ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (7-6, 2-6 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Texas in AdvoCare Texas Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 10th
Spring game: April 25
• Arkansas’ dominant running back duo returns
Since coming to Arkansas in 2013, coach Bret Bielema has emphasized a running game like the one he displayed at Wisconsin. Last season, the Razorbacks ranked fourth in the SEC in expected points added in the rushing game.
Arkansas was the only FBS team with two 1,000-yard rushers: Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both return for 2015, and big things will be expected from a duo that accounted for 81 percent of the Razorbacks’ rushing yards in 2014.
• Will the Razorbacks’ late-season success carry over to 2015?
Arkansas won three of its last four games in 2014, including back-to-back shutouts of LSU and Mississippi. The Razorbacks became the first unranked team since 1942 with multiple shutouts of AP-ranked opponents in one season. With 15 starters returning on offense and defense combined, the Razorbacks will probably be ranked in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll for the first time since 2012.
• Can the Razorbacks’ defense be as good as it finished last season?
From the start of Week 9 last season, Arkansas’ defense was about as good as it got in the SEC. Florida ranked first in defensive expected points added from Week 9 to the end of the season (contributing 16.8 points per game to the Gators’ scoring margin), but the Razorbacks (16.5 EPA) weren’t far behind. Arkansas’ defense allowed 10.3 points per game in its final six games, more than six points better than any other SEC defense.
TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (7-6, 3-5 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Iowa in Taxslayer Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 14th
Spring game: April 25
• Will recruiting rankings turn into wins?
Recruiting has blossomed under coach Butch Jones: The Volunteers have signed top-5 recruiting classes each of the last two years. Tennessee welcomes 10 early enrollees this spring, including three defensive linemen each ranked in the top 115 of the ESPN 300. The gem of the class might be junior college transfer running back Alvin Kamar, who scored 18 touchdowns in nine games last year for Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, averaging more than 130 yards a game.
• Dobbs is the guy
Quarterback Josh Dobbs entered spring practice as the full-time starter for the first time in his three years on Rocky Top. Dobbs led the Volunteers to a 4-1 record as a starter in the final five games last season. Tennessee's offense was 13 points better in games Dobbs started last season.
Dobbs’ 72.9 Total QBR in 2014 ranked seventh out of 14 SEC quarterbacks with at least 250 action plays. If his per-game passing and rushing yards were extrapolated to a 13-game season, he would surpass 2,500 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, something only Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel have done in the SEC.
• Making moves along the lines
Tennessee returns an SEC-high 10 starters on offense, but the Volunteers need to make improvements up front. Tennessee allowed 43 sacks last season, tied for sixth-most in the country and seven more than any other team in the SEC. Tennessee allowed 85 quarterback knockdowns, also the most in the conference. At times last season, the Volunteers started two true freshmen on the offensive line, and freshman could get playing time in 2015. Tennessee signed Drew Richmond, the No. 5 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings, but he is not on campus this spring.
On the other side of the ball, Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett combined for 21 sacks last season. They are the fourth set of SEC teammates to each record 10 sacks in one season over the last 25 years. Maggitt will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (7-6, 3-5 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Miami (FL) in Duck Commander Independence Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 40th
Spring game: April 11
• Will the experience gained in 2014 help the defense in 2015?
South Carolina started seven underclassmen on defense in 2014, and the Gamecocks had their worst season defensively in 10 years under coach Steve Spurrier.
The Gamecocks’ defense finished last in the conference in yards per play (6.2) and expected points added (-6.1 per game). Both marks were the worst by a South Carolina defense under Spurrier, and the defensive EPA figure was eight points worse than in any other season under Spurrier.
• What will Pharoh Cooper do for an encore?
First-team All-SEC wide receiver Pharoh Cooper returns for his junior season after turning in the third-best receiving season in South Carolina history. Cooper finished second in the conference with 1,136 receiving yards in 2014, more than twice that of the second-leading receiver on the team. Cooper caught 67 percent of the passes thrown his way, second-most in the conference for players targeted 75 times or more.
• How will they replace their offensive backfield?
South Carolina and Florida have the fewest offensive starters in the SEC East returning in 2015 (four). The Gamecocks took the biggest hit in the backfield, though, losing every starter on an offense that averaged 12.7 expected points added per game, which was sixth in the SEC and the second-most in a season under Spurrier.
The top candidates to replace quarterback Dylan Thompson are Connor Mitch, a redshirt freshman last season, and rising junior Perry Orth. Mike Davis was not only the team’s leading rusher, but he also finished third on the team in receiving yards. Rising senior Brandon Wilds (570 rush yards in 2014) is expected to take Davis’ spot.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (10-3, 6-2 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Lost to Georgia Tech in Capital One Orange Bowl
Final AP rank: 11th
Returning starters: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 22nd
Spring game: April 18
• What to expect from Dak Prescott?
Dak Prescott last season became the fourth SEC player since 2000 to pass for 25 touchdowns and rush for 10 touchdowns in one season. Should he reach those thresholds again, he will join Tim Tebow as the only SEC quarterbacks to do so twice.
Prescott ranked 16th in the FBS in Total QBR, sixth in the SEC. His QBR of 74.1 represented a more than 11-point drop from 2013. He took 21 sacks last season (compared with eight in 2013) and threw an interception on 2.8 percent of his passes (up from 2.6 percent the season before).
• What will the loss of Josh Robinson mean?
Josh Robinson finished third in the SEC in rushing last season, totaling 1,203 yards on the ground, and earned the nickname “The Human Bowling Ball.”
The Bulldogs rushed for 1,971 yards and averaged 5.9 yards on runs between the tackles, second-most in the conference. Robinson averaged 3.3 yards after contact between the tackles, third-most among SEC running backs (minimum 100 carries). Mississippi State will look to rising juniors Ashton Shumpert or Brandon Holloway to take over for Robinson this year.
