SEC: SEC

SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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What a weekend of college football. The SEC kicked off the festivities with three games on Thursday night and wrapped it all up with the Tennessee-Utah State game on Sunday night. Here's a look at the five best performances from Week 1.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.

Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.

Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.
There’s been quite a bit of excitement in Knoxville recently, and it was easy to see why with Tennessee’s opening-day performance Sunday. In front of a capacity crowd -- the first sellout in a home opener since 2007 -- the Volunteers dominated a dangerous Utah State team who many thought could pull off the upset, 38-7.

A little old, a little new

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After scoring the opening touchdown, Tennessee’s special teams came up with a big play, and it was fitting that senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the play. Johnson, an All-SEC talent who could’ve left early for the NFL, ran down on kickoff coverage and jarred the ball loose from the Utah State returner. To nobody’s surprise it was Todd Kelly Jr., one of 21 UT true freshmen (and 32 newcomers) to play Sunday night, who was there to recover the fumble.

Fourth-down stand

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All we’ve heard about this offseason is how the Volunteers are having to replace every starter on both their offensive and defensive lines. Well, the defensive line is tired of hearing about it. They held Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to 34 yards rushing in the first half, and when the Aggies tried to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter, Jordan Williams and Derek Barnett were there to fill the hole and stuff Utah State, forcing a turnover on downs.

Welcome to Rocky Top, Von

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Everybody saw the sick one-handed touchdown grab that junior college transfer Von Pearson made in spring practice, so it should come as no surprise that Pearson caught a touchdown in his first game as a Volunteer. No, the catch wasn’t an instant SportsCenter Top-10 nominee, but it was certainly more meaningful. The play capped off a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock and gave Tennessee a 24-0 lead.

More from Johnson

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Did you think Johnson was done just yet? The guy didn’t turn down the NFL and come back to Tennessee to not make plays. With the Volunteers already up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got the capacity crowd back into it when he intercepted Keeton and nearly took it back for a touchdown. It’s safe to say he’s not regretting his decision to stay. If anything, his stock will continue to rise with more games like this.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first half Saturday, Arkansas stayed right with No. 6 Auburn. The score was tied at 21 and the Razorbacks had 151 yards on the ground, nearly doubling Auburn’s rushing total. However, the second half was a different story.

Arkansas gained just 2 rushing yards and picked up three first downs in the second half as Auburn pulled away to win easily, 45-21.

When asked about his halftime adjustments or lack thereof, Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema told reporters that his assistant coaches got stuck in the press box elevator at Jordan-Hare Stadium and were unable to come down and meet with the players.

"We ran into a little glitch," Bielema said. "Our coaches never made it down from the half. They were stuck in elevators. There was kind of a little audible there we had to deal with, but the great thing was the kids had big eyes and big ears."

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was among the coaches who were stuck in the elevator, but Bielema tried to downplay the incident when asked if it affected his game plan.

"It is what it is," he said. "We had to roll with the flow. Obviously I have coaches up in the booth who look forward to coming down here and meeting as a staff and get on the same page. We were able to communicate by phone.

"I'm not trying to make a big deal out of it. They just weren't able to get down there. I don't have the full story on it. I just know they were actually stuck."

Arkansas­­ will return home to the friendly confines of D.W.R. Razorbacks Stadium next weekend to play Nicholls State.

If only the elevators at Auburn were working as fast as its ball boy Saturday night.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
1:10
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
AUBURN, Ala. – It was a tale of two halves for No. 6 Auburn, both with their quarterbacks and with their defense.

In the first half, quarterback Jeremy Johnson took advantage of his opportunity and threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns. The defense, on the other hand, didn’t look so good. Arkansas rushed for 151 yards in the first half and put up 21 points.

In the second half, Gus Malzahn turned to Nick Marshall at quarterback, and the defense shut down the Razorbacks as Auburn rolled to a 45-21 victory.

