SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide

SEC morning links

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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1. So while Blake Sims earned the right to start for Alabama in the season opener against West Virginia, his 250-yard performance in the Crimson Tide's 33-23 win wasn't enough to cement him as the starter going forward. He'll likely be the guy who walks out with the starters against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, but expect to see him share snaps with Jake Coker. As Nick Saban puts it, there's still a quarterback competition going on in Tuscaloosa. The good news is that the Tide doesn't really need a true starter until the week of the Florida game, which isn't until Sept. 20. Don't have a starter set then? Well, that certainly isn't ideal. Speaking of quarterbacks, it didn't matter who Auburn threw out under center, Arkansas' defense just couldn't stop either of them. Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for nearly 300 yards, with Johnson throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Now, here's the problem for Arkansas: Expect a lot more of that read-option because that's what the majority of the SEC West will be running this fall.

2. You guys have to feel bad for the Gators, right? I mean put your college colors aside for a second and think about the fact that a program looking to rebound from a disaster of a season was soooooo ready to get back on the field and debut its new offense only to be washed away by a swamp inside the Swamp. So instead of joining all the fun with everyone else in the country, Florida and Idaho huddled inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for hours while it poured and lightening bolts shot through the skies. Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is very much coaching for his job this year, said he supported the officials' decision to suspend the game due to weather and unsafe field conditions. Whether or not that game will be played at a future date is unknown at this point. They both have a bye week on Oct. 25, which just so happens to be the week before Florida's crucial game with Georgia. Yeah, you try convincing Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley to play a game during the open week before Georgia. No, seriously. ... Well, the good news for the Gators is that when their season officially opens this Saturday against Eastern Michigan they'll have three suspended players back. Now, before you bash Mushcamp, remember that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin did something similar in 2012 with the postponed Louisiana Tech game.

3. Georgia coach Mark Richt thinks the running back group that he has now is the best he's ever had. Yeah, I'd agree with that when you consider that the Bulldogs had 328 rushing yards and averaged 8 yards per carry against Clemson. Todd Gurley, who I think is the nation's best player, got 198 of those yards and had three rushing touchdowns. Chubb had 70 yards and a touchdown on four carries and Sony Michel had 33 yards on six carries. By the way, those two are true freshmen. And Keith Marshall will only get better as he comes back from his knee injury.

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Tweet of the day

ATLANTA -- Blake Sims wouldn’t say if he ever thought there was a question that he’d be Alabama’s starting quarterback on Saturday. But the faint smile he tried to contain when asked might have said otherwise.

Regardless of whether Sims ever worried about beating out Jacob Coker during fall camp, the starting job is his, and after a decent first start -- and win -- it’s clear his team has the utmost trust in him to be the leader in Tuscaloosa.

“He earned that position to start and did a fantastic job at it,” safety Landon Collins said.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims completed 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards in his debut as starter.
Of course there were hiccups for Sims, who is now in charge of leading the No. 2 team in the country. There were underthrows, overthrows and throws behind receivers. Sims will by no means earn any Heisman points with his performance during the Crimson Tide’s 33-23 win over West Virginia on Saturday inside the Georgia Dome, but he earned a ton of respect from his teammates and coaches with 250 yards and an interception. And we all know that openers can tell you only so much about what a team or individual players will look like come November.

Sims knows he was far from perfect, but he also knows he rebounded well after some poor plays to march the Tide down the field for scoring drives. He actually directed back-to-back scoring drives twice in the first half of his debut. He was a leader who calmed guys down in the huddle. And he learned from his own mistakes as the game went on.

Most importantly, he learned that handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will make his job much easier, and targeting Amari Cooper is a very, very good thing. He hit Cooper 12 times for 130 yards, and it’s no surprise that his first attempt went Cooper’s way, which resulted in a 24-yard pickup.

“It got the nerves out. That let me know that everybody’s behind me,” Sims said.

Oh, and they were. Players said they never got down on Sims when he struggled or got out of rhythm in the second half. His coach even went against his own nature and implemented some no-huddle in the second half to get Sims more comfortable and loosen him up after a slow start.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guy,” offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. “I’ve been here five years with him and I’m happy [for him]. He played an awesome game.

“I told him before the game, ‘Man, we got you. Don’t worry about a thing. Whatever you do, we’ll back you 100 percent and we’ll get you out of it.’”

Coach Nick Saban said Sims got a little rattled in the second half and called some formations incorrectly that forced the Tide to burn a couple of timeouts. Saban even flirted with the idea of bringing Coker in, but decided to leave Sims in and see how the no-huddle helped him.

Good call.

“That one little stretch in the second quarter where we got a little bit out of sync was really the only time, but I thought Blake did a really good job,” Saban said. “… But all in all for him to throw for 250 yards, he did a pretty good job of executing, and I’m happy with his progress.”

