Best of the visits: SEC

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
From the Alabama’s dominating 59-0 win over Texas A&M, to Georgia's big win over Arkansas on Saturday, there were some big games around the SEC over the weekend. Several prospects attended the games while others watched on television and used social media as a platform to share their experiences. Here's a look at some of the top social media posts from the weekend:

Alabama outside linebacker commit Mekhi Brown tweeted a photo of himself along with five-star Alabama commit Blake Barnett and defensive end Christian Bell. The three players visited Alabama for the Texas A&M game on Saturday.
Barnett also posted another photo of himself along with his dad and head coach Nick Saban before the game. Five-star defensive end Byron Cowart was on an official visit to Alabama this weekend. The No. 2-ranked prospect in the country posted a photo of himself and Saban's wife and a video on Instagram of his experience in Tuscaloosa. Alabama commit Ronnie Harrison tweeted a photo, albeit a sideways photo, of himself in the front row, during the game. ESPN 300 athlete Donte Jackson visited LSU for its big 41-3 win over Kentucky on Saturday night. Jackson came away impressed with how the Tigers played. Ole Miss also had a few visitors including commits Drew Richmond and Ugo Amadi. Both players posted photos on Twitter. Richmond stopped to pose with a fan in his photo. ESPN 300 defensive tackle Kyle Phillips took a visit to Ole Miss this weekend as well and tweeted about his experience. Ole Miss safety commit Cam Ordway posted a photo on Instagram of himself posing with head coach Hugh Freeze and other recruits at the game. Florida suffered a bad 42-13 loss in front of several recruits. ESPN 300 outside linebacker Jeffery Holland was in attendance. Though he didn't say much, his tweet during the game pretty much summed up how everyone else felt about the game.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
The only good thing about a day full of blowouts in the SEC is that there are plenty of helmet stickers to hand out.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: How do you top a 143-yard, one-touchdown performance in your first collegiate start? By rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in your second start. That's exactly what Chubb did in place of the suspended Todd Gurley on Saturday, leading Georgia past Arkansas, 45-32. He became only the third freshman in school history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton). As long as Chubb keeps getting 30-plus carries a game, he's going to keep showing up on this list.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: Don't get me wrong. Senquez Golson is deserving of a helmet sticker with two interceptions on Saturday. But it was Haynes and the defensive line that set the tone for the Rebels. They held Tennessee to zero rushing yards in large part thanks to nine sacks on the night. Haynes led the way with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during the 34-3 win. The freshman might not get the recognition of his counterpart Robert Nkemdiche, but he's one of the SEC's better young stars whom nobody's talking about.

Terrence Magee, RB, LSU: It was supposed to be Leonard Fournette with the huge game, but Magee said “move over freshman, I'm taking this one.” Magee rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in LSU's 41-3 win over Kentucky. That's 14.1 yards per carry for those counting at home. He also happened to be the team's leading receiver with three catches for 44 yards. Fournette might be the LSU running back to watch in the second half, but don't forget about Magee. He's not going anywhere.

Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: Murphy wasted no time putting his stamp on Saturday's game in Gainesville, returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. But he wasn't done yet. No, he had more in store for the Gators. Murphy made it 14-0 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he would later return a punt 82 yards for another score. The senior finished with 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on the night. He was one of the big reasons why Missouri won 42-13 despite only gaining 119 yards on offense.

Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: T.J. Yeldon, you deserve a helmet sticker. Amari Cooper, you deserve a helmet sticker. Alabama's defense, you deserve a helmet sticker. It was that kind of game for the Crimson Tide. But the nod here goes to Sims, who went 16-of-27 for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M. He also made arguably the best move of the day on his 43-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. This team, Sims included, was criticized after last week's win over Arkansas. It responded in a big way.

It was a defensive struggle early on, but Ole Miss gained some separation in the second quarter and eventually put the game away. There’s a reason the Rebels are ranked No. 3 nationally, and they proved it once again Saturday with a 34-3 win over Tennessee.

How the game was won: One word: Landsharks. This Ole Miss defense lived up to its nickname Saturday night with an absolutely dominant performance against Tennessee. The Rebels finished with nine sacks, three interceptions and held the Volunteers to 189 yards of total offense. There might not be a better defense in all of college football.

Game ball goes to: The pressure created up front was the difference in the game, but how can you not give the game ball to Senquez Golson? The SEC’s interception leader added two more picks, giving him seven on the season. That’s the second most in college football. He just seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

What it means: The Rebels were not as sharp on offense. They struggled out of the gates, and quarterback Bo Wallace completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. If Saturday’s game showed us anything, it showed us that Ole Miss can still win football games even when the offense is a bit off.