The rise of Duke

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We heard all offseason about junior college wide receiver D'haquille Williams or “Duke” as he’s referred to around Auburn. Well, he didn’t disappoint in his debut. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound phenom finished with nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown, but it was a play late in the first quarter that really showed off his athleticism. Williams blew past the defense on a post route, caught the ball in stride and nearly took it to the house.

Williams: “I just stuck it to the outside, he bit on it a little bit, and that gave me enough room to catch the ball and go with it. When I was running, I was just looking to the end zone, thinking I was going to score. Something told me to look back, and when I looked back, he was coming. I tried to stiff arm him, but when I got shoestring tackled, I was like, ‘No way.’”

Johnson: “I actually thought he was going to score, but once I saw him start running, I was just like, ‘Yep, he ain’t that fast.’ He’s got to lose a couple pounds.”

Marshall returns

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Johnson made people forget about Marshall in the first half, going 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but it was Auburn’s No. 1 quarterback who led the offense onto the field to start the second half. Once he was out there, it didn’t take long for Marshall to shows flashes of last season. The senior capped his first drive with a nifty 19-yard touchdown run on a classic zone-read play. The play, along with Marshall’s return, energized the whole team.

Malzahn: “It was just a certain way they were playing us, and they were kind of keying on our running back. We got a couple good blocks at the point of attack, and it opened up. Avery Young made a really good open-field block on the safety and allowed Nick to score.”

Auburn center Reese Dismukes: “I saw Nick run it in, and I did the whole Bruce Pearl -- ‘He’s back!’ It was good to see him get in there and rush for a touchdown.”

Pivotal pick-six

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Auburn’s defense was gashed in the first half, and with the game still very much in doubt, the Tigers needed a play. Jermaine Whitehead delivered. The senior safety intercepted Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-21. The errant pass was caused by Robenson Therezie, who blitzed up the middle and hit Allen just as he let go of the ball. It turned out to be a backbreaker for the Razorbacks.

Whitehead: “We were in a zero blitz, and Robenson Therezie got a push on the quarterback along with the rest of the D-line. He hit the quarterback, the ball came out wobbly, and it was in the air forever. When it finally decided to come down, I saw a lot of room, saw all of the D-line ready to make blocks. They cracked on some people. I can’t wait to watch it on film.”

ATLANTA -- We got a little bit of a shootout inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but No. 2 Alabama prevailed with a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Season openers can be tricky -- and sometimes ugly -- and Alabama, which is a favorite to make the College Football Playoff, had a relatively up-and-down performance in the ATL, but will head back to Tuscaloosa 1-0.

New starting quarterback Blake Sims had some rough moments against West Virginia, but regrouped well and made some big plays throughout the game with his arm and legs. Finding All-SEC receiver Amari Cooper was smart (12 catches for 130 yards), but handing the ball off to his running backs really paid off, especially when he gave the rock to Derrick Henry halfway through the third quarter.

1. Hustling Henry

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Let's face it, the third quarter of this game started off a little stale. After seeing 37 points and 500 yards of offense in the first half, we got a failed fourth-down attempt and a missed field goal. Then, things started clicking for the Crimson Tide on their second drive. With Alabama moving at will against the Mountaineers' defense, Sims handed the ball off to the super sophomore, who immediately cut to his left. As a hole opened up, Henry put on the jets and flew through both lines before pushing off one last defender and leaping into the end zone to put Alabama up 27-17 with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama only managed two more field goals after Henry's score. It proved to be the biggest score of the game for the Crimson Tide, as they fought off a valiant comeback effort from the Mountaineers.

Henry: "It was the outside zone play and the tight end made the block and I just read it. I hit the hole and [went] right into the end zone."

Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen: "It gave us more energy and more focus because once we make a big play, we want to capitalize on it and try to keep that momentum going. It really got the momentum in our favor when Derrick scored."