• Can the defense be more than middle tier?
Mississippi State’s defense contributed 8.2 expected points added in the Bulldogs’ 10 wins, eighth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were seventh in the conference in defensive EPA in all games.
Mississippi State missed 105 tackles in 2014, most in the SEC, and is losing seven starters from last year, including second-team All-SEC selections Preston Smith and Bednarick McKinney.
Mississippi State finished second in the conference with 37 sacks a year ago, but all but two starters from last year’s front seven are gone. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is the most experienced player returning among the group. Leo Lewis, the No. 2 inside linebacker in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings for 2015, could make an immediate impact.
GEORGIA BULLDOGS (10-3, 6-2 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Louisville in Belk Bowl
Final AP rank: 9th
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 9th
Spring game: April 11
• Mark Richt: Quarterback competition is open
Brian Schottenheimer succeeded Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, and he will have to teach his offense to a new starting quarterback. Last season, Georgia led the SEC in offensive efficiency (barely ahead of Alabama in offensive expected points added per game).
Coach Mark Richt has said he doesn't expect to designate a starter after spring practice. Brice Ramsey was the primary backup to Hutson Mason (third in the SEC in Total QBR in 2014) last season but was 4-of-9 passing with an interception in the Belk Bowl win against Louisville.
• Nick Chubb takes over at running back full time
Nick Chubb was the SEC offensive freshman of the year in 2014 and rushed for 1,547 yards, 69 yards shy of Herschel Walker's SEC freshman record. Over the final eight games of 2014, Chubb averaged 165 rush yards and more than seven yards per carry.
Expect Schottenheimer to become familiar with his running backs. Over the last two seasons, the St. Louis Rams ran the ball 41 percent of the time (10th-highest rate in the NFL) with Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator.
• Youth movement on defense
Thirteen true freshmen played last year for the Bulldogs, and expect that number to go up in 2015. Georgia returns five primary starters on defense, second-fewest among SEC teams. Georgia will need to replace the production of Amarlo Herrera, who exceeded 110 tackles in each of the last two seasons.
Georgia signed the No. 8 recruiting class this year. The Bulldogs’ top seven recruits from 2015 could end up on defense, headlined by defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, the No. 3 recruit in the country. Look for early enrollees Jonathan Ledbetter (No. 11 defensive tackle in ESPN 300) and Natrez Patrick (No. 12 defensive end in ESPN 300) to see time this spring.
FLORIDA GATORS (7-5, 4-4 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: defeated East Carolina in Birmingham Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 4 offense, 6 defense, 0 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 22nd
Spring game: April 11
• Can new coach Jim McElwain fix the Gators’ offense?
Defense was not a problem under former coach Will Muschamp. The Gators’ SEC ranks in defensive expected points added in his four seasons were sixth, second, second and second. Offense was another story. Florida never ranked better than fourth-worst in the conference in offensive expected points added under Muschamp.
McElwain took Colorado State from 115th in the FBS offensive expected points in his first season as coach in 2012 to 22nd in FBS in his final season.
• Who will emerge at quarterback?
In the five seasons since Tim Tebow left, Florida ranks 60th out of 65 Power 5 teams in Total QBR. Only Georgia Tech and Kansas have fewer touchdown passes than Florida (67) in the past five years among Power 5 teams. (Tebow himself threw 83 touchdown passes in his three seasons as Florida’s full-time starter.)
Treon Harris played in nine games last seasons and ranked 14th in the SEC in Total QBR out of 16 quarterbacks with at least 200 action plays. Look for redshirt freshman Will Grier to compete with Harris for the starting spot. Grier was the No. 44 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.
• Which true freshmen will have an impact?
Florida returns 10 starters, ahead of only Mississippi State (nine) in the SEC, according to Phil Steele. After a rough run for much of the recruiting season, Florida added a couple of ESPN top-10 players on National Signing Day.
No. 1-ranked offensive tackle Martez Ivey might start early on an offensive line that returns one starter from a crew that ranked fourth in the SEC in sack rate (5 percent) last season. No. 2 defensive end CeCe Jefferson should add pass-rush ability to a defensive line that returns two starters, who combined for 6.5 sacks.
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesJeremy Johnson saw limited action in 2014 for Auburn.
Spring practice has begun. Stats & Information looks at the three biggest storylines facing the Auburn Tigers and the Missouri Tigers.
AUBURN (8-5, 4-4 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Lost to Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
Final AP rank: 22nd
Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 18th
Practice: Begins Tuesday
Spring game: April 18
" How does Auburn’s offense evolve with Jeremy Johnson at quarterback?
Under coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn has been dominant running the ball. In the past two seasons combined, the Tigers have led the conference in expected points added on rushes, rushes per game and rush yards per game. But Auburn will lose its top three rushers from last season: Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Nick Marshall.
Without those players, expect Auburn to turn to its passing game more often if Jeremy Johnson wins the quarterback job. In limited action last year, Johnson dropped back to pass on 49 percent of his plays, compared with 38 percent for Marshall.
On passing plays, Johnson was extremely effective. He completed 75.7 percent of his passes and averaged a whopping 11.8 yards per pass attempt in six games played for the Tigers. He was 8-for-8 for 153 yards and a touchdown when targeting Duke Williams, who will return to Auburn for the 2015 season.
" Can Will Muschamp turn around the defense?
After Auburn’s 55-44 loss in last year’s Iron Bowl, the Tigers fired second-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. During his tenure as defensive coordinator, the Tigers were seventh in the SEC in defensive efficiency and were in the bottom half of the conference rankings in nearly every traditional defensive category.