Playoff implication: After back-to-back wins over Alabama and Texas A&M, this was a game in which Ole Miss could’ve let its guard down. But it didn’t. The Rebels took care of business and still control their destiny with just five games remaining. Win them all, and they're looking at the No. 1 seed in the playoff.

Best play: Both of Golson’s interceptions were impressive, but this touchdown catch (below) by Evan Engram took the cake. Ole Miss came out throwing after a turnover, and Wallace threw a ball that most tight ends would have no business catching. Engram isn’t most tight ends. He made an acrobatic catch in the end zone and put the dagger in Tennessee.

video What's next: Ole Miss travels to Baton Rouge next week to face a young LSU team that seems to be improving with every game. The last time the Rebels played in Baton Rouge, they allowed a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a battle of two SEC East teams coming off painful home losses last week, only Missouri showed up. The Tigers beat the Florida Gators soundly, 42-13, on Saturday night.

How the game was won: Florida just couldn't get out of its own way in a dysfunctional performance reminiscent of the 2013 team that went 4-8 and lost its last seven games. The Gators played two quarterbacks, starting junior QB Jeff Driskel, who had four turnovers (11 in his past 14 quarters) before being benched for true freshman Treon Harris, who had two turnovers of his own. Missouri wisely went into an offensive shell with just 119 total yards and didn't give Florida a chance to get back into the game.

Game ball goes to: The Missouri defense didn't have to do much more than let Florida self-destruct, but give credit to the Tigers for pressuring both Florida quarterbacks into enough sacks and turnovers to turn the game into a laugher and send the home fans to the exits early in the third quarter.

What it means: Despite their ugly shutout loss to Georgia, the Tigers still have life in the SEC East race. The same cannot be said for the lifeless Gators, who could have set up a showdown with Georgia but laid an egg. It was Florida's second straight homecoming loss -- the Gators were beaten by Vanderbilt last season -- and the natives are restless. There were loud boos for Driskel and chants of "Fire Muschamp."

Best play: There was so little offense and so little point to this game after the first quarter that the play of the game might as well go to the special teams. Marcus Murphy took the opening kickoff and ran untouched up the middle for a 95-yard touchdown. It accurately set the tone for the game. Murphy's return gave him six career TD returns, breaking a tie with Jeremy Maclin for the Missouri record. Murphy went on to score on an 82-yard punt return in the third quarter.

What's next: Missouri (5-2, 2-1 in the SEC) hosts Vanderbilt next Saturday. Florida (3-3, 2-3) might spend its bye week dealing with intense questions about its head coach's job security.
[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsKenyan Drake kept treats on hand during Alabama's win Saturday.
Nick Saban isn't alone.

The love the Alabama head coach has for Little Debbie's Oatmeal Creme Pies is evidently rubbing off on his players.

Injured tailback Kenyan Drake was spotted on the sidelines with a box of them in his injury scooter during the Crimson Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M on Saturday.

Saban reportedly eats two of the treats for breakfast every morning.

Drake is out for the season after fracturing his leg during Alabama's loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 4, but he's remained in high spirits by outfitting his scooter with a "KDx17" license plate.

After the game, Drake joked about the scene on Twitter.


This was supposed to be the upset pick of the week in the SEC. Many thought this would be the game in which Bret Bielema would notch his first conference win at Arkansas. The only problem was that No. 10 Georgia didn’t get the memo.

The Bulldogs -- sans Todd Gurley -- jumped out to a big 38-6 halftime lead and held off the Hogs in the second half to win 45-32 in Little Rock.

How the game was won: Where do we begin? Hutson Mason was sharp. Nick Chubb was on a different level. But for the second straight week, this Georgia defense set the tone early. Four turnovers forced, three sacks, a blocked extra point. The Bulldogs might have let their guard down at times in the second half, but it was still another impressive outing. Damian Swann led the way with 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception.

Game ball goes to: As good as Swann was on defense, Chubb was that much more impressive for the offense. The freshman carried the load once again with Gurley out, finishing with 30 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Conley deserves a shout out here as well. He had five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown for the Bulldogs.

What it means: The SEC East finally broke through against the West. This was the best and potentially only chance for the East to win a cross-division game this season, and Georgia got it done. It was also the first time a team from the West had been beaten by somebody outside of its own division this season.

Playoff implication: All of a sudden, Georgia looks like a serious contender for the College Football Playoff and can you imagine if Gurley comes back at some point this season? This team could challenge the Magnolia State for bragging rights in the SEC.