Right tackle Austin Shepherd: "I think we were going 'Speed Ball' or something and we were just trying to wear West Virginia down so we were just going fast. I guess the hole opened and he got out there and made it work. We were just trying to attack and we did. ... We were trying to punish them, man. Every chance you got, drive them into the ground, get in their hand and they'll start thinking about it and finally they'll wear down."

2. Slippery snap

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Henry's play didn't officially put the game away for Alabama, but a bad snap from West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky severely hurt the Mountaineers' chances of pulling of a major upset Saturday. With Alabama clinging to a 30-20 lead with 14:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers closed in on what should have been another touchdown drive. Quarterback Clint Trickett had already marched his offense down to Alabama's 5-yard line and after two tough incomplete passes that took two touchdowns off the board, Trickett lined up in the shotgun, only to have Orlosky send the snap soaring over his head and outstretched arms. The ball hit the ground and rolled a bit before Trickett landed on it 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play took the Mountaineers out of touchdown range and forced them to kick a field goal. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could barely stand to look at the field after Trickett collapsed on the ball. It swallowed up all the momentum the Mountaineers had and clearly sapped some of the offense's energy. Only a couple plays later, West Virginia got the ball back by way of a Sims interception, but went three plays and punted.

Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."

Report: Rashard Robinson suspended

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
6:49
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson and wide receiver Malachi Dupre will not play in Saturday's opener against No.14 Wisconsin, according to multiple media reports.

LSU's student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, first reported Friday that Robinson -- who is listed as a starting cornerback -- did not travel with the No. 13 Tigers to Houston for the game. The Baton Rouge Advocate later reported that Robinson is suspended for the game and that Dupre sprained his ankle in practice and also would not play.

"We're not going to make a comment on who traveled or who didn't travel until game time," LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said Friday afternoon.

Tigers coach Les Miles was scheduled to meet with reporters at NRG Stadium on Friday afternoon, but it was canceled.

Miles has played coy throughout the preseason when asked about Robinson and safety Jalen Mills, who was suspended throughout the summer following his arrest for allegedly knocking a woman unconscious in May.

To continue reading this story, click here.

Bama battle, LSU phenom key Week 1

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
9:10
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A lot of us were probably guilty of anointing Jake Coker before he’d ever graced the Alabama practice field.

We heard the stories about his bazooka arm, how he pushed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the Florida State quarterback race a year ago and how his old coach, Jimbo Fisher, said he would be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has coached at Alabama.

Who’s to say Coker won’t live up to that billing?

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherBlake Sims is taking advantage of his chance to be Alabama's starting quarterback.
But as it stands now, he still has fifth-year senior Blake Sims in his way before laying claim to the Alabama quarterback job. That’s more a credit to Sims than it is a knock against Coker.

It’s also a reminder that Saban is as bottom-line as it gets. He’s not going to reward a player for potential. He’s going to play whoever gives the team the best chance to win right now.

By all accounts, Sims has outplayed Coker.

That doesn’t mean he has locked down the job. Reports indicate Sims is expected to start against West Virginia in the opener Saturday, but both will get snaps.

Saban’s not nearly as concerned about settling on who his starting quarterback will be for this first game as he is on settling on who it will be for the season. Sometimes, the “process” takes a few games.

Moreover, Coker has been on campus for fewer than four months, since his transfer from Florida State. Sims has been there for more than four years -- sweating, working and sacrificing with his teammates.

The last thing Saban’s going to do is hand the job over to somebody who hasn’t won it, especially when that somebody is new to the program.

The added layer of drama in the quarterback situation this season is that Lane Kiffin is debuting as the Tide's offensive coordinator, their third in four seasons.

However it shakes out, the Crimson Tide would like to add more of a big-play element to their passing game. They ranked 45th nationally a year ago in completions of 20 yards or more (45). A healthy Amari Cooper at receiver should help pad those numbers.

Ultimately, Alabama doesn’t have to figure it out until a stretch against Florida at home on Sept. 20 and Ole Miss on the road two weeks later.

We’re now in the playoff era in college football, so it’s probably fitting that Alabama will have its own little playoff at the quarterback position during these next few weeks.

