SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide

Video: Bama's Blake Sims, Amari Cooper

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
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Quarterback Blake Sims and receiver Amari Cooper talk about their on-field chemistry after No. 3 Alabama's 42-21 win over Florida on Saturday.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Florida took its best shot at No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, but between near-perfect quarterback play, a Heisman-esque performance from Amari Cooper and a solid effort from the defense, the Crimson Tide proved to be too much. Nick Saban's bunch overpowered the Gators in the second half en route to a 42-21 home victory.

It was over when: The Gators had no answer for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense in the second half, and the clincher came early in the fourth quarter when Tide safety Landon Collins intercepted Jeff Driskel on third and long. It was Driskel’s second pick of the game, and Alabama turned it into seven points on a TD pass to Cooper, extending the lead to 21 points.

Game ball goes to: It’s not hard not to give it to Blake Sims, who answered the critics with Saturday’s performance, but Cooper was simply uncoverable. The junior finished with 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns. It didn’t matter which Alabama quarterback was throwing him the ball. If Cooper wasn’t at or near the top of the Heisman Trophy watch before this week, he will be now.

Stat of the game: Think Sims was good? How about this stat? Sims accounted for 457 total yards, second-most in Alabama history, and the most since Scott Hunter’s 484 yards in 1969. The Tide quarterback finished 23-of-33 for 445 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and he added 12 yards on the ground. He wasn’t perfect, fumbling once and throwing an interception on a tipped pass, but he was darn near close.

What it means: After the first three games, nobody really knew how good Sims and this offense could be. How would they fare against a historically strong SEC defense? That question was answered and then some Saturday. The Tide finished with 648 yards of offense, and Sims put an end to any quarterback controversy in Tuscaloosa. For Florida, the defense just ran out of gas in the second half, but the bigger concern is with Driskel, who finished 7-of-25 for 80 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. If the Gators expect to compete in the SEC East, they must have better quarterback play.

Florida fan's Gator back tat is frightening

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
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Alabama fans are famously devoted to their Crimson Tide. It seems every week we see that fan base take it up a notch in terms of crazy fandom -- this week it was an "elephant car" spotted at a gas station.

Well, at least one Florida fan in Tuscaloosa for Saturday's UF-Bama game is not letting the Tide fans steal all of the spotlight.

Video: Inside The Drive -- Florida-Alabama

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
11:21
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Alabama coach Nick Saban discusses the key matchups as the Florida Gators visit the Crimson Tide.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
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Troy at No. 13 Georgia, SEC Network: Georgia is coming off a 38-35 loss at South Carolina and is looking for a resounding victory here. The last time these teams met (2007), Georgia won 44-34. This Troy team, however, is 0-3 and allowing 40 points per game while averaging only 20.7. Look for the Bulldogs to jump out early in this one.

3:30 p.m. ET

No. 6 Texas A&M at SMU, ABC/ESPN2: The Aggies come in at 3-0 and they’ve been rolling so far this season. SMU has been a mess, 0-2 and with a new coach: June Jones resigned last week; Tom Mason is serving as the interim head coach and is making his debut. Perhaps the Mustangs are fired up and have a renewed energy, but even if they do, the Aggies are in position for a convincing victory. These teams' past three meetings, dating to 2011, have resulted in a 35.3-point average margin of victory for A&M.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp, Nick Saban
Gary W. Green/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama own a three-game winning streak over Florida. The teams haven't played since 2011, Will Muschamp's first season.
Florida at No. 3 Alabama, CBS: Few are likely giving the Gators much of a shot here because they were pushed to their limits by Kentucky. How well they operate their no-huddle, up-tempo offense will go a long way in determining how well they fare. Meanwhile, eyes continue to focus on the Alabama quarterback situation with Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and it will be worth watching to see what develops. The Crimson Tide own a three-game winning streak over Florida.

