SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide

SEC Heisman watch: Week 5

September, 30, 2014
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Well, Todd Gurley isn't exactly slowing down these days.

The Georgia running back just keeps chugging along, leaving defenders shamed along the way. On Saturday, Gurley ran for a career-high 208 yards, had two touchdowns and averaged 7.4 yards per carry against Tennessee. Not bad. No wonder he now has 16 career 100-yard rushing games.

On the season, Gurley has 610 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He's averaging an SEC-high 8.8 yards per carry.

Again, we know how good Gurley is and he should be at the top over everyone's Heisman ballot, at least for the SEC. He should be at the top of it nationally, but some folks are hung up on that Mariota guy.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill, Kevin Sumlin
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesKenny Hill showed his moxie against Arkansas, propelling Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies to 5-0.
But let's take some time to talk about Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill -- the trillest of them all.

We've been impressed with how he has terrorized defenses through the first part of the season, but I think he had his best performance this past Saturday against Arkansas. First, he had to bring his team back from a 14-point deficit in the second half. Then, he had to win in overtime. All he did was throw touchdowns of 86 and 59 yards to tie the game in the fourth. In overtime, he needed just one play, finding Malcome Kennedy, who was somehow behind three Arkansas defenders, for a 25-yard game-winning touchdown.

Kenny Trill's gutty performance showed us that he's more than just a kid tossing the ball around in a pass-friendly system. He had to bring his team back from the edge and then win the game. He did both without really breaking a sweat, throwing for 386 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.

On the season, Hill leads the SEC with 1,745 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. No SEC quarterback is on his level right now.

Here are four others to keep an eye on in the SEC:

  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He was off this past weekend but still leads the SEC with 43 receptions and 655 receiving yards. He's tied for first with five touchdowns.
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He was also off but has been the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback this season. Prescott has 964 passing yards and 11 touchdowns. He has rushed for 378 yards and three more scores.
  • Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Even though the Hogs lost to A&M on Saturday, Collins had another solid outing, rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown. However, that failed fourth-and-1 attempt in overtime will haunt him. On the season, Collins leads the SEC with 621 rushing yards and is tied for the league lead with six rushing touchdowns.
  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: Off as well, Robinson is fourth in the SEC with 485 rushing yards and has four rushing touchdowns. He's averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

Why Ole Miss can upset Alabama 

September, 30, 2014
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Bo Wallace, Ole MissThomas Graning/AP ImagesBo Wallace's impressive QBR numbers suggest he could lead the Rebels to a win at home.
Ole Miss could be embarking on one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history.

The Rebels are 4-0 for the first time since 1970 and have a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press poll for only the second time in the past 44 years. To top it off, ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew is headed to the Grove for the first time in the pregame show’s history, as the Rebels host Alabama in one of the most important games ever played in Oxford.

Since Alabama has won the past five meetings between these teams by a combined score of 155-34, many may be writing this game off as one of those early season tests the Tide tends to pass with ease.

Anyone with that mindset would do well to reconsider.
What a weekend ahead in the SEC. There are some premier games pitting ranked teams against each other and others featuring teams with plenty to prove in college football’s premier conference. In our SEC roundtable yesterday, we tackled games we’d pay to see.

Today, we pose the question: Which team has the most to prove Saturday? Our SEC writers take a swing at answering it.

Edward Aschoff: It has to be Florida. If the Gators are going to have any chance in the SEC East race, they have to win this weekend in Knoxville. Also, I think it’s pretty clear this is a must-win for coach Will Muschamp. Is this a team that can legitimately compete in the SEC? We didn’t see it two weeks ago against Alabama, and we honestly don’t know what to expect from the Gators this season. Can Jeff Driskel properly direct this offense? Can the secondary stop blowing assignments? Do the Gators have any mettle? We’ll find out Saturday.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/John BazemoreWith ESPN's "College GameDay" in Oxford, Mississippi, this weekend, Ole Miss certainly has the stage to prove itself against Alabama.
Alex Scarborough: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are all undefeated. They have something to prove, certainly, but they’re not staring down the barrel of a shotgun. That would be LSU. The Tigers have everything to prove. We’ll find out against Auburn whether LSU can get back on track or whether this is a rebuilding year. It certainly looked like the latter against Mississippi State. Anthony Jennings played so poorly against New Mexico State that he was replaced by Brandon Harris. Is he the answer? When will the Leonard Fournette we all expected show up? For that matter, when will that swarming, physical LSU defense return? Will the real LSU please stand up?

