SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There were plenty of times when Blake Sims could have packed it in, said enough was enough and resigned himself to not playing quarterback for the University of Alabama.

Way back in the spring, he could have thrown in the towel. He’d just tossed two interceptions during the final practice of camp, and Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State, was expected to waltz into Tuscaloosa and take over.

But Sims surged ahead of Coker during fall camp, won the job and started the season off on a tear, throwing eight touchdowns and two interceptions during the first four games.

It was great. Until it wasn’t.

Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, then lost on the road at Ole Miss. Sims was ineffective, completing 19 of 31 passes with no touchdowns and one interception. He looked ordinary again. He looked uncomfortable, like someone who was still learning to play quarterback, not someone who could lead an offense to a national championship.

For three quarters of the following game, those suspicions were on the verge of being confirmed. Sims couldn’t get anything going and Alabama fell behind on the road against an unranked Arkansas team that hadn’t won a conference game in two years. The only thing at stake was everything, the entire season. Back-to-back losses would have meant the end of Alabama’s playoff hopes.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBlake Sims waited a long time for his turn, and he's made the most of it. He has 12 touchdowns and one interception since an Oct. 4 loss at Ole Miss.
It was then that Sims came into his own. With the season hanging in the balance, he proved to be the quarterback Alabama needed.

Whatever happens on Saturday against No. 15 Auburn, Sims’ comeback is complete. Whether you take the long view of the spring until now or dive deeper into three game-clinching drives, you’ll see a quarterback who matured into the leader of a team fighting for playoff contention.

Oct. 11: Fayetteville, Arkansas

It would prove to be his first comeback.

Down 13-7 on the road, Sims got the ball with 36 seconds left in the third quarter.

Seven plays and 50 yards later, Sims faced a pivotal third-and-3 inside the red zone.

Sims took the snap, scrambled to his right and slung his arm across his body. DeAndrew White, in the middle of the end zone, came down with the pass.

“When we had to score, he became a real vocal guy,” said running back T.J. Yeldon. “He was firing us up and getting us motivated to go and score a touchdown.”

Nov. 8: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Every Alabama quarterback has to survive Death Valley.


AJ McCarron did it two years ago when he orchestrated a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. His TD pass to Yeldon saved the season and sent Alabama to the national championship.

Sims, who is close friends with McCarron, got the same opportunity.

Down 13-10 with less than a minute left in regulation, Sims had to act. On third-and-4, he scrambled for the first down. After an uncharacteristic drop by Amari Cooper, Sims took the next snap, darted to his right and found Christion Jones for 16 yards.

Sims killed the clock with 12 seconds left, went to the sideline and watched the game-tying field goal split the uprights.

“Blake kind of said, 'This is where we have to do it right here,'” said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. “We all kind of said, ‘Let’s go.’ Kind of a surreal experience. We knew we could do it.”

In overtime, Sims screamed out an audible on second-and-goal. He took the shotgun snap, shuffled his feet and threw a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown to White.

Nov. 15: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Nick Saban called it, “Probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history.”


Keep in mind that the longtime head coach is not one for hyperbole.

But the 15-play, 76-yard drive Sims led against then-No. 1 Mississippi State was one for the ages. Sims, who couldn’t seem to make a play in the second half, suddenly clicked into gear after Mississippi State made it a six-point game.

Sims was so calm, so effective. On a pair of third-and-longs, he went through his progressions, saw nothing and scrambled for first downs.

On second-and-goal, he handed the ball off to Yeldon for a touchdown. Alabama went ahead by two scores and ate six minutes off the clock.

“I’m just happy that he’s doing other teams like that, because he does that to us every day at practice during two-minute drill,” said safety Nick Perry. “He’s always with a black jersey, so when we’re going up to try to tackle him, we have to tag him. He’ll always get back in the locker room, ‘Oh, you didn’t touch me. You couldn’t tackle me in a game.’ So when I see him make a play like that [against Mississippi State], I’m like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I wouldn’t tackle him.’”

Saturday: The Iron Bowl

Sims now understands what to expect of these types of games.

“It’s that one play, those 2-3 plays, that determines how the game plays out,” he said.

With Sims’ hands on the ball, Alabama fans should be confident. After leading three pivotal drives already this season, he feels like he’s done it before.

“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Sims said. “It lets my team know that I’m ready to play.”

As a senior, this will be Sims’ only shot starting against Auburn. So what’s at stake isn’t just the season. In many ways, it’s his legacy.