Fournette's debut


I’m old enough to remember Herschel Walker’s college football debut and can still see him running over Bill Bates at the goal line in Neyland Stadium. That was 34 years ago.

There was only one Herschel, for sure. But it’s been a while since I’ve been as eager to see a freshman play in this league as I am to see LSU running back Leonard Fournette. He’s built a lot like Walker (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and has the kind of speed and power the great ones possess.

Rest assured, NFL scouts will be watching, and not just because Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon will be on the other side Saturday night. This summer, I had a longtime NFL coach tell me he’d never seen high school tape of a running back as impressive as Fournette’s.

"I'm not so sure that he's not ready [for the NFL] right now," the coach said. "If he stays healthy, he's everything you're looking for wrapped into one."

Two-minute drill


• Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson feels better about his defense than he did at any point a year ago. The Tigers should be much more physical in the defensive line and plan to play Montravius Adams a good bit at end. “He’s 315 pounds and can flat run,” Johnson said. Johnson said Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost make up the best starting linebacker combo he has ever coached. The big concern is at the hybrid “star” position. There’s no timetable for when the Tigers will get Robenson Therezie back because of an eligibility issue, which means Justin Garrett has to stay healthy. Last season, that was a struggle for Garrett, who has had a terrific preseason camp.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas' Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
Alex Collins burst onto the scene last season at Arkansas and ran his way to SEC Freshman of the Year honors with 1,026 rushing yards, but the Hogs’ coaches think sophomore running back Korliss Marshall (6-foot, 205 pounds) is the most explosive of the group. Junior Jonathan Williams is also back and rushed for 900 yards last season.

• Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt plans to move between end and outside linebacker, as the Vols need him to be a disruptive presence. The concern with Maggitt is whether he can stay healthy. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has battled a high-ankle sprain in camp. The Vols’ most consistent pass-rusher this preseason has been true freshman Derek Barnett, who will play a key role Sunday night in getting after Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton.

• One of the best matchups of the opening weekend will be Georgia’s running game against a Clemson defensive line that’s as deep, talented and experienced as any in the country. Todd Gurley won’t have to go it alone. The word out of the Dawgs’ camp is that Keith Marshall looks as good as new after suffering that nasty knee injury last season. Interestingly enough, they also want to play both true freshmen, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They are that good, although dividing carries among four running backs gets tricky.

• Why does Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen think this is his best team? For one, this is the most depth he’s had, and he also has a quarterback in junior Dak Prescott who’s the best fit he’s had in Starkville for the offensive system he wants to run.
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SEC

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen wants the pressure. He wants gaudy expectations and anxious fans.

Mississippi State’s head coach is entering his sixth season in Starkville, heading a team viewed as a legitimate contender in the SEC Western Division. It’s not something this program is used to and situations like this for programs like this usually don’t work out, but this is the exact position Mullen wants his team to be in.

“Hopefully we have a lot of pressure Week 10, 11 and 12 of the season and then we’ll see how we deal with it then,” Mullen said.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis"These guys want to win a championship," Dan Mullen said. "They want to get to Atlanta and go play for that title."
“These guys want to win a championship. They want to get to Atlanta and go play for that title. The expectations on the outside don’t get to them. … In their minds, this is what we want. There’s no pressure on them, that’s their goal to go out and accomplish this right now.”

And why not? In a league that has seen the talent gap from the top to the middle tighten in recent years, both divisions really are up for grabs. And the Bulldogs return 18 starters, 16 of whome are upperclassmen.

Mullen has a potential All-SEC quarterback in the very versatile Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs’ top five receiving targets from last year are back, and the defense is finally stacked with an SEC-caliber lineup in its two-deep.

The naysayers point at past failures this program has had, most notably it’s tumble in 2012. That’s when Mississippi State started the season 7-0 and rose as high as No. 11 in the AP poll before losing at Alabama 38-7. The Bulldogs then went into a full free fall, losing four of their last five games.