Best play: Have we mentioned Chubb’s name yet? The freshman had a lot of impressive runs on the day, but his 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter was Gurley-esque. He exploded through the hole, outran the Arkansas safeties and raced into the end zone untouched. The score put the Bulldogs up 17-6, and they never looked back.


What's next: Georgia gets a week off before its game with Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas, who showed plenty of fight in the second half, will get UAB at home next week before a trip to No. 1 Mississippi State in two weeks.
Senquez Golson knew the question was coming before he even heard the voice on the other end of the phone.

It was going to be about Trent Richardson. More specifically, it was going to be about what Alabama’s tank-like running back did to him on a mid-October night in 2011.

“Oh yeah,” Ole Miss’ senior cornerback said with a laugh before the Richardson question was completed. “No. 1 team in the country. I was probably the most nervous kid in the country.”

[+] EnlargeSenquez Golson
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesSenquez Golson's fourth-quarter interception iced the game in Ole Miss' win over Alabama.
Before that nervous kid knew it, he was replacing starter Marcus Temple, who broke his ankle, only to be nearly shaken out of his own cleats by a dazzling run and cut from Richardson along the sideline during a 76-yard touchdown run.

The wide-eyed freshman made continuous highlight reels for all the wrong reasons on a play that once defined his career, but never broke him.

“I’ve seen it plenty of times,” Golson said. “I think it kind of helped me more than it hurt me, definitely.”

If only that freshman knew that almost exactly three years later, he’d be making his own highlight play -- against the same team -- that will carry legend-like status for years to come.

Golson helped change the narrative of his Ole Miss story with his game-clinching, tip-toe interception against the same team that victimized him in 2011. The play sent ripples through the Magnolia State and showed just how far Golson has come.

Golson, who admits he hasn’t seen the interception against Alabama, leads the SEC with five interceptions after entering the season with six-career picks. He was a forgotten player in Oxford before reshaping his life, on and off the field.

“It’s been a process for me, but it’s been a good one,” Golson said of his Ole Miss career.

Golson arrived in Oxford in 2011 as a highly touted football prospect who turned down a $1.1 million contract from the Boston Red Sox. The talent was there, but he was raw, which held Golson back early.

Like the athlete who played Wildcat quarterback, receiver, safety, linebacker and little corner in high school, Golson thought he’d get by on his athleticism. That didn’t exactly work out, as Golson struggled to learn the Rebels’ defense. He couldn’t process things fast enough. His study habits suffered and he basically just became another face on the team.

“It was frustrating at first when you know that you can do something, but you don’t see the results that you want,” Golson said. “I had to find myself, study the position and understand what I had to do to get better.”

Golson put baseball in his rearview mirror after his freshman year, but dealt with two average seasons of football, accumulating marginal stats and 16 starts in 24 games. He also dealt with working with three different position coaches in three years.

He sought advice from former NFL defensive backs -- and fellow south Mississippians -- Mario Edwards and Terrell Buckley to get his technique down, but it wasn’t until he began changing his preparation and his body following his sophomore year did he really start to take the game seriously, Golson said.

“I always knew that I could be a pretty good football player, but I just knew that I was going to have to figure it out,” he said.

Now, Golson says he can see things before they happen in games. He recognizes formations and tendencies from film in mere seconds on the field. His brain is buzzing in games, and his body follows.

Physically, he’s become a chiseled 176 pounds. His liquid intake is “straight water and juices every now and then.” He doesn’t drink alcohol or eat late. He went from inhaling McDonald’s to grilling lean protein at home.

Golson also made the weight room his sanctuary, taking workouts more seriously than ever this past offseason.

The transformation Golson has made is staggering consider where he came from. When coach Hugh Freeze met the sophomore version of Golson, he questioned whether he had the heart, drive and discipline to be good enough for his team.

Those thoughts crept back into Freeze’s head over the summer when Golson was arrested for disorderly conduct. Charges were eventually dropped, and it proved as yet another learning experience, but Golson's focus never wavered.

“Now that he has made the decision to be dedicated and to be a team player that buys into our core values and the way we want to do things, his talent on the field has really taken off,” Freeze said. “He’s just dedicated himself this year and during the offseason to be the best he can be. I’m thrilled that he’s getting the results on the field.”

Golson’s had a special start to his final year with the Rebels, but he’s far from done. He craves championships, is on track to graduate and is seeking to return to the baseball team next spring.

So much for squandering his talents.