“It’s a great feeling,” Sims said, forever downplaying his emotions. “I’m glad that I got the opportunity to play here at the University of Alabama and I’m trying not to pressure myself too much and think of it like that.

“I’m just trying to go out and have fun with my teammates, and pretty much be in the backyard and have fun and play catch with my wide receivers.”

In other words, Sims is determined to play his game.

“I make my body language look confident so they can go out and play with ease knowing that I’m ready to play,” he said, giving away one of his secrets: deception. Like everyone else, he's eager to play Auburn. “I know the team is ready to play by how we’re walking around the locker room right now. Everybody is excited and ready to play on Saturday.”

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 13

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Compared to two weekends ago, when the SEC's true freshmen collectively had their best Saturday of the season, last weekend was relatively quiet for the group. Still, several of the rookies had big games on Saturday.

Here are five who stood out and six more notables:

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did: In the Volunteers' loss to Missouri, Barnett finished second on the team with eight tackles, plus he posted half a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.

What it means: The freshman continues to be one of the SEC's most consistent pass-rushers, increasing his total of tackles for loss to 18.5 against Mizzou. He is second in the SEC in TFLs and his nine sacks are tied for third with teammate Curt Maggitt.

KOR Evan Berry, Tennessee

What he did: The little brother of Volunteers legend Eric Berry, Evan returned four kickoffs for 121 yards (30.3 yards per return) against Missouri, including a 58-yard runback in the second quarter that set up a field goal.

What it means: The freshman speedster took over the kickoff return duties around midseason and has handled the job extremely well. In 13 returns, Berry is averaging 30.9 yards per return with a long of 68 yards against Chattanooga. He has a return of at least 33 yards in each of the six games where he has returned a kick.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did: Chubb's string of games with at least 140 rushing yards ended at five, but only because the Bulldogs didn't need to use Chubb after the earlygoing against Charleston Southern. He accumulated 113 rushing yards on just nine carries and scored on touchdown runs of 83 and 8 yards.

What it means: He piled up all of that yardage in the first half alone, so it's not like Chubb's production dropped off at all in the blowout win. In fact, the 83-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was Georgia's longest since 1985 and the eighth-longest in school history. Entering this weekend's game against Georgia Tech, Chubb has 1,152 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and is a full-fledged star who no longer sits in Todd Gurley's shadow.

QB Treon Harris, Florida

What he did: Harris suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky and sat out most of the second half of the 52-3 victory. To that point, he was 4-for-12 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus he had run five times for 8 yards.

What it means: The good news is that Harris' knee contusion will not keep him out of this week's game against Florida State. Harris has helped the Gators' offense become more effective since he entered the starting lineup four games ago -- a stretch where Florida is 3-1.

DL Gerald Willis, Florida

What he did: Willis recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown and also recorded five tackles and a quarterback hurry in Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky.

What it means: Willis was a huge recruit for the Gators, but has had a quiet first season for the most part. He has just 10 tackles in six games this fall. Willis and several youngsters on the defensive line had good games on Saturday, showing that the future should be bright along the line of scrimmage in 2015 and beyond.

Other notables:

DB Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee: Recorded a career-high six tackles against Missouri.

PK Aaron Medley, Tennessee: Made field goals of 38 and 39 yards and hit his only PAT try against Missouri.

DB Malkom Parrish, Georgia: Recorded four tackles and a tackle for loss against Charleston Southern.

PK Gunnar Raborn, Alabama: Made field goals of 20 and 28 yards and went 6-for-6 on PATs in a 48-14 win against Western Carolina.

WR Cam Sims, Alabama: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass for Alabama's first score and finished with three receptions for 33 yards against Western Carolina.

RB Roc Thomas, Auburn: Ran five times for 26 yards against Samford and scored on a 1-yard run, plus he made two receptions for 2 yards.

SEC playoff tracker: Nov. 26

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For the first time all season, there was no movement among the top four teams in this week's College Football Playoff rankings. In fact, the only movement in the top 10 was Ole Miss plummeting from No. 8 to No. 19 after its loss to Arkansas last Saturday. It's no surprise the Rebels also dropped out of this week’s playoff tracker.

Here's a look at where the three remaining SEC playoff contenders stand heading into the final week of the regular season:

Alabama
Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Saturday versus No. 15 Auburn

Reason for optimism: It all comes down to this. Beat Auburn this weekend and Alabama wins the West, has a shot at the conference title and a trip to the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide should be heavy favorites, too, seeing as Auburn has hit the skids ever since beating Ole Miss in dramatic fashion.

