SEC: SEC

SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
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With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.
It has been a whirlwind of recruiting news for Texas A&M over the last few weeks. The Aggies lost a commitment from five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack and missed out on commitments from the No. 3-ranked outside linebacker in the country, Malik Jefferson, and four star athlete DeAndre McNeal, who chose the in-state Texas Longhorns when they announced their decisions.

Mack is just one of three prospects who have backed off their pledges to Texas A&M this football season. The others, Richard Moore decommitted on Dec. 3 and wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge opened up his recruitment on Sept. 18.

Not all has been bad news for the Aggies, however. The No. 3-ranked wide receiver in the country, Christian Kirk, gave his verbal commitment to Texas A&M last Wednesday.
There is a certain assurance, a tone of confidence when Joshua Dobbs speaks. The Tennessee quarterback has never been one to look over his shoulder, but he knows he’s the starter now and he knows that he will be the starter heading into next season.

That has not been the case in the past.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
AP Photo/Richard ShiroJoshua Dobbs established himself as the Vols' QB of the future with strong play down the stretch.
At this time a year ago, Dobbs was coming off a game where he scored three touchdowns to lead the Volunteers past Kentucky. But he also knew that Justin Worley would return from a thumb injury in the spring and look to take back the starting job.

Worley was injured again this season, opening the door for Dobbs, but Worley isn’t coming back in 2015. He’s a senior. And it might not matter anyway. In the team’s final five games, Dobbs accounted for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tennessee went 3-2 during that stretch and finished the season bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

“I’ve just gone out, executed and played my game,” Dobbs said. “Obviously, the coaches have a lot of confidence, so my goal is just to execute the game plan.”

However, as the Vols prepare for Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the coaches also know that Dobbs still has room for improvement.

After one of Dobbs’ best games this season, a dramatic come-from-behind win over South Carolina, coach Butch Jones put the brakes on all the hype and called out his quarterback’s consistency in practice, saying he needs to play with great consistency "day in and day out."

“Coach just wants me to make the routine plays as any coach does,” Dobbs said. “He wants to push me every day, and he wants me to get better. Obviously, I want to make every play that’s given to me, so my job is to go out and execute the offense and execute the plays that Coach [Mike] Bajakian calls and do it to the best of my abilities.”

That’s why becoming bowl eligible was so important for Dobbs and this young Tennessee team. It was the next step in the rebuilding process, but it also gives the Volunteers more practice time and an opportunity for more reps.

Dobbs has already seen more reps since becoming the starter, and his game has taken off as a result.

“Where he benefited tremendously was just from gaining the extra reps that go along with being a starter,” Bajakian said. “Any player is going to improve as they get more and more reps, but in Josh’s case in particular, he seems to improve at an even higher rate than others when a high volume of reps is afforded to him.”

Now Dobbs has two weeks of bowl practice where he’s getting those extra reps. But rather than solely focusing on his own shortcomings, he’s working more on his timing with the wide receivers and understanding what the offensive line is doing on every play and making sure the offense is on the same page.

“We’re just continuing to grow together as a unit,” Dobbs said. “That’s what the whole offense is working on right now.”

Tennessee has a chance to make some noise in the SEC East next year -- the Vols return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense – but it hinges on the play of the quarterback. It’s up to Dobbs to be more consistent and take that next step.

And yet, he’s not feeling any pressure. He’s confident, eager for the next challenge.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It's been a little over a week since Will Muschamp took over as Auburn's new defensive coordinator, and he's wasted no time settling in to his new job. Just hours after his introductory news conference, the former Florida coach was already on the phone with recruits, persuading them to join him on the Plains.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonFormer Florida coach Will Muschamp has hit the ground running as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
Bowl practice began last week for the Tigers, and though Muschamp isn't running the defense just yet -- that's Charlie Harbison's job for now -- he was still out there taking it all in.

"It's been really good," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Muschamp's presence. "He's just trying to get to know our players, evaluate our current guys and our players have responded extremely well."

The defensive players knew Muschamp's name well before he was hired, and when rumors started to spread he was coming to Auburn, they did their research. They watched videos of their new coach and saw the passion and intensity that has defined him over the years.

Now that Muschamp has arrived on campus, the first impression has been no different.

"Really high intensity guy," linebacker Kris Frost said. "It's been mostly sitting back and observing us right now. But seeing the videos and also just meeting him and talking to him, you can just tell he loves what he does. He's a perfectionist at it. It's about us doing all we can to please him, and we know that next year, it's going to be a really fun year for us."