“I’m trying to kill three birds with one stone in the same year,” Golson said.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:


Furman at South Carolina, SEC Network: Poor Furman, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to play South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been stewing the past two weeks about their loss at Kentucky. You think they will play with something to prove Saturday at home? For Mike Davis, Dylan Thompson and that offense, it’s a chance to put up a bunch of points and gain some much-needed confidence. For the defense, it’s a chance to take a step in the right direction and actually stop an opponent with some consistency. In reality, this game might as well be a scrimmage for South Carolina. But nonetheless, it’s an important springboard into the second half of the schedule, when the Gamecocks can either continue to circle the drain or rebound and regain the respect they have lost this season.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will have their hands full against Texas A&M on Saturday.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama, CBS: Only one team will leave Bryant-Denny Stadium with hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Aggies, coming off back-to-back losses, are on the razor’s edge, and the Crimson Tide, coming off a loss at Ole Miss and a one-point win at unranked Arkansas, are teetering. Alabama’s defense has played much better of late, but its secondary will be put to the test by Kenny Hill and the A&M passing game. Conversely, Hill could feel the pressure considering his line hasn’t played well the past two games and Alabama’s defensive front has the size and talent to get into the backfield. One thing is certain, though: Emotions should be running high come kickoff as both teams have something to prove.

4 p.m.

No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, SEC Network: Time to find out the answer to the question that has been on the mind of SEC fans everywhere: How would Arkansas do in the dreadful East Division? The Hogs have played well this season, but haven't been able to overcome Texas A&M and Alabama. Against Georgia, will Bret Bielema’s squad break through? The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are riding high after a dominant performance at Missouri in which the absence of Todd Gurley was hardly felt in the final outcome. They now lead the East, and the race hardly appears close. Leonard Floyd and that defense will be put to the test, though. And Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason won’t face as porous a secondary as Missouri’s this time around.

7 p.m.

Missouri at Florida, ESPN2: Watch out for turnovers. Florida and Missouri have combined to give the ball away 11 times in October alone. Just last week, Maty Mauk threw four interceptions against Georgia, and Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel had two costly interceptions against LSU. In other words, both defenses should be licking their chops. The difference in this game, however, could be the running backs. If Florida can establish the run and negate the pressure from Missouri’s Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Gators should be in good shape. However, if Missouri can get Russell Hansbrough & Co. going, the pressure should fall off Mauk’s shoulders. It’s a lot of what-ifs, but for two teams headed in the wrong direction, should that really surprise you?

Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, ESPN: The Vols have been knocking on the door this season, but the divide between competitive football and winning football has been tough to cross. Will they do it against No. 3-ranked Ole Miss? On the road? Now that’s asking a lot of Butch Jones' young squad, which is high on talent (Jalen Hurd, Cameron Sutton, etc.) but low on experience. The Rebs, meanwhile, have both confidence and experience on their side. If anyone thought their home win against Alabama was a fluke, they changed their mind after watching them go on the road and destroy Texas A&M. So long as quarterback Bo Wallace continues to take care of the football and that defense stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine Ole Miss having a hiccup game.

Kentucky at LSU, SEC Network: This game feels a lot like a battle of youth and momentum. On the one side, you have Kentucky, which has surprised many with the way it jumped out to a 5-1 record, most recently beating South Carolina at home. Patrick Towles has played well and the defense has been aggressive. But the Cats are young and don’t have pedigree on their side. On the other hand, you have LSU, which has gone from a dark horse playoff contender to unranked and outside the conversation in the West. But don’t count out Les Miles’ squad just yet. After beating Florida in The Swamp, the Tigers could have confidence going for them. And considering all the young talent in Baton Rouge, that is a scary thought.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
There are once again some big games around the SEC this weekend. The Texas A&M at Alabama game looks to be loaded with big-time visitors. Ole Miss will have several recruits on hand for its game against Tennessee. LSU is also hoping to capitalize on its big win over Florida last week by bringing in several recruits for its home game against Kentucky. Here’s a closer look at some of the top visitors in the SEC this weekend.

ATHENS, Ga. -- For any relationship to flourish, you need communication.

The same can be said for the maturation and development of Georgia's defense, as communication has been the key to the vast improvements we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

Since closing the month of September by allowing 401 yards of offense and 32 points in a three-point win against Tennessee, the Bulldogs' defense has been outstanding the past two games. Georgia held Vanderbilt to 320 yards and 17 points, then went on the road to shutout Missouri, allowing -- wait for it -- 147 yards. Yes, the Bulldogs, who were dealing with the emotions of not having top player Todd Gurley, went into a hostile SEC environment and completely shut down the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeMauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSterling Bailey and the Georgia defense held Missouri and QB Maty Mauk to 147 total yards Saturday.
The Dawgs' defense sacked Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk three times, intercepted him four times and held him to 97 yards on 9 of 21 passing.

