SEC: Auburn Tigers

Quan Bray Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsQuan Bray scored half of the Tigers' six touchdowns against Louisiana Tech.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before the season, Gus Malzahn talked to his team about the seniors and how this is their year, their last opportunity before their time at Auburn comes to an end. He asked all of his seniors to simply play the best they have ever played before.

Quan Bray took that message to heart.

"My coaches look at me as a leader," he said. "I'm a vet. I've been here a long time. Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the year that our seniors are going to need to step up and play big. We took the challenge, and we're trying to do just that."

The senior wide receiver had a career game Saturday, finishing with three catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He added a third score on a 76-yard punt return, his second return touchdown of the season, and he currently leads the nation with 36.8-yard average on his five punt returns through the first four games.

Has Bray ever had a game like that, at any level?

"Probably high school," he said. "Everybody probably had games like that in high school because you were probably the best player on your team and this and that, but from what I've been through and the things that we've been doing, the hard work is really paying off.

"It had to be my senior year, but it doesn't take nothing but a year for us to be successful."

A year is all that he has left, but Bray is making the most of it. He had as many touchdowns Saturday as he had his first three seasons at Auburn, and he's well on his way to setting a new career high for receiving yards in a season.

Nobody was happier to see him break though than this fellow seniors, who have been with him every step of the way.

"Any time a guy has a day like he did, you've just got to be excited for him," center Reese Dismukes said. "We're close with all the guys on the team, and the seniors -- we've been here for a while -- and you're happy for one of your guys you came in with."

"It's a great feeling," added running back Corey Grant. "He's been working his butt off and been though a lot. To see him come out and to see all that hard work pay off, it kind of motivates me and it just excites me."

This is a senior-laden team at Auburn. From quarterback Nick Marshall to Saturday's captains Dismukes and Gabe Wright, there are 14 seniors listed on the two-deep depth chart which didn't include safety Jermaine Whitehead.

If the Tigers want to repeat as SEC champions, it's up to them.

"It's like we got a bond," Bray said. "From when we first connected, it was like we're going to grind together, we're going to leave here together, we're going to graduate together and we're going to try to win most all of our games. We're going to try to win a national championship.

"That was our goal -- to win a national championship. We fell a little short [last year], but we still got this year to finish it off."

Auburn will need that senior leadership the rest of the way as six of its final eight games are against teams currently ranked in the top 15, beginning with Saturday's game against No. 15 LSU, a team that most of the seniors, Bray included, have never beaten.

At first glance: SEC Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 6 roundtable: Game of the week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC morning links

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

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

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

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Weekend

SEC bowl projections: Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

SEC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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It was a very fun day in the SEC, and here are the stars of the weekend:

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: It was a record-setting day for the nation's best running back. Gurley rushed for a career-high 208 yards on 28 carries in the Bulldogs' 35-32 win over Tennessee. He also had two touchdowns, 30 receiving yards and 47 kickoff return yards. Gurley, who averaged 7.4 yards per carry, now has 16 100-yard rushing games with the Bulldogs. How impressive was Gurley? Tennessee decided to onside kick it with 2:14 left and three timeouts in the fourth quarter because it didn't think it could stop him. The Volunteers didn't, as Gurley rushed for 26 yards on the ensuing drive to ice it for the Dawgs.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: In a wild one inside Jerry World, but Kenny Trill showed out in his first pressure situation of his career. He had touchdown passes of 86 and 59 yards in the fourth quarter, helping the Aggies to a 35-28 overtime win over Arkansas. Hill made some incredibly clutch passes in the second half, but his biggest throw of the day came on the first play of overtime, when he hit Malcome Kennedy for a 25-yard touchdown that was the eventual game-winner for the Aggies. He threw for 386 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception.

Quan Bray, WR, Auburn: He caught just three passes but totaled 91 yards and had two touchdowns of 37 and 44 yards in the Tigers' 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He also returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown and finished the game with 189 all-purpose yards.

Edward Pope, WR, Texas A&M: He was Hill's partner in crime Saturday. Pope caught four passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns went for 86 yards. That score brought the Aggies back within a score of an Arkansas team that took a 28-14 lead late in the third quarter.

