SEC: Missouri Tigers
Best win: A week after taking an embarrassing defeat at home to Indiana, few gave Missouri a chance when it traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, on Sept. 27 to meet the then-No. 13 Gamecocks. Down 20-7 with less than eight minutes left in raucous Williams-Brice Stadium, the Tigers mounted an impressive comeback capped by two late Russell Hansbrough touchdowns to complete a 21-20 victory. Sure, the Gamecocks didn’t turn out to be as good as their ranking suggested later in the season, but all that mattered was that the Tigers were 1-0 in SEC play that night. And when Missouri closed the season out as SEC East champs, that road win proved all the more important. “These are games that change a football team,” Pinkel said that night.
Worst loss: Without question this came Sept. 20 versus the Hoosiers. The previous week, Indiana lost to Bowling Green before going into Faurot Field to upset Missouri as running backs D’Angelo Roberts, Tevin Coleman and Devine Redding combined for 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The loss followed the Tigers all the way to the end of the season, even as they entered the SEC championship game, held up as evidence why the Tigers didn’t deserve College Football Playoff consideration even if they had beaten Alabama. The Tigers served as the punchline when the “Indiana: SEC East champion” jokes circulated; fortunately for them it didn’t derail the season.
Players of the year: Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The two defensive ends were driving forces for the Tigers’ pass rush this season. Ray earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the conference in sacks (14) while also compiling 21 tackles for loss, 61 total tackles, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries. Golden, despite being bothered midseason by a hamstring injury, still finished with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss along with 68 total tackles, nine quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Breakout player: Last season Bud Sasser was overshadowed by a receiving corps that included L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and was fourth in receiving yards. This season Sasser put together an outstanding year, leading the team with 70 catches for 935 yards and 10 touchdowns. He earned second-team All-SEC honors.
Play of the year: We have to give it up to defensive tackle Josh Augusta for his interception against Central Florida. Any time someone nicknamed “Big Bear” gets an interception it is noteworthy, even more so when that person displays the type of athleticism and concentration Augusta did here. UCF quarterback Justin Holman’s pass went straight up into the air after caroming off a teammate’s helmet (and it appeared Augusta might have gotten a piece of it himself) and that’s when Augusta showed off his skills, tracking the ball and grabbing it out of the air in traffic. Not bad for a 335-pound guy.
2015 outlook: The Tigers will need to replace some key players (Golden, Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Marcus Murphy to name a few and perhaps Ray, should he declare for the NFL draft) but they return most of their offensive line and most of the back end of their defense. If Maty Mauk can take a significant step forward at quarterback, next season has a chance to be promising once again. There is no dominant force in the SEC East and Pinkel and his staff have proven that they’re going to be in the mix for a division title. One more key loss is that of defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who did a masterful job with the Tigers’ defense. If Pinkel can find another quality one, Missouri should be in good shape heading into next season.
A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.
All good there.
But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.
Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).
Four players for only three spots ...
Hey, there's always next season.
Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:
WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn
CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama
OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina
DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama
OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State
Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.
There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.
Around the SEC
- Missouri junior defensive end Shane Ray hasn't decided yet whether he'll enter the NFL draft, according to his mother.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he and athletic director Scott Stricklin hope to have a contract extension done soon and that he's not looking for another job.
- Should he stay or go? Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is weighing whether to enter the NFL draft.
- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he's not looking for head coaching jobs but acknowledged it is part of the deal when you have success.
- Tennessee receiver Jason Croom will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl because a knee injury.
Saban: "Some little 10-year old boy came up to me after A-Day and asked if we had a quarterback other than Blake Sims."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) December 17, 2014
Two true freshmen – Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett – earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league’s coaches and media, and several others enjoyed productive debut seasons in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.
Garrett set an SEC record for freshmen with 11 sacks this season, but Barnett might have been not just the conference’s best freshman defensive lineman -- he might have been the SEC’s best defensive lineman, period.