"The communication in the back end is getting better and better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said about the defensive improvements. "I just think they’re understand more what [defensive coordinator] [Jeremy] Pruitt wants back there, and they’re just doing a good job of getting each other on the same page."

Pruitt, in his first season at Georgia, hasn't been afraid to constantly change things up this season, as Georgia has displayed six different starting defensive lineups in six games. But what has remained constant is the goal to get tighter, more concise communication throughout the defense. The evolution of that has helped players know exactly where they should be and where others should be, defensive end Sterling Bailey said.

What has been so great about a more talkative defensive unit is that even when plays get called wrong or offenses throw some shifts or motions out there, guys are moving together in order to be on the same page. Players are starting to learn how to change at the last minute together.

"You’ve got to be able to make adjustments on the fly," Richt said. "If you don’t, you’ll get exposed."

Through the first four games, Georgia's defense was allowing an average of 338.8 yards per game, 4.7 yards per play, 22.8 points per game and had three interceptions. Take out that 66-0 win against lowly Troy, and yards per game increases to 379.7 yards, and points per game shoots up to 30.3. South Carolina and Tennessee averaged 6.2 and 5.1 yards per play, respectively, against the Bulldogs.

Since then, the Bulldogs have given up 233.5 yards per game, 17 points, 4.2 yards per play, and the opponents' third-down conversation rate decreased from 31.7 percent to 10 percent. Georgia also has five interceptions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents' points per drive against the Dawgs is down from 1.65 through the first four games to .65 in the past two.

Players are evolving within the defense, but they are also using their words more to make things work. They are asking teammates and coaches more questions. Guys are getting calls right more often. The Dawgs are now performing well, both physically and vocally.

"We know that when we communicate, we execute," Bailey said. "When we don’t, things fall apart.

"It’s helping us learn his defense a lot better."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who has the pleasure of facing Georgia's improved defense on Saturday, has been very impressed with the improvements made under Pruitt, because Pruitt has been able to mold his defense around the talent of the players he has. There is no 'square peg, round hole' in Athens.

"He’s built a scheme there at Georgia that fits his personnel there," Bielema said.

It has only been two games, but Georgia's defense is thriving and generating a ton of momentum for a second-half push. Saturday presents the task of stopping an Arkansas offense averaging 278.7 rushing yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. That sounds intimidating, but Bailey said this unit isn't worried about numbers anymore. It's concerned with talking itself into a dominating frenzy each week.

"We are not taking any steps back," Bailey said.
Bret Bielema was fighting back tears when he gave his postgame press conference Saturday. His Arkansas team had just lost another nail-biter, this time to Alabama, and he felt the same pain his players felt. He knew how hard they worked, the time they put in, and to come up just short was devastating.

“I couldn’t put into words how proud I am of our guys,” Bielema said after the game. “As a coach, you sign up for this. I came here with a dream and an idea to do something, and it’s coming. I guarantee you it’s coming.”

The Razorbacks are still looking to give Bielema his first SEC win since arriving in Fayetteville prior to last season. They squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against Texas A&M the week before, losing in overtime, and if it couldn’t get any worse, they lost by a single point, 14-13, to Alabama on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBret Bielema and the Razorbacks will get another opportunity to earn that elusive first SEC win when Georgia travels to Little Rock this weekend.
If not for a fumble here or a botched snap there, Arkansas would’ve upset the Crimson Tide and put an end to the losing streak. Instead, it’s back to the drawing board.

“We took away that every opportunity is precious,” Hogs defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We know how close we are. We know how good we are and how good we can be. We just have to take advantage of every opportunity.”

On Sunday after the loss, Bielema wished two things for his players: (A) that he could take away the pain of defeat and (B) that he could give them a win. But he also made clear that a win has to be earned and if you don’t earn it, it usually doesn’t mean much in time.

“We did a lot of really good things [against Alabama], but we did enough to take it away from us,” Bielema said. “Don’t lose sight of what’s in front of you. Think big picture. It’s not necessarily the win. It’s the compound effect of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been building to get that win that’s really what everybody is seeking.”

Still, that first SEC win will be sweet, and the Razorbacks will get another crack at it this weekend in Little Rock against Georgia.