Sims was happy with his performance but understands he still has a ways to go. There were easy throws that he just plain missed on, but he turned around and stood tall with some big passes to extend drives. He threw out of bounds when he needed. He checked down when he had to. And his legs got him out of a few sticky situations.

“I feel like I did OK,” Sims said. “I can get better in all situations.”

He’ll have to, and the next few tuneups before facing Florida’s defense should help him do that.
The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouch is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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What a weekend of college football. The SEC kicked off the festivities with three games on Thursday night and wrapped it all up with the Tennessee-Utah State game on Sunday night. Here's a look at the five best performances from Week 1.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.

Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.

Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.

ATLANTA -- We got a little bit of a shootout inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but No. 2 Alabama prevailed with a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Season openers can be tricky -- and sometimes ugly -- and Alabama, which is a favorite to make the College Football Playoff, had a relatively up-and-down performance in the ATL, but will head back to Tuscaloosa 1-0.

New starting quarterback Blake Sims had some rough moments against West Virginia, but regrouped well and made some big plays throughout the game with his arm and legs. Finding All-SEC receiver Amari Cooper was smart (12 catches for 130 yards), but handing the ball off to his running backs really paid off, especially when he gave the rock to Derrick Henry halfway through the third quarter.

1. Hustling Henry

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Let's face it, the third quarter of this game started off a little stale. After seeing 37 points and 500 yards of offense in the first half, we got a failed fourth-down attempt and a missed field goal. Then, things started clicking for the Crimson Tide on their second drive. With Alabama moving at will against the Mountaineers' defense, Sims handed the ball off to the super sophomore, who immediately cut to his left. As a hole opened up, Henry put on the jets and flew through both lines before pushing off one last defender and leaping into the end zone to put Alabama up 27-17 with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama only managed two more field goals after Henry's score. It proved to be the biggest score of the game for the Crimson Tide, as they fought off a valiant comeback effort from the Mountaineers.

Henry: "It was the outside zone play and the tight end made the block and I just read it. I hit the hole and [went] right into the end zone."

Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen: "It gave us more energy and more focus because once we make a big play, we want to capitalize on it and try to keep that momentum going. It really got the momentum in our favor when Derrick scored."

Right tackle Austin Shepherd: "I think we were going 'Speed Ball' or something and we were just trying to wear West Virginia down so we were just going fast. I guess the hole opened and he got out there and made it work. We were just trying to attack and we did. ... We were trying to punish them, man. Every chance you got, drive them into the ground, get in their hand and they'll start thinking about it and finally they'll wear down."

2. Slippery snap

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Henry's play didn't officially put the game away for Alabama, but a bad snap from West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky severely hurt the Mountaineers' chances of pulling of a major upset Saturday. With Alabama clinging to a 30-20 lead with 14:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers closed in on what should have been another touchdown drive. Quarterback Clint Trickett had already marched his offense down to Alabama's 5-yard line and after two tough incomplete passes that took two touchdowns off the board, Trickett lined up in the shotgun, only to have Orlosky send the snap soaring over his head and outstretched arms. The ball hit the ground and rolled a bit before Trickett landed on it 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play took the Mountaineers out of touchdown range and forced them to kick a field goal. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could barely stand to look at the field after Trickett collapsed on the ball. It swallowed up all the momentum the Mountaineers had and clearly sapped some of the offense's energy. Only a couple plays later, West Virginia got the ball back by way of a Sims interception, but went three plays and punted.

Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."

Video: Nick Saban talks opening win

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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video
Nick Saban saw plenty of positives and negatives for his team in Alabama's win over West Virginia.
Blake Sims will start at quarterback for Alabama when it kicks off the season against West Virginia, coach Nick Saban told ESPN’s Tom Luginbill.

Sims, a fifth-year senior, earned the start ahead of Jake Coker, a redshirt junior who transferred to Alabama this summer after getting his undergraduate degree at Florida State.

Sims
“Both guys have done really well in fall camp and there’s still a quarterback competition on our team, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Saban said. “But we needed to get our team ready to play this game with the most knowledge and experience, which Blake Sims has been in the system longer, is a little more comfortable and plays with a little better rhythm.

“Jake is still sort of learning and growing.”

Saban said the plan is to start Sims and evaluate the position from there, though he didn’t commit to playing Coker.

“We’ll see how [Sims] does and make the decisions and judgements from there,” Saban said.

It’s important to note that, as Saban said, the competition is still ongoing. In all likelihood it will be something that plays out over the next three weeks. Alabama is a multi-touchdown favorite over West Virginia and will be a heavy favorite in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic and again Week 3 against Southern Miss.

In other words, there’s no rush. Alabama’s date with Florida is far enough away not to panic.

