SEC: Arkansas State Red Wolves

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The two coaches met at midfield prior to kickoff and shook hands. Chatting for a few minutes, they shared a similar frustration: They both have to lead teams in a gantlet called the SEC West.

Dan Mullen knew Bret Bielema’s pain. Every week had been a struggle. Every conference game had been a grind. The chips had fallen the right way for Mullen’s Mississippi State squad, but he knew the margin between their No. 1 ranking and Bielema’s .500 record at Arkansas was razor-thin.

“Both of us were just amazed at how strong our league is,” Bielema said.

[+] EnlargeCody Hollister
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesArkansas couldn't quite hold onto its opportunity to knock off No. 1 Mississippi State.
Then Bielema gave Mullen a scare that sent shockwaves out from Starkville and across the entire college football landscape. For what seems like the umpteenth time this season, lowly, unranked Arkansas nearly beat an SEC power.

By taking No. 1 Mississippi State down to the wire, the Razorbacks once again served as Exhibit A in the never-ending argument for and against the existence of SEC bias.

Either Arkansas is that good or the SEC is only average. It can’t be both. Bielema’s squad either proves the league’s incredible strength top to bottom or it shows that the top just isn’t as good as some believe.

How else could No. 3 Auburn be tied at halftime with a team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years?

How else could No. 6 Alabama trail a team in the fourth quarter that it had beaten 52-0 in each of the previous two seasons?

How else could No. 1 Mississippi State need a fourth-and-two stop and a red-zone interception to survive a .500 team at home?

Either Arkansas is a wolf in sheep's clothing or those teams don't deserve their high rankings.

The big question on both sides of the argument is how the College Football Playoff selection committee views the Razorbacks. And judging by the first round of rankings, there’s a ton of respect for Bielema’s squad and the SEC West in general.

If you think Auburn is overrated, what does it say about No. 9 Kansas State? If you believe Alabama’s top-10 ranking isn’t justified, then how about No. 20 West Virginia? Don’t think Mississippi State should be No. 1? Then how do you explain its three wins over top-10 teams, including Auburn?

If you think Arkansas isn’t underrated, consider this: The Razorbacks are ranked No. 20 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team’s strength and predicts its performance moving forward based on results to date and remaining opponents. That comes despite a remaining strength of schedule that ranks third nationally. At 4-5, Arkansas is the only sub-.500 team in the top 30 of the FPI.

If statistics don’t interest you then look at Arkansas’ roster, which is better than you might expect. Though the Razorbacks don’t have a game-changer at QB, they have one of the best tandem of running backs in the country in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Their offensive line is massive. Hunter Henry might be the SEC’s best tight end, and Trey Flowers has to be one of the most unheralded defensive ends in all of college football.

Every coach who has gone up against Arkansas has walked away saying the same thing: Those guys are going to beat somebody soon and we’re glad it wasn’t us.

“At this point it’s almost numbing to be so close and not be able to come out on top with one of these opportunities,” Bielema said following Saturday’s close loss at Mississippi State. “But I can promise we’ll take a bye week and get a little bit better, get healthy, and nobody will attack these last three games like the Arkansas Razorbacks.”

That should be a scary thought for No. 19 LSU, which travels to Fayetteville on Nov. 15.

No. 4 Ole Miss probably isn't looking forward to visiting Arkansas the following week.

If Arkansas pulls off the upset either of those games, don’t be surprised. Mullen won’t be. His team is ranked No. 1 in the country and he couldn’t have been more pleased to beat those lowly, unranked Razorbacks. Some might have called it an ugly win, but he was happy to have survived.

As Mullen was leaving his postgame television show late Saturday night, he breathed one last sigh of relief. He knew Arkansas’ record didn’t indicate it, but he said that was a top-25 caliber team he just faced.

“If they weren’t in the SEC West ...” he began.

He didn’t have to finish the argument. We know where it goes.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 31, 2013
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There’s no time for trick-or-treating in the SEC as teams have just two days left to prepare for Saturday’s slate of games. However, feel free to take a look around the league in Thursday’s Halloween edition of the lunch links.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

October, 7, 2013
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There was plenty of recruiting news in the Southeastern Conference over the weekend. Tennessee hosted several visitors for its exciting game against Georgia, and there were some impressive high school performances as well. Here is the latest news around the SEC.