Cause for concern: Could last weekend's game against Western Carolina have gone any worse? Alabama started sluggish and saw a number of starters sidelined with injuries, the most alarming of which were Amari Cooper and Cam Robinson. Both should be fine for Auburn, but it would have been better to escape Western Carolina without the bruises.

Who they'll be rooting for: Missouri over Arkansas. It's hard to believe Alabama would rather see Georgia than Missouri in the SEC championship game.

-- Alex Scarborough

Mississippi State
Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Saturday at No. 19 Ole Miss

Reason for optimism: Saturday's Egg Bowl looked like a much tougher challenge for Mississippi State before Ole Miss absorbed a 30-0 beating from Arkansas last weekend. This probably won't be a cakewalk, but Ole Miss has to be demoralized because of the way things have gone downhill over the past month.

Cause for concern: The home team typically dominates in the Egg Bowl. And even if State wins, numerous teams can claim conference titles and possibly jump the Bulldogs in the playoff rankings. Remember, though, that State can still play for an SEC title if it wins Saturday and Alabama loses to Auburn. An unlikely outcome, but still a possibility.

Who they'll be rooting for this week: Auburn over Alabama, Texas over TCU, Michigan over Ohio State, Texas Tech over Baylor

-- David Ching

Georgia
Record: 9-2 (6-2 SEC)
Rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Saturday versus No. 16 Georgia Tech

Reason for optimism: Georgia is a double-digit favorite over Georgia Tech on Saturday, but a win over the rival Yellow Jackets will still impress the committee. It would be the Bulldogs' fourth win over a Top 25 opponent, and right now they need all the help they can get. A win Saturday and a win in the SEC title game should give them a shot.

Cause for concern: There's no guarantee Georgia will even play for the SEC championship. The Bulldogs need Missouri to lose to Arkansas first before they can book their trip to Atlanta next weekend. And even if everything falls in place, they're still not a lock for the playoff. They probably need at least one of the one-loss teams in front of them to go down.

Who they'll be rooting for this week: Arkansas over Missouri. The SEC East is on the line. Georgia has done its part. Now it's up to the Razorbacks to provide an assist.

-- Greg Ostendorf

SEC morning links

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1. The new College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday, and there were very few changes at the top. Alabama remained No. 1; Mississippi State held strong at No. 4 (but for how long?); and Georgia is still clinging to hope, up one spot to No. 9. ESPN’s Heather Dinich broke down every playoff scenario for all nine remaining contenders. She says that Mississippi State has the “most precarious” position of the top four teams as the Bulldogs need the Big Ten and/or the Big 12 to stumble if they hope to stay in the playoff. I tend to agree. When the committee chairman talks about the importance of conference championships and how they will be weighed heavily on selection weekend, that doesn’t bode well for MSU.

2. Tired of the “kick-six” yet? I promise this will be the last link. But if you haven’t already, I suggest you go and read Jon Solomon’s piece on how the effects of one of the wildest finishes in college football history are still being felt. It will be worth your time. The Iron Bowl rivalry itself is known for the passion and animosity felt between the two fan bases, but it’s not always that way. Earlier this season, I wrote a story on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and how he wore a bracelet in support of Kayla Perry, an Auburn student with a rare form of pediatric cancer. Well now, Perry and an Alabama student who has a similar condition will attend Saturday’s game thanks to Kristi Malzahn, wife of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Kristi surprised the two girls by inviting them to attend the game with her. Watch their story here.

3. Arkansas and Missouri might be cross-division foes that will meet every season unless the SEC changes its schedule. They might have a huge game this Friday with SEC title hopes on the line. But they’re not rivals, not yet at least. The two sides haven’t played in the regular season since 1963, and they have only met five times ever. Give it time, though. It’s already catching on with some of the players. “Arkansas, they have the word Kansas in it, so it’s got to be a rival,” said Missouri center Evan Boehm. One team who will be directed by Friday’s game is Georgia. If Missouri loses, the Bulldogs are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship. However, Mark Richt is not planning any Arkansas-Missouri viewing parties for his team.

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SEC bowl projections: Week 13

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After taking care of business against teams they were favored against, Alabama and Mississippi State hung on to their No. 1 and No. 4 spots, respectively, in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.