Russell Hansbrough/Marcus Murphy, RBs, Missouri: What a finish for the Tigers. The offense went from doing absolutely nothing to scoring 14 straight in the fourth quarter of Mizzou's 21-20 win at South Carolina. Hansbrough and Murphy were a major part of that comeback. The finished the night with 141 rushing yards and Hansbrough scored all three touchdowns for Mizzou, including that tough game-winner from 1 yard out with 1:38 left. Murphy's 22-yard punt return to Mizzou's 49-yard line set up the Tigers' final scoring drive.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

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

Can you believe that?

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

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

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

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

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

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
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A look ahead at Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.

Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesCalling Texas A&M-Arkansas a big game seemed a stretch a few weeks ago, but Kenny Hill and the Aggies could have their hands full against the Razorbacks.
3:30 p.m.

Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.

4 p.m.

Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.

7 p.m.

Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?

7:30 p.m.

New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.

Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.
Like Roc-A-Fella Records, can we please acknowledge that Auburn is definitely in the building?

Four full weeks into the 2014 college football season, and we still aren't really talking about the defending SEC champions. Did I miss something? Wasn't this team 13 seconds away from winning the final BCS national title game at the end of last season?

 Despite returning a handful of starters on both sides of the ball to a team that made a fantastic run through the SEC only a year removed from being a certifiable dumpster fire on the Plains, the fifth-ranked Tigers (3-0, 1-0 SEC) entered the 2014 season ranked behind Alabama, which Auburn beat last fall -- on a miracle play, but still beat.

And even after a perfect start, which includes a 24-point win over a much-improved Arkansas team and a tough road win at No. 20 Kansas State, it's as if the Tigers are in our peripheral vision. Texas A&M (4-0, 1-0) is ranked one spot behind Auburn, yet has four first-place votes to Auburn's zero.

If you look at what Auburn has done thus far, the argument can certainly be made that it is probably the most complete team of the SEC's preseason favorites. The offense is balanced, and the defense is much improved. There's a quality veteran quarterback and a hot-shot coach running things.

You are what your record is, right?

The Tigers have done everything asked of them, and done it well. You say their six-point win over a Kansas State team that narrowly escaped what would have been an epic upset against lowly Iowa State isn't impressive enough? Well, I think you should look deeper at what the Tigers did to claw their way out of Manhattan, Kansas.

There were some mistakes on Kansas State's part that certainly helped Auburn, but one thing that really stuck out to me was how Auburn turned to its passing game to win. Kansas State's stout run defense thwarted Auburn's dynamic rushing attack, allowing just 128 rushing yards and a paltry 2.8 yards per carry (the lowest in the Gus Malzahn era). Auburn hadn't been held to under 300 rushing yards in either of its first two games, and this marked just the second time in 17 games under Malzahn that the Tigers were held below 200 rushing yards.

With the running game in a shambles, quarterback Nick Marshall was given the green light to chuck away. This is the same quarterback we've had to question multiple times when it comes to being a more consistent passer. Well, the coaches didn't question him, and he didn't disappoint, throwing for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall came up with a clutch game-winning throw -- again -- in the fourth quarter when he found a wide-open D'haquille Williams for a 39-yard gain on third-and-9 with 2:06 remaining.

The Tigers also forced three turnovers without key defender Jermaine Whitehead even in the state.

But it shouldn't surprise us, how this defense has played thus far. Auburn ranks fourth in the SEC, giving up just 310.7 yards per game. Last season, the Tigers didn't hold a team under 415 yards of offense until Oct. 12 against Western Carolina.

Auburn limited Arkansas, which leads the SEC with 324.5 rushing yards per game, to just 153 yards on the ground. The Tigers, which gave up 163 rushing yards per game last year, are surrendering 86 per contest so far. And what's even more impressive is the fact that Auburn is playing without arguably its best defender, defensive end Carl Lawson, who is recovering from ACL surgery.

Auburn ranks within the top half of the SEC in seven of the eight major offensive and defensive categories. The offensive line has surrendered one sack, the running game is just as potent this year (262.7 yards per game), and the receiving corps got a major upgrade with Williams (two 100-yard receiving games in his first three games with the Tigers) becoming the only Auburn receiver in the past 10 seasons to have multiple such games before the end of September, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Auburn isn't perfect, and the Tigers will continue to face tougher competition as they tangle with the teeth of the conference schedule, but this isn't a team that should be overlooked, and for some reason it is.