The first week of practice was "nerve-wrecking" for Frost and a lot of the players who are basically auditioning for next season. They know Muschamp is watching, and the energy has been cranked up as a result. Players are flying to the ball, and the 55-44 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl seems like a distant memory.

The focus has turned to Wisconsin and more importantly, impressing their new coach.

"I've been through a coaching change before," cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "It's the same thing. You're starting fresh, so it's a good thing for everybody. Whereas some coaches might already have a certain opinion about you, you're able to change their perception. It's a great thing being able to start fresh."

Jones, who leads Auburn with six interceptions this season, is penciled in as the team's No. 1 cornerback heading into next season, but even he knows how important it is to make a good first impression on the new defensive coordinator.

Muschamp has declined interviews through the bowl game, so it's likely we won't know his thoughts on the defense until the spring. But based on the numbers and the second-half collapse, he'll have his hands full retooling this Auburn defense.

One thing he can look forward to is the return of defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in spring practice.

Lawson returned to practice last week for the first time since the injury.

"It's great to see him out there in pads and a helmet," Malzahn said. "I know he's got a big smile on his face. He's doing what he can do, but it's really good to have his presence out there and his leadership.

"Anytime you come off a knee injury, it takes a little bit to get used to it and how it feels. One day it may be a little sore. I think it's very valuable he's able to do that now. Once he gets to spring, we'll turn him loose and we expect him to be back to normal."

The return of Lawson coupled with the presence of Muschamp has the players believing this defense can be one of the better defenses in the SEC next season. But first, they have to figure out a way to stop Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon in the Outback Bowl.

The new defensive coordinator will be watching.

Watch: Gary Pinkel is all about that swag

December, 22, 2014
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Missouri football has a fun little tradition called "NFL Day" in which players are allowed to wear what they want and celebrate how they want during the season's final practice on campus.

How do the players know this for sure?

Because their head coach leads the way.

That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.



Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.

Gary PinkelInstagram/mizzoufootballJosh Augusta's reaction to his coach's shoes was priceless.
Sugar BowlUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and Nick Saban squared off only three times when in the SEC.

Although we were privileged to three bouts of Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer during Meyer’s short stint at Florida, the SEC missed out on something that should have been special.

When these two first met in 2008, we saw a game for the ages in the SEC championship game, before Alabama took complete control in the next two matchups. Still, when you look at the talent and smarts these two have as coaches, Meyer’s year-long leave of absence from coaching ended a great rivalry between two elite coaches and programs.

So when No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) faces No. 4 Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of what we missed.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.”

These two were the best at what they did in the SEC, and they had a mutual respect and friendship that probably fueled their competition and success.

“We always used to sit next to each other in the SEC meetings,” Meyer said of Saban.

The brief return of such a competitive chess match is a delight for college football enthusiasts. You have the offensive-minded, psychological master that is Meyer facing the defensive-minded, meticulous planner that is Saban. You have 151 combined wins at Florida and Alabama and six total national championships (including Saban’s one at LSU).

We love Saban versus Les Miles, Hugh Freeze-Dan Mullen has been fun, and the back-and-forth between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema has been tantalizing, but for two years, the SEC lived and breathed Meyer versus Saban.

But we still have our memories.

It all started with No. 1 Alabama facing No. 2 Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game. The winner headed to the BCS title game. Undefeated Alabama rolled in with power and a suffocating defense, while the Gators carried transcendent quarterback Tim Tebow and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

In his second year at Alabama, Saban was trying to imitate Meyer by winning a national championship in Year 2 with the Tide. But Alabama’s 20-17 lead entering the fourth quarter was erased by a gutsy two-sided performance by the Gators. Tebow’s powerful runs and clutch throws guided the offense to 14 points, and that hard-nosed, dominant defense pitched a shutout.

A 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with 2:50 left was Florida’s final dagger in a 31-20 win, which sent the Gators to a BCS title game they eventually won. Heading into the game, Alabama had allowed 28 total points in its previous four games.

“The 2008 game was just one of the great games in college football history, in my opinion, where evenly matched teams were going back and forth, back and forth,” Meyer said. “And obviously we ... scored right at the end to take a twoscore lead.”