In the past two seasons, Auburn scored two defensive touchdowns, tied for fewest in the league. When Will Muschamp, whom Auburn hired to succeed Johnson, was Florida’s head coach, the Gators were sixth in the SEC in defensive efficiency his first season and second in the conference his final three seasons.
" Which junior college transfer will make the biggest impact this season?
During the past few seasons, junior-college transfers have played a huge role in Auburn’s success. Players such as Marshall and Cam Newton have made immediate impacts. Last season, D’haquille “Duke” Williams led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns despite missing two games. Williams was the No. 1 junior-college wide receiver in 2013. This season, the Tigers signed the No. 1 junior-college running back, Jovon Robinson.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMaty Mauk fared much worse against AP-ranked teams than against unranked opponents.
MISSOURI (11-3, 7-1 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Minnesota in Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
Final AP rank: 14th
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 24th
Practice: Begins Wednesday
Spring game: April 18
" Can Missouri replace its top 2 pass rushers … again?
A year ago, Missouri was looking to replace its top two pass rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. They were responsible for 20.5 of Missouri’s SEC-leading 41 sacks in 2013.
Not only did the Tigers replace Sam and Ealy, but they also increased their sack total to 44 in 2014. Last season’s starting defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, accounted for 24.5 of those sacks.
This offseason, the Tigers brought in Barry Odom as defensive coordinator along with Phil Pitts, who will serve as defensive analyst. The top prospects to replace Ray and Golden are Marcus Loud and Charles Harris, redshirt freshmen last season, as well as junior-to-be Rickey Hatley.
" Can Maty Mauk play well against top teams?
In his first full season as starting quarterback, Mauk had his ups and downs. Mauk faced three teams last season that were ranked in the AP poll at the time of the game: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. In those three games, Mauk had a QBR of 27 and threw one touchdown and four interceptions. In all other games against FBS teams, Mauk had a QBR of 59 with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
If Mauk is going to improve, he’ll have to do it with new receivers. The Tigers will lose their top four receivers from last season; they lost their top three after the 2013 season. Expect J’Mon Moore to emerge along with rising senior Wesley Leftwich.
" Can Missouri make it three straight trips to the SEC Championship Game?
Despite being in the SEC for three football seasons, Missouri has been to the SEC championship more times than Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Florida and Alabama are the only programs to reach the SEC Championship game in three consecutive years.
Total QBR is an all-encompassing metric that captures all aspects of a quarterback’s play – passing, rushing, sacks, fumbles, penalties, etc. It is built off play-by-play data and accounts for down, distance, field position, clock and score to determine which quarterbacks are the most and least efficient in the country. A full explanation of Total QBR can be found here.
College QBR differs from the NFL version in a few important ways. First, College QBR adjusts for the strength of opposing defenses and the NFL version does not. This is necessary in college because of the varying competition faced in conference and non-conference play.
Another important difference is that the NFL version uses live video tracking to capture data such as air yards of passes, number of pass rushers, run type, etc. This information is not widely available for all FBS schools, particularly the lower-level ones, so - during the season - this component of QBR is estimated from play-by-play data (down, distance, target position, etc.). The estimates are based on statistical analysis and modeling.
Once the season is complete, ESPN obtains video-derived data for the majority of FBS conferences (all Power 5, American, Mountain West and a few others) and replaces the estimated component of QBR with exact data.
Factoring in the exact data generally does not result in significant changes to a player’s season QBR, though there were some notable changes in 2014. A complete list of updated player QBRs can be found here, but below are some notable changes. As you will see, most changes are a result of air yards and scrambles for quarterbacks.
2014 final QBR numbers
Marcus Mariota remained No. 1 in Total QBR after the postseason adjustments. His QBR remained relatively unchanged, and he ended the season with a sizable lead over the second-place finisher, J.T. Barrett.
The biggest mover in the top 10 was Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Why? Sixty-three percent of Cook’s passing yards came through the air (rather than after the catch), the highest percentage of any Power 5 quarterback with at least 100 passes. In other words, Cook did not rely on yards after the catch for his passing yards.
Blake Sims fell from second to fifth in QBR for reasons similar to Cook’s rise. Led by Amari Cooper, Alabama gained 54 percent of its passing yards after the catch, the third-highest percentage in the SEC. Sims also benefited from some improbable long plays; he led the SEC with 24 completions of 30 yards or longer, yet six of those completions came on passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (see Cooper’s 52-yard touchdown against FAU). No other Power 5 player had more 30-yard completions (six) or touchdowns (four) on passes behind the line of scrimmage than Sims.
Barrett replaced Sims as No. 2 in Total QBR. Barrett was helped by his scrambling: a Big Ten-high 315 rush yards (7.3-yard average) and three touchdowns.
Looking beyond the top 10, Clemson’s Cole Stoudt had the largest decrease in Total QBR (-7.8 points) among qualified players after the addition of tracked data. Stoudt’s average pass traveled 6.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards shorter than the Power 5 average (8.7).
Conversely, UNLV’s Blake Decker had the largest increase in Total QBR (+4.8 points). His average pass traveled 10.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards farther than the Power 5 average. He gained 364 of his 366 rush yards on scrambles, and a player generally receives more credit for a scramble than a designed rush in the Total QBR calculation.
Overall, the teams that relied heavily on quick, short screens (Washington State, West Virginia, Texas Tech) were negatively affected by the updated information, and the ones that passed downfield more frequently (Michigan State, Minnesota, Florida) were positively affected.
Though these changes were minor – two players had QBR changes of more than five points – adding the additional information at the end of the season made QBR more accurate by adding information that allows us to isolate the quarterback's effect on each play. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section of this post and we will do our best to answer.
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star recruit Kendall Sheffield committed to Alabama last month.
