SEC: South Carolina Gamecocks

SEC morning links

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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1. Alabama's players wouldn't bite. When asked about Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt's comments -- "We don't really think Bama is as good as they have been" -- none of the four Crimson Tide players interviewed Monday said anything noteworthy in response. After all, what did you expect? This is Alabama we're talking about. Landon Collins had fans forward him a link to the bulletin board material, but he wasn't about to lob any shots in return. "We're definitely going to give them our best game and see who comes out with the W," Alabama's star safety explained. If he had gone any further, Nick Saban would have had his head. And, frankly, there was no reason to fan the flames. Neither team is what it has been. Blake Sims has played well, but he's no AJ McCarron. C.J. Mosley ain't walking through that door. This isn't your daddy's Ole Miss, either. Prewitt and that secondary are tenacious. The front seven can get after it. As Saban said, "This is the best team we've played all year." If anything, Prewitt's slight jab was just what we needed to set the week off right.

2. I'll admit it: we were a little myopic on the SEC Blog Monday. In a roundtable discussion, our writers were asked to pick their game of the week. The options: Alabama-Ole Miss, Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn. The reason? Well, it's obvious, seeing as all three games have College Football Playoff implications. But to make sure we cover all our bases, it felt like we ought to make note of the other games on the SEC slate. No, Vanderbilt-Georgia doesn't hold much intrigue. We can skip that. But you could argue that Florida-Tennessee and South Carolina-Kentucky mean something. For the Gators, this feels like a must win. Jeff Driskel needs to crawl out of the hole he's dug for himself, and his coach, Will Muschamp, needs a W to keep his job. The Vols, meanwhile, have to say enough is enough with moral victories and finally close out a big game. And in the case of South Carolina-Kentucky, you're looking at two teams heading in opposite directions. The Gamecocks fell all over themselves yet again Saturday, blowing a late lead against Missouri. Kentucky, on the other hand, broke its winless streak in the SEC by beating Vandy. The Wildcats may be young, but they're dangerous. With a deep group of tailbacks, Bud Dupree and Za'Darious Smith rushing off the edge, and A.J. Stamps making plays in the secondary, South Carolina and the rest of the East better watch out.

3. Not to end our morning jaunt on a sour note, but I was struck by news Monday of the Indianapolis Colts releasing Da'Rick Rogers. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. This is par for the course with Rogers, after all. But once again I was reminded of what a waste of potential the former Tennessee receiver was. To this day I remember seeing him play at Calhoun High in Georgia. He's the best high school player I've ever witnessed in person. Sadly, on the list of all-time SEC talents that never amounted to much, Rogers is right up there with names like Ryan Perrilloux, Mitch Mustain and B.J. Scott. Rogers was everything you wanted in a receiver: tall, physical, explosive. Even in the NFL he flashed All-Pro talent. But something never clicked for him. Maybe there's still time, but not likely. If anything, his story is a cautionary tale for any four- or five-star prospect who thinks talent alone can get the job done.

At first glance: SEC Week 6

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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Finally we've reached the heart of the SEC schedule where nonconference blowouts are a thing of the past. No more directional schools, this week it's nothing but mano-a-mano conference battles.

We're going to start separating the pretenders from the contenders, as division races heat up. It's time to find out a whole lot more about the powerful SEC West, where a whopping six top 15 teams square off. Buckle up!

