SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State’s head coach knew going on the road to Kentucky wasn’t going to be easy. The two weeks between games would be a factor. The crowd would, too. So would the No. 1 ranking beside the Bulldogs’ name.
“It was great; you’re ranked No. 1 and you have a bye week,” Mullen told ESPN on Wednesday. “You come off the bye week and you’re sometimes a little sluggish getting back into the routine and into the flow, and now you have everybody patting you on the back. You’re not sure how you’re supposed to react to things.”
So Mississippi State, a heavy favorite, didn’t win so handily. The Bulldogs started sluggish and then went in the opposite direction and played too tight.
“I thought we played really well. I thought they played really well,” Mullen said. “But, at times, instead of having the juice and excitement we normally have when we make a play, there would be relief.
“That’s not what we want to be. That’s not how we got successful.”
In other words, Mississippi State got ahead of itself.
Mullen and Prescott said that won’t happen again this Saturday against Arkansas. They’re over the No. 1 ranking, they said.
In fact, when the inaugural College Football Playoff Rankings were released Tuesday, Prescott said he was too busy watching film to tune in. Mullen said to wake him when it mattered.
“When’s the last one come out?” Mullen said. “I would view that one.”
“Hearing all the media stuff got us uptight," said Prescott, "but we’ve shaken it off and we’re back to being ourselves. It’s hard sometimes, but we have to remember who we are and what got us to this point.
“We just have to stay focused and know we’re the same team no one was talking about. We’re the same guys that were slightly unrecruited when we came here. We have to be true to ourselves and remember that.”
If they need a physical reminder, they won’t have to look far this weekend.
“This is a good team and a desperate team,” Prescott said of Arkansas. “They’re desperate for a win. They play everyone they play really, really hard, and we’re not going to be the exception. I don’t believe they’ve had an SEC win in two years now, and they’re hungry for one.”
It’s more than attitude that should worry State, though.
“Dealing with perception and reality of Arkansas, Arkansas is one of the better teams I’ve seen on film this year,” Mullen said. “The record might not state it for them, but they lost to a top-10 A&M team and lost a one-point game to Alabama, which is an excellent football team, and they were right there playing with Auburn Game 1 of the season."
“I’ve yet to see a team in the SEC this season that if you don’t come out and play your A-game, you’re not going to win," he added. "It’s plain and simple.”
Kentucky proved that the Bulldogs aren’t infallible when they’re not themselves.
If Mississippi State doesn’t get back to playing with a chip on their shoulder against Arkansas, then watch out.
“Playing with the juice and excitement we played with earlier in the season,” Mullen said. “To me, that’s the most important thing. Having fun while we’re playing, not worrying about anything else but the next play.”
No. 1-ranked Mississippi State needs to play more like unranked Mississippi State.
If it doesn’t, then the roles could be reversed for them.
NO. 1 MISSISSIPPI STATE
The case for: Mississippi State is one of two remaining undefeated Power 5 teams in college football. Need we say more? So long as the Bulldogs win out, they won’t be denied.
The case against: A loss, however, could create an interesting scenario. Assuming State doesn’t play and win an SEC title, its résumé for the playoff becomes less impressive, especially when you look at a nonconference state littered with cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT-Martin.
Achilles' heel: Offense, defense and ... special teams. Yes, State could be doomed by its kicking game and return units. The Bulldogs have made only four of seven field goals (none from 40-plus yards) and fumbled three punt returns already this season.
Toughest games remaining: Nov. 15 at Alabama, Nov. 29 at Ole Miss
Chance of running the table: 5.1 percent
NO. 3 AUBURN
The case for: Strength of schedule is Auburn’s biggest bargaining chip. Already stocked with wins over Kansas State and LSU, the Tigers have three more ranked opponents remaining.
The case against: Skip a few lines ahead. See all those road games remaining? That’ll be what dooms the Tigers. Winning two out of those three would be impressive, but a two-loss Auburn isn’t likely to be slotted ahead of a one-loss Notre Dame or Oregon.
Achilles' heel: Gus Malzahn has to hope his defense does enough not to lose him games. After all, you can’t give up 35 points and 535 yards to South Carolina and get taken seriously. Nick Marshall is good, but that’s asking a lot.
Toughest games remaining: Nov. 1 at Ole Miss, Nov. 15 at Georgia, Nov. 29 at Alabama
Chance of running the table: 5.2 percent
NO. 4 OLE MISS
The case for: That loss at LSU still stings right now, but Ole Miss shouldn’t feel too bad about it. After all, it has only two games against ranked opponents remaining, and both will be played at home. Even with a weak nonconference schedule, it will be hard to keep a one-loss Ole Miss out of the playoff, especially if LSU keeps improving.
The case against: About that nonconference schedule again. Like its Magnolia State brethren, Ole Miss didn’t do itself any favors looking outside the SEC for competition (see: Louisiana Lafayette, Memphis, Presbyterian). If Oregon wins out, it can waive around its win over Michigan State. Meanwhile, Ole Miss can’t say much about beating Boise State.