Jeff Barlis: It'd be easy to pick Ole Miss, but my gut says Mississippi State has more to prove. The Rebels have been a trendy pick as a team on the rise for a while now. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, didn't get voted into the Top 25 until they ended a 23-year losing streak to LSU in Baton Rouge. That was also MSU's first win against a ranked team in its past 16 tries. Expectations haven't been this high in Starkville in a long time. But in order to truly contend for the SEC West, the Bulldogs will have to knock off Texas A&M.

David Ching: There are two ways of looking at this one. On one hand, I want to go with Ole Miss because it’s in unfamiliar territory. The Rebels are rarely good enough for “GameDay” to consider visiting. They’re 2-7 against ranked opponents under Hugh Freeze. I think they’re a good team, but they must prove they’re legitimate. Beating Alabama would be a great start. On the other hand, LSU embarrassed itself against Mississippi State. The Tigers need to prove they’re worthy of a No. 15 ranking, not to mention consideration among the contenders in the West. They desperately need to beat Auburn.

Sam Khan: It’s definitely Ole Miss, for many of the reasons David stated. This is the Rebels’ moment: “College GameDay” in the Grove, Alabama coming to Vaught-Hemingway, a chance to finally prove they are ready to take the next step. The past season, when these teams met and many thought the Rebels would give Alabama trouble, they were shut out. If they’re truly going to contend in the SEC West, this is a game in which the Rebels have to thrive. Plus, this isn’t just about them; it’s also about the balance of power this year in the state of Mississippi. Over in Starkville, a rising rival, Mississippi State, is also undefeated and ranked, has a road win at LSU under its belt and will try to knock off No. 6 Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can, the Rebels -- who seemed to have the momentum at this time a year ago -- have to keep up.

Greg Ostendorf: It feels like Texas A&M lost this past weekend. Despite a thrilling come-from-behind victory against an improved Arkansas team, everybody is all of a sudden counting the Aggies out. They dropped to No. 3 in this week’s power rankings. They’re underdogs against Mississippi State. Did we all forget how good they looked in the season opener? The past year’s Auburn team didn’t exactly blow out every opponent, and yet they won the conference. I think it’s important for Texas A&M to get back on track this week and play like the team we saw earlier in the season, the team everybody had as a shoo-in for the playoff.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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There was a ton of big recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference this weekend. Several top prospects made their verbal commitments, Georgia flipped an FSU commit, and Missouri -- despite its big win against South Carolina on Saturday -- lost a commitment. Here is a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.


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SEC morning links

September, 30, 2014
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1. Alabama's players wouldn't bite. When asked about Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt's comments -- "We don't really think Bama is as good as they have been" -- none of the four Crimson Tide players interviewed Monday said anything noteworthy in response. After all, what did you expect? This is Alabama we're talking about. Landon Collins had fans forward him a link to the bulletin board material, but he wasn't about to lob any shots in return. "We're definitely going to give them our best game and see who comes out with the W," Alabama's star safety explained. If he had gone any further, Nick Saban would have had his head. And, frankly, there was no reason to fan the flames. Neither team is what it has been. Blake Sims has played well, but he's no AJ McCarron. C.J. Mosley ain't walking through that door. This isn't your daddy's Ole Miss, either. Prewitt and that secondary are tenacious. The front seven can get after it. As Saban said, "This is the best team we've played all year." If anything, Prewitt's slight jab was just what we needed to set the week off right.

2. I'll admit it: we were a little myopic on the SEC Blog Monday. In a roundtable discussion, our writers were asked to pick their game of the week. The options: Alabama-Ole Miss, Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn. The reason? Well, it's obvious, seeing as all three games have College Football Playoff implications. But to make sure we cover all our bases, it felt like we ought to make note of the other games on the SEC slate. No, Vanderbilt-Georgia doesn't hold much intrigue. We can skip that. But you could argue that Florida-Tennessee and South Carolina-Kentucky mean something. For the Gators, this feels like a must win. Jeff Driskel needs to crawl out of the hole he's dug for himself, and his coach, Will Muschamp, needs a W to keep his job. The Vols, meanwhile, have to say enough is enough with moral victories and finally close out a big game. And in the case of South Carolina-Kentucky, you're looking at two teams heading in opposite directions. The Gamecocks fell all over themselves yet again Saturday, blowing a late lead against Missouri. Kentucky, on the other hand, broke its winless streak in the SEC by beating Vandy. The Wildcats may be young, but they're dangerous. With a deep group of tailbacks, Bud Dupree and Za'Darious Smith rushing off the edge, and A.J. Stamps making plays in the secondary, South Carolina and the rest of the East better watch out.