Then came 2009 and a second straight No. 1 versus No. 2 game that had a completely different outcome. Even with two teams that looked similar to the ones from 2008, No. 2 Alabama ruined the Gators’ title hopes with a commanding 32-13 win. A year after getting run down, the Tide ran over Florida, thanks to 251 rushing yards (the most allowed by an Meyer-coached Florida team) and a stifling defense that held Florida’s running game to fewer than 100 yards for the first and only time all season.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram clinched the Heisman Trophy with 183 total yards and three touchdowns. There was a beautiful tip-toeing first-down run by quarterback Greg McElroy, and there was no hint of a national title contender on the other sideline.

“I think maybe the two best teams might have been playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2009,” Saban said. “We played a phenomenal game. So it was a playoff game in a sense, and they won one [in 2008], and we won one.”

The 2010 game was utter domination by the Tide and another thorn in Meyer’s side, but those first two matchups were special on the national landscape. Yes, the second one was a blowout, but the amount of talent on both sides was something special and something those two incredibly gifted coaches constructed.

“I have a hard time remembering our address or phone number, but I could tell you every play in those games,” Meyer said. “It was classic -- 2008 was a classic game.

“But what was it, 2009 Alabama team, arguably the best team I can remember going against or getting ready to prepare, very well balanced, very well coached. ... When you face a team like any of these four teams, you're going to see all three phases. You have to be on point. When you get to this level of competition, whether it's a punt team, whether it's a punt block or obviously offense and defense, you'd better be on it.”

We don’t know what would have happened had Meyer stayed after 2010, but the Sugar Bowl could present a good glimpse of what the SEC might have missed the past four years.

Vanderbilt season review

December, 19, 2014
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This was not the start to his Vanderbilt tenure that Derek Mason wanted or envisioned. A year removed from a second straight nine-win season and three straight bowl games -- both firsts in school history -- the Commodores went 0-8 in SEC games and started the season with an ugly 37-7 loss to Temple at home.

Vandy finished the year with just three wins and ranked near the bottom of the league in every major offensive category. The Commodores also spent most of the year shuffling quarterbacks around, which stunted the offense's growth. Getting outscored 283-102 in SEC play just isn't close to being good enough, and Mason knows that. That's why he made staff changes after the season, including firing offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski.

Mason has said that he likes the direction of the program, but the Commodores have a long way to go before returning to being truly competitive in the SEC.

Best win: There weren’t many, but the best of the three had to be the Commodores’ 42-28 win over Old Dominion to open the month of November. Forget who the opponent was, this was the most complete performance of the season for the Commodores. The offense, rolled up a season-high 524 yards of offense and the defense allowed 336 yards, second fewest on the season. We got to see some growth from freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary, who threw for a season-high 281 yards and five touchdowns, and freshman running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for a season-high 166 yards with one touchdown.

Worst loss: The Commodores got blown out in a couple of SEC games this season, but that opening loss to Temple was just unacceptable. The Owls were coming off a 2-10 season, only to walk out of Nashville with a commanding 37-7 win. Vandy was totally inept on offense, registering 278 yards, scoring zero offensive points and turning it over seven times. Three Vandy quarterbacks combined to throw for 224 yards and three interceptions. What’s worse is that players and coaches later said they just weren’t prepared enough for the game -- the first game of the Mason era.

Player of year: The biggest bright spot on offense for the Commodores was Webb, who finished the season ranking 11th in the league in rushing with 907 yards. He was the Commodores’ most consistent offensive player. He rushed for 90-plus yards in four games this season but scored only four touchdowns.

Breakout player: We might be hearing the name Nigel Bowden for a few years. The freshman linebacker was arguably the Commodores’ best defender this season. He led Vandy with 78 total tackles and became the first freshman to lead the team in tackles since since 1998. Bowden, who also led all SEC freshmen in tackles, registered at least five tackles in nine games.

Play of year: The game was well in hand and the Commodores weren’t coming back, but McCrary’s 41-yard pass to David Dudchock in Vandy’s loss to Florida was great. McCray had to dodge a couple of Florida defenders to even get the pass off and then Dudchock went all Odell Beckham Jr. by snatching the pass out of the air with one hand. It wasn’t a play that changed the game or ignited a rally, but it’s one that will make Vandy highlight reels for years. The athleticism, timing and concentration that play took were amazing.

video 2015 outlook: We don’t really know what to expect from the Commodores in 2015. With a handful of coaches leaving, including both coordinators, Mason is kind of starting over. Now, after the season Vandy just had, that could be a good thing. He and that team need a fresh start. Mason has to settle on one quarterback, and McCrary has all the tools needed to be the guy. The defense has some young, solid talent returning, but the offense has to find playmakers at receiver. Bringing some quality talent in this next recruiting class is key, and developing current guys and motivating them will be crucial to future success.
Stats don't lie, but they can be deceiving. Like the average number of rushing yards to the right side of the defense on night games in the month of October, some pieces of information simply don't matter.