Achilles' heel: You can’t have rabbit ears as a quarterback and succeed in this league. Bo Wallace is as talented as can be, but when he starts listening to what’s going on around him and playing with too much emotion, Good Bo turns into Bad Bo and Ole Miss can’t recover.
Toughest games remaining: Nov. 1 vs. Auburn, Nov. 29 vs. Mississippi State
Chance of running the table: 13.2 percent
Three teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss -- found their way into the top four of the rankings, nearly causing a viral revolt. Let's get one thing straight, though. There is no SEC bias, but there are some very talented teams in the SEC. The committee sees it and decided three SEC teams were worthy of their high placements.
These folks complaining about the SEC's initial playoff outlook might not have much to gripe about in a few weeks (when the rankings actually matter) because the conference is in for a bloody, bloody month. The SEC West, which owns four of the top six teams in the country, is about to beat its ever-loving brains in.
The SEC now finds itself in an interesting situation. A week ago, everyone was talking about the possibility of the SEC getting two teams in. Then, Ole Miss lost to LSU.
After the first set of rankings were released, it's clear the committee is impressed with what the SEC West has done to this point. But things are about to get a little complicated for the league, as it begins to devour itself even more, starting with No. 4 Ole Miss hosting No. 3 Auburn on Saturday in what is essentially an elimination game in the Grove.
"This is the time of year where the good teams really come up to the top because they've got to be consistently good," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "It's hard to get better this time of year. Most teams can't do it."
There are four regular-season games remaining between top-six teams, and they all involve SEC West teams. Shame on you if you can't get excited about the cannibalization that is about to ensue in the SEC.
With Ole Miss playing Auburn and Mississippi State, Alabama playing LSU and Mississippi State, and Auburn playing Georgia, the SEC will feast on itself during the month that houses our most gluttonous holiday -- Thanksgiving.
As of this moment, what playoff scenarios still lurk for the SEC? Well, let's take a look:
(Note: I think we can all agree that the SEC champion will make the playoff, regardless of if it has one or two losses. Three losses could complicate things, but we're going off the assumption that the SEC champ won't have three losses.)
This is the simplest scenario. If No. 1 Mississippi State wins out and wins the SEC, the Bulldogs are in. Duh. Same for No. 4 Ole Miss. No questions asked.
Well, what happens if Ole Miss wins out and Mississippi State's only loss is to the Rebels on the road? I think the committee would have a tough decision involving Mississippi State, because its only loss would be an Ole Miss squad that probably wouldn't dip below fourth in the rankings. Mississippi State beat three top-10 teams in a row earlier this season and No. 6 Alabama (on the road) still looms.
Ascending in Alabama
Alabama or Auburn wins out. Now, there's a chance one of these teams could still make it to Atlanta, but they both need help. Auburn needs Mississippi State to lose at least two more games, and Alabama needs Ole Miss to lose at least one more.
But even if neither makes it to Atlanta, a one-loss Alabama or Auburn could make it into the playoff. Think about the gauntlet both teams would have gone through only to escape with one loss to a team currently ranked inside the top four. It's similar to Alabama making it into the BCS title game in 2011 without playing in Atlanta.
Also, Alabama is currently ranked first in ESPN’s Football Power Index and second in ESPN's strength of record metric and Auburn still has to play three teams on the road ranked inside the top 11.
Georgia ... Oh, Georgia
These Bulldogs could really stir things up. If Georgia wins the East, then a win in Atlanta will send the Bulldogs to the playoff. Even with a loss to Auburn in two weeks, an SEC-winning Georgia would make the playoff.
And that's where things get interesting. What if unbeaten Mississippi State loses to Georgia? Is Mississippi State left out? Would a two-loss Georgia team eliminate Mississippi State altogether?
You think that's tricky? What if Alabama or Auburn wins out, but either Mississippi State or Ole Miss goes to Atlanta and loses? Who do you send? Chances are a two-loss Ole Miss team would be eliminated, but how does the committee look at one-loss Mississippi State and one-loss Auburn? Mississippi State won head-to-head, but will the committee care later? You'd think so, but these are imperfect humans we're talking about.
Honestly, this is what everyone should be rooting for. There's a chance the SEC might have four two-loss teams from the West before the SEC championship game.
Here you go: LSU wins out, beating Alabama; Alabama beats Mississippi State and Auburn; Ole Miss loses to Auburn and beats Mississippi State; Auburn beats Georgia. Now Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have two losses. Or Alabama beats LSU and Mississippi State, but loses to Auburn; Ole Miss beats Auburn and Mississippi State, but loses to Arkansas; Auburn beats Georgia and Alabama. Now, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have two losses.
A tiebreaker decides the West, and then the winner of the SEC title goes to the playoff. Chances are the loser, which would have more than one loss, won't make it.
How the committee views the SEC in the coming weeks will be interesting. If everyone starts losing, hold onto your Tiger Rags and pour another hot toddy, because there are going to be a lot of sleepless nights in the month of November.