A year earlier, the Bulldogs went 7-6 after a 9-4 season that included wins over Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and an absolute thrashing of Michigan (52-14) in their bowl game.

This is a program that has made it to one SEC championship game (1998) -- and lost -- and it hasn’t won 10 games in a season since 1999. In the past three seasons, Mullen is 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls, and SEC West foes Alabama, Auburn and LSU have a combined 36-3 record against Mississippi State since the start of the 2000 season.

History hasn’t been kind to the Bulldogs, and it certainly isn’t on their side, but players don’t care. They’re concerned about the present and foresee a special season in Starkville.

“To be honest, we don’t care about respect,” redshirt junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney. “We’re just going out there to play to win. We know what we can do. People are going to put us down, but that’s just a part of life.”

To Mullen, who is 36-28 during his five years with Mississippi State and owns the highest overall winning percentage by a Mississippi State coach since 1956 (.563), this is the most complete team he’s had in Starkville. For the first time, Mullen feels like he can rotate quality depth in and out at just about every position, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

He has an All-America-caliber defensive lineman in Chris Jones whom Mullen could see sharing a handful of reps this fall because there isn’t a lot of drop off with the players around him. He’s happy with playing five of his safeties and six of his linebackers this fall.

Jones might be the biggest talent on the team, but Mullen finally sees a deep, collective group of quality players who can carry this team in 2014.

“I don’t think we have superstars. I don’t know if were a team loaded with first-round draft picks, but I think we’re loaded with a bunch of really good football players,” Mullen said. “I like having that depth instead of having five superstars and then role players around them.”

On paper, Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule is an absolute cakewalk, but road trips to LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss could thwart their Atlanta hopes. But the Bulldogs aren’t running from it. They know that in order to be relevant in the SEC West in late November, this team has to take down the big boys.

There’s the opportunity to catch a relatively unproven LSU team on the road in late September, while Texas A&M and Auburn will visit Starkville. Then there’s that road trip to Alabama on Nov. 15, which could hold the Bulldogs’ SEC fate.

To senior cornerback Jay Hughes, the team isn’t even looking at its schedule. It’s looking at the players in the locker room and the coaches around them. That’s where their focus is, and where their confidence is bred. Hughes believes there’s something great in Starkville, and he can’t wait for the Bulldogs to show it.

“It’s almost like we know, man,” Hughes said. “We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers that we have and the experience we have on the field. We have the talent, we have the numbers, so what are we going to do?"
ATLANTA -- It was by no means a pretty win, but it was a win nonetheless for No. 18 Ole Miss. In a game that featured eight Ole Miss false starts and seven total interceptions (a record for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game), the Rebels trudged their way to a sloppy 35-13 win over Boise State inside the Georgia Dome. It most be noted that 28 of those Ole Miss points came in the fourth quarter.

Momentum awkwardly traveled back and forth between the teams before Ole Miss sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell put the Rebels ahead by eight with a beastly 14-yard touchdown grab with 12:26 remaining in the fourth quarter.

1. Finding that menacing Megaquon

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Quarterback Bo Wallace, who was having one of his more forgettable performances to this point, saw the obvious mismatch with the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell facing Boise State cornerback Cleshawn Page (5-9, 178) to his left. Without hesitation, Wallace looked to his left and zipped a pass to where only a leaping Treadwell could get it. The sophomore caught the pass at the 2 and tumbled into the end zone to give the Rebels a 14-6 lead.

Offensive coordinator Dan Werner: "We felt like if we could get him singled up, which they weren't letting that happen very often, but if we did, we were going to audible and run the fade. Bo did a nice job; he saw that they were bringing the free safety, so we had one-on-one coverage and he just threw it up high and let Laquon make a play."

Treadwell: "Man-to-man, throw it up. That's really all I saw. I knew he was pressing. He tried to jump jam, but he kinda jumped offside. After he did that, I knew he was beat, and I was just waiting for Bo to throw the ball, really."