The SEC has eight of the top 15 classes, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and many of the top undecided recruits have at least one SEC school on their list of contenders.
Although top-notch recruiting does not always translate to on-field success, the SEC has recruited like no other conference in recent years.
Consider these numbers. From 2012 to 2014:
• Looking at the top five classes each of the three years, 10 of the 15 belong to the SEC.
• The SEC signed 302 players ranked in the ESPN 300, 181 more than any other conference.
• The SEC signed 21 five-star recruits; the rest of the country, 16.
No. 1 within Alabama's reach
The SEC’s recruiting dominance begins with the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide have signed a top-three class in each of the last seven seasons and are likely to sign an unprecedented fourth straight No. 1 class in 2015.
No other team this decade has come close to Alabama in terms of recruiting. Since ESPN started giving out five-star ratings in 2010, 77 players have earned that distinction. Alabama has signed an FBS-high 10 of the 77, with a commitment from another in 2015 (cornerback Kendall Sheffield).
In 2015, Alabama is set to sign another top class. Entering Signing Day, the Tide have 25 commitments, 18 from players in the ESPN 300. To add context, no other team has commitments from more than 14 ESPN 300 players, and the entire Big Ten has 31 ESPN 300 commitments (2.2 per school).
Alabama probably will lead the nation in ESPN 300 signees for a fourth-straight season. It’s not surprising that Alabama had nine more ESPN 300 players on its active roster last year than any other FBS team.
The SEC’s recruiting dominance begins with Alabama, but plenty of other teams are making an impact on the recruiting trails. Last season, in Butch Jones’ first full recruiting season, Tennessee signed a top-five class. The Volunteers, with 29 committed players, are likely to sign another top class in 2015. Georgia joins Tennessee with a projected top-five class, the Bulldogs’ first in the last three seasons.
As Ole Miss’ fifth-ranked class in 2013 showed, top-notch recruiting can have an impact on the field. SEC schools Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State are all projected to sign a top-15 class. If those numbers hold, it will be the most top-15 classes (eight) for any conference in any year since 2006.
Those class rankings are likely to change on Wednesday, with six of the top 10 players set to announce their intentions on ESPNU. All six of those players have at least one SEC school on their shortlist, which means it could be another dominant Signing Day for the schools down south.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gave the Ole Miss Rebels a slight 51 percent chance to win the game.
The two teams were ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency and the top six in FPI this season.
But once they got on the field, the TCU Horned Frogs picked off Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace on the Rebels first drive and never looked back as they dominated the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Wallace’s struggles continue
Wallace entered the game having thrown three interceptions without a touchdown in his previous two games. Things got worse on New Year’s Eve as he completed just 10 of 23 passes for 109 yards, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble.
Wallace was eventually pulled from the game and finished with a career-low Total QBR of 4.7.
TCU’s defense steps up
The Horned Frogs entered the bowl season ranked second in the FBS with a +18 turnover margin and 36 takeaways. They added four more takeaways and scored a touchdown on an interception in the end zone.
Ole Miss had 16 drives and put up just three points. Aside from the four turnovers, the Rebels were forced to punt eight times. Seven of those eight punts were the result of a three-and-out.
Aside from a 15 play, six-minute drive that ended in a fumble in the third quarter, Ole Miss did not have a single drive that lasted over two minutes.
Ole Miss finished with nine rushing yards, its fewest in a game since it had seven on Nov. 19, 2005 against LSU in a 40-7 loss. The Rebels finished with more rushes for negative yardage (11) than first downs (10).
A day for the record books…
The last time TCU beat an SEC team in a bowl game was back in 1936 when “Slinging” Sammy Baugh led them to a win in the Sugar Bowl over LSU.
TCU’s 39-point margin of victory is the largest in Peach Bowl history. The previous record was 37 points (LSU over Miami (FL) in 2005).
It was also TCU’s largest margin of victory in a bowl game in school history (previous best was a 30-point win over Northern Illinois in 2006 Poinsettia Bowl).
And as you might have guessed, it was Ole Miss’ largest margin of defeat in a bowl game in school history (previous worst was 32-point loss to Michigan in Gator Bowl on New Year's Day 1991).
Wire photosNick Saban’s Alabama team has areas of vulnerability Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes can attack.
Alabama can win games with its defense. It has three wins in which it scored 25 or fewer points; only Missouri (four) has more this season. The Crimson Tide can also win with their offense. They have an SEC-high seven wins in which they scored more than 40 points, including a 55-44 win against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Alabama's offense ranks fourth in the nation and its defense is 12th. TCU is the only other team in the top 12 of the FBS in both stats.
Yet, as its loss to Ole Miss indicates, Alabama is not invincible. Below, we look at some areas in which the Crimson Tide excel and others were they might be vulnerable.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama is on pace to finish with its highest offensive efficiency in the eight years under coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide rank 10th in the FBS in yards per play and points per drive, even though they have played seven of the top 20 teams in defensive efficiency.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have led the way on the ground. Yeldon and Henry have both rushed for more than 800 yards, averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry and scored at least 10 rushing touchdowns. The only other FBS school with two such running backs this season is Arkansas with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
Blake Sims has been the facilitator for the passing game. He has posted an 88.4 Total QBR this season, second-best in the FBS behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Since 2004, two SEC players have had a higher Total QBR in a season than Sims (Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel). Both won the Heisman in those seasons.
As good as Sims has been, Amari Cooper has been better. Cooper leads the FBS in receiving yards (1,656) and receptions (115) and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns (14).
Yet, if the Buckeyes are able to take away Cooper, Alabama might be in trouble. Cooper has 100 more targets and 1,217 more receiving yards than any other player on the team. DeAndrew White is second on the team in receiving, and on one play – his 58-yard touchdown against Missouri – he gained more yards than he had in all but two games this season entering the SEC Championship.