Why Georgia wins big: Even without Todd Gurley lining up for Georgia, the Bulldogs still have an absolute stud in freshman Nick Chubb. In two games as a starter, Chubb has rushed for 345 yards and three touchdowns. The kid just tosses people around out there and certainly has a little Gurley in him. Florida is starting the Treon Harris era at quarterback, but the offense has been lousy for the better part of the season, while Georgia's defense is on a roll. It'll be tight early, but Georgia pounds away in the second half. Georgia 28, Florida 14 -- Edward Aschoff
How Florida keeps it close: This is Harris' game at quarterback, and he certainly provides more of a spark than Jeff Driskel. If Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor can run the football and negate some of the pressure from Georgia's talented pass-rushers, Florida could have some success moving the football. If they can even out the time of possession battle, you'll see a much more effective defense from the Gators. Georgia 21, Florida 13 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Kentucky wins: Missouri just can't seem to get it together. Just look at last weekend's game against Vanderbilt. Sure, the Tigers won, but not convincingly. And Kentucky is no Vanderbilt. The Wildcats gave Mississippi State a run for its money and beat South Carolina a few weeks ago. With a true playmaker at quarterback and a better-than-expected defense, Kentucky will give Missouri fits on both sides of the ball and win on the road. Kentucky 30, Missouri 20 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Missouri wins: Ever since a 34-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia, the Tigers have looked shaky, especially on offense. But things are gradually getting better as quarterback Maty Mauk re-learns how to take care of the ball. This game offers the improving Wildcats a plum opportunity to show they can win conference games. But look for the home team to squeeze out a hard-fought victory. Missouri 26, Kentucky 23 -- Jeff Barlis
Why Ole Miss wins: The Rebels were injected with some playoff hope after the first batch of College Football Playoff rankings were announced. That should energize a team that lost an ugly one at LSU. Bo Wallace has to regroup, and he has to follow what his coaches tell him. The Rebels haven't had a consistent running game all season, but Auburn's pass defense ranks 75th nationally, and that should help Wallace regroup after a bad showing in Baton Rouge. Watching Ole Miss' defense try to tackle Auburn's running game might be the highlight of the day. A late turnover will seal it for the Rebels. Ole Miss 31, Auburn 28 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Auburn wins: Ole Miss' sideline was like a M*A*S*H unit last week against LSU, with multiple key players leaving with injuries. Even if most of those guys play Saturday -- and it looks like they will -- the Rebels aren't going to be at 100 percent against arguably the best offense they'll face all season. If Wallace doesn't play better than he did a week ago, Auburn might win easily. Ole Miss' quarterback is the X factor here, and I suspect he'll fare well against Auburn's mediocre defense at home, but the Tigers have way more firepower at their disposal right now. Auburn 31, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching
Why Mississippi State wins big: Playing its first game with the No. 1 ranking, Mississippi State came out tight against Kentucky. Dan Mullen even admitted that. Look for the Bulldogs to play more relaxed at home Saturday in front of the familiar sound of cowbells clanging. They’re the No. 1 team in the country, and Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the defense will prove it against the Razorbacks. Mississippi State 35, Arkansas 14 -- Greg Ostendorf
How Arkansas keeps it close: It should be a triumphant return to Davis Wade Stadium for the nation's No. 1 team, but things aren't perfect for the Bulldogs. Kentucky's offense exposed some issues with the MSU secondary. While Arkansas doesn't have the same caliber of passing attack, the Hogs do have a stable of talented runners, a veteran quarterback and two good tight ends. Mississippi State 37, Arkansas 26 -- Jeff Barlis
More unanimous picks:
Texas A&M over UL Monroe: The big storyline will be who starts at quarterback for Texas A&M, Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? Either way, the Aggies should roll against a lesser opponent. Texas A&M 52, UL Monroe 14
South Carolina over Tennessee: Steve Spurrier won’t have to go for it on every fourth down against the Vols, but don’t be surprised if he still has a few tricks left up his sleeve. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four games in this series. South Carolina 35, Tennessee 24
Vanderbilt over Old Dominion: Vandy is looking for its third win of the season, but it won’t come easy against Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his 54 career touchdown passes. Vanderbilt 31, Old Dominion 28
Edward Aschoff: 64-11
Greg Ostendorf: 64-11
Jeff Barlis: 63-12
Chris Low: 63-12
David Ching: 62-13
Alex Scarborough: 61-14
Sam Khan Jr.: 57-18
2. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian echoed Volunteers coach Butch Jones' prediction that senior quarterback Justin Worley will not be available Saturday against South Carolina. Maybe that won't be such a bad outcome. Sophomore Josh Dobbs offered reason to believe he might be the Vols' quarterback of the future with a strong performance off the bench last Saturday against Alabama. But the Crimson Tide had not prepared for the youngster. South Carolina will have the entire week. He might be the X-factor in Saturday's game at Columbia. Or for the superstitious Gamecocks among us, maybe it will be South Carolina's uniforms. South Carolina will wear black jerseys and black pants on Saturday for the first time since losing 24-14 to Florida in 2009.
3. Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) is clearly the favorite to win the SEC East, but Missouri (6-2, 3-1) can still make some noise if the Bulldogs fall into any sort of slump. The Tigers haven't played particularly well lately, but they have only one conference loss as Kentucky (5-3, 2-3) prepares to visit on Saturday. Both teams will be looking to get back on track for the stretch run. Perhaps Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk found his stride last week against Vanderbilt after several rocky games in a row. Meanwhile, Kentucky needs just one more win to achieve bowl eligibility, but it hasn't won a true road game since the 2010 opener. Not the greatest sign, particularly since its previously productive running game has underperformed lately and coaches are questioning whether they should use fewer backs in the regular rotation.
Around the SEC
" The State asks how South Carolina's disappointing season might impact its 2015 recruiting class.
" Formerly suspended safety Jermaine Whitehead does not appear close to returning to Auburn's starting lineup.
" Derrick Henry is leading an unusually thin group of Alabama running backs this week in practice with an open date ahead.
" LSU is focused on cleaning up its mistakes from last Saturday's Ole Miss game with Alabama ahead next weekend.
" John Kadlec, better known as “Mr. Mizzou” after serving the school as an athlete, coach, administrator and broadcaster, died Wednesday at age 86.
Tweets of the day
Record: 7-0 (4-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Alabama
Reason for optimism: Entering Saturday’s game with Arkansas, Mississippi State ranks first nationally in both strength of record (which measures the difficulty in achieving its record based on its strength of schedule) and game control (which gauges its command of games from beginning to end) according to ESPN Stats & Information. In other words, the Bulldogs have earned their No. 1 national ranking.
Cause for concern: There are still two top-10 opponents left on the schedule, and the Bulldogs will face both of them on the road. On Nov. 15, they’ll visit Alabama (State is 0-2 in Tuscaloosa under Dan Mullen and has won there just twice since 1957) and end the regular season with a trip to Ole Miss (the home team in the Egg Bowl is 12-2 in the 2000s).
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Auburn at Ole Miss
-- David Ching
Record: 6-1 (3-1)
Rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 at No. 4 Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: How can Auburn not be happy? At No. 3, the Tigers are the top-ranked one-loss team according to the committee. They’re ahead of Oregon, TCU, Notre Dame and even in-state rival Alabama. On the field, they have to be happy with the way the offense looked this past weekend against South Carolina. Nick Marshall and Co. seem to be clicking again after playing their most complete game of the season.
Cause for concern: It was only one game, but the Auburn defense took a major step backward Saturday. The Tigers couldn’t get off the field at times, and they allowed South Carolina to throw for 416 yards and five touchdowns. Not to mention, the Tigers also have arguably the most treacherous road ahead among the playoff contenders.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Sure, it would be nice to see No. 1 or No. 2 go down, but Auburn should also pull for Kansas State to handle its business at home against Oklahoma State. That nonconference win looks better and better with each Wildcat victory.
-- Greg Ostendorf
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. No. 3 Auburn
Reason for optimism: Despite losing at LSU this past weekend, the Rebels aren’t out of the playoff race by any means. That shiny No. 4 ranking proves that the committee has been very impressed with what the Rebels have done to this point. Ole Miss also gets Auburn and Mississippi State at home, somewhat smoothing out the road to Atlanta.
Cause for concern: Well, that loss destroyed the chance at a perfect season, and we saw what happens when you couple an average running game with a quarterback who loses the mental edge with an opponent’s crowd. Bo Wallace was never in rhythm against LSU (just look at that ugly game-clinching interception) and the running game just wasn’t a threat.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Arkansas over Mississippi State
-- Edward Aschoff
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at No. 19 LSU
Reason for optimism: Given the way Alabama struggled in a loss at Ole Miss and a narrow win at Arkansas, there were questions about whether Lane Kiffin's offense could go on the road. But they were answered Saturday when the Tide went to Rocky Top and dominated Tennessee 34-20.
Cause for concern: If you want LSU, you want them early. You want the young, unsure team that lost to Mississippi State, not the confident, maturing bunch that upset Ole Miss. Alabama gets the latter, a team that now believes it can beat anyone, especially in Tiger Stadium.
Who they’ll be rooting for: The SEC will take care of itself, so in order to get two teams from the conference in -- and increase Bama's chances of making the playoff -- Tide fans should be hoping for Louisville to beat Florida State or Stanford to beat Oregon.
-- Alex Scarborough
Record: 6-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Florida)
Reason for optimism: Find a true competitor in the East, and then maybe the Dawgs would have to look over their shoulders down the home stretch. There just isn’t a team right now that anyone thinks can seriously contend with the Dawgs in November. The defense is now on the same page with the offense, and that’s a great sign.