And the SEC got another team bowl eligible, as Arkansas earned its sixth win with a 30-0 victory over Ole Miss. So that's 11 bowl-eligible teams and counting in the SEC, including the entire SEC West.

As we head into the final week of regular-season play ahead of the SEC championship game, two teams have a shot at claiming bowl eligibility that haven't already: Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky's task is tough, going to No. 22 Louisville, Tennessee's is considerably more feasible, as the Volunteers travel to Vanderbilt.

Georgia, if it wins this weekend against Georgia Tech, looks to be in good position for a New Year's Six bid. There's still much to be decided, with the Egg Bowl and the Iron Bowl on deck. Alabama and Mississippi State must win to maintain their spots, if they don't, chaos will ensue.

But assuming the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs prevail, here's how we think it'll pan out as of today, with 12 SEC bowl-eligible teams projected:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
College Football Playoff semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Ole Miss
TaxSlayer Bowl: Florida
Outback Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare 100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Tennessee
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Whether recruits are attending games this holiday weekend or watching on television, all eyes around the recruiting world will be focused on several rivalry games. From the Iron Bowl to the Egg Bowl there will be recruiting implications throughout the conference this weekend. Here’s a closer look at how these game might affect the top remaining recruits.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

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As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There was a big commitment, there were key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.


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Nick Saban, Gus MalzahnAP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn have more in common than you might think.
It would be easy to portray Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban as two completely different coaches. Different philosophies. Different dispositions. Different sides of one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.

But while you could cast them as opposites and be done with it, that might not be telling the whole truth. Because they aren't as different as you might think. Whether it's an obsessive drive to win, or a fierce attention to detail, the two coaches share much in common.

One is a defensive mastermind, the other an offensive magician. Whether it's exotic blitzes or misleading pre-snap motions, both attack their respective sides of the ball from unique angles. They try to confuse you. They try to outthink you. And they're both among the best in the game at doing so.

From a certain perspective, you might say Malzahn and Saban are different sides of the same coin.

They share an ingrained work ethic, having grown up in small towns -- Saban in Fairmont, West Virginia, and Malzahn in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Though they're 14 years apart in age, their birthdays fall during the same week of October.

Saban was defensive coordinator at Michigan State, left, and then got his big break when he returned to become the Spartans' head coach.

Malzahn was offensive coordinator at Auburn, left, and then got his big break when he came back to take over as the Tigers' head coach.

Sensing a pattern?

Though Saban dwarfs Malzahn in total wins, their winning percentages aren't that far off, with Saban at 84 percent and Malzahn at 80.

Saban played defensive back in college. Malzahn played receiver. Even today their actions mirror one another, as Saban tries to slow down the tempo of the game while Malzahn does everything he can to pick up the pace.

Personality-wise, they present similar images to the media: guarded, singularly focused, sometimes combative. But behind the scenes, there's more to them. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we've seen both coaches dance, Saban doing his best "Electric Slide" and Malzahn strutting his stuff to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."

Anything for recruiting, you might say.

Alabama presents itself as an NFL factory and Auburn as a place of family, but they both produce results. The Crimson Tide have finished No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings Insider each of the past three years. Auburn, meanwhile, is currently ranked ninth Insider and closed its most recent class at No. 8 overall.

But the biggest similarity between Saban and Malzahn is their attention to detail.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle was amazed when he first caught a glimpse of the way Saban ran his program. Everything was so efficient, so focused on the task at hand. Watching practice from outside his office, Battle saw there wasn't a wasted moment.

Jay Jacobs, Auburn's AD, noticed the same thing about Malzahn.

"He's not thinking about other things," Jacobs said. "He's not self-serving at all. He's relentless in details, and he's absolutely great to work with because all he's thinking about is how to make Auburn football better."

Tying those two accounts together is Hoover (Ala.) High coach Josh Niblett, who has sent numerous players to both state schools. Whether it's on the recruiting trail or during coaching clinics, Niblett has had the chance to get to know both Saban and Malzahn well.

"They're both very professional," he said. "Both of them are competitors and both of them are driven, and then both of them have attention to detail. You don't have to be around them long to understand that attention to detail is one of the big factors for their success."

What's stood out to Niblett is their businesslike approach and their hands-on style of coaching.

"One of the neatest things about them is they're both good teachers," he said. "It's one of the best common values they have, they're very hands-on. You have a lot of coaches that are the CEO-type that are involved, but they're involved from the outside in. These two guys are involved from the inside out. It means so much to them that they put their stamp on it, that they want to make sure that they continue to do it."