3. Not to end our morning jaunt on a sour note, but I was struck by news Monday of the Indianapolis Colts releasing Da'Rick Rogers. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. This is par for the course with Rogers, after all. But once again I was reminded of what a waste of potential the former Tennessee receiver was. To this day I remember seeing him play at Calhoun High in Georgia. He's the best high school player I've ever witnessed in person. Sadly, on the list of all-time SEC talents that never amounted to much, Rogers is right up there with names like Ryan Perrilloux, Mitch Mustain and B.J. Scott. Rogers was everything you wanted in a receiver: tall, physical, explosive. Even in the NFL he flashed All-Pro talent. But something never clicked for him. Maybe there's still time, but not likely. If anything, his story is a cautionary tale for any four- or five-star prospect who thinks talent alone can get the job done.
Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

[+] EnlargeSaban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and the Crimson Tide will play at the No. 11-ranked Ole Miss Rebels in Week 6.
Through four games, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have done nothing to not deserve their spot atop the college football world.

Forget Jake Coker and forget being a game manager, Blake Sims has developed into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator hasn't signaled the end times, it's brought about a renaissance replete with screen passes, misdirection and even the use of the hurry-up, no-huddle.

After fumbling about against West Virginia in the season opener, Alabama's defense has returned to form. If it weren't for four turnovers, Florida wouldn't have scored a single point in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made the Gators look inept as Jeff Driskel struggled to complete 9 of his 28 pass attempts.

Alabama has developed into a complete football team these past few weeks. Even the punting and place kicking have been better than expected.

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

Whatever we think we know about Alabama will be challenged Saturday when the Crimson Tide have their first true road test against the No. 11-ranked team in the country. Oxford, Mississippi, may be a picturesque college town that prides itself on never losing the party, but what awaits Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium won't be so friendly. Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche want to knock off the No. 1 team in the land, not serve it sweet tea and barbecue.

How will Sims hold up under that type of pressure? He's played well so far, tossing eight touchdowns to two interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least two starts, he ranks third nationally with an adjusted QBR of 89.4. But he hasn't played in a raucous road environment yet, and he hasn't faced a defense that's as good top to bottom as Ole Miss'. The Nkemdiche brothers can get after you. So can C.J. Johnson and D.T. Shackelford. And if you try throwing into that secondary, don't expect the ball back. Senquez Golson leads the SEC with three interceptions this season and Cody Prewitt led the league with six picks last season.

Speaking of defense, what do we really know about Alabama's? The Crimson Tide barely survived West Virginia Week 1, and in subsequent games they haven't really been put to the test. Florida was supposed to be a measuring stick, but we saw how that played out.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, should give Alabama everything it can handle. Wallace may be up and down as a passer, but when he's hot, he can really sling it. He's elusive in the pocket and knows Hugh Freeze's offense like the back of his hand. Plus, he's protected by an offensive line that stars one of the best tackles in the SEC in Laremy Tunsil.

Alabama's secondary won't be able to sleepwalk by the Rebs. Treadwell is one of the most productive receivers in the country and Evan Engram is a constant mismatch at tight end. And that's not to mention Cody Core and Vince Sanders, who are difficult to account for in their own right. If you're Saban, you're worried because your top cornerback is generously listed at 5-foot-10, your second-best cornerback, Eddie Jackson, has health concerns, and your third-best cornerback, Tony Brown, is a true freshman.

And all that goes without saying how Alabama has continued to struggle against the hurry-up, no-huddle. Go back and look at Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia; it hasn't been pretty.

Meanwhile, Freeze just so happens to be one of the leading experts on uptempo offense. And unlike last season's game, he's probably going to make sure his signals aren't so obvious.

If Alabama wants to remain the No. 1 team in the country, it will have to prove it against Ole Miss.

From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.

At first glance: SEC Week 6

September, 29, 2014
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Finally we've reached the heart of the SEC schedule where nonconference blowouts are a thing of the past. No more directional schools, this week it's nothing but mano-a-mano conference battles.

We're going to start separating the pretenders from the contenders, as division races heat up. It's time to find out a whole lot more about the powerful SEC West, where a whopping six top 15 teams square off. Buckle up!

