menzie has a hamstring injury that bothered him all season, while Milliner suffered a thigh injury against Auburn. They say they’re fine, but they’re called “nagging” for a reason.

Backup safety Will Lowery is also out with a season-ending knee injury he suffered against Georgia Southern.

On the flip side, LSU is healthier.

“The most important thing about this break is we’re fresh,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said. “Going into Nov. 5, guys were nicked up. … The game plan is pretty much the same, it’s just those guys [who weren’t healthy] will be making plays."

Most of the focus will be on points, but these teams are too old school for this to be a track meet. Defense will continue to be the constant for both teams.

“I'd expect it to be big-boy football,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And I'd expect it to be very, very physical and that it would be a game that would be representative of two quality football teams.”

LSU's Lonergan not scheduled to start

November, 5, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Even though LSU junior center P.J. Lonergan is healthy, the Tigers will stick with senior T-Bob Hebert as the starter.

Lonergan is expected to play Saturday night. He's missed the last two games with a foot injury.

Sophomore Josh Williford will start at right guard for the Tigers and senior Will Blackwell at left guard.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's just something about these Tigers

October, 24, 2011
Down deep, I had serious doubts a few weeks ago.

I just didn’t see LSU beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Heck, I didn’t see anybody beating the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.

OK, maybe the Green Bay Packers, but nobody in college football.

[+] EnlargeRon Brooks
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireRon Brooks, who returned this interception against Auburn for a TD on Saturday, is among LSU's many reserves who have shined when called upon to play.
At the time, I hadn’t seen LSU live and had seen Alabama live twice. Both times, the Crimson Tide were dominant, routing Arkansas 38-14 and battering Florida 38-10.

Well, I’ve seen LSU live each of the past two weeks, and if anybody can beat Alabama on the Tide’s own turf, it’s the Tigers.

I swear they get deeper and nastier every time I watch them play.

In their 45-10 beatdown of Auburn last week, true freshman Kenny Hilliard went from fourth on the depth chart at running back to an absolute beast who simply wasn’t going to be tackled. The guy would be starting for half of the teams in the league, maybe more.

And there was also senior cornerback Ron Brooks, who’s seemingly been around forever. But when you’re playing behind Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, there aren’t going to be many chances to start.

Mathieu and Simon were among the three players suspended last Saturday, along with running back Spencer Ware, so Brooks got the start. All he did was return an interception 28 yards for a touchdown and force a fumble.

It’s a similar story with LSU’s offensive line. Junior center P.J. Lonergan didn’t play for the second straight game, and he might be the Tigers’ best player up front. They fully expect him to play and be healthy in two weeks against Alabama.

Senior guard Josh Dworaczyk, the Tigers’ most experienced offensive lineman, hasn’t played all season because of a knee injury. But it hasn’t mattered. The Tigers plug another guy in, shuffle a few guys around and just keep mauling people up front.

The Tigers lead the SEC in sacks allowed (only seven in eight games) and are third in rushing, averaging 189 yards per game.

On top of it all, this is a team that absolutely doesn’t turn the ball over. LSU has committed just three turnovers all season and has now gone its last 60 offensive possessions without a turnover, which dates to the Mississippi State game the third week of the season.

It’s not just a grind-it-out offense, either. Junior receiver Rueben Randle has developed into the top big-play receiver in the SEC. He leads the league with seven touchdown catches and is averaging 19.3 yards per catch, which is tops among the leaders. Three of his touchdown grabs have been 42 yards or longer.

Now, before we go any further, I'm not making my pick two weeks before the game, and I’m not saying that LSU will beat Alabama.

But what I am saying is that LSU is right there in Alabama’s class, and if they were playing on a neutral site or playing in Baton Rouge on Nov. 5, I’d go on record right now and say that the Tigers would win.

Nothing rattles this team.

LSU has weathered it all -- a nasty bar brawl, the arrest and subsequent suspension of its starting quarterback, its offensive coordinator giving up play-calling duties after announcing that he had Parkinson’s disease, and then three of its key starters missing last week’s game after testing positive for synthetic marijuana.

So, while the buildup and hype to the Nov. 5 showdown will be unlike anything we’ve seen in this league for a regular-season affair, don’t expect the Tigers to get caught up in the glare.

As LSU coach Les Miles said last Saturday, “That really hasn’t been a big issue for us.”

Nope, the only issue for the No. 1 Tigers has been figuring out which talented player to toss out there when somebody else gets hurt or suspended.

“If you’re on this team, then you can play,” Randle said. “We don’t have guys just sort of hanging on. That’s the way the coaches have recruited, and that’s the expectation on this team. When it’s your time, you go in and play at that same level. There isn’t a drop-off.”

As good as the game should be on Nov. 5, I’m now starting to think that maybe there is a chance it won’t be the last time we see these two juggernauts play this season.

With Wisconsin and Oklahoma both losing last weekend, a rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game is a possibility.

Clearly, it needs to be a close game in two weeks, and the loser needs to go on and be dominant the rest of the way.

But if a few more teams nationally stumble, then we very well could see an All-SEC affair in New Orleans for the title.