Barnett is the only freshman to rank among the national top 30 in tackles for loss (he’s third) and Ole Miss freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is the only freshman in the national top 50 in forced fumbles (he’s tied for 29th with three). Garrett (tied for sixth with 11), Barnett (tied for 16th with 10) and Haynes (tied for 43rd with 7.5) are three of the only four freshmen to rank in the national top 50 in sacks.
Haynes did not post the ridiculous numbers that Garrett and Barnett did, but he was the best pass-rusher on a powerful Ole Miss defense. He led the Rebels in sacks, quarterback hurries (eight), and forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with a host of teammates with one fumble recovery.
Those three were the headliners, but they are not the only freshman pass rushers who appear destined for SEC stardom. Here are three more freshmen who could strike fear into quarterbacks’ hearts next season:
OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Arguably the biggest recruit in Georgia’s 2014 class, Carter didn’t start for the first time until Game 9 against Kentucky. But he made the most of that opportunity wotj nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. The Freshman All-SEC honoree started the last four games and figures to become a major impact player in 2015.
OLB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Earning playing time as a freshman on Alabama’s talented front seven is difficult, but Evans contributed as a role player. He made 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack thanks to impressive speed and a high motor. Once he gets an opportunity to play more, he’s going to be a regular visitor into opponents’ backfields.
DE Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: The SEC’s coaches saw enough from Hand in limited action to name him to their Freshman All-SEC team. One of the nation’s most coveted recruits in 2014, Hand recorded just seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss as a reserve on Alabama’s deep defensive line. Rest assured, his time is coming.
We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.
Here's what we came up with:
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.
RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.
WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.
TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.
OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.
OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.
OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.
OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.
All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.
LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.
LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.
CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.
S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.
S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.
P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.
K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.
KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.
2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.
3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.
Around the SEC
" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.
" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.
" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.
Tweet of the day
This game is the top one for obvious reasons, primarily, it’s the one bowl game involving the SEC that has real stakes -- the winner goes to the national championship game. If the College Football Playoff semifinal wasn’t strong enough for you, it matches two of the most well-known head coaches in the game right now, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Those two did battle before when Meyer was at Florida, so the reunion should be plenty compelling.
2. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU
This is the only other SEC bowl that matches up two top-10 teams. TCU was one of the teams left at the altar by the selection committee, so it’s probable that the Horned Frogs would like to stomp a highly-regarded SEC team to make a statement. Ole Miss has had an impressive season and can secure only its seventh 10-win campaign in school history and its third since 1971.
3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville
It’s the Grantham Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s current team (Louisville) takes on his previous team (Georgia). It’s a safe bet he’d like to have his unit excel en route to a Cardinal win. The Cardinal defense is sixth nationally in yards per game allowed (293.2) but it’ll get tested by the Georgia running game, led by freshman sensation Nick Chubb (1,281 yards), who leads Georgia’s 12th-ranked rushing attack (255 yards per game).
4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin
You have two of the nation’s top rushing teams as well as two pretty good running backs in this one. There’s the nation’s top individual rusher, Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards) against Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482) who leads the SEC. Wisconsin averages a whopping 314 rushing yards per game, third in the nation while Auburn posts a hefty 258.5 (11th).
5. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia
If you like scoring, you’ll enjoy this one. Both teams average more than 33 points per game and they each throw it around a lot, averaging more than 300 passing yards per game. There are familiar faces on the coaching staffs as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked for Kevin Sumlin for two seasons at Houston and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked for Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and West Virginia before going to A&M. It’s Air Raid everywhere.
6. Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech
He wasn’t a Heisman finalist but Dak Prescott was in the Heisman conversation for much of the season. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see Prescott and his partner-in-crime, running back Josh Robinson, who is aptly nicknamed “Bowling ball.” Georgia Tech is worth a watch for traditionalists, as the Yellow Jackets run the triple option well: just ask Georgia (who they beat in overtime) or Florida State (a team they stayed step-for-step with for much of the night).
7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas
Long live the Southwest Conference. This is a throwback battle if there ever was one. These teams are both in the top 30 nationally in defense, each allowing fewer than 350 yards per game. The job Bret Bielema has done to get the Razorbacks to a bowl this season is noteworthy, while Charlie Strong seems to be laying the foundation for future success at Texas. Also, Strong has history in Arkansas -- he was born in Batesville and played for Central Arkansas. He said Tuesday this will be the first time he’ll root against the Hogs.
8. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame
Considering the profile of these two programs, you wouldn’t expect this game to be this far down the list. While the two teams have strong histories, this season hasn’t been stellar for either. There’s plenty of intrigue, though, from getting to see LSU’s star freshmen (Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, etc.) to the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly has opened up competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. For what it’s worth, Les Miles said bowl prep will also be an important evaluation time for his quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
9. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota
This one may not have the sizzle on the surface but it matches two quality teams, both ranked in the Top 25. Missouri features two of the league’s best pass-rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Those two are worth watching alone, even if the Tigers’ offense isn’t always. Minnesota features one of the nation’s top rushers, running back David Cobb, who is ninth in rushing yards this season (1,548).
10. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina vs. Miami
This game could become a feeding frenzy for Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is 12th in the country in rushing yards (1,520). South Carolina allows 214.4 rushing yards per game, 107th nationally. But the Gamecocks can score plenty of points, they average 33.3. Keep an eye on Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic receiver and returner who can do it all, including pass, and has 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season.
11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa
Tennessee is thrilled to be in a bowl. You might even say they’re happy. It’s the first time in a bowl since 2010 for the Volunteers. There’s still a long way to go to get this proud program back to where it wants to be but they’re moving in the right direction. The Vols have a ton of talented freshmen on the roster who played key roles this season and sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who came on strong late in the season, seems to have a bright future in Knoxville.
12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina
Any time you go into a game with an interim coach, it’s not ideal. That’s what the Gators have to do after firing Will Muschamp. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach. For Florida fans, this is a chance to scout a future opponent -- the Gators and Pirates meet Sept. 12 next season. East Carolina brings a high-powered offense led by quarterback Shane Carden, who is second nationally in passing yards (4,309). That should be a good test for a talented Florida defense. The continued development of true freshman quarterback Treon Harris is also worth keeping an eye on.
2. Lashlee isn't the only offensive coordinator in Alabama making headlines. In what some considered an upset, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did not win the Frank Broyles Award on Tuesday. The award, which honors the nation's top assistant coach, went to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman instead. However, Kiffin was in attendance and spoke publicly for the first time since the beginning of fall practice. He was quite entertaining, too, when talking about his boss Nick Saban. What does Saban say tell him on the sideline? “Hey Lane, I love you so much,” Kiffin joked. “Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times please.” Maybe that's why Saban has kept his offensive coordinator off-limits to the media this season.
3. More honors were given out Tuesday. A day after releasing its All-SEC team, the Associated Press named Amari Cooper the conference's offensive player of the year and Shane Ray the defensive player of the year. Ray became the second straight Missouri player to win the award, joining last year's recipient Michael Sam. The league's coaches also put out their All-SEC team Tuesday, and it looked similar to the AP. Dak Prescott was voted first-team quarterback ahead of Blake Sims, and names like Cooper, Ray, and Landon Collins were all on the list as well. In all, 12 of the 14 SEC teams had at least one player on the first team. Stay tuned this week as we at the SEC blog will be releasing our All-SEC first team on Friday.
Around the SEC
- Still searching for a coach, Michigan has “reached out” to LSU coach Les Miles' agent.
- Junior college linebacker commits to Ole Miss 15 minutes after Rebels extend an offer.
- Tennessee has replaced UAB with Bowling Green for next season's opener in Nashville.
- Texas A&M pledge Kyler Murray named Gatorade National Football Player of the Year.
Duck Commander Independence Bowl, Dec. 27
South Carolina vs. Miami
Initial thoughts: Before the season, nobody could’ve predicted South Carolina would end up in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks had aspirations of winning the SEC East and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll head to Shreveport, Louisiana, to face a Miami team that has lost three straight. It’s not the ideal destination for the Head Ball Coach, but at least it’s a bowl game.