The Bulldogs, who still don’t know the status of star running back Todd Gurley, are riding high after a 34-0 shutout win at Missouri, but head coach Mark Richt knows this Arkansas team is much better than its 0-3 conference record would indicate.

“It’s very impressive how they play,” Richt said. “You watch the Texas A&M game, you watch the Alabama game, obviously they could’ve won either one of those games. They were in great shape to be in position to win either one of those games or both for that matter.

“They’re on the verge of doing some big things, and we’re just trying to keep it from being at our expense.”

The question for the Razorbacks is not whether they can compete against a team like Georgia. The question is can they do it three weeks in a row? Can they get up for another big game after back-to-back heart-wrenching losses?

“It’s not difficult,” Flowers said. “We’re football players. We love playing football, so we love going out there and competing each and every week. Obviously, it’s just frustrating afterwards because of all the investments you put into it, but we’re going to get up. We’re going to play football. We’re going to compete week in, week out.”

And Flowers, who finished with eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack on Saturday, knows how rewarding it will be when Arkansas finally gets that SEC win.

“There’s going to be a lot of smiles around here, a lot of happy people, a lot of happy fans,” he said. “It’s going to be worth all the work.”
An examination of the current state of SEC defenses will tell you a couple of things.

Scoring and yardage are both down halfway through the season in head-to-head conference play compared to where the league was at this point last year. On paper, defenses appear to be on pace to look more like they did in 2012 than 2013.

But the numbers – and there were lots of them – aren’t too far off from last season, compared to the halfway point and the final totals.

With nine teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks – five underclassmen – I wanted to see if there would be a drastic difference in how defenses looked statistically.

(Note: The numbers used in this research came via ESPN Stats & Information’s statistical database.)

SEC defenses are allowing 358.6 yards per game and 402.3 yards per game in conference play. Seven defenses are ranked within the top 50 in total defense; six made the cut halfway through last year. At this point last year, defenses were allowing 376.3 yards per game and 423.5 yards per game in SEC play. In 2012, when defense was king, those numbers were down to 361.3 and 373.8 at the end of the season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertSEC defenses such as Mississippi State's are statistically a little more stout than they were in 2013.
Defenses are currently allowing 5.66 yards per play in league games and 3.28 offensive touchdowns per game. Last year, SEC defenses ended the season allowing 5.91 yards per play and 3.54 offensive touchdowns in conference play.

Those numbers aren’t too far off, but it’s interesting that at this point last year, defenses were allowing 3.68 offensive touchdowns per game and 6.14 yards per play in conference play. At the halfway point in 2012, those numbers were 2.75 touchdowns allowed in league play and 5.31 yards per play.

Those numbers dipped slightly in 2013, as eight teams finished in the top 50 in total defense, meaning SEC defenses got better as the year progressed in a league that featured a plethora of talented, veteran quarterbacks.

Scoring is down at the moment, as teams are averaging 1.92 points per drive in SEC play, down from 2.21 last year. Teams are also scoring touchdowns on 24.4 percent of drives after scoring on 27.7 percent last season. Overall, teams are scoring 21.6 points per game on SEC defenses, which is down from 24.2 through Week 7 of last year. The total scoring percentage in league play for offenses is the same as in 2012 (31.9), which is down from 36.9 percent last year.

While the numbers show that defenses are steadily improving, it’s important to note that prolific offenses appear here to stay in a conference built on stout defensive play. That becomes obvious when you look at the fact that teams are allowing just 21.2 less yards per game and almost the same amount of yards per play and touchdowns per game while facing a less-heralded group of quarterbacks.

With more offenses implementing some sort of variation of the spread, teams should continue to move the ball. The addition of more tempo around the league has helped teams, too.

“There has been a push to more athleticism and speed," LSU coach Les Miles said of the evolution of SEC offenses. "We’ve tried to make that adjustment.”

Another interesting note is that takeaways and sacks are up for defenses in 2014, yet offenses are responding well. Defenses have forced 81 turnovers with 48 interceptions. Midway through the 2013 season, defenses forced just 63 turnovers (34 interceptions). In 2012, teams forced 88 turnovers (45 interceptions).

As for sacks, teams have 91 this year after having 90 at this point last year and 123 in 2012, when teams were allowing just 198.85 passing yards per game halfway through the season.

Pressuring quarterbacks is up, but teams are still averaging 234.6 passing yards per game (nearly 10 fewer yards than last year at this time) in SEC play. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, spread offenses help counter the pressure.