Game of the week: Alabama at Ole Miss
The No. 3 Tide still have the best chance to win the SEC West -- a 31-percent chance to be exact, according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index) -- but their biggest threat of being upset will be waiting at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The No. 11 Rebels admitted they were looking ahead to the big game after slogging past Memphis 24-3, but they still turned in another impressive performance by what has become one of the nation's most dominant defenses. Ole Miss kept Memphis out of the end zone and has allowed just two touchdowns on 38 drives this season. The Rebels' run defense was particularly nasty, limiting Memphis to 23 yards on 31 attempts. Alabama is coming off a bye and a dominant, complete performance of its own in a 42-21 thrashing of Florida. It all sets up to be quite a clash in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of what will likely be a handful of glamorous SEC West showdowns.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Last time we saw them, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in beating then-No. 8 LSU for the first time in nearly 15 years and winning in Baton Rouge for the first time in nearly 24 years. Prescott showed all of his dual-threat brilliance in carving up the Tigers' defense, and MSU shot up in the polls after a very big win. In order for the Dogs to keep momentum on their side they now have to beat another top 10 foe. Prescott will be the central figure, and the pressure he'll face is sure to be literal as well as figurative. Texas A&M leads the SEC with 17 sacks in four games. True freshman end Myles Garrett has been a force with 5.5, while linebacker Shaan Washington returned from a broken collarbone last week and recorded two sacks in his first game of the year. One more thing: Prescott will be without his starting center, as Dillon Day will serve a one-game suspension for stomping on two LSU players.

Coach under the microscope: Florida's Will Muschamp
Muschamp probably has this category to himself until his Gators start winning and pulling off upsets. Florida's loss to Alabama was not unexpected, but the way it went down -- more ineptitude on offense and a school record for yards allowed on defense -- pushed fans to the brink. Even some of Muschamp's die-hard supporters had to be talked off their nearest ledge. If the noise was that loud after UF's loss to a juggernaut program like Alabama, what would happen if the Gators lose to Tennessee for the first time in nearly 10 years? The Volunteers are an improving bunch. They came oh-so-close to beating Georgia on the road last week, and they're still hungry for respect. Florida, coming off a bye, will have to get its act together in order to pull off a win at Neyland Stadium.

Storyline to watch: Will Brandon Harris start?
LSU's visit to No. 5 Auburn has an entirely different feel after the Bayou Bengals' season-long quarterback controversy took a turn for the decisive. True freshman Brandon Harris was electrifying in relief of Anthony Jennings. Harris was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and directed the LSU offense to seven touchdowns on seven possessions. After the game, coach Les Miles declined to name Harris the starter, saying LSU's way is to thoroughly evaluate before making a decision. With all due respect, that's a bunch of hooey. Harris obviously gives LSU its best chance to pull what would be an enormous upset both in terms of the national stage and the division race. It won't be easy against Auburn's improving defense. The Tigers have allowed only three plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied for the second fewest in the FBS.

Intriguing matchup: South Carolina at Kentucky
While the West division deserves all the attention it's going to get on Saturday, the East is quietly trying to sort itself out. Upstart Kentucky finally removed a very large monkey off its back by beating Vanderbilt and snapping a 17-game conference losing streak. In order to earn respect, the Wildcats' next task is to score an upset. Kentucky and its fans will be fired up for this home game, and the Gamecocks are ripe for the picking after blowing a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter against division-leading Missouri. Kentucky's improving offense will stretch USC's struggling defense. But the most intriguing matchup in this one is on the other side of the ball, where the Cats' defense is coming off its best performance against an SEC foe since 1996. UK held Vanderbilt to 139 yards last week. If the Wildcats can contain the Gamecocks' offense, it might not even take a shootout to earn that elusive signature win.

Week 6 roundtable: Game of the week

September, 29, 2014
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This will be “Separation Saturday” in the SEC West. Three games -- Alabama-Ole Miss, Mississippi State-Texas A&M and Auburn-LSU -- will pit top-15 teams from the West against one another, so we should soon know more about who will emerge as legitimate contenders in college football’s toughest division.

Considering all that will be at stake on Saturday, here are our SEC writers’ picks for the games most worth watching on Saturday.

Edward Aschoff: I mean, it’s “GameDay” in the Grove -- the nation’s best tailgating spot. I’m ready for chandeliers at tailgates, sport coats, sun dresses and the finest Southern hospitality this side of the mighty Mississippi. This is a chance for Ole Miss to prove it really deserves to be in the conversation with the premier teams, not just in the SEC but in the entire country. On the flip side, this is going to be the toughest test for Alabama thus far, and the Rebels’ up-tempo offense certainly presents an issue for an Alabama defense that has struggled against that style in recent years.

Alex Scarborough: Give me Oxford. Give me The Grove. Give me one team seeking to regain its spot atop college football and another team poised to break through into national prominence. Give me an SEC West showdown with actual playoff implications. Give me a quarterback with something to prove. In fact, give me two of ‘em. Give me two of the most talented receivers in the country, two tenacious defenses and two coaches who sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, philosophically. Give me one game: Alabama-Ole Miss.