Key for South Carolina offense: Stay balanced. The Gamecocks have been unstoppable on offense at times this season. Dylan Thompson leads the SEC with 3,280 passing yards, and Pharoh Cooper is second only to Amari Cooper with 966 receiving yards. Those two will hook up early and often, but it’s important to get Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the ground game going. Their backfield is too talented not to.
Key for South Carolina defense: It won’t be easy, considering they haven’t stopped anybody all season, but the Gamecocks have to find a way to stop Duke Johnson. The Miami running back has 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards the last two games, so he’ll be primed to turn that trend around and finish the season on a high note. If he gets going, this one could quickly turn into a shootout.
What a win would mean: Looking back, most people won’t remember if South Carolina won or lost this game. The coaches will probably tell you the extra practice time is just as important as, if not more important than, the game itself. Still, it’d be nice to send Thompson off with a win in his final game.
AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas
Initial thoughts: Everybody was hoping to see Texas vs. Texas A&M in this game, and it almost happened, but Arkansas is not a bad consolation prize. The two teams were longtime rivals in the Southwest Conference, and this will be the 78th meeting between them. It brings you back to the days when Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal were manning opposite sidelines. Now we get Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong, two coaches rebuilding their respective programs.
Key for Arkansas offense: The Razorbacks got away from the run a little bit in the second half against Missouri, and it cost them. Expect Bielema to go right back to it in this one, using his tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins early and often against the Longhorns. Health will also be a factor. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be 100 percent, and he’ll get tight end AJ Derby back for this game.
Key for Arkansas defense: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, if not the nation. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon have 24 tackles for loss between them, and linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles on the season. Needless to say, the Razorbacks should be able to wreak havoc in the backfield and keep Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes contained. The key will be not letting Swoopes beat them deep.
What a win would mean: It’s the next step in the rebuilding process. Arkansas proved it was competitive with every team in the SEC West, and back-to-back wins over LSU and Ole Miss validated this team. Now the Razorbacks have a chance to win their bowl game and gain some momentum heading into next season.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1
Missouri vs. Minnesota
Initial thoughts: Raise your hand if you had this Citrus Bowl matchup pegged before the season. No hands? Exactly. Missouri made it all the way to the SEC championship game, and after a loss to Alabama, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Tigers get snubbed again. Not this year. Instead, they were rewarded for a terrific season. The matchup might not be sexy, but the Citrus Bowl is the top SEC bowl game after the New Year’s Six. And it’s in Florida.
Key for Missouri offense: Is Maty Mauk just not the quarterback everybody thought he was? At times, he looks great. But more times than not, he’s been erratic and inconsistent this season. The running game has stepped up behind Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, but Mauk has to play better. He’s only a sophomore, and this is a perfect opportunity to play well and get his confidence back before next season.
Key for Missouri defense: Shane Ray will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Missouri defensive end still has one game left with the Tigers -- and don’t think he won’t be motivated after getting ejected in the first half against Alabama. It’s also the final game for fellow defensive end Markus Golden, and it’s the last chance we get to see the two together. Sacks, however, will be hard to come by against the Gophers, who are primarily a running team.
What a win would mean: All Missouri wants is a little respect. After all, this team has won the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, a win over Minnesota will do little to help that, but it would look much better than a loss. The Tigers typically play well in the postseason, winning four of their last six bowl games.
TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa
Initial thoughts: Most people thought Tennessee would stay in state and play in either the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the SEC rewarded the Volunteers by sending them down to Florida for their bowl game. And why not? They finished the season on a high note, winning three of their last four games to become bowl eligible. It’s no surprise head coach Butch Jones was given a contract extension and raise earlier this week.
Key for Tennessee offense: How will the offensive line hold up against Iowa? It’s been the Achilles’ heel all season, but it’s a group that’s improved every game. It’s important they create room for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs off his back. And speaking of Dobbs, he’s one to keep an eye on. He’s struggled his last two games, but he has the talent to have a big day against the Hawkeyes.
Key for Tennessee defense: Third down for what? Inspired by the Lil’ Jon song, the Vols’ defense has been very good on third down this season, allowing a 35 percent conversion rate to opponents. As a whole, this unit is best when it’s getting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the secondary. Tennessee is among the SEC leaders in sacks (35) and interceptions (15), which is bad news for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.