Game of the week: Alabama at Ole Miss
The No. 3 Tide still have the best chance to win the SEC West -- a 31-percent chance to be exact, according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index) -- but their biggest threat of being upset will be waiting at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The No. 11 Rebels admitted they were looking ahead to the big game after slogging past Memphis 24-3, but they still turned in another impressive performance by what has become one of the nation's most dominant defenses. Ole Miss kept Memphis out of the end zone and has allowed just two touchdowns on 38 drives this season. The Rebels' run defense was particularly nasty, limiting Memphis to 23 yards on 31 attempts. Alabama is coming off a bye and a dominant, complete performance of its own in a 42-21 thrashing of Florida. It all sets up to be quite a clash in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of what will likely be a handful of glamorous SEC West showdowns.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Last time we saw them, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in beating then-No. 8 LSU for the first time in nearly 15 years and winning in Baton Rouge for the first time in nearly 24 years. Prescott showed all of his dual-threat brilliance in carving up the Tigers' defense, and MSU shot up in the polls after a very big win. In order for the Dogs to keep momentum on their side they now have to beat another top 10 foe. Prescott will be the central figure, and the pressure he'll face is sure to be literal as well as figurative. Texas A&M leads the SEC with 17 sacks in four games. True freshman end Myles Garrett has been a force with 5.5, while linebacker Shaan Washington returned from a broken collarbone last week and recorded two sacks in his first game of the year. One more thing: Prescott will be without his starting center, as Dillon Day will serve a one-game suspension for stomping on two LSU players.

Coach under the microscope: Florida's Will Muschamp
Muschamp probably has this category to himself until his Gators start winning and pulling off upsets. Florida's loss to Alabama was not unexpected, but the way it went down -- more ineptitude on offense and a school record for yards allowed on defense -- pushed fans to the brink. Even some of Muschamp's die-hard supporters had to be talked off their nearest ledge. If the noise was that loud after UF's loss to a juggernaut program like Alabama, what would happen if the Gators lose to Tennessee for the first time in nearly 10 years? The Volunteers are an improving bunch. They came oh-so-close to beating Georgia on the road last week, and they're still hungry for respect. Florida, coming off a bye, will have to get its act together in order to pull off a win at Neyland Stadium.

Storyline to watch: Will Brandon Harris start?
LSU's visit to No. 5 Auburn has an entirely different feel after the Bayou Bengals' season-long quarterback controversy took a turn for the decisive. True freshman Brandon Harris was electrifying in relief of Anthony Jennings. Harris was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and directed the LSU offense to seven touchdowns on seven possessions. After the game, coach Les Miles declined to name Harris the starter, saying LSU's way is to thoroughly evaluate before making a decision. With all due respect, that's a bunch of hooey. Harris obviously gives LSU its best chance to pull what would be an enormous upset both in terms of the national stage and the division race. It won't be easy against Auburn's improving defense. The Tigers have allowed only three plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied for the second fewest in the FBS.

Intriguing matchup: South Carolina at Kentucky
While the West division deserves all the attention it's going to get on Saturday, the East is quietly trying to sort itself out. Upstart Kentucky finally removed a very large monkey off its back by beating Vanderbilt and snapping a 17-game conference losing streak. In order to earn respect, the Wildcats' next task is to score an upset. Kentucky and its fans will be fired up for this home game, and the Gamecocks are ripe for the picking after blowing a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter against division-leading Missouri. Kentucky's improving offense will stretch USC's struggling defense. But the most intriguing matchup in this one is on the other side of the ball, where the Cats' defense is coming off its best performance against an SEC foe since 1996. UK held Vanderbilt to 139 yards last week. If the Wildcats can contain the Gamecocks' offense, it might not even take a shootout to earn that elusive signature win.

SEC morning links

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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1. Fresh off its win over Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss was already taking shots at Alabama. Safety Cody Prewitt said he doesn’t believe the Crimson Tide are as good as they have been in recent years. It might be a little early to say that; after all, just last year, Prewitt’s Rebels were shut out in Tuscaloosa, 25-0. A lot has changed since that game, though. The Ole Miss defense, which has allowed just two touchdowns through the first four games, is much improved, and quarterback Bo Wallace is a year older. At Alabama, the offense looks more balanced under new coordinator Lane Kiffin, and they’re even using their own version of the no-huddle offense. It’s one of many intriguing matchups in the SEC this weekend.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWill LSU turn to Brandon Harris in hostile territory at Auburn?
2. Speaking of intriguing matchups, how about LSU traveling to Auburn on Saturday? Les Miles' team has won six of the last seven against Auburn, but his Tigers opened up as 7.5-point underdogs on the road. A big reason for that is the uncertainty at quarterback. Miles has yet to name a starter, but after Saturday’s victory over New Mexico State, it was pretty clear who played better. The question will be whether Miles wants to give freshman Brandon Harris his first start on the road, in a hostile environment. The Auburn defense isn’t worried as much about the opposing quarterback; it’s worried about getting healthy after three starters were banged up in a 45-17 victory over Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