Jeff Barlis: I have a feeling my choice will go against the grain: LSU at Auburn. I still think Auburn is the top team in the SEC, until proven otherwise. The Bayou Bengals, on the other hand, are just starting to get their talented true freshmen, RB Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris and WR Malachi Dupre, integrated into the game plan. Expect this one to be a shootout that will force LSU coach Les Miles to turn to Harris, who has been the team's best signal-caller. This game could be one that decides the West Division. And remember, LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last year.

David Ching: I’ll agree with Mr. Barlis here. If I had to answer this question at the end of the first quarter Saturday, I definitely wouldn’t have picked Auburn-LSU. LSU’s offense was sputtering against New Mexico State, and Anthony Jennings had been a turnover machine. Harris' joining the starting lineup is intriguing, though. A touted true freshman making his first start on the road against the defending conference champ? That’s fascinating stuff. How will LSU’s defense fare against Auburn’s running game? Dak Prescott and Mississippi State embarrassed the Tigers’ defense two Saturdays ago, and Auburn’s offense is no less dangerous.

Sam Khan: The other games are nice, but Texas A&M-Mississippi State looks to be the most hotly contested one of the bunch. The cowbells will be ringin' fiercely at Davis-Wade Stadium. The anticipation for this game in Starkville will be at a fever pitch, considering the Bulldogs are undefeated, ranked 12th in the country and coming off a landmark win at LSU. The past season, these teams combined for 92 points and 1,092 offensive yards in a game A&M won 51-41. Two of the SEC's best quarterbacks (Kenny Hill and Prescott) will be on display, and there are SEC West and even Heisman Trophy implications in this game.

Greg Ostendorf: The atmosphere I’d pay most to see? The Grove for Alabama-Ole Miss. But the game I’d pay most to see? That’s two hours away in Starkville. I’m still not sure what to make of the Aggies after Saturday, but I’m not turning down a chance to see Hill. Besides maybe Todd Gurley, Hill is the most exciting player in the conference. That said, it’s hard not to root for Prescott after all he has overcome. It’s the best quarterback matchup of the day, and I expect it to come down to the wire. Sign me up.

SEC morning links

September, 29, 2014
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1. Fresh off its win over Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss was already taking shots at Alabama. Safety Cody Prewitt said he doesn’t believe the Crimson Tide are as good as they have been in recent years. It might be a little early to say that; after all, just last year, Prewitt’s Rebels were shut out in Tuscaloosa, 25-0. A lot has changed since that game, though. The Ole Miss defense, which has allowed just two touchdowns through the first four games, is much improved, and quarterback Bo Wallace is a year older. At Alabama, the offense looks more balanced under new coordinator Lane Kiffin, and they’re even using their own version of the no-huddle offense. It’s one of many intriguing matchups in the SEC this weekend.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWill LSU turn to Brandon Harris in hostile territory at Auburn?
2. Speaking of intriguing matchups, how about LSU traveling to Auburn on Saturday? Les Miles' team has won six of the last seven against Auburn, but his Tigers opened up as 7.5-point underdogs on the road. A big reason for that is the uncertainty at quarterback. Miles has yet to name a starter, but after Saturday’s victory over New Mexico State, it was pretty clear who played better. The question will be whether Miles wants to give freshman Brandon Harris his first start on the road, in a hostile environment. The Auburn defense isn’t worried as much about the opposing quarterback; it’s worried about getting healthy after three starters were banged up in a 45-17 victory over Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

3. What happened to South Carolina on Saturday? It looked like the Gamecocks were well on their way to beating Missouri and grabbing hold of the SEC East. Then, all of a sudden, it all slipped away. A day later, Steve Spurrier saw his team’s streak of 69 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 come to an end. The good news is that despite the loss to Missouri and despite dropping out of the polls, South Carolina is still not out of the SEC race. The bad news is that they have to travel to Lexington this weekend to face much-improved Kentucky team, and the local beat writers are already saying that Spurrier’s team looks beatable again this week. We’ll know a lot more about both teams following Saturday’s game.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Weekend

SEC bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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Alabama was off this week, so it remains in the top spot as a College Football Playoff representative, but we have some movement in the next couple of teams in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re moving Auburn up a spot in place of Texas A&M, which won but showed it might still have some work to do after needing a furious rally and a few breaks to escape with an overtime win over Arkansas.

Also, despite the Razorbacks’ loss, we’ll stick with them finding a way to get three more wins and bowl eligibility this season. They proved they’re a quality team that’s making progress, although they have a brutal schedule to navigate the rest of the way.