2. Bouncing Adeboyejo

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Not to be outdone a couple minutes later was fellow sophomore receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who officially put the game away with a springy 31-yard touchdown catch. Adeboyejo, whose touchdown was set up by a fantastic interception by safety Tony Conner two plays earlier, caught a bullet of a pass from Wallace at Boise's 10-yard line before bouncing off two defenders and into the end zone to make it 21-6.

Treadwell: "I think that broke Quincy out of his shell. Quincy's a great player and we know he can play. It's just that he's inconsistent, but now I think that broke him out of his shell, really, and he should have a great season. I think that really helped the offense."

3. Can't catch Cody Core

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So this is what Ole Miss' offense was supposed to look like, huh? An offensive line that struggled all night (did I mention those eight false starts?) held its ground for the second Wallace needed to find Core sprinting through the middle of the field. Core caught the ball in space and was gone.

Wallace: "It was just a vertical route. We swung the backs so maybe the husky would jump out and give us leverage, and they did, so we got it. It's something that we ran in camp that when we first put it in, it was tough on our defense. We felt like that would be a good play for us."

Core: "I saw the field open and I trusted my teammates and just cut loose. I actually didn't [see the linebacker jump out], but I knew the cornerback was behind me so if I cut over to the other side, it would be for the field."
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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Maybe the whole Johnny Manziel phenomenon was a bit overblown.

That’s not to diss Johnny Football. Few players in the SEC have been more entertaining or transcendent. No, it’s more a validation that the other guy rocking the visor, the guy with the “good negotiator” and $5 million salary, knows what he’s doing.

Manziel, Case Keenum, Kenny Hill

It obviously doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. His offenses are going to put up points, and lots of them.

The Aggies left little doubt Thursday night that they’re going to be just fine without Manziel -- especially if they can straighten out some bugs in the secondary -- by slicing through a helpless South Carolina defense in a 52-28 declawing of the No. 9-ranked Gamecocks before a stunned crowd of 82,847 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“Quite frankly, there was a chip on our shoulder. Basically, nobody gave us a chance in this game,” Sumlin said. “What we did tonight kind of shows that we’re not a one-trick pony. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be, but we’re not going anywhere any time soon.”

It’s hard to know where to start when heaping praise on the Aggies, who had outgained the Gamecocks 142 yards to 1 at one point in the first quarter en route to scoring the most points against South Carolina on its home field in the Steve Spurrier era. The only other time an opponent had hung 50-plus on South Carolina in Williams-Brice with Spurrier on the sideline was when Tim Tebow came to town in 2007 on his Heisman Trophy march.

As fate would have it, Tebow was in the house Thursday as part of the SEC Network’s coverage and witnessed a Heisman Trophy-like performance.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesIt took just one game for Texas A&M's Kenny Hill to break Johnny Manziel's school record for most passing yards in a game.
"Give Texas A&M and their coaches and players credit. It was a mismatch tonight," Spurrier said. "I don't know what else you can say. If we played them again, they'd be a three-touchdown favorite. We tried everything we could to slow them down."

Hill, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore, broke Manziel’s Texas A&M single-game passing record in his first start. He finished 44-of-60 for 511 yards and three touchdowns and was the essence of composure. He spread the ball around, got rid of the ball quickly and leaned on an impressive array of receivers.

And up front, it was a total mismatch. The Aggies’ offensive line manhandled the Gamecocks in rolling up a staggering 99 offensive plays and 680 yards of total offense – the most ever gained against any South Carolina team.

Hill joked that he was more nervous meeting with the media than he ever was on the field.

“I was more excited than nervous,” Hill said. “I was ready to go. I’ve been ready for this my whole life. Everybody was doubting us, and we were just ready to go and prove everybody wrong and that we could be good without Johnny.”

Hill wasn’t quite ready to take on a nickname yet, although he was asked about it.

“I don’t really like Kenny Football. That’s sort of played out,” he said to a round of laughter.