Cause for concern: We are still awaiting word on Todd Gurley. Nick Chubb has been great in his place, but you just have to wonder how much of a beating the true freshman can take down the stretch. Auburn awaits, and the Dawgs would still have to play -- and beat -- a behemoth in the West in Atlanta.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Kentucky over Missouri
-- Edward Aschoff
Record: 7-2 (3-2 SEC)
Rank: No. 19
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: Look who’s back. Most of us thought we’d seen the last of LSU as a playoff contender when Auburn humiliated Les Miles’ club 41-7 on Oct. 4. But after winning three in a row, including one against Ole Miss on Saturday, the Tigers might not be out of it after all. They can truly state their case against Alabama next weekend.
Cause for concern: The Tigers haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard against better opponents. They turned it over and scored just 10 points gainst Ole Miss. Until it is more balanced on offense, LSU will lean heavily on its defense and running game and hope that’s enough to win. The results on that front have been mixed.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss vs. Auburn, Arkansas at Mississippi State
-- David Ching
Why would Alabama not be "thrilled?" They play No. 1 and No. 3 at home..— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) October 28, 2014
2. As the AJC's Chip Towers said, "Gurley Watch" reached Day 19 on Tuesday and still no update on the Georgia running back's status for Saturday's big game against Florida. The Bulldogs are cautiously optimistic, as Todd Gurley continues to practice. Meanwhile, the Gators' defensive players say they are expecting, preparing and actually hoping to face the Heisman candidate on Saturday. Despite Florida's downward spiral in the past two seasons, the Gators say they're confident. The history of this bitter rivalry suggests the game is usually closely contested. At least one thing that's guaranteed is a good time at the ol' Cocktail Party. It's always cool to see the intermingling of red, black, orange and blue inside and outside the stadium. On Saturday, we'll see it on the field as well. Georgia is the home team, but both teams agreed to wear home jerseys in what should make for a neat visual.
3. Determined to snap its three-game losing streak, Texas A&M underwent a sweeping round of soul-searching during its bye week with a willingness to re-evaluate every position on the team. That includes the quarterback position, where sophomore starter Kenny Hill is now battling with freshman Kyle Allen with a decision to come on Thursday. It's a stunning turn of events for Hill, who started the season with a school-record 511 yards passing in the opener and has thrown for 2,649 yards in eight games. Allen actually went to offensive coordinator Jake Spavital's office to ask if the starting job was really up for grabs. Yes, he was told, this is really happening. The same could be said for the Aggies' tailspin, but at least the bye week came at a perfect time. A&M is still reeling from its last game, a 59-0 loss at Alabama. Saturday's home game against Louisiana-Monroe ought to do wonders in boosting some confidence in Aggieland. Especially for the QB, whoever he is.
Around the SEC
" Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott ditched his walking boot and practiced on Tuesday. He's not sure what all the fuss was about, saying: "I'm sure there's some boots Beyonce or somebody's worn before that people have made a big deal about."
" Ole Miss changed its play-calling terminology after a former intern left in the offseason to join the Auburn staff.
" Michigan native and current Tennessee coach Butch Jones swatted aside speculation that he could be a candidate to be the Wolverines' next coach.
" Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary will be the "lead dog" against Old Dominion, but coach Derek Mason also hopes Patton Robinette will play after being medically cleared last week from a concussion suffered on Sept. 20.
Tweet of the day
It should be an eight-team playoff. Bama, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee should be in there— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) October 28, 2014
Three SEC teams in the top four of the playoff committee's rankings? I actually didn't see that coming. While I do agree that those are three of the four best teams in the country, I figured the committee would lean toward not having three teams from the same conference -- let alone the SEC -- take three slots up top in the first set of rankings.
But that's what happens when you deal with the human element, and that's what is going to make the next few weeks in college football delightful.
So how does that affect our bowl projections for this week? Well, for starters, we can go on ahead and put two SEC teams in the two semifinal games. I think folks below the Mason-Dixon Line were kind of expecting that anyway.
I'm not ready to put three SEC teams in, though. It's just not going to happen. These rankings are fun to look at and make projections with, but let's face it, no conference -- not even the big, bad SEC -- is going to get three teams into the playoff.
So for now, the SEC is left with two teams in the final four. The good news for the conference is that those two teams won't play each other in our fictional first round, making for a possible fictional all-SEC national championship.
Oh, the country would just LOVE that!
I have 10 SEC teams making bowl games this year:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual): Auburn
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: LSU
TaxSlayer Bowl: Kentucky
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Texas A&M
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott has been masterful this season, and he might have played his best/gutsiest game in the Bulldogs' 45-31 win at Kentucky.
All season, we've seen Prescott dominate games from start to finish, but against the Wildcats, he really had to work for his numbers. Let's face it, Prescott wasn't comfortable for the early part of the game. He was actually struggling.
But as the second half continued on, Prescott started to get his groove back, as he was a part of two touchdowns. He didn't have the numbers he's used to producing, but he kept the chains moving in the second half. He helped will his team to a tough win on the road against a much-improved Kentucky team. Did you happen to see that 38-yard run where he shook off about 20 defenders?
On the year, Prescott has been the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback. He has 2,393 total yards of offense with 26 touchdowns. His 664 rushing yards rank him seventh in the SEC in rushing, and his 10 rushing touchdowns are tied for first.