3. What happened to South Carolina on Saturday? It looked like the Gamecocks were well on their way to beating Missouri and grabbing hold of the SEC East. Then, all of a sudden, it all slipped away. A day later, Steve Spurrier saw his team’s streak of 69 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 come to an end. The good news is that despite the loss to Missouri and despite dropping out of the polls, South Carolina is still not out of the SEC race. The bad news is that they have to travel to Lexington this weekend to face much-improved Kentucky team, and the local beat writers are already saying that Spurrier’s team looks beatable again this week. We’ll know a lot more about both teams following Saturday’s game.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Weekend

SEC bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Alabama was off this week, so it remains in the top spot as a College Football Playoff representative, but we have some movement in the next couple of teams in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re moving Auburn up a spot in place of Texas A&M, which won but showed it might still have some work to do after needing a furious rally and a few breaks to escape with an overtime win over Arkansas.

Also, despite the Razorbacks’ loss, we’ll stick with them finding a way to get three more wins and bowl eligibility this season. They proved they’re a quality team that’s making progress, although they have a brutal schedule to navigate the rest of the way.

Here is our full SEC list entering the sixth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Texas A&M
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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With Saturday’s action complete, we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the regular season.

Can you believe that?

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.

1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHutson Mason might need to be more aggressive to help take the strain off star RB Todd Gurley.
2. Need more from Mason: Georgia's Todd Gurley is a beast worthy of every bit of the Heisman Trophy hype he receives. But he can’t do it alone -- not for an entire season, at least. No matter how strong he might be, nobody can withstand that type of punishment on a consistent basis. At some point, Hutson Mason must step up and provide his star running back some help. Sure, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph have all missed time with injuries, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome are a pretty good group of targets. Still, against Tennessee, Mason barely fit the role of game manager. Georgia won 35-32, but he completed just 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. For Georgia to make a playoff push, Mason needs to take greater control of the offense and push the ball downfield. Playing as passive as he has just won’t cut it.

3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.

4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.
video
They kept knocking at the door.

It took a few tries, but eventually the Missouri Tigers just kicked the darn thing in.

With less than two minutes remaining, the Tigers converted on fourth-and-goal, thanks to a 1-yard touchdown run by Russell Hansbrough that gave them a 21-20 win over No. 13 South Carolina.

How the game was won: Missouri’s offense had to wake up at some point. Much to the chagrin of Tigers fans, it wasn’t until midway through the fourth quarter. Maty Mauk and Co. got it together late, though, and racked up 119 yards and 14 points on their final two drives.

What it means: It’s hard to do, but forget the past week’s loss to Indiana. In SEC terms, that game meant nothing. By going on the road and beating South Carolina, Missouri is now in the driver’s seat to win the East. The Tigers are no worse than Georgia, who struggled to put away Tennessee, and better off than Florida, who can’t move the ball on offense. When you consider Missouri holds the all important head-to-head advantage over South Carolina, there’s nothing that says the Tigers can’t repeat as East champs.

Game ball goes to: Mauk and the offense weren’t doing Missouri any favors for most of the game. So it was up to the defense to keep the Tigers close, and it was defensive end Shane Ray who led the way. Coming off the edge, the SEC’s premiere pass-rusher had two sacks and eight total tackles.

Playoff implication: Missouri is walking a razor-thin line. On one hand, the Tigers are 4-1 with a signature win on the road at No. 13 South Carolina. But on the other hand, the Tigers lost a week ago to unranked Indiana. And the strength of schedule? It’s not there. Wins against South Dakota State, Toledo and UCF just aren’t going to pique the selection committee’s interest. Missouri needs to win the SEC championship to have any argument for reaching the playoff.