If you’re wondering, Manziel was 23-of-30 for 173 yards and no touchdown passes in his first career start in 2012, a 20-17 home loss to Florida.

“It’s the reason I came to Texas A&M, to replace Johnny,” said Hill, whose record night sent the Gamecocks to their first home loss after 18 consecutive wins.

The Texas A&M players were almost nonchalant about Hill’s performance. They didn’t necessarily see a record performance coming in his debut, but they knew following in Manziel’s footsteps wasn’t too big for him.

“He’s a pocket passer. He’s going to stay in the pocket,” said Texas A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy, who caught 14 passes for 137 yards. “If you stay on your routes, he’s going to put it right there.”

For Sumlin, this was especially sweet, although he did his best to downplay it afterward.

Spurrier, in vintage form, had taken a few shots at the Aggies’ nonconference schedule and how they rolled up a lot of their big numbers against smaller teams last season. He also quipped during the SEC Media Days that Sumlin had a good negotiator after Sumlin received a raise to $5 million annually when the University of Southern California showed interest in him.

The truth is that Spurrier and Sumlin are friends and even went to Ireland together to play golf two summers ago. Spurrier visited the Texas A&M locker room after the game. Even so, Sumlin made it clear that he wasn’t a big fan of some of the things said about his program during the offseason.

“I heard somebody say we made a bunch of yards against the little teams, but we also made a few yards tonight,” Sumlin cracked.

Granted, it was just one game, but he was genuinely peeved that anybody would suggest he and his staff would suddenly forget how to coach just because Manziel was gone. All offseason he was bombarded with questions about life without Manziel.

Sumlin’s public response was that the Aggies had recruited extremely well to a system they believed in. Privately, he couldn’t wait for the opportunity to fleece a few more SEC defenses with a system that has a way of bringing a defense to its knees no matter who’s playing quarterback.

On Thursday, the Gamecocks were on their heels from the Aggies’ first possession and never recovered. Just a thought: Maybe Jadeveon Clowney had a little bigger impact on that South Carolina defense than some people gave him credit for a year ago.

Either way, it’s clear that Texas A&M has recovered much better without its departed star than South Carolina has without its departed star.

Here’s another thought: The entire complexion of the Western Division race all of a sudden looks a little different, and we’re only a game into the season. If you’re going to beat the Aggies, you'd better be able to score.

The same goes for the Eastern Division race. South Carolina has two weeks to shake off this nightmare and find something that works on defense before Georgia visits.

In the meantime, looks like they’re not going to cancel the season in College Station after all.
Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss

Chat wrap: CFB Opening Day Live

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
3:03
PM ET
After nearly eight long months, college football is back in our lives. To celebrate tonight's opening slate of games, 12 of our writers chatted it up with you the fans for three hours.

Here's how it went...

There’s been no more talked about storyline in the SEC this offseason than the conference's lack of name recognition at quarterback. But are we making too big a deal of the lack of experience? Hugh Freeze, who boasts the most seasoned quarterback in the league in senior Bo Wallace, seems to think so. He told ESPN, “Too much is made of that. Last year at this point, who talked about Nick Marshall? Nobody. Who talked about Johnny Manziel before his first year? Nobody.”

Numbers never lie

Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.

[+] EnlargeManziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks come to college more prepared than ever to step in as freshmen and succeed.
All told, since the 2000-01 season there have been 12 inexperienced quarterbacks (fewer than six career starts entering the season) who have appeared in the BCS title game.

Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.

Remember your history

There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.

The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.

Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.

McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.

Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.

QBs aren’t young anymore

There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.

The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.

With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.

Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.

Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.

“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."

He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”

Let the vet have his shot

Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.

At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.

At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.

But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.

You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."
One of the biggest keys to Saturday's matchup between Wisconsin and LSU will be which team can run the ball effectively. There will no shortage of talented running backs on the field and here's a look at the players who could be the deciding factor in the game.

 
 

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