That's why we're here.

In order to help preview the Allstate Sugar Bowl, ESPN's Austin Ward and Alex Scarborough teamed up to bring you three stats that matter most to Alabama and Ohio State as they prepare for their semifinal showdown in New Orleans.

Alabama stats that matter

-1: Of the top 10 teams in the FBS in winning percentage, only three are negative in their turnover margin. One is Marshall, one is Florida State and the other is Alabama. That's what we like to call living on the edge. The last time Alabama finished the season on the wrong side of the turnover battle, Nick Saban wasn't the head coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, is plus-nine in turnovers and has created a whopping 118 points off of turnovers. It goes without saying that giving up free points isn't conducive to winning football games.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's offense could be in danger of becoming too one-dimensional with Amari Cooper responsible for 42.9 percent of the receptions this season.
42.9: The inequality of Alabama's passing game is dizzying. Amari Cooper not only has 42.9 percent of all catches this season, he has 45.3 percent of all receiving yards. He has 28 total receptions on third- and fourth-down plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown, compared to 14 from the next two closest receivers combined. While spotlighting your best weapon on offense is fine, there's something to be said for being too one-dimensional. Ohio State will have had roughly a month to prepare for Cooper come Jan. 1. If Urban Meyer and his coaching staff are able to divide a plan to slow him down, Alabama needs to have more options in the passing game to turn to.

4: Thanks to Blake Sims' swift feet and the offensive line's stellar blocking, Alabama has allowed only four sacks in its last four games. Against the vaunted pass rush of Missouri, the Crimson Tide more than held their own. But Ohio State is not Missouri, and chances are it won't lose its best defensive end to ejection the way Shane Ray was tossed in Atlanta. No, the Buckeyes have a superb defensive line themselves, led by everyone's All-American, Joey Bosa. In Ohio State's last four games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, Bosa and the Buckeyes defense have racked up 15 sacks.

-- Scarborough

Ohio State stats that matter

21: Picked on by opposing offenses during games and then ripped apart in press conferences by Urban Meyer a year ago, a rebuilt Ohio State secondary has gone from the team's biggest weakness to one of the most aggressive, successful units in the nation. Only three teams have nabbed more interceptions than the Buckeyes' 21 this season, with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash having done a remarkable job getting the secondary to challenge receivers, break on balls and play without fear of being beat in the back end. It's hard to argue with the results, particularly since the Buckeyes aren't gambling for turnovers at the expense of yardage, ranking No. 17 in total passing yards allowed this year.

81.2: For a team that didn't have its starter play a single snap this season and had to turn to two different guys without any previous first-team experience at the most important position on the field, Ohio State finishing second in the nation in raw QBR behind only Oregon without Braxton Miller is nothing short of remarkable. J.T. Barrett, of course, did the heavy lifting by starting every game in the regular season before breaking his ankle against Michigan, but Cardale Jones actually boosted the rating in his debut against one of the nation's best defenses in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, posting a sparkling 90.3 to clinch the spot in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It certainly seems as if Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman know how to develop more that just one passer at a time.

51.5: The Buckeyes can dial up the tempo and push the ball down the field in a hurry if they want to, but what makes them truly dangerous and perhaps unpredictable is their effectiveness at shifting gears and methodically moving the chains if need be. Only three teams in the country were more successful on third downs than Ohio State, which converted 85 of 165 chances -- or 51.5 percent -- to extend drives on those crucial snaps. The Buckeyes only played four games all season where their conversion percentage dropped lower than 50 percent, including the first two of the year with so many inexperienced players getting their feet wet -- and Jones' first start in the Big Ten title game, when it hardly made a difference in a 59-0 blowout.