"The ball is out of the quarterbacks' hands quickly," Muschamp said. "Pressure is a little overrated, in my opinion, depending on the type of passing game and the passing concepts they're using. You have to be able to play man-to-man. You gotta be able to deny the ball, mix zone with that. It certainly can expose you, as far as deficiencies in coverage and guys who can't tackle in space."

As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if defenses continue to trend up or if offenses heat up. Last year, numbers dropped as defenses adjusted to such good quarterback play. Last year's experience isn't there, but could quarterbacks -- and offenses -- catch up to defenses by the end of the year with teams working in space more?

“It’s a different style of football,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who runs the spread. “... It gives some people advantages that years ago they didn’t have.”

“The defense figures it out and the offense goes and finds something else."

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 15

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
Another week, another SEC playoff contender is gone. That’s the way it’s been this season, and it was no different this past Saturday. Texas A&M has dropped off the list after a humbling loss at home to Ole Miss. The Aggies have a chance to redeem themselves this weekend at Alabama, but time is running out.

Here’s a look at the remaining SEC contenders, including a new team at the top.

Mississippi State
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at Kentucky

Reason for optimism: After beating three straight top-10 teams and jumping last season’s BCS champion Florida State for the top spot in the polls, it’s good to be a Bulldog these days. They still have a couple of tough games ahead, but going 3-0 against LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn entering this Saturday’s open date was an impressive accomplishment.

Cause for concern: The defense is good, but it’s still prone to giving up chunks of yardage. The Bulldogs are 13th in the SEC in total defense (428.8 ypg) and last against the pass (308.3). State has controlled all three SEC games thus far, but it still needs to become more consistent defensively so Dak Prescott doesn’t have to carry the Bulldogs every game.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Tennessee over Ole Miss -- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After beating No. 3 Alabama at home, the Rebels went on the road and dismantled Texas A&M in a game that wasn’t even close as its 35-20 score showed. The defense has allowed six touchdowns, yet has scored four of its own. In three SEC games, Bo Wallace has seven touchdowns and zero turnovers.

Cause for concern: The West is still tough, and the Rebels have to go on the road to play LSU and Arkansas, two teams that are better than their records indicate, and still have Auburn and Mississippi State on the schedule. The Rebels rank 12th in the SEC and 85th nationally in rushing (146.5 yards per game and just 3.9 yards per carry).

Who they’re rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Alabama -- Edward Aschoff

Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina

Reason for optimism: Take away the two interceptions, and Nick Marshall actually played a decent game against Mississippi State. He threw for over 200 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored two touchdowns. The defense also did its part, forcing four turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to just 10 points in the second half.

Cause for concern: It starts with the turnovers. Auburn cannot turn the ball over four times and expect to beat a good team. But maybe more troubling was how much the Tigers struggled when they got in the red zone. They came in as one of the top red-zone offenses in the country, but on three straight trips in the second quarter, they managed just six points.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Alabama. An Ole Miss loss would be nice, but Auburn will always root against its in-state rival. -- Greg Ostendorf

Record: 5-1 (2-1 SEC)
AP rank: No. 7
Next big obstacle: Oct. 18 vs. Texas A&M

Reason for optimism: Alabama was fortunate to escape Arkansas with a win this past weekend, dodging a number of mistakes and turnovers to beat the Razorbacks by 1 point. Improvement is needed, but at 5-1, nothing is off the table for the Crimson Tide.

Cause for concern: It was bad enough to go on the road and lose at Ole Miss. But when Alabama followed that up with a lackluster performance at Arkansas, it signaled cause for concern. If the offense continues to stay in this current funk, the Tide are a very beatable football team.

Who they’ll be rooting for: Mississippi State did its job beating Auburn last weekend. Now Tennessee needs to find a way to knock off Ole Miss and trim the list of undefeated teams in the West to one. -- Alex Scarborough

Record: 5-1 (3-1)
AP rank: No. 10
Next big obstacle: Oct. 18 at Arkansas (in Little Rock)

Reason for optimism: The defense has vastly improved as the season has gone on. Since giving up 401 yards and 32 points to Tennessee, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 233.5 yards in the last two games and shut out Missouri on the road. The East is Georgia’s to lose. Yes, Kentucky is 2-1 in SEC play, but the Bulldogs have a chance to be favored in their remaining SEC games.

Cause for concern: Even though Nick Chubb had the game of his life against Mizzou, Todd Gurley is arguably the best player in the country, and not having him reduces Georgia’s chances of making it into the playoff. Chubb is good, but he isn’t Gurley and he currently doesn’t have anyone to really spare him like he did for Gurley.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Missouri over Florida -- Edward Aschoff
The winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to win or play for the national championship in each of the last five seasons, and this season was supposed to make it six. The November showdown in Tuscaloosa was thought to be a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff, a winner-take-all matchup similar to last year.