When Sims is throwing to Cooper this season, he is completing 71.0 percent of his passes, averaging 10.2 yards per attempt and has 14 touchdowns and one interception. To put that into perspective, Mariota is the only other FBS quarterback averaging more than 10 yards per attempt this season. When Sims is not passing to Cooper, he completes 60.5 percent of his passes and averages 7.9 yards per attempt. The FBS averages are 60.0 percent and 7.3 yards per attempt.
Defense is where Alabama has always hung its hat under Saban. For instance, the Crimson Tide are allowing 16.6 points per game this season, fourth-fewest in the FBS. Yet, that is on pace to be the most they have allowed since 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa.
Led by defensive tackle Johnathan Allen and linebacker Reggie Ragland, Alabama is as good as it gets against the run. The Crimson Tide have allowed three rushing touchdowns, five fewer than any other FBS school. They really buckle down around the goal line. On goal-to-go rushes, their opponents have run for minus 16 yards and have scored a touchdown on two of 24 carries (8%). That is on pace to be the second-best percentage in the last 10 seasons, behind Notre Dame in 2012.
If there is one area in which Alabama has not been as strong on defense this season, it is against the pass, especially the last few games. The Crimson Tide are allowing 223.7 passing yards per game, on pace to be their most since they allowed 227.8 in 2003. Big plays have been a big issue. Opponents have 39 completions of 20 yards or more, the most Alabama has allowed in at least the last 10 seasons.
Downfield passes have been the main culprit of late. On passes thrown 25 yards or longer downfield, the Crimson Tide have allowed an SEC-high 16 completions. In their last three games, opponents were 12-of-21 on such throws, compared with 4-of-30 to start the season.
Even though Alabama has 2014 first-team all-SEC punter JK Scott and 2013 SEC special teams player of the year Christion Jones on its roster, the Crimson Tide have been below average on special teams this season, ranking 101st in efficiency. How has special teams play affected Alabama this season? Look no further than its 23-17 loss to Ole Miss. In that game, Jones had a fumble in the fourth quarter on a kickoff, which set up the game-winning score, and kicker Adam Griffith missed 46-yard and 51-yard attempts. This season, Alabama has made 64 percent of its field goal tries this season, 93rd in the FBS. Dating to the start of the 2011 season, Alabama has lost five games. In those five games, its kickers are 5-of-16 on field goals, including 2-of-11 from 40 yards or longer.
Combining offense, defense and special teams efficiency, Alabama ranks second behind Oregon in overall efficiency. There are holes, as noted above, that Ohio State can exploit. The Buckeyes, with Cardale Jones at quarterback, scored three touchdowns on passes thrown 25 yards or longer in the Big Ten Championship Game, their most in a game this season. On special teams, they rank second in average starting field position and lead the nation in opponents’ average starting field position. If Ohio State can continue to play well in these areas during the Sugar Bowl, it may well be the difference in the Buckeyes pulling off the upset of No. 1 Alabama.
Sims prolific, precise
En route to setting a school record for passing yards in a season (3,250), Sims kept the chains moving for Alabama:
- On passes thrown 5 yards or shorter, he completed 20-of-21 attempts for 155 yards and a touchdown. Those were the most completions and yards on such throws in a game in his career.
- On third down, Sims was 6-of-6 passing and was sacked twice. Entering the game, he had converted an FBS-best 52 percent of his third-down passing plays.
- On play action, Sims completed 10-of-11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown for an average of 12.0 yards per pass. Without play action, Sims averaged 8.1 yards per attempt.
Sims was 23-of-27 passing, setting a record for the SEC Championship Game for completion percentage (85.2 percent). The record was 77.1, set in 2004 by Auburn’s Jason Campbell.
Sims’ favorite target, as usual, was Amari Cooper. He had 12 catches after hauling in 13 passes in the Iron Bowl last week. Saturday’s game marked the second time this season that Cooper has had at least 12 catches in consecutive games. One other player in the FBS has had as many as one: Colorado's Nelson Spruce in September.
Cooper has the SEC single-season record for receptions (115).
Alabama's SEC dominance
The victory gave Alabama its 24th SEC title, 11 more than any other team. (Those totals include shared titles.) It was Alabama’s fifth SEC Championship Game win. That's second to Florida, which has had seven victories in a game instituted in 1992.
On the other side of Alabama’s success was Missouri’s struggles. The Tigers are 0-4 in conference championship games, the worst record in FBS history.
AP PhotosTrevone Boykin, Bryce Petty and Jake Waters lead the Big 12's top three teams
The SEC was 0-4 in its SEC-ACC rivalry games, marking the first time since 2000 that Georgia, Florida and South Carolina each lost to its major in-state rival. The SEC is 5-6 (.455 win pct) in non-conference games against other Power 5 opponents, which ranks third among Power 5 conferences.
The race for No. 1, however, is basically a tie between the Big 12 and SEC. The Big 12’s rating is based largely on its strength at the top of the conference, which is measured by the Associated Press poll. The Big 12 has three teams – TCU, Baylor and Kansas State – in the top 10 of the AP poll, the most of any conference. Two of those teams will face off this weekend in Waco, Texas.
The Big 12 has a lower average Football Power Index ranking than the SEC and Pac-12, meaning that despite its strength at the top of the conference, it is not particularly deep. The Big 12 has four teams below 60th in the Football Power Index, which is as many as the Pac-12 and SEC have combined.
Nonetheless, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State are in the midst of strong seasons, and in a 10-team league, that has vaulted the Big 12 to the top of the rankings. In four of the first five College Football Playoff rankings, the Big 12 has been on the outside looking in, but the conference should have a strong argument for inclusion with Tuesday’s release.