-- Ward

SEC morning links

December, 19, 2014
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1. After freshman running back Jalen Hurd was arrested by citation for underage drinking earlier this month, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that Hurd was disciplined internally. According to a police report, police found a car with its lights on in a university dorm parking garage with an unconscious male inside. The man wasn't identified. It was a dumb mistake by a young player, and it sounds like Jones and his staff have or will take care of the up-and-coming standout for the Vols. Whether he'll miss any time in the Taxslayer Bowl against Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida, is unknown, but Jones did say that Hurd's arrest won't affect his status with the team.

2. Ole Miss will say goodbye to one of the school's most accomplished quarterbacks after the Rebels' Peach Bowl clash with No. 6 TCU in Atlanta on New Year's Eve. That quarterback is Bo Wallace, who as embattled as he has been has a chance to pass Eli Manning on the all-time wins list at Ole Miss, and he could be the first quarterback in school history to start and win three bowl games. That means that the Rebels will break in a new quarterback in 2015. You have three relatively inexperienced and inconsistent quarterbacks in Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade and Jeremy Liggins. They'll all compete for that starting spot this spring, but they now have solid competition coming in junior college national champion Chad Kelly, who started his career at Clemson. The arrival of Kelly has ignited a little bit of a fire under those young quarterbacks during bowl prep week. Competition breeds excellence, right?

3. Texas A&M is still looking for a new defensive coordinator and will also be looking for a new offensive line coach. Coach Kevin Sumlin announced Thursday that offensive line coach B.J. Anderson won't return and won’t coach against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29. A line that was mostly dominant through the first two years of the Aggies' move to the SEC fell off considerably in 2014. Not having as talented a quarterback as Johnny Manziel under center didn't help, but the Aggies gave up 25 sacks and 61 tackles for loss. Also, don't forget that wide receivers coach David Beaty took the head-coaching job at Kansas. That leaves three openings for Sumlin to fill, but he said he's closer to making a decision on his next defensive coordinator and that the process has "picked up speed." So let the rumors fly! At least we know Will Muschamp won't be taking his talent to College Station ... well, not as wearing Aggies colors.

Tennessee season review

December, 18, 2014
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The excitement is back at Tennessee, and an invitation to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl was the icing on the cake. As offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian put it, you’re doing something right if you have the opportunity to play in January.

After narrowly missing the postseason last season, the Volunteers won three of their last four games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. The next step will be learning how to finish and win some of those close games, but this program is clearly headed in the right direction under head coach Butch Jones.

Best win: Trailing 42-28 with five minutes to go at South Carolina, Tennessee’s season hung in the balance. A loss would cripple the chance of making a bowl game. With the odds stacked against them, the Volunteers rallied back to tie it in the final seconds of regulation, thanks to an 9-yard touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs to Jason Croom, and freshman Aaron Medley won it in overtime with a 32-yard field goal. It was a turning point for Tennessee, and it was also a coming out party for Dobbs. The sophomore quarterback threw for 301 yards, rushed for 166 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Worst loss: Tennessee wasn’t expected to beat Florida, but when the Volunteers dominated that game for three quarters only to give up a 9-0 lead in the final 15 minutes, it felt like the better team lost. Time and time again, Tennessee had opportunities to put the Gators away but failed to do it. Then Florida brought in Treon Harris at quarterback, and it provided just enough of a spark to squeak past the Vols. It was an ugly game and a crushing defeat.

Player of the year: Of the 11 ESPN 300 signees in the 2014 class, Derek Barnett would not have been the first choice as a player of the year candidate, but the freshman was dominant this season. He was second in the SEC in tackles for loss (20.5), trailing only Missouri’s Shane Ray who had 21. He finished with 69 total tackles, 10 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries. And he played his best against the top competition, recording 18 tackles for loss and all 10 sacks in Tennessee’s eight SEC games. He will be a force for years to come.

Breakout player: Barnett fits this category, too, but he was just one of many breakout players on this team. The next best option is running back Jalen Hurd, who started from Day 1 and finished with 777 yards rushing, 217 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Freshmen typically hit a wall late in the season, but not Hurd. He seemed to get better as the season went on, and two of his best games came down the stretch. He rushed for a career-best 125 yards in the win against South Carolina and followed that up with 118 yards the next week vs. Kentucky.