On Saturday, we'll see their systems come to a head.

Auburn, well out of the playoff race with three losses, is out to spoil No. 1-ranked Alabama's season.

The way Malzahn's emphasis on speed matches up with Saban's emphasis on size is so perfectly incongruent. It's like looking in a mirror.

No, they're not exactly alike. But like the reflection in a mirror, everything is reversed. The receiver is the defensive back. Offense is defense.

They're different, but so much of them is the same. It's what makes it so fun to watch.

Differences between SEC West rivals is razor thin 

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[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinWill this year's edition of the Iron Bowl play out like last year's?
Two in-state SEC West rivalry games will be played this weekend, and the stakes for both games are at an all-time high. Alabama and Mississippi State are tied atop the SEC West standings with a 10-1 overall record, and as of last week’s rankings, both are in position to receive a bid to the inaugural College Football Playoff. All that stands in the way of glory is each team’s fiercest rival.

Either Alabama or Mississippi State will play for the SEC championship regardless of how this weekend’s games shake out, but if both teams are saddled with a two-loss record at the end of the year, the door will swing wide open for other playoff contenders. We forecasted the probability of this scenario back in early September, at the time predicting a 14 percent chance that no SEC team will finish the season with fewer than two losses. That number remains 14 percent heading into this weekend, the likelihood that both Alabama and Mississippi State will lose on Saturday, according to our latest FEI ratings projections. There is a 66 percent chance one of the two will lose.

If the schedules had worked out a bit differently, they might all have two losses already.

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National links: Calm before the storm 

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Last week in college football was kind of dull.

Unless, that is, you’re into watching the single-game FBS rushing record fall for the second straight Saturday. (So who breaks it this week?) Yes, last week was dull, unless, of course, you’re into Florida State’s weekly high-wire act, re-awakenings at Arkansas and Minnesota or UCLA’s continued stranglehold on Los Angeles.

My point is, the latest set of games didn’t significantly impact the College Football Playoff picture -- at least in comparison to the past few weeks. Barring some craziness at the selection-committee table, the top four on Tuesday night is going to look no different than last week’s edition.

But Week 13 was simply the calm before the storm. Not so sure? Check out first nine paragraphs Gene Wojciechowski’s BMOC column. The rocky road to Dec. 9 is enough to make a fan of any playoff contender choke on his or her turkey dinner.

And it starts in two days.


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SEC morning links

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1. It's been 359 days since the "kick-six" in last year's Iron Bowl. And yet, nobody has forgotten what happened -- not the coaches, not the players, not the fans, and certainly not the state of Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, the players have found different ways to cope with the gut-wrenching finish to last year's game. Some use it as motivation. Others turn off the TV when the replay comes on. But for the most part, they have all moved on. It's a new year. That's the same message Gus Malzahn is telling his Auburn team. "I know it will be talked about all week," Malzahn said Monday night on his weekly radio show. "But last year is last year. This is a new year." With or without the "kick-six," this is still the Iron Bowl. As Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said, there's no point in acting like it's "the same as every other game." It's not.

2. The Egg Bowl might not be the Iron Bowl, but there are more than just bragging rights on the line when Mississippi State and Ole Miss square off this Saturday. For the Bulldogs, it will have a direct effect on their playoff aspirations. They not only have to win but win big in order to impress the committee and try and hang on to a spot in the top four. Ole Miss did them no favors this past week with a 30-0 loss to Arkansas. It didn't help that quarterback Bo Wallace sprained his ankle in the first half and never looked like himself after that. But a sprained ankle won't keep Wallace away from Saturday's game, not in his final home game. He's going to give his best Dak Prescott impersonation and play even if he's not 100 percent. It worked out OK for Prescott in last year's Egg Bowl.

3. The season is nearing the end which means it's time to hand out awards and All-American honors. ESPN Insiders Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay got a jump start Monday, putting out their NFL prospect All-America team Insider. Basically, it's a look at what the All-America team would like if voted on by NFL scouts. The team included 10 players from the SEC, more than any other conference. Obvious names like Amari Cooper and Shane Ray were on there, but so were names like Todd Gurley, despite his recent injury, and Alabama fullback Jalston Fowler even though he has just seven carries on the season. Prescott was not on there (because of some quarterback named Marcus Mariota), and both Kiper and McShay agreed on Twitter that it would benefit the Mississippi State quarterback to come back next year.

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At first glance: SEC Week 14

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It all comes down to this.