The biggest riser in the Conference Power Rankings this week was the ACC. After sweeping the SEC-ACC rivalry games Saturday, the ACC rose 7.0 points to nearly pull even with the Big Ten. Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville each rose at least three spots in the AP poll and continued to climb in the Football Power Index.
It has been an up-and-down year for many conferences. The Big Ten was buried early in the year before bouncing back, particularly against the ACC, in Weeks 4 and 5. The ACC was having a down year before it swept the SEC-ACC rivalry series in Week 14. Conference strength will play a role in the College Football Playoff selection, but just as there is not a dominant team this year, there also may not be a dominant conference.
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers have won five straight games to take the Big Ten West lead.
After another week of games with conference championship implications, the conference races are gaining clarity.
The Wisconsin Badgers took hold of the Big Ten West, and the Alabama Crimson Tide control the SEC West after significant divisional wins Saturday.
Using projections by ESPN’s Football Power Index, let’s break down how each of the Power 5 conferences are projected to finish, starting with the most likely conference winners.
FPI’s projected winner: Florida State Seminoles (75 percent), Duke Blue Devils (15 percent), Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10 percent)
After Miami’s loss to Florida State, there are three remaining potential conference champions in the ACC. Florida State has already clinched the ACC Atlantic, and FPI projects the Seminoles have a 75 percent chance to beat the ACC Coastal winner in the championship game.
Despite its loss Saturday, Duke remains the most likely ACC Coastal champion (69 percent) because of its schedule and the head-to-head win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 11, but FPI projects Georgia Tech, which is ranked 11 spots ahead of Duke in the FPI rankings, would give the Seminoles a tougher test.
Potential clinching scenarios this week: Georgia Tech clinches with a Duke loss.
FPI’s projected winner: Baylor Bears (74 percent), TCU Horned Frogs (22 percent), Kansas State Wildcats (4 percent)
FPI projects Baylor has a 68 percent chance to win out, best among the one-loss Power 5 teams. If the Bears win out (including a win over Kansas State on Dec. 6), they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over TCU and would be the Big 12 champion. Based on these facts, FPI projects Baylor has a 74 percent chance to win the Big 12.
Potential clinching scenarios this week: None.
FPI’s projected winner: Oregon Ducks (69 percent), UCLA Bruins (15 percent), USC Trojans (9 percent), Arizona State Sun Devils (5 percent)
Oregon clinched the Pac-12 North division before last week’s games, but the South might be the most interesting division in the FBS. There are currently four teams in the Pac-12 South with two conference losses. FPI projects UCLA has the best chance to win the division because of its strength (highest ranking in FPI) and schedule. The Bruins have already beat Arizona State and Arizona, so if they beat USC on Saturday, they would be in great position to win the South. If USC defeats UCLA, however, the Trojans would become the favorite and would clinch the division with a loss by Arizona State earlier in the day. FPI projects UCLA has a 59 percent chance to beat USC at home.
Potential clinching scenarios this week: USC clinches with win AND Arizona State loss.
FPI’s projected winner: Ohio State Buckeyes (61 percent), Wisconsin (36 percent), Minnesota Golden Gophers (1 percent)
Ohio State and Wisconsin are in control of their respective divisions. Ohio State has to win one of its remaining two games -- versus Indiana and versus Michigan -- to win the Big Ten East without the help of a Michigan State loss. FPI projects Ohio State has a 99 percent chance to win one of those games. The Big Ten West is a little more interesting, with Wisconsin still to face Minnesota. FPI projects Wisconsin has an 87 percent chance to win the division, but Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska are all still alive.
Potential clinching scenarios this week: Wisconsin clinches a berth in the conference championship game with win AND a Minnesota loss. Ohio State clinches a berth in the conference championship game with win OR a Michigan State loss.
FPI’s projected winner: Alabama (46 percent), Georgia Bulldogs (39 percent), Ole Miss Rebels (8 percent), Mississippi State Bulldogs (4 percent), Missouri (2 percent)
The SEC remains the most wide-open Power 5 conference. Alabama’s win against Mississippi State added some clarity; if the Tide defeat Auburn on Nov. 29, they will win the SEC West (they can also clinch via losses by Ole Miss AND Mississippi State). FPI projects the Tide have a 76 percent chance to win the West, followed by Ole Miss (14 percent) and Mississippi State (10 percent). In the SEC East, Georgia would win the head-to-head tiebreaker over Missouri, but the Tigers currently have a one-game lead in the loss column. Georgia has completed its conference schedule, and Missouri has two remaining SEC games, so if Missouri loses at Tennessee or versus Arkansas, Georgia wins the division. FPI projects Missouri has an 85 percent chance to lose either of those games.
Potential clinching scenarios this week: Georgia clinches division with Missouri loss. Alabama clinches division with losses by Mississippi State AND Ole Miss.
Ohio State, Baylor, Oregon and Alabama each beat a top-20 opponent on Saturday and now controls its own destiny in conference races.
Using projections by ESPN’s Football Power Index, let’s break down how each of the Power 5 conferences are projected to finish, starting the with most likely conference winners.
FPI’s Projected Winner: Florida State (75 percent), Duke (19 percent)
Florida State has the best chance of any Power 5 school to win its conference. FPI projects that the Seminoles have a 99 percent chance to win their division and a 77 percent chance to beat the winner of the ACC Coastal division in the ACC Championship Game, should they get there.
Duke is in the driver’s seat in the Coastal division, one game ahead in the loss column over Miami (FL) and Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils hold the head-to-head tiebreaker versus the Yellow Jackets, and although they lost to Miami (FL), the Hurricanes still have Florida State left on their schedule.