Prescott isn't just the leader in the SEC, he's your Heisman favorite nationally. Here are three other players to keep an eye on:
- Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: What can't this kid do? He ranks second nationally with 71 receptions and 1,132 yards. He also has nine touchdowns. He's fresh off a record-setting performance against Tennessee, in which he caught nine passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
- Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: He might be the most underrated player in the country. Robinson found a way to slip by just about every Kentucky defender on Saturday for a career-high 198 yards. He also scored two touchdowns. He joins Prescott as one of only three players in the SEC to rush for a touchdown in six straight games. He leads the SEC with 887 yards and 10 touchdowns.
- Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: No, he hasn't seen the field for a couple of weeks now, but if Gurley can get back on the field, watch out, because he'll be right back to his old self. Despite missing two games, he's fourth in the SEC with 773 rushing yards and has eight touchdowns. He leads the SEC with 8.2 yards per carry.
There was no way four teams could run the table in the West. Someone -- in fact, many someones -- would have to take a loss.
First it was Alabama. Then it was Texas A&M and Auburn's turn. Finally, Ole Miss finally fell in Death Valley.
The only one standing -- as one of two unbeaten teams left in college football's Power 5 conferences -- is Mississippi State.
But for how long will the Bulldogs' perfect record remain intact?
That question is no small part of today's Take Two debate: Can anyone in the SEC run the table from here on out?
In fact, I can easily see no one in the SEC finishing with fewer than two losses. That includes you, Mississippi State.
As I wrote in my Monday column, it's about time everyone accept that there is no dominant team in the league this season. We're not looking at Florida in 2008 or Alabama in 2009. Instead, we're talking about five playoff contenders that all possess significant flaws: Mississippi State's special teams are an Achilles' heel, Ole Miss is guided by an inconsistent quarterback, Auburn can't play defense, Alabama struggles on the road and Georgia is one-dimensional offensively.
I could go on, but those are the lowlights.
I like to rely on statistics whenever possible, and I trust the good folks at ESPN who put together the Football Power Index. According to their calculations, no one has a particularly strong shot at running the table with Alabama (17 percent) and Georgia (14.5 percent) leading the pack. I don't know about you, but while I think Auburn and Mississippi State are strong football teams, I don't like their 5.2 and 4.5 percent likelihood of going undefeated from here on out.
Sam Khan Jr.: Stats are nice and can often be useful. I'm not going to go as far as "stats are for losers," but remember when TCU had a 98 percent win probability in the fourth quarter against Baylor earlier this month? How did that work out for the Horned Frogs?
Here's what I know: Mississippi State is the best team in the conference at this moment. They also have the best player in the conference, quarterback Dak Prescott and the best one-two punch in Prescott and running back Josh Robinson. I haven't even touched on their talented receivers or strong offensive line. On defense, Preston Smith says hi. So does Benardrick McKinney.
Mississippi State's schedule has some peaks and valleys moving forward. After having to play four winning SEC teams in a row in the last five weeks (LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Kentucky) the Bulldogs remain unscathed. Arkansas comes to StarkVegas this week. Then the Bulldogs get some relief with UT-Martin. That's perfect the week before Alabama, where the Bulldogs can take a commanding lead, get their guys out early and rest up for the showdown in Tuscaloosa.
A similar thing happens before the Egg Bowl: the Bulldogs get Vanderbilt at home, which hasn't won an SEC game yet. Are the road games at Alabama and Ole Miss tough? No question. But when you have the best player on the field on your side, that can make up for a lot of deficiencies.
I think you're right Alex: there are many flawed teams in the league and no real dominant ones. That means they can all be beat and Mississippi State might have enough magic to beat them all on the strength of 'Dak Attack' and the 'Bowling Ball.'
Scarborough: Let's see if we can make this simple.
Just take a look at what's ahead for the SEC's playoff hopefuls:
- Alabama: Good luck going to Death Valley in two weeks. Survive that and you get Mississippi State and Auburn.
- Auburn: You think Ole Miss is just going to roll over this weekend? Beat them and you get Georgia and Alabama on the road.
- Ole Miss: There's no time to look your wounds with Auburn coming to town. Then to end the season you get Mississippi State.
- Mississippi State: Enjoy Arkansas and UT Martin because in a few weeks you have to go to Alabama. If you beat the Tide, you still have to face Ole Miss in Oxford.
- Georgia: OK, so the East is a bit of a joke. But best of luck to you in the SEC Championship Game when you go up against a battle-tested team from the West.
Do you see an undefeated team in there anywhere? Me neither.
Khan: I'm glad you brought up Georgia. I was just about to mention the Bulldogs. Their upcoming schedule? Florida, at Kentucky, Auburn, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech. The Kentucky game could be sticky if the Wildcats keep this up, but Auburn is the main threat here and Georgia gets to host the Tigers. The schedule sets up great and if Georgia gets Todd Gurley back, watch out.
If Ole Miss bounces back to beat Auburn on Saturday, the Rebels have a great chance to do it. Presbyterian, Arkansas and the Egg Bowl follow. And the Egg Bowl is in Oxford. Anything can happen.