Best play: Boom, boom, boom. That’s sort of how it went for Missouri’s offense with 7:25 left in the fourth quarter. Down 13 points, Mauk led the Tigers on a three-play drive that covered 68 yards and lasted all of 36 seconds. The touchdown-scoring drive culminated with a run from Hansbrough on which he ran wide left on a stretch play, cut back to his right just before falling to the turf and sprinted into the end zone.

video What’s next: If Missouri wants to separate itself as the class of the SEC East, the Tigers have some work to do against the division’s toughest competition. After a bye week, Missouri hosts playoff hopeful Georgia before traveling to The Swamp to face Florida. For South Carolina, there’s no chance to regroup as it travels to Lexington, Kentucky, to take on the dangerous young Wildcats, who enter the game 3-1 following Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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A look ahead at Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.

Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesCalling Texas A&M-Arkansas a big game seemed a stretch a few weeks ago, but Kenny Hill and the Aggies could have their hands full against the Razorbacks.
3:30 p.m.

Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.

4 p.m.

Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.

7 p.m.

Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?

7:30 p.m.

New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.

Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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There are once again some big games around the SEC this weekend. While Arkansas vs Texas A&M might be the game of the week in the conference, it is a neutral site game and not many visitors are expected to attend. The Tennessee at Georgia game, however, is expected to draw many top recruits. Vanderbilt at Kentucky and Missouri at South Carolina should also expect to see some important visitors. There will be many recruits taking unofficial visits and even a few taking a few official visits. Here’s a closer look at some top expected visitors for the weekend.

There are plenty of stars in the SEC. Whether you're looking at Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board of NFL draft picks or the national rankings for receptions, passing yards or tackles, you're likely to find plenty of players from the Southeast. But through a quarter of the regular season, who in the SEC has separated themselves as the elite talent in the league? It's early, but let's take a look at three tiers.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama safety Landon Collins has firmly established himself in the elite category.
THE ELITE

  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (32) and passes defended (2), and he's done all that in a secondary that hasn't had much stability. Collins' talent is unquestionable. He showed against Florida how disruptive a force he can be, whether that's in the passing game or playing near the line of scrimmage.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: We all knew how good the junior wideout could be. Heck, he broke Julio Jones' freshman records at Alabama two years ago. Now that he's fully healthy again, Cooper is defying all expectations, leading the country in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to pick up large chunks of yards after the catch is uncanny.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He's a beast. There's no two ways about it. The junior has settled any debate heading into the season: He's the best running back in the country. In a one-dimensional offense, he shoulders the load. He averages 134 rushing yards per game. And he's explosive, with 13 runs of 10 or more yards through three games.
  • Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny who? The redshirt sophomore has made Aggies fans forget the mercurial Johnny Manziel. Hill's raw QBR (94.0) is the best of any quarterback in the country with at least three starts -- ahead of Oregon Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota. Hill's 13 passing TDs to one interception is ridiculous.
  • Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defense hasn't been the best this season, but it has nothing to do with the pass rush. Ray, a junior from Missouri, has played lights out. He leads the league in sacks with six and is tied for ninth in total tackles with 22.
STUCK ON THE FENCE

  • Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: He was being billed as a possible contender for the Heisman Trophy, but Davis hasn't played up to those expectations yet. Nagging injuries have kept the junior tailback from reaching his potential once again. His 264 yards rushing ranks 10th in the SEC.
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Don't put all of Cooper's 201 yards and three touchdowns on Hargreaves. The sophomore cornerback wasn't covering him the whole time, and when he did give up a TD in the second half, he was worn out from his offense's inability to stay on the field. Nonetheless, Hargreaves should be considered one of the best corners in the SEC.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There had to be an A.P.B. put out on Howard earlier in the season. The dynamic sophomore wasn't getting the football. He had no catches in the first three games. The only time he'd been targeted, it resulted in an interception. Last Saturday was a move in the right direction -- two receptions for 22 yards -- but Howard has to find a way to become a bigger part of Alabama's offense.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: So much for a true freshman contending for the Heisman. But who really expected that would happen? Fournette has played well but not great. His 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 average) is respectable but not noteworthy. Let's give the kid some time, why don't we?
  • Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: What was all that talk we heard this offseason about Marshall developing into a better passer? It hasn't happened yet. The senior's completion percentage is still stuck well below the 60 percent benchmark. His QB rating (126.8) is worse than it was last season (143.2).
RISING UP THE RANKS

  • Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: For all the talk about Georgia and Alabama's running backs, it's been Arkansas with the most productive duo in the SEC. Collins leads the league in rushing yards (490) and Williams leads the league in rushing touchdowns (7).
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: If it weren't for Cooper, we'd be drooling over LSU's explosive sophomore. He was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last season, but not anymore. Dural is second in the league in receiving yards (494) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (4) despite getting the ball just 18 times, compared to Cooper's 43 or Malcome Kennedy's 30 receptions.
  • Myles Garrett, DL, Texas A&M: The true freshman defensive end was brought to Aggieland to rush the passer, and he's done just that. The former five-star prospect has lived up to his talent, ranking second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks.
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Whether it's with his arm, his feet or even his hands, Mississippi State's junior quarterback is getting the job done. In addition to having the fourth-highest QB rating in the SEC (178.4), Prescott is tied for the league lead in scoring with 90 total points.
  • Duke Williams, WR, Auburn: The former junior college transfer arrived at Auburn to much fanfare, and he quickly lived up to the hype. A physical 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's become Marshall's favorite target. The Louisiana native is fifth in the SEC in receptions (21), sixth in receiving yards (324) and ninth in yards per catch (15.4).
Saturday will bring two teams closer than the 165 miles that separates their games.

Missouri's trip to face No. 13 South Carolina (3-1, 2-1 SEC) and Tennessee’s game against No. 12 Georgia (2-1, 0-1) in Athens, Georgia, stand as reminders of what inches can mean in a football game.

A year ago, Missouri (3-1, 0-0) and Tennessee (2-1, 0-0) were inches from huge wins against their respective Saturday opponents.

For Missouri, kicker Andrew Baggett clanked a 24-yard field-goal attempt off the left goal post in a stunning home overtime loss to South Carolina. At Tennessee, there are still haunting visions of Vols receiver Alton "Pig" Howard stretching across the goal line inside Neyland Stadium, seemingly giving the Vols a shocking upset victory in overtime against Georgia, only for the ball to slip out just before hitting the pylon. Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan nailed a game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession.

[+] EnlargePig Howard
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTennessee's Alton Howard fumbled the ball through the end zone during overtime on this play last season, and Georgia went on to win.
"Alton was making a play," Tennessee senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "If it hadn’t have been for him, we wouldn’t have been in the game. He was making plays for us all through the game, and he was trying to make another play and the ball slipped out. That wasn’t on him -- that was him just trying to make a play and help the team."

Two heartbreaking losses that didn’t exactly define either program, but have left faint scars that could be rubbed away with a little redemption Saturday.

"Missing those [field goals] is a bad feeling, but especially missing one like that last year is unforgettable," said Baggett, who missed two field goals in that game and actually received threats via social media afterward.

"Regardless, I have to make that. When it’s sideways on the ground, I have to hit that."

Both teams went down much different paths after those losses. They both rebounded -- Tennessee upset No. 11 South Carolina two weeks later and Missouri became SEC Eastern Division champion -- but the Vols missed out on being bowl eligible by one win.

Both teams have tried to put the losses behind them, but Saturday does serve as a platform for redemption for both teams. They can squash their demons from last season’s showdowns and get a nice jump in SEC play.

Saturday is the SEC opener for both teams, and wins by both would propel them to the top of the division and help them take a crucial lead on such a topsy-turvy side of the conference.

"This is where it really counts," Johnson said. "Every game really counts on this stretch, because it’s SEC play. We don’t have any SEC losses, so this will be a big win for us."

A Tennessee win against Georgia would show how far this program has come under second-year coach Butch Jones. With a leg up in the divisional race, this season's 34-10 loss to No. 4 Oklahoma would be forgotten.