FPI’s Projected Winner: Baylor (72 percent), TCU (24 percent), Kansas State (4 percent)
After its win against Oklahoma, Baylor’s chance of winning the Big 12 rose from 27 percent to 72 percent. By most measures, TCU has a more impressive résumé than Baylor, but the Bears hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after defeating the Horned Frogs on Oct. 11 in an unlikely 21-point fourth-quarter comeback.
TCU (68 percent) and Baylor (67 percent) have the best chances among Power 5 one-loss teams to win out. If both teams run the table, Baylor will be the Big 12 champion.
FPI projects that Kansas State, which also has one conference loss, has a four percent chance to win the Big 12 because of its schedule. The Wildcats have to play West Virginia and Baylor on the road, but if they beat Baylor in the final week of the season, things could get interesting. FPI projects that there is a 29 percent chance that Baylor, TCU and Kansas State win their other remaining games, resulting in a three-way tie.
FPI’s Projected Winner: Oregon (71 percent), Arizona State (13 percent), UCLA (10 percent)
Oregon has already clinched the Pac-12 North, so its only barrier to a conference championship will come in that Pac-12 Championship Game. Arizona State, which is one of nine remaining one-loss teams, has a 51 percent chance to win the Pac-12 South, according to FPI, followed by UCLA (30 percent).
The Sun Devils have three remaining conference games, including a tough road test against rival Arizona on Nov. 28, while the Bruins have two. If these teams were to finish with the same record, UCLA owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and would face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game – a game that FPI projects the Ducks have more than a 70 percent chance to win.
FPI’s Projected Winner: Ohio State (65 percent), Wisconsin (22 percent), Nebraska (11 percent)
Ohio State’s win against Michigan State on Saturday may have been the biggest win of the weekend in terms of conference championships. Not only did Ohio State put itself in a great position to win its division (FPI projects the Buckeyes have a 98 percent chance to win the Big Ten East), but it knocked its greatest competition out of the race.
One of the biggest games of this upcoming weekend in terms of divisional races features the top two teams in the Big Ten West – Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Because the game is in Madison, FPI projects that Wisconsin has a 64 percent chance to win. Whichever team wins will put itself in a prime position to win the division and likely face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
FPI’s Projected Winner: Alabama (36 percent), Georgia (27 percent), Mississippi State (19 percent)
The SEC is the most wide open conference. FPI projects that there are three teams – Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State – with more than a 15 percent chance to win the conference. No other Power 5 conference has more than two such teams.
In the SEC West, FPI projects that Alabama has a 50 percent chance to win the division, largely because it hosts its two biggest competitors – Mississippi State and Auburn – in the next few weeks.
On Saturday, Mississippi State heads to Tuscaloosa in a game with conference and playoff implications. The winner of this game will control its own destiny in the vaunted SEC West and have a great chance to play the SEC East champion in the conference championship game.
Like the SEC West, the East is also quite unsettled.
Although Georgia is currently behind Missouri in the SEC East standings, FPI projects that the Bulldogs have a 60 percent chance to win the division because Missouri has three difficult remaining conference games, while Georgia has one.
(4) Oregon at (17) Utah, Saturday 10 ET
FPI projection: Oregon 67 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: Utah’s pass rush versus Oregon’s pass protection – Utah leads the FBS with 39 sacks and has had at least four sacks in an FBS-high six games. In the two games that Oregon allowed more than four sacks, the Ducks lost to Arizona and played a close game against Washington State. Not coincidently, those were the two games that left tackle Jake Fisher was sidelined with a knee injury. Fisher vs Utah DE Nate Orchard will be a specific matchup to watch as Orchard is tied for second in the FBS with 12 sacks.
Player to watch: How can Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota not be the player to watch? Mariota leads the nation in Total QBR (91.2) and touchdowns responsible for (34) and is averaging the second-most yards per pass (10.3) in the nation.
Stat to know: Oregon is 31-0 since the start of the 2012 season when it scores at least 30 points. Utah has held its last nine opponents, dating to last season, to fewer than 30 points, tied for the longest active streak in the FBS.
(5) Alabama at (16) LSU, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Alabama 60 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: LSU rushing offense against Alabama rushing defense - LSU has run the ball on an SEC-high 67 percent of its plays this season. The Tigers are 6-0 this season when they rush for at least 150 yards and 1-2 when they do not. They will have a tough test against an Alabama defense that has allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (78.1) and fewest rushing touchdowns (2) in the FBS.
Player to watch: Amari Cooper had a school-record 224 receiving yards in his last game, a 14-point win at Tennessee. Cooper has been responsible for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards this season, the highest percentage for any FBS player. He also leads the nation with 20 receptions that have gained 20 yards or more and ranks second in receiving yards per game (141.5).
Stat to know: LSU has an FBS-high 24 come-from-behind fourth-quarter wins since Les Miles was hired in 2005. No other SEC school has more than 15 such wins.
(7) Kansas State at (6) TCU , Saturday 7:30 ET
FPI projection: TCU 36 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: TCU’s big-play offense vs. Kansas State’s disciplined defense – TCU leads the Big 12 with 57 plays of 20 yards or longer. Those plays have gained 247.5 yards per game, second-most in the FBS behind Marshall. Conversely, Kansas State is tied for the second-fewest plays (22) and fourth-fewest yards (86.9) allowed on plays of 20 yards or longer.
Player to watch: Last week, Tyler Lockett passed Jordy Nelson for second on Kansas State’s all-time receiving yards list. He needs 156 more yards to pass his father, Kevin, for most in school history. He will likely be matched against TCU’s Kevin White, who helped shut down one of the top receivers in the nation, West Virginia’s Kevin White, last week.