For that to happen, SEC fans might want to cheer hard for USC over Stanford this weekend in Los Angeles or Oregon over Stanford on Nov. 12. The same goes for Georgia Tech over Clemson this weekend, and perhaps South Carolina could help its SEC brethren when the Gamecocks face Clemson on Nov. 26.

Unbeatens Oklahoma State and Kansas State square off on Nov. 5, and Oklahoma State still has to face Oklahoma on Dec. 3.

It’s unlikely that Boise State will lose, but nobody really saw the Broncos being tripped up last season, either.

Even if Boise State remains unbeaten, the Broncos could have a tough time outpointing a one-loss Alabama or LSU for that second spot in the final BCS standings.

It’s all going to sort itself out over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll keep doing my research on what’s sure to be the most anticipated regular-season SEC game in history.

Two weeks ago, Alabama was my pick and still might be.

But LSU has a way of growing on you. The more you see these Tigers, the more impressed you are with them.

As sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery said last Saturday following the Tigers’ fifth straight victory by at least 26 points, “This is what we’ve been pointing toward since the offseason, and nothing’s going to get in our way.”

Weekend rewind: SEC

October, 17, 2011
The college football season is heating up with the release of the first BCS standings this week.

Anybody else feeling a bit hot … or not?


[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Spruce Derden/US PresswireTrent Richardson is making a strong case for the Heisman.
Trent Richardson’s Heisman chances: A big part of winning the Heisman Trophy is all about timing. Mark Ingram made his move at exactly the right time two years ago, and now Richardson is doing the same. He’s already closing in on 1,000 yards rushing and is fourth nationally at 130.3 yards per game. He’s third nationally with 16 touchdowns and has rushed for 100 or more yards now in six straight games. What separates Richardson is his ability to wear on defenders, grind out the tough yards and break tackles that would take down most backs. Obviously, the 224-pound Richardson isn’t most backs, which is further evidenced by how electrifying he is when he gets into the open field. Good luck catching him and good luck getting him on the ground. We’ve all heard of Heisman poses. What about his Heisman shake last week to finish off his 76-yard touchdown run against Ole Miss? Something says we’ll see that run replayed a few more times this season, maybe even at the Best Buy Theatre in New York City the second weekend of December.


SEC centers: The SEC should have its own Rimington Trophy this season. The lineup of centers in this league is excellent. Alabama’s William Vlachos, LSU’s P.J. Lonergan and Georgia’s Ben Jones are all playing like All-Americans, even though Lonergan was banged up and didn’t play last week.


LSU quarterback controversy: It seems odd that LSU coach Les Miles would be so determined to get Jordan Jefferson into the game with the way Jarrett Lee and the Tigers are playing right now. Jefferson started the second half against Tennessee and played most of the way. But it’s really not an issue with the players, and that includes Lee. So call it a quarterback rotation and not a quarterback controversy.


South Carolina’s defense: The Gamecocks can thank Ellis Johnson and that defense for holding their ground these last four weeks. They haven’t given up more than 16 points in their last four games and are really getting after teams right now. South Carolina is second in the SEC with 14 sacks and tied for the lead nationally with 24 forced turnovers.


Florida’s running game: The Gators have now gone three straight games without rushing for 100 yards. Jeff Demps has been hurt – again. And Chris Rainey also hasn’t been able to get untracked after starting the season on fire. He was held to 33 yards on 16 carries in the 17-6 loss to Auburn, and no Florida running back had a rush that was longer than 9 yards.


Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw: One of those guys no quarterback likes to see lined up on the edge and ready to take off, Upshaw is making his case as the SEC’s pre-eminent big-play defender. He now leads the league with 10.5 tackles for loss.


Georgia’s special teams: What didn’t go wrong for the Bulldogs on special teams in their 33-28 escape against Vanderbilt? Drew Butler’s punt at the end of the game was blocked, giving the Commodores a chance to win it. Georgia also gave up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a fake punt that led to another Vanderbilt touchdown. All the gaffes overshadowed Orson Charles’ blocked punt for the Bulldogs.


Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks: He’s quickly becoming one of the SEC’s most productive cornerbacks. Banks is tied for the league lead with five interceptions and leads the league with 13 passes defended. Only a junior, he now has 12 career picks, just four off Walt Harris’ school record of 16.


James Franklin and Todd Grantham playing nice: Something says these two guys won’t be trading Christmas cards. Franklin wasn’t real thrilled about some of the things allegedly being said by some of the Georgia defenders during the game, and Grantham wasn’t real thrilled about some of the things Franklin was allegedly saying to Georgia safety Shawn Williams after the game. One thing’s for sure. Neither coach was backing down.


Eastern Division: A year ago, four of the six teams in the Eastern Division wound up with losing overall records – Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It’s not farfetched to think that we could have a repeat this season, and at the very least, have four teams finish no better than .500 overall. Kentucky is almost certainly headed for a losing season. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are both on track to be in the .500 range, and Florida is also looking down the barrel of a second straight season with at least five losses. South Carolina suffered a huge blow last week with Marcus Lattimore going down for the season, and Georgia has seemingly righted the ship after starting the season 0-2. Still, it’s hard to imagine anybody in the East having much of a chance against whichever team wins the West. Auburn beat South Carolina by 39 points last season in the SEC championship game. A lot can still happen, but would anybody be surprised if we had a second straight blowout in Atlanta that first weekend of December?