4 p.m. ET

Indiana at No. 18 Missouri, SEC Network: The Tigers are quietly getting it done and look to close out their nonconference schedule 4-0. If they do, it would be the eighth 4-0 start under Gary Pinkel and seventh in nine seasons. Maty Mauk is coming off a four-touchdown-pass performance and Shane Ray is coming off a two-sack, four-tackles-for-loss performance.

7 p.m. ET

Northern Illinois at Arkansas, ESPNU: A victory would give the Razorbacks as many wins this season (three) as they had in all of 2013. That would be a big step forward for Bret Bielema's crew. Northern Illinois is a quality road team, having won 17 in a row in opponents' home stadiums, including one at Northwestern on Sept. 6. Arkansas brings in a second-best-in-the-nation 362 rushing yards per game.

Mississippi State at No. 8 LSU, ESPN: Saturday nights in Death Valley are always fun -- typically for the Tigers. They're 43-2 under Les Miles in Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium. This is a big "prove-it" game for Mississippi State, a team that's 3-0 and trying to take a big step into SEC West contention. Last year's meeting between these two was competitive until a 28-point fourth quarter by LSU.

7:30 p.m. ET

No. 14 South Carolina at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: The Gamecocks got a huge win versus Georgia and are looking to go to 2-1 in league play with a victory here. South Carolina jumped out to a big lead over Vandy the last time these teams met and it's likely to happen again if the Commodores don't get on track quickly. They've struggled mightily out of the gate and had to rally to beat UMass last week. Patton Robinette will start at QB; will coach Derek Mason stick with him this time?
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Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.

SEC morning links

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
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1. A lot has been made of the matchup of Amari Cooper and Vernon Hargreaves III, and rightfully so. But there's a piece to the puzzle that seems to have gone overlooked in the buildup to Alabama-Florida this week: the play of the offensive line. This is the SEC after all, and there's a good chance the game comes down to who controls the line of scrimmage best. If Blake Sims and Jeff Driskel aren't protected, it won't matter how well they throw the football. Florida center Max Garcia said the line plans to combat Alabama's defensive front, "with heart." Though the Gator o-line lacks depth, it's full of experience with all five starters being upperclassmen. On the other side is Alabama, which has a true freshman starting at left tackle in Cam Robinson. He could be the key to the game. Though the former five-star prospect has played well this season, he hasn't played in a game of this magnitude yet, and he hasn't seen a group of edge rushers like Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard yet. If there was ever a game not to make a rookie mistake, it will be Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

2. Jalen Hurd got a nice pick-me-up after Tennessee lost on the road at Oklahoma. The former four-star recruit turned promising freshman tailback checked his phone after the 34-10 loss and saw a notification on Twitter. And look at who it was. No, Faux Pelini didn't strike again. Instead, it was former Ohio State and NFL star Eddie George showing Hurd some love on the twittersphere. George, like a lot of us, saw in Hurd a potential star. Time will tell how Hurd's career turns out, but for now he can revel in the praise of an idol. "That just makes me happy," Hurd said.



3. For the first time in a long time, South Carolina doesn't have a two-quarterback system to worry about. In fact, we might not even know who Dylan Thompson's backup is at this point. It might be Pharoh Cooper, if you look at the number snaps taken in games. On the depth chart, Connor Mitch and Perry Orth are both listed as No. 2. It's a matter of semantics, of course, but the larger point might be the fact that there isn't even a whiff of a QB controversy in Columbia. When's the last time we could say that? Spurrier hasn't been the least bit tempted to pull Thompson from the game, and it's a testament to how well the veteran quarterback has played. So far, Thompson has made his four-year wait worth it. The redshirt senior has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and is averaging just over 300 yards passing per game. If he keeps this up, he might soon be in the conversation of the SEC's best quarterbacks. His 82.1 QBR rating ranks fourth in the league.

Florida Gators have talent to compete 

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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When Alabama and Florida square off on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), the two teams will display some of the top talent in the country. In fact, according to the expected two-deep depth charts, Alabama and Florida will showcase 56 players that were ranked in the ESPN 300 (changed from ESPN 150 to ESPN 300 in 2013) and the ESPN JC 300 coming out of high school or junior college.

video In advance of the All-American battle between Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, we’re breaking down what makes each player special. Click here for Edward Aschoff's take on Florida’s star cornerback.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is sizing you up. He might not say much, but Alabama’s star receiver is seeing exactly where you stand.