Stat to know: Kansas State has seven turnovers this season (T-seventh in the FBS), four of which were of little harm because they came with the Wildcats leading by 24 or more points. TCU leads the nation with 26 turnovers forced and is one of two teams (Oregon) that has forced at least two turnovers in every game this season.
(14) Ohio State at (8) Michigan State, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Ohio State 52 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: Ohio State run game vs Michigan State run defense - Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State is averaging 295.3 rushing yards per game, fifth-most in the FBS. Michigan State ranks sixth in the FBS in rush yards per game allowed and has held five of its eight opponents under 100 rushing yards.
Player to watch: Jeremy Langford has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 straight conference games, tied for the longest streak in the last 10 seasons with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. Last season against Ohio State, Langford gained 93 of his 128 rush yards after contact, the most yards after contact that Ohio State has allowed to a player in the last two seasons.
Stat to know: J.T. Barrett has been responsible for 29 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break Braxton Miller’s school record of 36 set last season. Barrett has been responsible for at least four touchdowns in four of eight games this season. Michigan State has not allowed a player to account for four touchdowns since Taylor Martinez scored four in Nebraska’s win in East Lansing on Nov. 3, 2012.
(10) Notre Dame at (9) Arizona State, Saturday 3:30 ET
FPI projection: Notre Dame 52 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: Everett Golson against Arizona State pressure package - Arizona State sends five or more pass rushers on 55 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, the second-highest percentage for a Power 5 team. On such plays, the Sun Devils rank third among Power 5 defenses in both yards per play (2.9) and sacks (16).
Golson has thrown four of his seven interceptions this season against a blitz, including both of his picks against Florida State. Golson has averaged 5.9 yards per attempt against the blitz this season, 1.2 less than the average for a Power 5 quarterback.
Player to watch: Golson has been responsible for 29 touchdowns this season, tied with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break the Notre Dame record for a season (39 in 13 games by Brady Quinn in 2006). In the Irish’s win last week against Navy, Golson became the first player in Notre Dame history to pass and rush for at least three touchdowns in the same game. Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight is the only other FBS player to accomplish that feat this season (vs Iowa State).
Stat to know: Notre Dame is 12-0 since the start of last season when it has one or fewer turnovers and 4-5 when it has two or more, including the Irish’s loss to Florida State this season. Arizona State is 4-0 this season when it has forced multiple turnovers.
(12) Baylor at (15) Oklahoma, Saturday 12 ET
FPI projection: Oklahoma 66 percent chance to win
Matchup to watch: Baylor’s pass offense vs Oklahoma’s pass defense - Baylor has a Power 5-high 17 touchdowns on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. Oklahoma has allowed the most touchdowns in the Big 12 on such passes but also is tied for the conference lead with four interceptions. Zach Sanchez has three of those four interceptions and will be matched up against one of Baylor’s explosive wide receivers. The Bears have four receivers who have gained 300 yards and are averaging more than 16 yards per reception.
Player to watch: Trevor Knight had his best statistical game of the season last week against Iowa State, accounting for a career-high 376 yards of total offense and six touchdowns. The Sooners probably will need another big game from Knight to match Baylor’s high-powered offensive numbers. Last season, with Blake Bell at quarterback for Oklahoma, Baylor won by 29 and held the Sooners to a 3.5 raw QBR, their lowest in a game since the 2005 season.
Stat to know: Baylor has never beaten Oklahoma in Norman in 11 games dating to the first meeting in 1974.
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBryce Petty and kicker Chris Callahan survived TCU. The teams are part of the top-heavy Big 12.
Five of the Big 12’s 10 teams are in the top 15 of The Associated Press poll, tied with the SEC (which has 14 teams) for the most top-15 teams in the nation. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all have one or fewer losses and a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff.
All of those teams will not finish the season with one loss, but it’s worth noting that two of their losses came in close games against the teams that played for the 2014 BCS National Championship (Auburn defeated Kansas State and Florida State defeated Oklahoma State).
The bottom of the Big 12, however, is not as strong as that of the Pac-12 or SEC. The Big 12’s average FPI ranking, which is designed to measure a conference’s depth, ranks below that of those two conferences.
The SEC remains at the top of the conference power rankings. It has the top team in the AP poll (Mississippi State) and in the FPI (Auburn), the two components of these power rankings. The SEC West remains unbeaten against any team not in the SEC West as the Magnolia State has catapulted to the forefront of the college football world.
The Pac-12 will rise in the conference rankings if its top teams can continue to win. Last week, we discussed how the Pac-12 is missing an elite team. Oregon looked strong against UCLA, and the defenses of Stanford and Washington defenses looked solid against explosive offenses in Week 7. The issue is that the Pac-12 does not have a team in the top eight of the AP poll.
In other conference action, next week is a big one for the ACC as Notre Dame heads to Florida State. The Seminoles are the best team in the ACC, but if they lose to Notre Dame at home, the conference could take a big hit in perceived strength and in the College Football Playoff race.
We pondered this through the first month of the season. We suspected it after Alabama's 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. Now we know it after a sluggish showing at Arkansas in which the Crimson Tide eked out a 14-13 victory Saturday.
The defense has holes in the secondary and is lacking a dominant pass-rusher. The offense has been turnover-prone and has lost its ability to go vertical. Things have been so bad on special teams that coordinator Bobby Williams might soon be a candidate for reassignment.
With each elapsing week, we learn -- and really wrap our minds around the fact -- that the SEC race goes through Mississippi. Not Alabama.
Anticipation of the Egg Bowl (Mississippi vs. Mississippi State) has passed, and is lapping, the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn).
That’s where the Week 7 Takeaways begin. Later: the wait for the rankings that matter, Todd Gurley's admirable understudy, our weekly look at breakout players and thoughts on Michigan and Florida.
Next week now
So how did this happen? How did Alabama slip?
It starts with the offense.