What a win would mean: The goal this season was to play in a bowl game. This Tennessee team reached that goal. For most of the players, it will be their first bowl game, but they’re not satisfied with just playing in one. They want to win. There’s already talk of the Volunteers making a run at the SEC East next season. It starts Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.
With Alabama winning the SEC championship on Saturday and the college football playoff now set, SEC schools can now turn their focus to recruiting. Despite there being only one game this weekend, there was still a bunch of recruiting news from around the SEC. There was a couple of big commitments, a few decommitments, a big decision date was announced and some important in-home visits. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.
2. The playoff is great, but that’s just the beginning. The new way of bowl selections might have been confusing, but it worked. There are plenty of intriguing matchups for SEC teams beginning with Ole Miss-TCU and Mississippi State-Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve as a part of the New Year's Six bowl games. Dan Mullen will return to Miami for the first time since he won the national championship there in 2007 with Florida, and in an unlikely matchup, the Rebels face a TCU team that has to be upset after getting snubbed from the top four. Other bowl games that jumped out to me included Auburn-Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, LSU-Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, and Arkansas-Texas in the Texas Bowl.
3. The only “loser” in the SEC from Sunday’s bowl selections was Georgia. The Bulldogs didn’t end up in the Sunshine State like many predicted they would. Instead, they will make the short three-hour drive to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. However, the SEC and ACC had to know what they were doing when they paired Georgia up with Louisville. For one, Todd Grantham will face his former team. The Louisville defensive coordinator held the same position at Georgia for four seasons under Mark Richt. The Cardinals also have a pair of former Bulldogs, Josh Harvery-Clemson and Shaq Wiggins. Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin reached out to Wiggins on Sunday, tweeting “see ya over the holidays big dawg!” This should be fun.
Around the SEC
- Muschamp to Auburn? Gus Malzahn updates the search for a new defensive coordinator.
- After Saturday’s SEC championship, the gap remains wide between Missouri and the elite.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has not closed the door on Muschamp, staff changes.
- With rumors swirling, Tennessee and coach Butch Jones are closing in on a new contract.
We knew the SEC would get one team into the inaugural College Football Playoff when Alabama beat Missouri on Saturday. Nailing down the destinations for the conference's other 11 bowl-eligible teams is much more difficult.
Here are our best guesses in the final hours before we will know for sure:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Arkansas
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Georgia
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina
ATLANTA -- The hardest part for Alabama was just making it out of the SEC West.
It’s a division that will send all seven teams to bowl games this season, a division sporting five ranked teams in the College Football Playoff committee’s most recent poll, and a division that generally ate its own.
But after all of the different flavors of the week this season in college football’s most rugged division, turns out it’s business as usual. Alabama is on its way to play for yet another national championship as part of the playoff after pounding Missouri into submission Saturday in a 42-13 SEC championship victory that had a familiar ring to it.
This has become the West’s show. The last time the Eastern Division champion walked out of the Georgia Dome victorious was 2008 when Florida beat Alabama in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Only once in the West’s six-game winning streak has the East champ made it closer than a 17-point game.
If Alabama felt any pressure carrying the SEC’s banner on Saturday, the Crimson Tide never really showed it.
“The only thing on our minds was us,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said. “We knew ever since that loss to Ole Miss that every week was our season, and that’s the way we played -- relentless. It’s going to be the same way in the playoff. We don’t care who we play. We don’t care where they put us. We just want a chance to win a championship, and we got it.”
When Alabama lost at Ole Miss on Oct. 4, it might have been hard for some to see the Tide navigating their way back to a position where they would get a chance to play for their fourth national title in the last six years.
First-year starting quarterback Blake Sims, although a fifth-year senior, was still learning on the job. There were issues at cornerback. The offensive line was still finding its way, and the most treacherous part of the schedule was still ahead.
“Honestly, we didn’t care what a lot of people thought about us,” Alabama senior linebacker Trey DePriest said. “They can think what they want. All we cared about was us, and we knew we were good enough to get here.
“This team is close. We play for each other, and we see the bigger picture.”