Play of the year: Tennessee would have never been in position to tie the game at South Carolina if not for an incredible fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter. The Vols trailed by 14 at the time, and on 4th-and-6, Hurd caught a short pass from Dobbs, spun away from a tackle, juked another defender and sprinted into the end zone.

video
2015 outlook: It’s hard not to get excited about this team in 2015. Tennessee played 23 true freshmen this season, more than any other FBS team. The Volunteers return all but one starter on offense, and potentially eight starters on the defense. They also have another top 10 recruiting class coming in next year, with nine ESPN 300 recruits already committed. With the SEC East down, it’s not out of the question to say that Tennessee could make a run at the division and possibly reach Atlanta for the conference championship game. The schedule won’t be easy with road trips to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but this team is tested. This season, they won at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt and nearly upset Georgia on the road. The Vols are on their way back to the top. Next year might be the year.
When Ole Miss players and coaches turn on the video of TCU’s tremendously explosive offense, they see something that conjures feelings of a terrifying threat that thwarted the Rebels in years past.

That threat mostly comes in the form of TCU All-American quarterback Trevone Boykin, who electrified the nation this season with 4,411 total yards of offense and 39 total touchdowns. Boykin’s on-field talents have been dazzling to watch, just like a quarterback who just left the SEC in 2014.

“Boykin, they’ve got great players around him, but he’s a different animal,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told reporters this week.

“He reminds me of Johnny Manziel when we had to play and defend him. He’s very similar to that.”

[+] EnlargeTrevone Boykin
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTCU quarterback Trevone Boykin reminds Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze of Johnny Manziel and how tough he was to defend in the SEC.
Oh yes, the same Johnny Football who averaged 395 yards of offense and directed Texas A&M to 71 points in two victories over Freeze and his Rebels. While Boykin isn’t exactly the amazing improviser Manziel was -- he only had 29 rushes of 10-plus yards this year compared to the 36 and 47 Manziel had the past two seasons -- Boykin does possess that game-changing gene that helped the Horned Frogs rise near the top of the college football landscape this year. Ole Miss players believe TCU’s offense looks eerily similar to the Manziel-led offenses of the Aggies.

“It’s always a red flag for a defense when you’ve got a quarterback is that caliber [of player],” Ole Miss All-American cornerback Senquez Golson said. “They have a lot of athletes; they make a lot of plays. It’s definitely one of the better offenses we’ll face this year.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think we could have had a better matchup. This is really going to put our defense to the test and see what we got.”

Added linebacker Serderius Bryant: “You think about it as you get to play Johnny again.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound firecracker helped push the sixth-ranked Horned Frogs (11-1) to the tip of the College Football Playoff behind the nation’s No. 4 offense (542.2 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (46.8 points per game). TCU has scored 40-plus points eight times and hit 82 against Texas Tech, a game in which Boykin threw seven touchdowns.

Boykin and that spread offense are scary, but the Rebels present an equally as imposing defense for the Frogs to handle in this year's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. Ole Miss owns the nation’s best scoring defense (13.8 points per game and 18 touchdowns allowed) and the No. 13 defense overall, allowing 321.2 yards per game.

The best defense TCU has faced this year? That would be Texas’ 26th-ranked defense (348.3) That isn’t bad at all, but the Horned Frogs piled on 34 points and gained a season-low 368 yards.

So how does Ole Miss’ defense, which spent the entire season near the top of the SEC, plan to stop Boykin and that fantastic offense? Bryant says the key is containing Boykin and combating speed with, well, speed – something Bryant says is the best he’s seen on Ole Miss’ defense during his four-year career.

The Rebels struggled with containing the middle of the field against Manziel when he took off under duress. Ole Miss collapsed the pocket well and took away his receivers at times, but they left themselves vulnerable up the middle, where Manziel absolutely gashed the Rebels, rushing for a combined 253 yards in those two games.

This season, Bryant said with increased speed at linebacker, the Rebels have been better equipped against running quarterbacks. The best rushing performances by QBs against Ole Miss this season were from Louisiana-Lafayette’s Terrance Broadway (59 yards) and Auburn’s Nick Marshall (50 yards and two touchdowns).

Boykin rushed for 642 yards and averaged 54.7 yards per game, but he likes to make a lot of plays outside the pocket, whether it’s running or throwing. That means the Rebels will have have to spy on him and collapse the pocket while being disciplined across the line of scrimmage and filling run gaps in order to take away potential big plays from Boykin’s arm and legs.

“As soon as he takes that step forward and tries to run, the defense is going to collapse on him,” Bryant said. “… If everyone knows that, it’s going to happen.”