The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn

Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?

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Prescott
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.

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Coach under the microscope: Will Muschamp, Florida

This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?

Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?

There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.

Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read

Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
Chris DavisJohn David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama players haven't forgotten how last year's Iron Bowl ended.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Is it Iron Bowl week yet?

That’s what the coaches, players and fans alike had to be asking themselves when Alabama and Auburn both fell behind in the first half against a pair of FCS programs Saturday. No offense to Western Carolina and Samford, both of whom have winning records, but there’s no reason the two SEC powerhouses shouldn’t have been up at least three scores by the end of the first quarter.

Instead, the Catamounts took the opening kickoff, went 75 yards and scored first on the Crimson Tide in their place. They became the first team all season to score multiple offensive touchdowns in the first half against Alabama’s defense.

“We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there today, so I didn’t do a very good job,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I really thought our guys practiced pretty well all week and didn’t look at this game as if ... they really tried to keep focus. They tried to keep the momentum of what we’ve been doing.

“But when we went out there for pregame warm-ups [Saturday], I was really surprised that we didn’t have a little more energy and a little more juice than we did. We had to play our way into it.”

It was worse at Auburn where the Tigers had just 23 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a Heisman Trophy candidate at one time, was sacked twice and threw an interception in those first 15 minutes. The first score didn’t come until midway through the second quarter, and it was Samford who reached the end zone.

“We just weren’t really playing at the beginning of the game,” Marshall told reporters afterwards. “But as the game got going, we got to playing football. It was early; it was an emotional game for the seniors, but we found a way to overcome it.”

Both Alabama and Auburn found a way to overcome their sluggish starts as each won by at least three touchdowns. Now, the attention can finally turn to each other.

It’s officially Iron Bowl week, the week fans look forward to all season and the week that couldn’t come fast enough for Alabama players who were a part of last year’s game. How often do they think about the famous field goal return for a touchdown in the final second?

“Three hundred sixty-five,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “The whole year, ever since after that game, it’s been in the back of our minds. And we know we’ve got to come out and fight them. They’re a good ballclub, no doubt about it, so we have to come out and do the things that we’ve got to do to beat them.”

“We’re still reliving it,” added safety Landon Collins. “It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it just breaks our heart every time. That one second took our whole chance away of winning anything. It’s going to be in my head constantly throughout this week when we’re getting prepared to play them.”

The play is remembered in a positive light at Auburn. It made Chris Davis, who returned the missed field goal 109 yards, a legend on the Plains. It won an ESPY over the summer for “Best Play.” And now it’s shown before every home game to pump up the crowd.

But the Auburn coaches and players aren’t dwelling on what happened last year. They’re focused this year’s game.

“We're not going to bring it up or talk about it because it can't help us this year," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "It’s one of those things you've got to deal with. Both sides have to deal with it because it's kind of what comes with the week, just normal distractions and things that are out there.

“I don't think it will bother our guys. That was last year. This year is completely different and we're going to have to play even better this year."

The rest of us should anticipate seeing the “kick-six” a time or two this week in preparation of Saturday’s game. That’s good news for Auburn fans, who will have no problem reliving the play. Alabama fans, meanwhile, might want to wait until Saturday to turn on their TVs.

But the Iron Bowl is finally here, and everybody can agree that that's a good thing.

SEC has been entertaining in 2014

November, 24, 2014
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Whether you love the SEC or not, it's hard to argue against its entertainment value in 2014. The cannibalization of the SEC West and the mostly miserable play of the SEC East provided followers with two hotly contested divisional races that are coming down to the final weekend.

We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.

There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFor Dak Prescott and Mississippi State, plenty will be on the line in the Egg Bowl on Saturday.
 Offense was supposed to be down with so many seasoned quarterbacks gone, but 13 teams are scoring more than 27 points per game and eight are averaging more than 421 yards per game.

The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.

The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.

From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.

But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.

Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.

Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...

The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.

Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.

Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.

South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.

Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.

Go figure.

The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.

National links: Who's No. 4? 

November, 24, 2014
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We’re inside of two weeks until Dec. 7, when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its four picks to appear in the sport’s first national semifinals.

There will be teams left out who can make perfectly compelling cases to be playoff participants. There will be voices raised and criticisms leveled regarding which program truly deserved the final spot in the playoff. This much is a certainty.

But which teams have the best chances of cracking the field? It still seems to be a matter of conjecture beyond the top three teams: Alabama, Oregon and Florida State.

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