I don't think Auburn will do it. That schedule is too daunting. If Alabama does beat LSU, the Tide get to host their final three games. That's a plus for them.
I'll cheat a little and throw another team at you: South Carolina. It won't matter, because the Gamecocks are pretty much out of the SEC East title race, but their schedule finishes as such: Tennessee, at Florida, South Alabama and at Clemson. We all know Spurrier's history against Clemson and if you don't, he'll tell you about it. You said anyone in the SEC, right?
It’s really not.
The conference, no matter what some pundits argue and statistics might say, can be observed by following one simple rule: survive and advance.
Style points are erroneous. Average margin of victory is useless. Strength of schedule really isn’t that important.
Ignore all of it.
You think Mississippi State didn’t look like the No. 1 team in the country against Kentucky? Get a grip.
I know that Dak Prescott wasn’t sharp throwing the football. I know that the secondary looked susceptible. I know that turnovers could eventually doom the Bulldogs.
“This league is brutal,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. “It’s difficult each Saturday to win football games, particularly when you may not play your best and you suffer some injuries you’re not used to having.”
You think Freeze cares about style points today? He would have gone dancing with Mike the Tiger to go back and play LSU differently.
People get too caught up in the minutia. We all do. The fact that so many are now burying Freeze and Ole Miss after their loss at LSU is a testament to that.
If you think the Rebs are out of it, you’re fooling yourself.
Remember when Alabama was buried and the dynasty was over? What about Auburn's ominous fall? Did we forget our recent rush to pronounce Georgia dead?
Last time I checked this is still the SEC. Anything can happen. A few cuts and bruises doesn't mean anyone’s season is over.
Ole Miss could beat Auburn this weekend and jump right back into the top four of the polls. A win in the Egg Bowl could mean the division crown and a berth in the SEC title game.
Good luck keeping Ole Miss out of the playoff then.
What happened this past Saturday was all about the continued jockeying for position. The lead in the West could change hands every week from now until the end of November. And sitting off to the side could be Georgia, just hoping no one pays attention to its steady rise up the rankings.
There is no dominant team in the SEC this season, and it’s about time everyone accepts that.
“Hopefully, we can get all of this ranking stuff behind us,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. “I don’t know where we’ll rank. You can drop us if you want or you can raise us, I don’t really care on any of that now.”
It may be wishful thinking, but what Mullen was speaking to is perspective. It’s a rare commodity these days.
But Mullen seems to understand a simple truth about the SEC: win and you’re in. You don’t even need to win all of your games so long as you’re among the top two teams when the music stops. How well you dance doesn’t matter.
Unlike the other Power 5 conferences, there’s no need for overanalyzing schedules and determining supposed “quality wins." You don’t see Mike Slive politicking for the playoff because he doesn’t have to.
The SEC champion won’t be denied a spot in the final four. And the way things are going, the No. 2 team in the league could be in as well. If you go by the AP and coaches’ polls, three SEC teams are among the top four in the country.
We can debate about who’s the best of the bunch all we want, but what really matters is who survives.
The rest will get sorted out in the end.
2. Playing quarterback takes guts and conviction. It's what Good Bo/Bad Bo is all about. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace had his reputation on the line in the waning seconds of Saturday's Ole Miss-LSU game, and he went for it. It's too bad for the Rebels that Wallace didn't do anything close to what he was told to do. Coach Hugh Freeze said he told Wallace to throw to the flats or out of bounds. Wallace went for it in the end zone, and LSU intercepted the ball to seal its upset. So it's all on Bad Bo, right? Not so fast. Wallace struggled throughout the decisive fourth quarter, completing 6 of 13 passes before the final play. Shouldn't Freeze have known better than to take that risk with Bad Bo at the controls? "I thought we were pretty clear," Freeze said afterward. Wallace's ill-advised pass was his first interception in SEC play. Entering the week, he led the SEC in fourth-quarter Total QBR (90.7) and had zero fourth-quarter turnovers. Saturday was just a very clear, very painful case of Good Bo/Bad Bo.
3. It needs to be said: Amari Cooper is the best wide receiver on Earth who's not in the NFL. Scouts and wonks are lining up to agree. ("He's like a smaller version of A.J. Green!") Cooper had his second SEC game of the season with 200-plus yards receiving and now has 13 career games of at least 100 receiving yards, which is tied with D.J. Hall for most in school history. In other words, it's safe to say Cooper will hold every meaningful Alabama record for a wide receiver when he's through. What is certain is Nick Saban intends to continue feeding the beast. And at the very least it should ensure Cooper gets a shot at some major hardware in December. "He should be up there for the Heisman trophy," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones without the slightest bit of hyperbole. His Vols had the skid marks to prove it.
Around the SEC
- Georgia and suspended running back Todd Gurley are waiting for a response from the NCAA. "We just don’t know really know what to expect," said coach Mark Richt, who also said freshman RB Sony Michel could play against the Gators on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.