Boykin is a special player, but the TCU offense can hurt teams in so many ways. Running back Aaron Green is averaging 7.7 yards per carry (854 rushing yards), and five players grabbed at least 29 receptions, including wide receiver Josh Doctson, who led the team in catches (59), yards (959) and touchdowns (nine).

There’s motion, space and quickness to frustrate a defense, and the Rebels know they’ll be on high alert.

“That’s how they put up big points,” Bryant said. “They put up points in all senses with throwing a lot of different things that confuse defensive coordinators. We have to get ready for that.”

But TCU also has to be ready for the Rebels, who held top SEC offenses at Alabama and Mississippi State to less than 20 points this year. The Rebels' defense has been impressive in its own right, and to Golson, he hasn’t seen a better defense face TCU.

“I’m really excited to find out, but I don’t think so,” he said. “… It might be even more exciting for us because we get to face this type of offense. It’s always exciting to play a team out of conference, so I’m just glad we’re playing a team like TCU.”

Ole Miss season review

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
11:00
AM ET
With a bowl win, No. 9 Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3 SEC) will finish the season with 10 wins for the first time since 2003. Thanks to the nation's best scoring defense (13.8 points allowed per game and 18 touchdowns allowed), the Rebels spent the latter part of the season on the cusp of both the SEC Western Division race and the playoff race.

The Rebels were the lone blemish on No. 1 Alabama's schedule, and Ole Miss ended No. 7 Mississippi State's SEC and playoff hopes with a 31-17 win at home to close the regular season. There were plenty of high points to the Rebels' season, including rising as high as third in the AP Poll and fourth in the College Football Playoff, but the Rebels also suffered a crushing 30-0 loss at Arkansas and lost top receiver Laquon Treadwell to a season-ending leg injury in the closing minutes of the loss to Auburn.

Even though Ole Miss missed out on ifs first ever trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, the Rebels retained coach Hugh Freeze for the foreseeable future and have a quality foundation to work with and build on for the coming years.

Best win: While the win over archrival Mississippi State ended the Bulldogs’ championship hopes, that 23-17 home win over Alabama was the one that really put the Rebels on the college football map. Those are the games that Ole Miss has historically suffered in, but the Rebels went toe-to-toe with the Tide, a team they'd lost 10 straight to, and came away with an upset that sent shockwaves throughout the college football world and stood as an historic moment for the state of Mississippi. Behind 251 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Bo Wallace and a perfectly timed, late-game interception by cornerback Senquez Golson, the Rebels took down then-No. 3 Alabama and watched their fans storm the field and take the goal posts through the Grove and to the Square.

Worst loss: A couple weeks after losing Treadwell in an absolute heartbreaker at home to Auburn, the Rebels went to Fayetteville and got pounded 30-0 by an Arkansas team that entered the game winning one of its last 18 SEC games. Now, this Hogs team proved to be better this season, but the Rebels were equipped with more talent on both sides of the ball and were still dominated for four quarters. Early turnovers put Ole Miss down 17-0 after just one quarter, and the Rebels finished the game with six turnovers, including two interceptions by Wallace in the end zone. The loss officially knocked Ole Miss out of the SEC and playoff races.

Player of year: After three years of mostly up-and-down play, Golson proved to be one of the nation’s best cover corners – if not the best. Golson led the SEC and ranked second nationally with nine interceptions and returned one of those for a touchdown. He also tied for first in the SEC with 17 passes defended. Golson transformed into a player who was able to frustrate plenty of quarterbacks this season by taking his entire side of the field away and probably dropped a few more interceptions. Golson also sealed Ole Miss’ historic win over Alabama with a last-second interception in the end zone.

Breakout player: Ole Miss’ defensive line was filled with talent this year, but freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes proved to be the Rebels’ best pass-rusher. The frosh finished the regular season playing in every game, making three starts, and leading the team with 7.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. He ranked second in the SEC in forced fumbles and tied for seventh in sacks. Haynes, who showed that he could excel as both a speed and power rusher off the edge for the Rebels, also had 29 total tackles on the season. He’s certainly a youngster with a very bright future.

Play(s) of year: Yeah, I’m cheating here, and I just don’t care. Golson’s interception was fantastic, agile and perfectly timed. It was a toe-tapping, back-of-the-end zone interception of Alabama’s Blake Sims with 37 seconds left. It happened so fast that it was actually called an incomplete pass at first, before it was ruled a catch after a review. Then there was running back Jaylen Walton’s jaw-dropping, reverse-field, ankle-breaking, 91-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the Rebels’ win over Mississippi State that pretty much ended the Bulldogs’ chances of a comeback by making it 24-10.