But for today at least, it’s the veteran Sims who gets the nod. And why not? He’s bided his time and should know the offense best. He has more friends in the locker room and deserves the chance to show what he can do with meaningful snaps.

Video: Odd couple? Lane Kiffin, Nick Saban

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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"College GameDay" looks at the relationship between Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Noon ET

Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

More from around the SEC
Tweets of the day

Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
There’s been no more talked about storyline in the SEC this offseason than the conference's lack of name recognition at quarterback. But are we making too big a deal of the lack of experience? Hugh Freeze, who boasts the most seasoned quarterback in the league in senior Bo Wallace, seems to think so. He told ESPN, “Too much is made of that. Last year at this point, who talked about Nick Marshall? Nobody. Who talked about Johnny Manziel before his first year? Nobody.”

Numbers never lie

Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.

[+] EnlargeManziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks come to college more prepared than ever to step in as freshmen and succeed.
All told, since the 2000-01 season there have been 12 inexperienced quarterbacks (fewer than six career starts entering the season) who have appeared in the BCS title game.

Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.

Remember your history

There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.

The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.

Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.

McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.

Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.

QBs aren’t young anymore

There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.

The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.

With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.

Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.

Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.

“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."

He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”

Let the vet have his shot

Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.

At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.

At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.

But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.

You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban opened fall camp with a lofty bit of rhetoric. Speaking with reporters for the first time since spring practice ended, he said how important it was for players to understand that, "The time is now." Everything they'd done during the offseason -- "from conditioning to running the stadium steps" -- had led to this.

How the season would play out, he said, was up to them.

"The challenge is to sort of resurrect our identity, in terms of what we want Alabama football to be," he said.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker is battling with Blake Sims for the starter job at Alabama.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
The morbid imagery was interesting -- and intentional. A few days later, Saban reiterated the theme in his opening comments, saying that, "The message really doesn't change. The time is now to resurrect the identity of the Alabama football program." There was even more conviction the second go-round: Alabama flatlined last season. Losing in the last second to Auburn was the knock-out punch. Getting blown out by Oklahoma was the death knell and the eulogy.

Only in Tuscaloosa would a 10-2 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl be considered an abject failure. Only a coach like Saban would insist that resuscitation and rebirth was required.

"With a program like Alabama if you don't win national championships people think that's a failure," said safety Nick Perry.

But resurrection? Isn't that a little over the top?

At the very least, it's ambiguous. How exactly does one resurrect themselves? It's not as defined as becoming a better zone-blocking team or mastering the two-minute offense.

"I think he just means that we need to be one," said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "We don't need to be little pods of people in groups. When he talks about it to us, he just says that we need to be a group, get out there, play together, and then once you're off the field you guys need to hang out because that means you guys are going to click better on the field."

Jonathan Allen, a promising young defensive end, agreed. He said the team wasn't as connected as it should have been. The chemistry wasn't there.

"We lost it toward the end of last year," he said.

"We want to be a team," Saban said, "and we want the identity of our team to include 'we,' which means all players are together, take care of each other and take responsibility."

That's fine and all, but how will that ultimately be measured? How will we know if Alabama dusted off the ashes and began anew?

The problem is we won't know for quite some time. In fact, it might not be clear until the games are over and the history of the season is written.

After all, who outside the program noticed trouble brewing before the Iron Bowl debacle? Anyone claiming to have heard forlorn whispers when Alabama was still No. 1 might be stretching the truth. Even after the loss at Auburn, many expected the Tide to pick back up and wipe the floor with Oklahoma.

Complacency? Please. That wasn't an issue, we were told time and time again. That is, until back-to-back losses put Alabama on its back. Then the explanations came in waves, most notably from AJ McCarron, who said how "success was our killer” and that there was a sense of entitlement that permeated the locker room.

To keep those demons away, Saban wants a fresh start. He wants the focus on togetherness and chemistry and all the intangible things we're told make a champion.

But the truth is winning cures all. Winning makes for good teammates and happy coaches. Winning means not having to say you're sorry.

It's why Blake Sims and Jake Coker are currently entangled in a quarterback battle. Coker has the arm. Sims has the locker room. And, in the end, it's not who has the most friends in the huddle, it's who can throw the ball down the field best.

If you want to know the identity Alabama is trying to resurrect, all you have to do is look up as you enter the Mal Moore Athletic Facility from the players' parking lot. There, in full view on the second floor, are three crystal footballs. Once inside, you'll see the number 15 everywhere. That number -- Alabama's total number of national championships -- is the only thing that matters.

If Alabama wants No. 16, it will take a quarterback coming into his own, a freshman left tackle learning in a hurry, and a defense returning to form.

Call it resurrection if you want. How it's done -- whether it be with a festive locker room or a business-like sense of purpose -- is only window dressing.

Impact freshmen from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough

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