There were scares along the way, a shaky one-point win at Arkansas and an overtime win at LSU. But Alabama continued to grow on offense, and the offseason acquisition Nick Saban made to his staff, the one that had everybody chuckling and wondering how in the world Saban and Lane Kiffin would co-exist, has turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Kiffin has turned out to be exactly what this offense needed, and more precisely, what Sims needed. Against Missouri, Sims completed his first 10 passes as Alabama came out throwing quick and playing even quicker. He finished 23-of-27 for 262 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and was named the game’s MVP.
This is the same guy who’d spent more time on the scout team prior to this season than he had in any meaningful game action. His progress and the way he has grown as a playmaker and leader have mirrored that of the team’s progress, which is no coincidence.
Saban joked that he threw out a “Cool Hand Luke” reference when talking to Sims prior to Saturday’s game.
“Can we get somebody out there to do a redo of ‘Cool Hand Luke?’ ” Saban asked. “I told Blake I wanted him to play this game like Cool Hand Luke. He looks at me and says, ‘Who the hell is that?’ We’ve got to get that on Netflix or something.”
Sims, even when he hasn’t started well this season, has had the wherewithal to remain cool. He said a big part of that has been his trust in Kiffin and Kiffin fitting this offense to what Sims does best.
“It’s just doing everything Coach Saban has taught me and Coach Kiffin has taught me and trusting my players that they’re going to play their hearts out and leave no regrets on the field,” said Sims, who passed AJ McCarron as Alabama’s single-season record holder for passing yards (3,250).
Alabama (12-1) jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter on Saturday, but Missouri climbed back into the game with a gritty third quarter despite its best player, defensive end Shane Ray, being ejected in the first half for targeting. The momentum had clearly swung in the Tigers’ favor. But just like they’ve done ever since that loss at Ole Miss, the Tide steadied themselves and figured out a way to win.
“It’s the balance factor we have, speed ball versus getting to the line and smashing people in the mouth.” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “Coach Kiffin has been able to put them both together.”
At Alabama, at least in the past, speed ball was a dirty word. But not anymore. The up-tempo approach has been an integral part of this offense’s repertoire under Kiffin.
Kelly snickered when asked if he ever thought he would hear speed ball and Saban in the same sentence. Saban has long been an opponent of fast-paced offenses and teams running too many offensive plays.
“Those are probably two words you’ve never heard [Saban] say before unless he was bashing it,” Kelly joked. “Nah, he has the utmost trust in Coach Kiffin and Coach Kiffin has done a great job with this offense. We’ve bought into his principle of thinking. The faster we can get up there, the less time they have to get set.
“And with the versatility that Blake has, it’s been a great fit for this offense and this team.”
So while this team might look a little different and play a little different, particularly on offense, these are familiar waters for the Crimson Tide. They’re right back in that championship pool.
“We were never perfect or anything like that,” Kelly said. “Texas A&M was the most perfect we ever played, but there was always a bump in the road. This team continued to be resilient, and that’s what makes this so special.”
ATLANTA -- In one of Alabama's most complete performances of the season, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) took home the SEC title and clinched a spot in the College Football Playoff with a resounding 42-13 win over No. 16 Missouri (10-3, 7-1) inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
Missouri has now given up 101 points and 1,181 yards in back-to-back SEC championship appearances -- both losses.
Once again, Alabama's offense, beautifully organized by coordinator Lane Kiffin, pushed he tempo, mixed up formations and wore down the Tigers' front line. On the other side, Alabama's defense dominated for most of the game up front, but did get beat on a few deep passes. Maty Mauk and Jimmie Hunt made the deep jump ball look easy. Still, it wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the Tide Saturday.
Here's how Alabama took home yet another SEC championship:
How the game was won: Alabama's offense got off to a fast start with a touchdown on the game's opening drive. The Tide then raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead thanks to 160 first-half passing yards from Blake Sims. Missouri lost a major part of its defense when star defensive end Shane Ray was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Mizzou outscored the Tide 10-0 in the third, but thanks to a 10-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that ended the third and started the fourth, Alabama pushed its lead to 28-13. Alabama sealed things after a nifty 17-yard run from Sims and a 26-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry with 7:38 remaining. Alabama's offense is fun to watch, but the defense deserves credit for holding the Missouri running game to a season-low 41 yards and forcing Mauk to press throughout.