Biggest commitment: Alabama beat out rival Auburn for Ronnie Clark, the No. 12 athlete and No. 96 overall prospect in the Class of 2014. The Tide continue to have a stronghold on the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country. Alabama now has 21 verbal commitments, including 15 who are ranked in the ESPN 300.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
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Two weeks in, and it's time to check out where we think SEC teams are heading during the postseason.

VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 6: Alabama
Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2: LSU
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3: Texas A&M
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31: Florida
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Auburn
AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31: Vanderbilt
BBVA Compass Bowl, Jan. 4: Arkansas
AdvoCare V100 Bowl, Dec. 31: Missouri

SEC predictions: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
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Well, it's that time again. With the start of the college football season, which literally kicks off in a few hours, we are back to our weekly SEC predictions.

I mean, it's no big deal or anything, but I completely dominated the picks last year. The ATL Kid showed no mercy. Chris just didn't have the focus that you'd expect from a veteran. He started covering this league when I still had training wheels on my bike and chocolate stains on my shirts. (OK, those are still there.)

I spent the entire offseason gloating over how my beautiful 107-15 (.877) record looked down at Chris' 100-22 (.820) record and scoffed. But I also did some homework. I studied film. I might have had the championship belt around my waist, but today is a new day -- a new season.

Last year's picks mean nothing (except in the realm of blogger pride), so I have to start over. I'll starting lifting and running more in the mornings in order to get my mind and body right for the days ahead.

One championship was nice, but I'm looking for more rings and more bragging rights, and that all starts with a strong Week 1.

Let's get onto the picks:

THURSDAY

NORTH CAROLINA AT SOUTH CAROLINA

Chris Low: It’s the Battle of the Carolinas, or as the Head Ball Coach would say, South Carolina vs. “Dabo’s Carolina.” Not sure Dabo’s Carolina will be able to block Mr. Clowney. Then again, can anybody? ... South Carolina 30, North Carolina 17

Edward Aschoff: This could be the team that gets Steve Spurrier back to the SEC championship game. Jadeveon Clowney and that talented defensive line will make things miserable for UNC's offense all night. ... South Carolina 31, North Carolina 17

OLE MISS AT VANDERBILT

Chris Low: There’s no getting around the rape case and how it will impact the Commodores, especially with junior receiver Chris Boyd being suspended. The Rebels are for real and will finally figure out a way to beat the Commodores after losing five of the last six in this series. ... Ole Miss 24, Vanderbilt 20

Edward Aschoff: Both of these teams are on the rise in the SEC and have higher expectations than usual entering the season. While the Rebels have struggled recently with the Commodores, there's more pressure on Vandy, and Ole Miss will claim its redemption. ... Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 24

SATURDAY

WESTERN KENTUCKY VS KENTUCKY (in Nashville, Tenn.)

Chris Low: OK, no jokes about Bobby Petrino riding his motorcycle to the game. He gets his first of two straight chances to take down SEC teams, but the Wildcats will stand their ground in Mark Stoops’ debut. ... Kentucky 28, Western Kentucky 21

Edward Aschoff: Mark Stoops doesn't get a cupcake for his first game as Kentucky's new coach. I think it actually benefits him because he'll have a better idea of what he really has. And what he'll have is an opening-day winner. ... Kentucky 24, Western Kentucky 20

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE AT ARKANSAS

Chris Low: Louisiana-Monroe sent the Hogs reeling last season. Now, it’s Louisiana (the Ragin’ Cajuns) who’d like to get a little slice of Pig Sooie. Arkansas is too strong up front defensively to stumble in this one. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana 17

Edward Aschoff: Bret Bielema and his Hogs are dealing with a lot of injuries, but he'll still have more talent on the field Saturday. We won't know a ton about this team, but starting off 1-0 ain't bad. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana-Lafayette 17

AUSTIN PEAY AT TENNESSEE

Chris Low: There won’t be many breathers for Butch Jones in his first season at Tennessee, but the only drama in this one will be whether or not the Pride of the Southland Band has enough stamina to still be playing “Rocky Top” in the fourth quarter. ... Tennessee 45, Austin Peay 7

Edward Aschoff: Another new coach makes his debut with a team shrouded in mystery. Jones has a lot of inexperience to work with on offense and it'll be interesting to see how that up-tempo offense looks. ... Tennessee 31, Austin Peay 14