Could you have envisioned the start you’ve had?

“Yeah,” he said, not caring to elaborate.

You talked in the spring about Lane Kiffin and how you’d seen Marqise Lee and you were looking forward to that. Is that why you anticipated this?

“Yeah, that’s the exact reason,” he said, again letting you fill in the blanks.

It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s just who he is.

Cooper isn’t one to make bold statements. His former high school coach in Miami, Billy Rolle, drove him to and from school. “The three years I had him,” Rolle said. “I haven’t heard 50 words out of the kid.”

Cooper lets his play do the talking. Through three games, the junior leads the nation in receptions (33) and yards after catch (245).

So if he isn't going to open up, we allowed those who know him best to break down what makes him arguably the best receiver in the country.

At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest. At 210 pounds, he’s not the most physically imposing, either. And while he does possess good speed, almost every defensive back in the SEC runs well.

Instead, it’s the little things that set Cooper apart: his footwork, his ability to read defenses and his tireless work ethic.

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Alabama safety Landon Collins is still trying to figure him out.

Collins likes to read a receiver's steps, guess the route and make a play on the football. But with Cooper, the guessing game doesn’t work. The All-SEC defensive back is helpless.

Collins: “His footwork is confusing. If you look at his feet and try to stick him at the line, you’ll get lost.”

Jarrick Williams, Alabama cornerback: “His footwork, how quick he gets around you, how explosive he is. He’s amazing.”

Cooper: “It’s definitely something I pride myself on. Playing as much backyard football as I did as a kid, it’s something that’s instinct now.”

video READING THE DEFENSE

Take, for instance, the SEC championship game in 2012. It was late in the fourth quarter and Alabama was trailing Georgia 28-25. The play called for Cooper to go inside on his release, but he saw the defender shading that way.

Collins: “He was too far inside, so I jumped outside instinctively.”

To his credit, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann didn’t bite on the play-action fake. Instead, he fell for Cooper’s move toward the middle of the field. Cooper swung his hips back toward the sideline. Swann was caught flat-footed and completely turned around. Cooper was so wide open, he stopped running. He sped up just in time to catch the 45-yard game-winning touchdown that sent Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game.

Cooper: “It’s a thing you can sense. As soon as you start releasing off the line, you can feel he’s leaning toward one way and then you go the other way. It’s a very unique thing.”

But that wasn’t Cooper’s favorite instance of toying with a defensive back. It also took place in the 2012 season, against Ole Miss.

Cooper: “It was third down and I had a slant route. I’d been watching film of this guy because he’s from Miami and I knew him personally. He was really quick. But I was watching film and I noticed he’s really patient at the line. So I used one of my better releases to get open.”

Rolle: “He thrives on reading defenses and knowing how to get open and not just running by people. He liked to run the slant pattern, the hookups, the outs. He was even more dangerous if he got the ball right away and in open space.”

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Former USC coach Lane Kiffin marveled at Cooper’s practice habits, too. When he became Alabama’s offensive coordinator in January, he quickly noticed how much work Cooper puts into his craft.

Kiffin: “Amari sometimes would work out two hours before the workout started. I thought it was a really hard workout we were doing -- the Fourth Quarter program that we do here -- but he worked out two hours before that.”

Christion Jones, Alabama receiver: “Have you seen him? It’s nothing fake. He goes hard every day, every practice. No matter what it is, he’s going to go full tilt.”

Cyrus Jones, Alabama cornerback: “His potential has been evident since the first time he stepped on the campus and on the field. You progress each year as a player and you can definitely say he’s reached another level this year.”
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.
Florida sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III's first collegiate interception felt easy from the start.

The Gators were in man coverage against Toledo last season and Hargreaves, in his first game no less, was playing press. Hargreaves was already close to receiver Alonzo Russell, so once his opponent started going into a post route, Hargreaves already had it in his mind that he was going to undercut his man and the route.