Game ball goes to: How about the visor-wearing, touchdown-signaling playcaller who made Mizzou's defense absolutely miserable for most of the day? Kiffin was brilliant for just about the entire game, throwing in some misdirection, using quick passes, and even calling the quarterback draw with an empty backfield on third down. He put his players in great positions to make plays against one of the SEC's best defenses. Once again, Kiffin was dialed in as Alabama outgained Missouri 252-108 in the first half, before finishing the game with 504 yards and 28 first downs. That game plan helped star wide receiver Amari Cooper finish with an SEC championship-record 12 catches, along with 83 yards.
What it means: The SEC is in the playoff and will be competing for its eighth national title in nine years. The SEC Western Division has now won six straight SEC championship games. Alabama is almost guaranteed to stay within the top two of the College Football Playoff rankings, and coach Nick Saban is now 3-1 in SEC title games at the school.
Playoff implication: Alabama has clinched a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Tide entered the game as the No. 1 team in the CFP rankings, but with Oregon's 51-13 win over Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday, there's a chance the Ducks could jump Alabama. Still the Crimson Tide are all but guaranteed a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
What's next: Alabama sits back and awaits its opponent in the first round of the playoff to be announced on Sunday, while Mizzou awaits its bowl bid.
Saban’s team is No. 1 in the country, recruits five-star prospects with regularity and has a habit of winning championships. Pinkel’s squad is searching for its first conference title since 1969, doesn’t have high-ranked recruiting classes and rarely is met with championship expectations from outsiders. But, each has made his mark on multiple programs while compiling a combined 361 victories (185 for Pinkel, 176 for Saban).
James, a longtime Washington coach who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title, died at the age of 80 last year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was during James’ time at Kent State, from 1971-74 that he coached Pinkel and Saban. When James earned his first college head-coaching job in 1971 at Kent State, Pinkel and Saban were on that team, which won the school’s first and only MAC championship.
“He's had a huge effect on me personally,” Pinkel said of James. “I mean, I'm indebted to him forever.”
Pinkel got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Kent State under James in 1974. He later joined James, a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, as a GA for a year in 1976 at Washington then again in 1979 as a Huskies full-time assistant, where he remained with James for a dozen years before landing his first head coaching job, at Toledo in 1991.
“I coached with him for 12 years at the University of Washington, the last five years as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach,” Pinkel said. “The program that we put in at Toledo where I was coach for 10 years, then we brought it here to Missouri, the infrastructure is [based] on James' program.”
It has worked well for Pinkel, who is 185-102-3 in 24 years as a head coach and is taking Missouri to its fourth conference championship game since 2007.
Saban, who was a year ahead of Pinkel at Kent State, said coaching wasn’t a desired career path for him until James offered him his first job.
“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn't want to go to graduate school.”
Turns out that Saban enjoyed the job and it began the journey that put him to where he is now, with an impressive .751 winning percentage in 18 years as a head coach (176-58-1).
“I really liked it,” Saban said of his first job under James. “I have thanked Coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it. Also a lot of the lessons that I learned from him starting out as a young coach.”
Saban said there are several aspects of his program that are rooted in things he learned from James, who was 178-76-3 in his head coaching career.
““It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude, how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program,” Saban said. “That was a big thing that Don always emphasized. He was really, really well organized. That's something that we've always tried to be and do. Some of the things we did in the offseason program we still do. Some of the conditioning things we do during the season we still do.”
Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time. He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.” -- Nick Saban
Pinkel also said his recruiting philosophy is based on the teachings of his longtime mentor.
“We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country,” Pinkel said. “We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that, professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better.”
Like Saban, Pinkel also praised James’ organizational skills.
“He was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. ... I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I've done, I've learned from him.”
Pinkel and Saban may have traveled different journeys to get to this point, but James’ influence on both is clear as they prepare to square off in Saturday’s SEC championship game.
“Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.
“A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State