Here is our full SEC list entering the sixth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Texas A&M
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

'College GameDay' headed to the Grove

September, 27, 2014
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ESPN’s College GameDay is headed to the Grove next Saturday.

For the first time in the pregame show’s history, it will visit Oxford, Mississippi, and make camp inside a sea of tents in the heart of one of college football’s most iconic tailgating spots when No. 10 Ole Miss (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hosts No. 3 Alabama (4-0, 1-0).



The Rebels are 4-0 for the first time since 1970 and were a popular presason pick to be a darkhorse contender in the SEC Western Division. The favorite? Well, that would be Alabama, which is coming off of a blowout win over Florida and will be well rested after getting a perfectly timed bye week.

The last time Ole Miss beat Alabama was in 2003 ... when Eli Manning was the Rebels' quarterback.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
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With Saturday’s action complete, we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the regular season.

Can you believe that?

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.

1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHutson Mason might need to be more aggressive to help take the strain off star RB Todd Gurley.
2. Need more from Mason: Georgia's Todd Gurley is a beast worthy of every bit of the Heisman Trophy hype he receives. But he can’t do it alone -- not for an entire season, at least. No matter how strong he might be, nobody can withstand that type of punishment on a consistent basis. At some point, Hutson Mason must step up and provide his star running back some help. Sure, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph have all missed time with injuries, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome are a pretty good group of targets. Still, against Tennessee, Mason barely fit the role of game manager. Georgia won 35-32, but he completed just 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. For Georgia to make a playoff push, Mason needs to take greater control of the offense and push the ball downfield. Playing as passive as he has just won’t cut it.

3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.

4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.
There are plenty of stars in the SEC. Whether you're looking at Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board of NFL draft picks or the national rankings for receptions, passing yards or tackles, you're likely to find plenty of players from the Southeast. But through a quarter of the regular season, who in the SEC has separated themselves as the elite talent in the league? It's early, but let's take a look at three tiers.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama safety Landon Collins has firmly established himself in the elite category.
THE ELITE

  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (32) and passes defended (2), and he's done all that in a secondary that hasn't had much stability. Collins' talent is unquestionable. He showed against Florida how disruptive a force he can be, whether that's in the passing game or playing near the line of scrimmage.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: We all knew how good the junior wideout could be. Heck, he broke Julio Jones' freshman records at Alabama two years ago. Now that he's fully healthy again, Cooper is defying all expectations, leading the country in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to pick up large chunks of yards after the catch is uncanny.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He's a beast. There's no two ways about it. The junior has settled any debate heading into the season: He's the best running back in the country. In a one-dimensional offense, he shoulders the load. He averages 134 rushing yards per game. And he's explosive, with 13 runs of 10 or more yards through three games.
  • Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny who? The redshirt sophomore has made Aggies fans forget the mercurial Johnny Manziel. Hill's raw QBR (94.0) is the best of any quarterback in the country with at least three starts -- ahead of Oregon Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota. Hill's 13 passing TDs to one interception is ridiculous.
  • Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defense hasn't been the best this season, but it has nothing to do with the pass rush. Ray, a junior from Missouri, has played lights out. He leads the league in sacks with six and is tied for ninth in total tackles with 22.
STUCK ON THE FENCE

  • Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: He was being billed as a possible contender for the Heisman Trophy, but Davis hasn't played up to those expectations yet. Nagging injuries have kept the junior tailback from reaching his potential once again. His 264 yards rushing ranks 10th in the SEC.
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Don't put all of Cooper's 201 yards and three touchdowns on Hargreaves. The sophomore cornerback wasn't covering him the whole time, and when he did give up a TD in the second half, he was worn out from his offense's inability to stay on the field. Nonetheless, Hargreaves should be considered one of the best corners in the SEC.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There had to be an A.P.B. put out on Howard earlier in the season. The dynamic sophomore wasn't getting the football. He had no catches in the first three games. The only time he'd been targeted, it resulted in an interception. Last Saturday was a move in the right direction -- two receptions for 22 yards -- but Howard has to find a way to become a bigger part of Alabama's offense.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: So much for a true freshman contending for the Heisman. But who really expected that would happen? Fournette has played well but not great. His 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 average) is respectable but not noteworthy. Let's give the kid some time, why don't we?
  • Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: What was all that talk we heard this offseason about Marshall developing into a better passer? It hasn't happened yet. The senior's completion percentage is still stuck well below the 60 percent benchmark. His QB rating (126.8) is worse than it was last season (143.2).
RISING UP THE RANKS

  • Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: For all the talk about Georgia and Alabama's running backs, it's been Arkansas with the most productive duo in the SEC. Collins leads the league in rushing yards (490) and Williams leads the league in rushing touchdowns (7).
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: If it weren't for Cooper, we'd be drooling over LSU's explosive sophomore. He was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last season, but not anymore. Dural is second in the league in receiving yards (494) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (4) despite getting the ball just 18 times, compared to Cooper's 43 or Malcome Kennedy's 30 receptions.
  • Myles Garrett, DL, Texas A&M: The true freshman defensive end was brought to Aggieland to rush the passer, and he's done just that. The former five-star prospect has lived up to his talent, ranking second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks.
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Whether it's with his arm, his feet or even his hands, Mississippi State's junior quarterback is getting the job done. In addition to having the fourth-highest QB rating in the SEC (178.4), Prescott is tied for the league lead in scoring with 90 total points.
  • Duke Williams, WR, Auburn: The former junior college transfer arrived at Auburn to much fanfare, and he quickly lived up to the hype. A physical 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's become Marshall's favorite target. The Louisiana native is fifth in the SEC in receptions (21), sixth in receiving yards (324) and ninth in yards per catch (15.4).
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Blake Sims tried to keep his postgame interview low key. Drained after a hard-fought win, he entered the media room inside Bryant-Denny Stadium and propped himself up against the wall in front a few reporters. But before a single question was asked of him, he was told he’d have to move.

An Alabama media relations staffer beckoned him to the big stage.

Sims, a soft-spoken, often times deferential quarterback, couldn’t stand off to the side anymore. Not after his transformational performance earlier in the afternoon against Florida. Not after the way he orchestrated one of the most impressive offensive performances in school history. The podium and all its cameras and recorders were there for him. They’d waited after Nick Saban and all the other players had left just to hear him speak.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Jason Getz/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims shredded the Gators defense for 445 passing yards and four TDs.
After being asked about his bandaged shoulder, a reporter asked if he’d assess his play.

His response: “It was pretty fine.”

What?

“Pretty fine” is what you say after you threw a few touchdowns, tossed a few interceptions and generally didn’t throw the ball so well. “Pretty fine” is what you say when you feel like you didn’t do much to help your team win the game. “Pretty fine” is the last thing Sims has been.

But he didn’t see it that way.

“When you have great guys out there that want to protect you, want to play hard for you; when you have a great O-line that takes the time to learn the defense week by week; when you’ve got great wide receivers that want to go out there and want the ball and get open for you so you can get the ball out of your hands as fast as you can; also when you have three great running backs -- Kenyan Drake, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry -- that can keep their eyes off you by running the ball; you’re bound to have a good game,” he said, committing what was the athletic equivalent to an awards show acceptance speech.

It looked like things were getting easier for him, a reporter said, asking if that was the case.

“It’s not very easy,” Sims said. “Again, when you have great wide receivers that can get open, any quarterback can hit an open guy. I’m just blessed to have these guys beside me.”

But the truth -- the truth Sims won’t admit and that many fans couldn’t come to grips with until Saturday -- was that Alabama is just as blessed to have him.

The guy no one expected to be the starting quarterback is now the guy to whom Alabama’s playoff hopes are securely pinned.

There shouldn’t be any more questions about Sims’ ability, center Ryan Kelly said.

Not after how Sims manhandled Florida’s defense.

“Blake played great,” Kelly said. “Whoever is doubting Blake at this point, four games in, look at what we did today. He’s a great quarterback and we’re glad to have him.”

The Gators entered Saturday with one of the best cornerbacks in the country (Vernon Hargreaves III) and a front seven many thought would harass Sims into mistakes. But it turned out Sims was up for the challenge, throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns. His only interception came on a tipped pass, and on the very next possession he helped lead a 16-play drive that ended with another trip into the end zone. And that star cornerback? He didn’t matter. Sims connected with Amari Cooper time and time again, racking up 10 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

“He created a lot of things with his legs, and that was something we knew coming into the game,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “He did a nice job with some pocket movement. We had him pinned up at times, and he got away.”

If you didn’t believe in Sims’ first three starts, you had to be sold by No. 4.

If not, just look at the national QBR rankings. Sims is fifth on that list, ahead of Connor Cook, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott.

He’s been explosive, with an average yards per attempt of 11.25, which ranks third among all FBS QBs. He’s been evasive, with a sack percentage of 1.0 percent, which is tied for ninth. And he’s been as good as it gets on third down, coming in No. 1 overall with a third-down conversion percentage of 71.4 percent.

“People have to respect him as a passer,” Saban said. “He has made too many plays and too many good throws for people to not respect him as a passer.”