2015 outlook: With Freeze coming back, along with a solid cast of characters on both sides of the ball, 2015 could set up to be a special year for the Rebels. The defense will lose Golson and two-time All-American safety Cody Prewitt, but the defensive line is in good hands with Robert Nkemdiche returning, and the linebacker unit has some exciting, young talent coming back. The offense, however, has to find a consistent running game and a replacement for Wallace, who started all three years he was at Ole Miss. Replacing Wallace is the biggest obstacle for the Rebels, as their backups got some in-game reps this year, but lack any sort of consistency. Having Treadwell returning from his injury will be huge for whichever quarterback takes over.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
The Associated Press announced its three-team list of All-Americans for the 2014 season on Tuesday, and the SEC is represented by 15 players, including four on the first team.

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:

FIRST TEAM

Offense

WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn

Defense

CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama

SECOND TEAM

Offense

OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina

Defense

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

THIRD TEAM

Offense

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State

Kentucky season review

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
3:00
PM ET
This looked to be the year that Kentucky became more than just a basketball school. A 5-1 start, including a pair of SEC wins, and the Wildcats were primed to reach their first bowl game in four years. There was even talk they could make a run at the East. Then it all came crashing down with a six-game losing streak to finish the season. There’s still optimism in Lexington with Mark Stoops in charge, but the bowl game will have to wait.

Best win: The win over Vanderbilt was pivotal because it was Kentucky’s first conference win in nearly three years, but nothing can top the wild comeback victory against South Carolina the very next week. The Wildcats, who trailed 38-24 early in the fourth quarter, scored three touchdowns in the final eight minutes to pull ahead. The game-winning score came on a pick-6 by defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree. The defense got another interception from Ashley Lowery in the final minutes to seal the win. Of note, Jojo Kemp rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the game.

Worst loss: Kentucky’s first SEC win could have and probably should have come earlier in the season at the Swamp. The Wildcats played well, better than anybody expected, but came up short in a triple-overtime loss to Florida. In the first overtime, the Gators converted a fourth-and-goal to tie the game and send it to a second overtime. If Kentucky gets a stop there, the streak is over and the players are headed home with a victory. Instead, it turned out to be a gut-wrenching defeat and one that ultimately cost them a chance at playing in a bowl game.

Player of the year: There has not been a more productive player at Kentucky over the last three seasons. But this honor is for 2014 only, and Dupree did not disappoint in his final season with the Wildcats. The All-SEC defensive end finished with 74 tackles and was among the conference leaders in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (7.5). He also forced two fumbles, blocked a kick and had five quarterback hurries. The most impressive part was that Dupree played his best games on the biggest stage. He recorded sacks against Mississippi State and Missouri, and he had three tackles for loss and a sack in the season finale at Louisville.

Breakout player: He was inconsistent. He missed two games. But when Stanley “Boom” Williams got the ball in his hands, he was electric. The freshman started slow, easing his way into the running back rotation behind Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, but by the end of the season, he had essentially taken over the position. He rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown against Georgia, and he went for a career-high 126 yards and two touchdowns in the Governor’s Cup three weeks later. Williams finished the season ahead of both Kemp and Heard with 488 yards rushing, and he’ll likely be No. 1 on the depth chart this spring.

Play of the year: It might not have been the biggest game, but Javess Blue’s one-handed touchdown catch against Louisiana-Monroe was SportsCenter Top 10 material. With a defender on his back, Blue extended his hand to tip the ball to himself, and he used the same hand to somehow pin the ball against his shoulder before he went out of bounds.

video 2015 outlook: This team got over the hump, winning its first SEC game under Stoops, but the second-year coach will be looking for his Wildcats to take the next step in 2015. The offense returns eight starters including quarterback Patrick Towles, who threw for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season as the starter. And the defense, though it will miss Dupree and fellow pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, the majority of the starters will be back. There will also be reinforcements next season as Kentucky has another top 25 recruiting class currently in the fold. As for the schedule, it sets up nicely with five of the first six games at home in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Wildcats start 4-2 or even duplicate this year’s 5-1 start. But they have to learn how to finish. If they can do that, then a bowl game is just the beginning.

 

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