Fool me once, right?
Auburn fans had grown accustomed to seeing Jermaine Whitehead in the secondary. The senior safety had started 28 consecutive games and 29 of the last 30 dating back to 2011. You have to go all the way back to the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia to find the last game where his name wasn’t listed with the first team.

That changed last Thursday when Whitehead didn’t even make the trip to Kansas State with his teammates. He was suspended indefinitely after sources told ESPN he was disrespectful to one of his coaches.

When the incident occurred, the Auburn coaches had to scramble to find a replacement. Because of the short week, they only had about a practice and a half to tinker with the secondary.

It wasn’t all that different from last year when Joshua Holsey tore his ACL just days before the Texas A&M game, except this time it was Holsey switching positions, moving from boundary safety to free safety, to fill in for his suspended teammate.

“Back in the spring, they moved me from corner to boundary safety, and I only had like a day and a half to prepare for the spring game,” Holsey told reporters Tuesday. “So it was like the same situation, but it wasn’t the spring game. It was Kansas State on the road.”

The junior, who has made starts at both cornerback and safety in his time at Auburn, responded to the challenge. He led the team with 11 tackles, and Monday he was named the SEC defensive player of the week.

“That was a definite positive,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Josh had two days of practice before he went out there and did the real thing against a very solid offense, and he played extremely well.

“I thought the communication around him -- that’s what you kind of always worry about, the communication on the back end when you get a new guy at a new position -- but I thought it was pretty solid.”

Fellow safety Johnathan Ford had a solid game in his own right with eight tackles, including one for a loss, and one pass breakup. Malzahn also praised freshman defensive backs Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin, who both saw more playing time last Thursday with Whitehead out.

At one point in the game, Auburn had three newcomers in the secondary and a fourth who played wide receiver last season.

“We’ve got a couple young guys that played the other night that I feel like the more reps they get and the more game experience they get, they’ll start feeling more comfortable and more confident,” Malzahn said.

As the Tigers prepare for Louisiana Tech this Saturday, they are doing so without the services of Whitehead for the second straight week. Malzahn said Tuesday that nothing has changed regarding Whitehead's status and that the three-year starter won’t be on the sideline for Saturday’s game.

“[Whitehead] has handled it really well,” Holsey said. “I talk to him every day. He's doing really good. He's just waiting to see what's going on.”

Earlier this week, Whitehead acknowledged his mistake on Twitter.

 

In the meantime, Holsey will get another start at free safety and the newcomers should all see extended reps against the Bulldogs this weekend.
There are plenty of stars in the SEC. Whether you're looking at Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board of NFL draft picks or the national rankings for receptions, passing yards or tackles, you're likely to find plenty of players from the Southeast. But through a quarter of the regular season, who in the SEC has separated themselves as the elite talent in the league? It's early, but let's take a look at three tiers.

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

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

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

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

SEC morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Quarterbacks under fire: They might be on shorter leashes after last Saturday's implosions, but it looks like Anthony Jennings' and Jeff Driskel's starting jobs are safe – for now. LSU coach Les Miles and Florida coach Will Muschamp both said on Wednesday that they intend to stick with their embattled quarterbacks. But that doesn't feel like a permanent decision in either case, as freshman quarterbacks seem to be bearing down on the two starters. Florida fans are already clamoring forTreon Harris to get more action, and Muschamp said that's a possibility. Likewise, LSU freshman Brandon Harris outperformed Jennings last week against Mississippi State and Miles said he has earned more playing time, even if he hasn't overtaken Jennings as the starter. Both starters simply have to perform better if they expect to hold onto their jobs, though. The freshmen are still learning, but their teams' offenses both played horribly with the veterans under center in last week's losses. At some point, their coaches could decide it simply makes better sense to let the rookies get their shots.