Quarterback Terrance Owens was finished before he even released the ball. Hargreaves jumped the route, making a controlled guess that sealed Owens' fate.

"As soon as I undercut it, the quarterback threw it to me," Hargreaves said.

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It was the first of a handful of outstanding plays he would make in his debut season. Hargreaves, who led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended, earned All-American honors and entered the 2014 season labeled by many as the nation's best cornerback.

Through two games, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound phenom already leads the SEC with five passes defended.

His speed, instincts, vision and natural playing ability make him a feared cover man and ball hawk. Equipped with more experience and skills, Hargreaves could be even better this season. After two solid performances, he will get his greatest test to date on Saturday in Tuscaloosa: Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.

"We knew this was coming," Hargreaves said of covering Cooper, who leads the nation with 33 receptions and is third overall with 454 yards. "He's excited. I'm excited. We both know the magnitude of the game and it's going to be a great matchup on Saturday.

"Everybody knows what's coming. Obviously I'm going to be covering him. I'm excited for it."

How exactly will he go about covering his toughest opponent yet? For Hargreaves, it's more instinctual than anything. He said he doesn't like to think too much on the field.

BEFORE THE SNAP

Hargreaves zeros in on opponents, trying quickly to recognize the offensive personnel. He counts the number of receivers, then shifts his focus back to the defensive call.

He concentrates on what his defense is doing, what the play is and what the calls are. Once the assignment is clear, his eyes move back to the receivers.

"Most teams nowadays don't really huddle, so you can't really get a lot of indicators when they break out of the huddle," Hargreaves said. "Really for me, it's the receivers."

Once the offense lines up, Hargreaves figures out his leverage. A receiver lining up really wide forces him to play with inside leverage. An inside receiver means outside leverage.

He plants his feet, balls firm, yet light enough for him to explode out of his stance and glide along the field. His hips are loose, making turning smooth in case the receiver pulls a move.

AFTER THE SNAP

"I understand what [receivers] might do and what they like to do, but other than that, I'm not out there trying to guess routes," Hargreaves said. "It's just all instincts . . . You can't really play off what they might do. You react to what they do do."

His feet are as quick -- if not quicker -- than most of the receivers he covers. His hands snap into position and his arms push as fast as his legs churn, pulling him stride-for-stride with his opponent.

"He's very instinctive, he's fast, quick," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "But I think probably his greatest asset besides having great ability is he's a very instinctive player."

BALL IN FLIGHT

What's impressive -- and for opponents quite frustrating -- is how Hargreaves plays with his back turned. He relies on his technique and trusts his instincts. If a receiver gets behind him, Hargreaves stays patient. He doesn't panic because he knows he has time.

Hargreaves' eyes shift to the receiver's eyes, which are planted on the ball. Once their hands go up, the ball is close, meaning it's time for Hargreaves to pounce.

"It's something you can work on, you certainly can enhance, but the guy really has a lot of poise with his back to the football," Florida coach Will Muschamp said.

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Hargreaves is still young and learning. His brain is still dissecting new information about players and formations each time he sits down for his film sessions during the week.

"Most of my decisions are calculated," Hargreaves said. "I understand the situation, I understand what's going on in the game."

He'll have to be as calculated as ever against the nation's best Saturday.

SEC morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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1. The big storyline Wednesday wasn’t from the SEC. It was from the ACC. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, a name SEC fans surely know by now, will sit the first half against Clemson for yet another off-field incident. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach summed it up well in his column: “Funny, the last time I checked, you can’t spell Jameis without ‘me’ and ‘I.’” This got me thinking, though. What player in the SEC could their team not afford to lose for a half? Auburn already showed it can win without its quarterback Nick Marshall, who sat out the first half against Arkansas. Losing Todd Gurley would be rough, but Georgia has a full stable of running backs behind him. Maybe Amari Cooper at Alabama? Or how about on the other side of the ball with Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida? The two will be squaring off this Saturday. But what do you think? Who’s the SEC’s most indispensable player?

2. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will turn 49 next month, one year away from the big 5-0, but that’s nothing compared to his coaching counterpart Thursday night. Bill Snyder, who is in his second stint at Kansas State, is 74 years old. The stadium his team plays in is already named after him. Not a lot of coaches can say that. As for Malzahn, he doesn’t see himself coaching at 74 because according to him, “college football ages you in dog years.” It’s not all that uncommon in the SEC, though. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier turns 70 in April, and others -- including Nick Saban (Alabama), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), and Les Miles (LSU) are all over the age of 60. My guess is that Malzahn will be coaching in the NFL long before he reaches that age, but you never know.

3. It’s been awhile since Mississippi State last beat LSU -- 15 years to be exact. In fact, the Bulldogs have never beat Les Miles since he’s been in Baton Rouge, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen this season. On Wednesday, Miles called this Mississippi State team “as talented and as complete” as any Mississippi State team he’s coached against. He’s not taking this game lightly, and neither will the fans. You can bet that the newly renovated Tiger Stadium will be rocking Saturday night. There are games -- like Sam Houston State and Louisiana Monroe -- and then there are SEC games. This weekend marks the first SEC game.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If there was ever a time not to make a bad decision, it was during the second half against Southern Miss, up three touchdowns with a big game against Florida on the horizon.

Alabama should have been focused on getting out of the game unscathed, but instead Nick Perry took matters into his own hands, making helmet-to-helmet contact with a defenseless receiver. The veteran safety was flagged on the play, ejected from the game, and, by rule, will have to sit out the first half of Saturday’s game against SEC rival Florida.

It was a tough break for an Alabama defense already missing Jarrick Williams, who fractured his foot against West Virginia. With Williams and Perry out, the secondary is missing its two most experienced defensive backs. The two have combined for 25 career starts, while their potential replacements, Geno Smith and Jabriel Washington, have combined for three starts since 2012.

“We just have to work everyone and see how we end up,” said coach Nick Saban. “Now that we lost Jarrick, who’s a safety, and Nick for half a game, we are getting a little thin there.”

Since Florida likes to spread the field with three and four receivers, the loss of Perry creates a domino effect. When Smith shifts back to safety, he vacates the nickel cornerback position. That means either Tony Brown or Maurice Smith have to come off the bench and fill in. Smith saw limited action as a freshman last season and Brown, a former five-star recruit, just arrived on campus in January.

Asked what they’ll miss most with Perry and Williams out, safety Landon Collins said, “Knowledge.”

“Other than that, we’ll have other guys step up,” he added.

Both Collins and junior cornerback Cyrus Jones were matter-of-fact about the sudden departure of their teammates.

Part of it was gamesmanship, to be sure, but part of it is the culture at Alabama. Last season there was never much settled in the secondary as Maurice Smith, Eddie Jackson, John Fulton and Jones all rotated at cornerback. At safety, Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix both missed chunks of time. Meanwhile, Perry was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

While Jones could admit that it “puts more pressure on the older guys to hold down the fort,” he wouldn’t concede much with Perry out for the first half and Williams not expected to play.

“You just have to go out there and play with a lot of confidence,” he said of Smith, Brown and Washington. “Those guys are just eager for their time and are ready to make plays when they’re called upon. We definitely don’t take a step down from when we have somebody go out.”

That’s the hope at least.

If there was any good news to come out of the aftermath of the game against Southern Miss, it was that starting cornerback Eddie Jackson isn’t seriously injured. The sophomore, who returned from a torn ACL last week, came up limping in the first half. Medical trainers tended to him on the sideline, but Saban said after the game that it wasn’t structural. A bruised quad, he said, “I don’t think it’s anything serious.”

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4
Jeff Driskel's baptism into the SEC probably couldn’t have gone any worse in 2011.

The stud freshman quarterback anointed to be Florida’s next Tim Tebow was fresh off relief duty in a blowout win over Kentucky when he was unexpectedly thrust into playing No. 3 Alabama after starter John Brantley went down late in the second quarter with a leg injury.