Sims may not say it himself, but he’s a big reason for Alabama’s success. If he keeps it up -- and his numbers have stayed consistent -- then the Crimson Tide should remain a favorite to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Don’t believe him yet? Then, according to offensive tackle Austin Shepherd, you’re missing the big picture.

“Obviously he proved he can do it.”
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From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

Four weeks into the season, we're still trying to figure out who is the best player in the SEC. Is it the rumbling tank of a running back or the hotshot receiver who is making everyone on defense look silly with his moves, speed and intelligence?

Today’s Take Two topic: If you were starting a team from scratch, whom are you building around -- Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper or Georgia running back Todd Gurley?

Take 1: Alex Scarborough

We’re talking apples and oranges, people. Unlike running backs, most receivers are dependent on the quarterback, after all.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama receiver Amari Cooper caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns vs. Florida.
But Cooper isn’t most receivers.

Cooper may not be as physically impressive as Gurley. He may not run with the same ferocity. But Cooper is every bit the star. If I were starting a football team from scratch, I would take the junior receiver No. 1 overall.

I don’t care that he’s not 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. There simply isn’t a player in college football who takes over the game quite like him. Even at 6-1 and 210 pounds, he is unguardable. Using NFL-level footwork and an uncanny ability to read coverage, he can outsmart even the best DBs. Just ask Vernon Hargreaves III, a potential All-American and future high-round draft pick.

Cooper’s numbers this season are startling. He leads the country in receptions (43) and receiving yards (655) and is tied for third in receiving touchdowns (5). He’s on track for 150 catches, 2,292 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, based on a 14-game season. That’s just silly.

And he’s doing all that with a quarterback who played receiver and running back early in his career. Don't tell me he's not making Blake Sims look good. With a ridiculous 320 yards after the catch, Cooper is doing much of the work himself.

Since Nov. 30 (when he finally got healthy), Cooper ranks third nationally in total yards from scrimmage (1,011). That’s ahead of Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and, yes, Gurley.

If team success matters, you have to take Cooper over Gurley.

Cooper’s Crimson Tide are undefeated and well on their way to a berth in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Gurley’s Bulldogs have one loss and need to work their way back into the playoff picture.

If Georgia’s offensive coordinator had simply given Gurley the ball more against South Carolina, that argument may not exist. But it’s a reality nonetheless.

Lane Kiffin won't make the same mistake at Alabama. He'll give Cooper the ball again and again and again until someone proves they can stop him. So far this season, no one has shown they can.

Take 2: Edward Aschoff

I'd just like to state for the record that I think Cooper has been amazing this season (#shamelessplug). I respect his game like no other when it comes to the receiver position.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
David Goldman/AP ImagesTodd Gurley has been practically unstoppable this season, averaging 9.8 yards per carry.
But while he has been stellar and no other receiver should even be in the same conversation with him, without someone throwing him the ball, he's just another athlete standing on the field. With Gurley, you don't have to worry about that because all he needs is someone handing him the rock and getting out of his way.

Just get out of his way, man, and let him do his thang!

Like, you aren't hearing me. I said get out of his way!

See, Alex, when you use visual aids, it helps your argument.

Gurley is a machine who can create his own running lanes even if things are clogged in front of him. All he has to do is touch the ball and a play is more than likely going to be made. He doesn't need the assistance of someone else chucking it to him. If Georgia wanted to, it could line him up in the Wildcat all day and Gurley would just feast on opposing defenses even more. There's a reason everyone bashed Georgia's coaching staff for not giving him the rock on first-and-goal late against South Carolina. There's a reason coach Mark Richt regretted that decision after the Dawgs eventually lost that game.

In Gurley you should always trust when you need something magical to happen. How about you Google that nifty 17-yard cutback he had for a first down against South Carolina. Yeah, that's improv, sir. I don't see receivers having a lot of luck with stuff like that.

Through Gurley's first two games of the season, he was the only Power 5 player to have at least 100 yards after contact in both games, averaging 102 YAC against Clemson and South Carolina. Since the start of the 2012 season, Gurley has 95 rushes that have gained 10 yards or more and has 13 such runs this season.

Remember, he's played in only three games this year yet is third in the SEC with 402 rushing yards (134 yards per game), has four touchdowns and is averaging a league-high 9.8 yards per carry. On 428 career carries, he has just 50 yards for loss on runs and has just 2 yards for loss this season -- which came in Week 1 against Clemson.

This is the agile yet destructive player you want to start your team with. Gurley can pummel any defender foolish enough to get in his way, or he can glide and sprint past him. But honestly, Gurley likes the contact. It fuels him and makes him run harder.

My guy is thirsty for contact and is more independent with his majestic yet pernicious running style.

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