MURRAY STATE AT MISSOURI

Chris Low: It sounds like Henry Josey is healthy again, and all those SEC fans who didn’t get a chance to see him last season while he was sidelined are in for a treat. It won’t be a lot of fun for Murray State trying to tackle him. ... Missouri 38, Murray State 14

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers are healthier and carrying a big chip on their shoulders this season. A more complete Missouri team should take the field this weekend. ... Missouri 41, Murray State 13

WASHINGTON STATE at AUBURN

Chris Low: We know that Mike Leach thinks the bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC. Here’s his chance to prove it, although the Tigers should be greatly improved this season. ... Auburn 34, Washington State 21

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers have no choice but to get better with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. You should see lots of points in Malzahn's debut as the head coach. ... Auburn 38, Washington State 20

TOLEDO AT FLORIDA

Chris Low: The latest blow to the Gators was offensive tackle Chaz Green going down for the season, joining already injured running back Matt Jones and guard Jon Halapio. But when you don’t give up any touchdowns, it’s hard to lose. ... Florida 24, Toledo 6

Edward Aschoff: The Gators enter with a banged-up offense that already had a lot of questions. Toledo is far from a pushover, but Florida has the muscle to get by a tricky opening opponent. ... Florida 27, Toledo 10

RICE AT TEXAS A&M

Chris Low: By order of Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, I will not make any comments concerning a certain Aggies’ quarterback. What I will say is that the Aggies will roll despite No. 2 being on the bench for a half. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 10

Edward Aschoff: Johnny Football might be sitting out a half, but it wouldn't matter if he were sitting out the entire game. It's finally time for A&M to get back on the playing field. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 17

MISSISSIPPI STATE VS OKLAHOMA STATE (Houston, Texas)

Chris Low: The Bulldogs want to bring more pressure on defense this season. They’re going to need to in this one, but they will have a hard time scoring with the Cowboys. ... Oklahoma State 37, Mississippi State 24

Edward Aschoff: A lot of questions remain for the Bulldogs, and it won't be easy for this defense to slow down Oklahoma State's high-powered passing game. ... Oklahoma State 34, Mississippi State 21

LSU VS TCU (in Arlington, Texas)

Chris Low: Les Miles isn’t saying whether Jeremy Hill will play in the opener. He’s “withholding” that information. Something else that will be withheld is TCU touchdowns. This LSU defense might be young, but it’s not lacking talent. ... LSU 28, TCU 16

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers might be the must undervalued team in the SEC. Miles always has his teams prepared for these out-of-conference games, and you'll see a more explosive offense that's fast and athletic and will overpower the Horned Frogs. ... LSU 31, TCU 17

ALABAMA VS VIRGINIA TECH (in Atlanta)

Chris Low: This is not your father’s Virginia Tech team. The Hokies simply don’t have enough firepower to keep it close against the two-time defending national champions. ... Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10

Edward Aschoff: Alabama likes these big openers. The process is strong with Crimson Tide players and Virginia Tech is hurting. Alabama comes in more talented, and the Hokies just don't have the horses to keep up in Atlanta. ... Alabama 38, Virginia Tech 13

GEORGIA AT CLEMSON

Chris Low: It’s the most compelling opener of the season and should also be the most entertaining. If you like points, sit back and enjoy. The Dawgs will hold up a little better in the secondary and sneak out with a win. ... Georgia 35, Clemson 31

Edward Aschoff: This is the main event. Both teams have high-octane offenses and both have defenses littered with questions. Georgia has a lot of talent on defense, but it's young. This game is going to come down to which defense makes a play late -- and home-field advantage. ... Clemson 34, Georgia 31
Gus MalzahnJohn David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn has risen from the high school ranks to SEC head coach in just eight years.
AUBURN, Ala. -- After a year away, Gus Malzahn is back at Auburn. The role has changed, but the goal remains the same.

Last year, Malzahn went 9-3 as the head coach at Arkansas State, his first head coaching gig since Springdale (Ark.) High School in 2005. While the wins kept piling up for Malzahn and the Red Wolves, the opposite proved to be true for the school where he had the most success as an assistant.

Auburn finished 3-9 in 2012 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. The Tigers, just two years removed from a national championship, fired coach Gene Chizik after the season and turned to Malzahn. The former Auburn offensive coordinator was hired back to The Plains last December.