Not even the Swamp’s friendly confines could save Driskel from the Crimson Tide’s frightening defense, creating unpleasant memories of that early October night.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel gets another crack at Alabama four years after a difficult debut.
“They weren’t good,” Driskel said Monday. “Definitely underprepared. Didn’t know how to prepare at that time to play anybody, especially Alabama as good as they were. Just going in not knowing what you’re doing is not a good situation.”

Honestly, with how historically good Alabama’s eventual national-championship defense was and how unprepared Driskel was, he never stood a chance. The constant bombardment from Alabama’s defense left Driskel completing 2 of 6 passes for 14 yards, rushing for 18 yards and getting sacked twice.

He also suffered an ankle injury during his already painful performance, causing him to finish the game hobbled against an already ravenous defense.

“If I remember correctly, I think I fumbled the snap and I tried to pick it up and got rolled up on,” Driskel said of how he was injured. “That’s how freshmen get hurt when they’re not ready right there, dropping the snap, don’t remember what the play was.”

Three years ago, Driskel introduced himself to the SEC. Now, things have come full circle, as he tries to resurrect Florida’s program and redefine his legacy with No. 3 Alabama yet again waiting.

So much has happened to Driskel and Florida since these two crossed paths with Alabama in 2011. While Alabama has won two BCS titles, Florida went from just missing out on a national championship berth to last year’s 4-8 disaster.

Driskel awkwardly maneuvered his way through Florida’s 11-win 2012 season, only for a bone to snap in his leg months later in the third game of his 2013 season. He’s currently on his third offensive coordinator, and while reviews out of preseason camp were that he’s much more comfortable in Kurt Roper’s spread, uptempo offense, he went from incredibly efficient in a Week 1 thrashing of Eastern Michigan to Jekyll and Hyde in Saturday’s triple-overtime win over Kentucky.

Driskel won’t call Saturday’s showdown with Alabama a statement game, but it has that feel for a quarterback who has ventured into enigma territory and has a chance to steer Florida's program back in the right direction. With an offense that actually suits his skill set, Driskel has no choice but to play better.

On Driskel’s new path to improvement and success, he must once again face the very team that served him his first bitter taste of collegiate defeat and misery. This is a chance to prove himself and really challenge one of the best teams in the nation in search of a renaissance for himself and Florida.

For all the skepticism still surrounding Driskel, there's no doubt he's more confident about his trip to Tuscaloosa than he was three years ago as that jittery freshman who was terrorized by the Tide.

“Going in as the starting quarterback, you know what you’ve got to prepare for, you know what you’re getting into,” Driskel said. “At that time, I didn’t know how close I was to playing. You don’t realize you’re one snap away from playing. That’s where I went wrong as a freshman.”

Three years ago, Florida fans were eager just to see Driskel play, hostile conditions or not. He was pegged as the next great thing in orange and blue after arriving in Gainesville as the nation’s No. 1 high school quarterback in the 2011 class.

Now, the Gator Nation has mixed feelings about its starting quarterback, who heads into Saturday with less than 3,000 career passing yards and 18 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions.

People have been quick to pounce on any of Driskel's shortcomings -- win or lose. So despite the fact he is averaging 271.5 passing yards through two games and has four touchdowns to one interception, last week’s wash of a first half against Kentucky carries more weight than his clutch third quarter and overtime performances.

It doesn’t matter if there were communication issues or protection breakdowns, Driskel is the quarterback at the University of Florida, a program fighting to return to SEC -- and national -- relevancy. He has to be better and he’s going to face the harshest criticism not reserved for head coach Will Muschamp, who his fighting for his job this year.

And while few are giving the Gators a chance this weekend, this is a game that could change Driskel’s legacy. Underwhelm, and it’s the same ol’ Driskel. Win or even impress and keep things close, and some hope will be renewed for Driskel and his Gators.

“I’m going to be prepared this time around,” he said.

“I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m going to do whatever I can this week to prepare and be as ready as I can. I know that’s best for the football team.”

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