Through the first six games, there has been a slight hiccup by way of the Magnolia State, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama and Auburn aren't still a part of the conversation when it comes time to choose the top four teams in college football.

So we ask the question: Which team is in better shape today to reach the playoff?

Ostendorf: The team that showed up Saturday did not look like the Auburn team we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past year and a half, did it? Silly turnovers and struggles in the red zone took away from what actually wasn't a half-bad performance. You can't spot the other team 21 points and expect to come back and win.

Maybe Mississippi State is just that good, or maybe Auburn simply had an off day. Either way, I expect Gus Malzahn and his team to use the upcoming bye week to regroup and right the ship. Remember the last time the Tigers lost an SEC game? It was last September at LSU, and they proceeded to win nine straight games en route to the BCS title game.

Now, this isn't last year's team. Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Dee Ford are all gone. But I argue that the addition of D'haquille Williams, the team's leading wide receiver through the first six games, makes the passing game that much better, and the difference between last year's defense and this year's defense is night and day. Last year's group relied too much on getting pressure up front. This year, Auburn is getting quality play from the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary, and it has already forced 13 turnovers.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe winner of the past five Auburn-Alabama games has played for the national title. Will this year's winner make the College Football Playoff?
Also, it's not like Alabama's offense is off to a record-setting pace. The offseason hire of Lane Kiffin looked promising at the time, but after 227 yards and 14 points against Arkansas on Saturday, maybe it's time to admit that we were wrong about him. Maybe he's not the answer to all of the Tide's woes on offense.

Scarborough: While I'm not ready to say Kiffin isn't the right guy to lead Alabama's offense, he has struggled in pivotal moments late in each of the last two games. The offensive output against Arkansas -- fewer than 70 yards rushing, two touchdowns -- was about as bad as it gets. But I think with Ryan Kelly eventually sliding back in at center, some of those issues will be settled. It's hard to imagine that running game with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be kept down for long.

With that said, Blake Sims needs to play better. His confidence and decision-making in recent games have been lacking. The fact that Amari Cooper caught just two passes against Arkansas is inexcusable. He's arguably the best player on either side of the Iron Bowl rivalry.

The thing that should concern Alabama fans the most, though, is the execution from this team. If you didn't know it was Nick Saban on the sideline, you would wonder about the coaching. Mental errors, penalties and fumbles have been pervasive. The crisp play of Alabama teams in the past simply hasn't been there this season.

But for those very reasons, I see Alabama as having a higher ceiling than Auburn. The Tide's issues are fixable with practice and good coaching. The Tigers' problems, on the other hand, strike me as more personnel based, whether that's not enough quality players on the offensive line or playmakers on defense.

Ostendorf: Higher ceiling? Maybe. But this Alabama team will go only as far as Sims takes it, and if I'm picking a quarterback, it's not Sims. It's Nick Marshall. He might not be the best passer in the SEC, but he's the perfect fit for what Malzahn wants to do offensively. When Marshall gets going, Auburn is hard to stop. Say what you will about his passing, but he has thrown for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns in three of the last four games. He's much better than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for the Tide considering he accounted for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns in last year's game.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that winning last year's game will give Auburn more confidence heading into this year's game. This team now knows what it takes to beat Alabama, and it won't be afraid to play on the road in Tuscaloosa. If the Iron Bowl does become a play-in game for the playoff, I like the Tigers' chances.

Scarborough: That's great and all. I'm sure we'll see the replay of Chris Davis' 100-plus-yard kick return hundreds of times before the Iron Bowl, as if we had somehow forgotten how that game ended. But while I don't doubt that Auburn's confidence should be high, I'm not sure how much it will matter by that point in the season. The Tigers' schedule is brutal with games against South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia -- in consecutive weeks. After what they have already gone through (Kansas State, Mississippi State), I'm not sure there will be enough gas in the tank come late November.

The Tide's schedule, on the other hand, isn't nearly as daunting. There's this weekend's game against Texas A&M, but after that it's a pair of unranked teams in Tennessee and LSU. Mississippi State will be an enormous challenge, but that game is at home. As is the Iron Bowl. Alabama's home-field advantage could prove to be the difference in both games.

SEC morning links

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you already know that SEC commissioner Mike Slive, 74, announced on Tuesday that he is retiring next summer. Let's devote this space to the man who transformed the SEC into college football's greatest juggernaut.

There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.

Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.

Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.

The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).

Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!

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