- With more than 1,000 yards of offense and a complete disregard for defense, Saturday's Auburn-South Carolina tilt was more like a video game. "It was almost a fun game," Steve Spurrier said.
- In two seasons under Bret Bielema, Arkansas is 0-12 against the SEC. But in that time the Hogs are now 7-1 in nonconference games after kicking some UAB tail on Saturday.
- Vanderbilt tried its fourth starting QB of the season and might have found a keeper in Johnny McCrary.
#MississippiState RB Josh Robinson...on his prodigious butt: "I think that's why the women come to the game, to be honest."— Brian Hamilton (@BrianHamiltonSI) October 26, 2014
Fat-guy touchdown pass
We’ve seen scoop-and-scores from the big guys. We’ve seen touchdown receptions from them. But have you ever seen a 6-foot-6, 350-pound offensive linemen throw a touchdown pass? That happened in the Arkansas-UAB game Saturday. The Razorbacks’ Sebastian Tretola took the snap on a fake field goal attempt and threw a 6-yard touchdown pass off his back foot. Offensive linemen everywhere were proud.
There were a handful of Josh Robinson runs that deserve honorable mention on here, but the run of the day came from Mississippi State tight end Christian Holmes, who returned an onside kick 61 yards for a touchdown. Kentucky had just scored to make it a one-possession game. The Wildcats' only option was to try for an onside kick. Not only did Holmes recover it, he snared it and outran the Wildcats’ coverage team to seal the 45-31 victory.
Cooper starts off with a bang
Could Lane Kiffin have scripted his return to Knoxville any better? On the first play, he drew up a fake toss and a quick pass the other way to Amari Cooper. The All-SEC wide receiver did the rest. Cooper took the pass in stride and once he turned the corner, there was no catching him. He blew past the Tennessee defense and took it 80 yards for a touchdown.
Louis turns on the jets
We all knew Cooper was fast, but how about Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis? Known for his game-winning touchdown grab against Georgia last year, Louis provided a spark for the Tigers on Saturday when he took a jet sweep around the left end and went untouched for 75 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina. The play was set up a key block from Cameron Artis-Payne, but Louis did the rest. The junior showed he’s pretty quick, too.
Martin seals the victory in Death Valley
It was a strange sequence of events in the final minutes between LSU and Ole Miss. Jalen Mills intercepted Bo Wallace to end the game, except pass interference was called. The Rebels were going to line up for a game-tying field goal until a delay-of-game penalty. Finally, with Ole Miss taking one last shot before another potential field goal attempt, Ronald Martin flew over from his safety spot and intercepted Wallace. This time there were no flags. Game over.
Amari Cooper, Alabama: There is no better receiver in the SEC, and perhaps college football, than Mr. Cooper. On Saturday vs. Tennessee, Cooper turned in his sixth game of 100 or more yards and his second of 200 or more by catching nine passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Crimson Tide’s first offensive play from scrimmage went to Cooper, and he turned it into this 80-yard touchdown.
LSU defense: Give it up for the Tigers. They held Ole Miss to 313 offensive yards, harassed Rebels’ quarterback Bo Wallace (who was 14-of-33 passing) and got a pair of critical stops late: one on fourth-and-1 with 1:44 remaining in the game and another on an interception of Wallace by Ronald Martin near the goal line with two seconds to go. Too many to name with great games. A few include Kendell Beckwith (10 tackles, one for loss, one pass breakup), Jamal Adams (three pass breakups), Danielle Hunter (nine tackles, two for loss, a half-sack) and Jermauria Rasco (nine tackles, one for loss, half-sack).
Nick Marshall, Auburn: Four touchdowns and 245 all-purpose yards for the senior quarterback in Auburn’s 42-35 win over South Carolina. Marshall was 12-of-14 passing for 139 yards and a touchdown (no interceptions), ran for 89 yards and three scores, caught a 17-yard pass and a partridge in a pear tree.
Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: They don’t call Robinson the “Bowling ball” for nothing. He showed why with one particularly memorable 22-yard run in which he broke about seven Kentucky tackles. He finished with 23 carries for 198 yards and two touchdowns plus 11 receiving yards.
Patrick Towles, Kentucky: The Wildcats didn't win, but Towles turned in quite the effort against No. 1 Mississippi State. The sophomore quarterback threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 76 yards and two more scores in the 45-31 defeat. For a guy who redshirted last season and had to win a preseason competition for the starting quarterback job, Towles has come a long way.
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: The junior running back had a career-high 153 rushing yards on 18 carries (a nice 8.5 yards per carry average) and a touchdown run in the Razorbacks' 45-17 win over UAB. Williams also hauled in a 17-yard TD pass from Brandon Allen.
12:00 PM ET Louisiana-Monroe Texas A&M 3:30 PM ET Florida 11 Georgia 4:00 PM ET Kentucky Missouri 7:00 PM ET 3 Auburn 4 Ole Miss 7:00 PM ET Old Dominion Vanderbilt 7:15 PM ET Arkansas 1 Mississippi State 7:30 PM ET Tennessee South Carolina