Dillon Day fallout: It will be interesting to see how center Dillon Day's one-game suspension will affect Mississippi State's offense in the Bulldogs' outing against Texas A&M. Quarterback Dak Prescott said he doesn't think it will hurt his play. Archie Muniz is next on the depth chart, but he was responsible for a high snap -- a problem he experienced during spring practice, as well -- that expedited LSU's comeback last Saturday. It's entirely possible that guardBen Beckwith might take over for a game, although he hasn't played center in an actual game since high school in 2008. Regardless of who starts, it will be a position worth watching for the Day-less Bulldogs. Texas A&M's 16 sacks rank fourth in the FBS.

Bulldog nuggets: It was a newsy day at Georgia, particularly on the injury front. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said cornerback Shattle Fenteng probably won't play again this season and might need shoulder surgery, but Richt believes receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 2013 opener against Clemson -- might be back for Georgia's Oct. 4 game against Vanderbilt. Among other Georgia notes, defensive back J.J. Green said he disagreed with the referees' targeting call against him in last week's game against Troy, saying the rule is “taking all the fun out of football.” Green was ejected on the third play of the game and watched the rest of the game from the coaches' locker room at Sanford Stadium. Finally, Mike Lutzenkirchen -- the father of former Auburn tight end Philip, who died in a June alcohol-related auto accident -- spoke to the Bulldogs before Wednesday's practice about making good decisions.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Day (and why Auburn probably won't win the SEC West)

 

SEC morning links

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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1. Leave it to Nick Saban to make a bye week as uncomfortable as possible. In classic Saban style, he flew off the handle at a reporter who had the gall to ask if his relationship with Lane Kiffin has improved over time. "It's never been bad," Saban said. "Whoever said it was bad, so why does it need to get better?" It's enough to make a reporter wonder if there is such a thing as a safe question when Saban is at the podium. In fact, it reminds us of the time he tore the media to shreds for too much positive press. If you're wondering what put a burr in Saban's saddle, it's probably the usual paranoia after his undefeated team kicked some butt. Clearly he's still sore at the way people reacted when he brought in Kiffin, but a closer look would show Saban that most of the serious media praised the hire. "I got beat up like a drum for doing it and now all of a sudden it's great," he said on Tuesday. So sensitive!

2. The SEC absolutely did the right thing in suspending Mississippi State center Dillon Day for stomping on two LSU players last Saturday. Let's break this thing down like the Zapruder film, shall we? In this video you can see both incidents:

video

In his letter to Bulldog fans defending himself, Day said he was "going too fast at 300 pounds to stop." That sounds reasonable. But he goes on to blame the LSU players basically for being on the ground where he was stepping. In the first incident, Day did slow down enough to see MSU quarterback Dak Prescott get tackled (thus ending the play). Then Day chose to blatantly jump onto Davon Godchaux's gut. In the second incident, it's clear that Day could have stepped on the ground between Rashard Robinson's legs but spiked his thigh instead. MSU coach Dan Mullen's reaction might be worse, though. "I didn't see anything wrong with it," he said on Tuesday after the suspension had been handed down. This is the same coach who last year suspended Day for a half against Troy after Day did the same thing to an Auburn player. Hmmm, what could be the difference between Troy and MSU's next opponent, No. 6 Texas A&M? Could be the division title implications, but that's just a wild guess. Later on Tuesday, Prescott tweeted #FreeDDay in support of his center, but this kind of repeated behavior should not be condoned.

3. Staying on our soapbox, let's do a little "Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger" or T-dubs as Stephen Colbert would call it. Cheers to Tennessee head coach Butch Jones for his zero-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence. Despite no charges being filed, UT dismissed true freshman running back Treyvon Paulk on Monday after police said he hit a woman in the mouth. Jeers to Auburn and LSU for recruiting ex-Georgia Bulldog Jonathan Taylor, who has the good fortune of being 6-foot-5, 340 pounds and playing the important defensive tackle position. Taylor was dismissed by UGA coach Mark Richt in July (cheers to Richt for that, by the way) after being arrested on an aggravated assault/family violence charge. Police said he choked and struck his 5-11, 170-pound girlfriend. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on Tuesday said he too has a zero-tolerance policy, but it should be noted that Tigers defensive line coach Rodney Garner also recruited Taylor when he coached at Georgia.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

video
If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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video 
As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There were several players who committed to SEC schools over the weekend, and Texas A&M lost a top commit. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.

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