“It’s a new day, and my goal is to get Auburn back to a championship level,” Malzahn said at his introductory news conference. “The expectation at Auburn is to win championships.”

The first order of business was to build a staff. He brought over Rhett Lashlee, his right-hand man since Springdale, to be the offensive coordinator. On defense, he hired renowned coordinator Ellis Johnson.

“I feel very fortunate to have a guy like Rhett Lashlee that I know a lot about; he knows a lot about me and I've got a lot of confidence in him,” Malzahn said. “And, of course, Ellis Johnson is one of the better defensive coordinators in all of college football. That helps me do my job as head coach.”

From there, Malzahn poached some more talented assistant coaches from programs such as Arkansas, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia. The group was headlined by former Auburn players Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner, two assistants with reputations as top recruiters.

When Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn, he helped put together back-to-back top-five recruiting classes and won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the nation in 2010. As head coach, he already has 14 commitments for the 2014 class, including one from ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, the state’s No. 2 prospect.

There is a buzz around the Auburn program again. Credit Malzahn, the coaching staff and the momentum on the recruiting trail. Fans are excited and anxious for the season to kick off.

“We're just trying to get our pride back, get our edge back,” Malzahn said. “Auburn's a great place. At the end of last season, it was very low, and we're just on our way to build this thing back up. We think the future's bright. We've got some really talented young kids and when they grow up, it's going to be a lot of fun.”

Malzahn's journey from high school coach to SEC head coach in less than a decade seemed unlikely, but he never doubted it was possible. He’s known for his innovative mind when it comes to running an offense, but his former boss will tell you that it’s his drive that got him to where he is today.

“I had never met him before, but I knew who he was,” said Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir after meeting with Malzahn. “You could tell he was a very driven guy.”

Mohajir wasn’t the one who hired Malzahn, but he took over as AD shortly after Malzahn coached his first game at Arkansas State. He arrived just in time to see the Red Wolves run off seven consecutive victories to finish the regular season.

“They just kept getting better each week,” Mohajir said. “We played Western Kentucky, stubbed our toe and that was the last time. We never lost a game after that.

“I think they had some pretty good players here, outstanding senior leadership, but [Malzahn] brought some freshmen in that I think were very talented. He wasn't here long enough to really leave a legacy, but I'd say he was here long enough to make an impact.”

Mohajir knew that Malzahn's stay in Jonesboro wasn't likely to be a long one. When he first sat down with Malzahn, he understood that Arkansas State was just a stepping stone for the aspiring coach, who eventually wanted to take the reins at a major program, preferably in the SEC.

“I was tracking it pretty good,” Mohajir said. “After we beat Middle Tennessee, I got a call from [Auburn director of athletics] Jay Jacobs. He was asking for permission to talk to my coach. He was a very good guy, and I appreciated him doing that. I knew that if it came down and the selection committee was going to pick him, that he was probably going to be leaving. There was no question in my mind.”

Malzahn left for Auburn, where he says he and his family spent three of the best years of their life, and Arkansas State went and found another young, aspiring coach, former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

“I'm really happy with our guy,” Mohajir said. “I think he's a good fit, so it worked out well for him and I think it worked out well for us.”

On his first day, Malzahn said he wanted to get Auburn back to a championship level. But he also understands that it will take time.

The difficult decisions of a head coach are already on his plate. When senior safety Demetruce McNeal was arrested earlier this month for possession of marijuana, Malzahn dismissed him from the team. A difficult decision? Yes, but one that had to set the tone.

The first game test is Saturday against Washington State.

“I'm very appreciative,” he said. “I feel very blessed to be doing what I'm doing at a great place like Auburn. It probably crosses my mind how blessed I am once a day, maybe more.”

SEC recruiting storylines: Aug. 22 

August, 22, 2013
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The college football season is only seven days away, but there is still a lot of recruiting action happening around the SEC. Here is a closer look at some of the hot topics throughout the conference:


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SEC lunchtime links

August, 19, 2013
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Nobody likes Mondays, but everyone loves reading about the SEC. Here are a few stories to get you through the start of the week.

SEC class rankings analysis 

August, 14, 2013
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This was another big recruiting week in the Southeastern Conference. One school, Florida, moved up in to the top 10 while another, LSU, barely dropped out. Alabama is back a familiar spot in the rankings and the SEC 13-out-of-14 teams ranked in the top 40 of the rankings. Here's a closer look at the updated rankings.


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