For Mizzou, this is a chance to regroup after an ugly home loss to unranked Indiana last week. The defense surrendered 241 rushing yards and the offense was atrocious on third downs, converting just 5 of 16 attempts (24 percent).

"It’s kind of a coming-to-Jesus moment for us as a team," redshirt senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. "Really figuring out what we need to fix. We can bring more to the table, and that shows that we’re going to this week."

Last season’s loss to South Carolina was the only loss for quarterback Maty Mauk during his month-long stretch of being the Tigers’ starting quarterback, and he sees similarities in last season’s loss and last week’s performance against the Hoosiers.

"The main thing I remember is there was a lot left out there for us," Mauk said. "It was kind of similar to Indiana. There was so much more that we could’ve done, so much left out there, and to know that you were 3 points away in overtime, it’s frustrating.

"That’s going to be the motivation for us this week -- that we want to come out, start fast and finish strong."

SEC morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Quarterbacks under fire: They might be on shorter leashes after last Saturday's implosions, but it looks like Anthony Jennings' and Jeff Driskel's starting jobs are safe – for now. LSU coach Les Miles and Florida coach Will Muschamp both said on Wednesday that they intend to stick with their embattled quarterbacks. But that doesn't feel like a permanent decision in either case, as freshman quarterbacks seem to be bearing down on the two starters. Florida fans are already clamoring forTreon Harris to get more action, and Muschamp said that's a possibility. Likewise, LSU freshman Brandon Harris outperformed Jennings last week against Mississippi State and Miles said he has earned more playing time, even if he hasn't overtaken Jennings as the starter. Both starters simply have to perform better if they expect to hold onto their jobs, though. The freshmen are still learning, but their teams' offenses both played horribly with the veterans under center in last week's losses. At some point, their coaches could decide it simply makes better sense to let the rookies get their shots.

Dillon Day fallout: It will be interesting to see how center Dillon Day's one-game suspension will affect Mississippi State's offense in the Bulldogs' outing against Texas A&M. Quarterback Dak Prescott said he doesn't think it will hurt his play. Archie Muniz is next on the depth chart, but he was responsible for a high snap -- a problem he experienced during spring practice, as well -- that expedited LSU's comeback last Saturday. It's entirely possible that guardBen Beckwith might take over for a game, although he hasn't played center in an actual game since high school in 2008. Regardless of who starts, it will be a position worth watching for the Day-less Bulldogs. Texas A&M's 16 sacks rank fourth in the FBS.

Bulldog nuggets: It was a newsy day at Georgia, particularly on the injury front. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said cornerback Shattle Fenteng probably won't play again this season and might need shoulder surgery, but Richt believes receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 2013 opener against Clemson -- might be back for Georgia's Oct. 4 game against Vanderbilt. Among other Georgia notes, defensive back J.J. Green said he disagreed with the referees' targeting call against him in last week's game against Troy, saying the rule is “taking all the fun out of football.” Green was ejected on the third play of the game and watched the rest of the game from the coaches' locker room at Sanford Stadium. Finally, Mike Lutzenkirchen -- the father of former Auburn tight end Philip, who died in a June alcohol-related auto accident -- spoke to the Bulldogs before Wednesday's practice about making good decisions.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Day (and why Auburn probably won't win the SEC West)

 

SEC morning links

September, 24, 2014
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1. Leave it to Nick Saban to make a bye week as uncomfortable as possible. In classic Saban style, he flew off the handle at a reporter who had the gall to ask if his relationship with Lane Kiffin has improved over time. "It's never been bad," Saban said. "Whoever said it was bad, so why does it need to get better?" It's enough to make a reporter wonder if there is such a thing as a safe question when Saban is at the podium. In fact, it reminds us of the time he tore the media to shreds for too much positive press. If you're wondering what put a burr in Saban's saddle, it's probably the usual paranoia after his undefeated team kicked some butt. Clearly he's still sore at the way people reacted when he brought in Kiffin, but a closer look would show Saban that most of the serious media praised the hire. "I got beat up like a drum for doing it and now all of a sudden it's great," he said on Tuesday. So sensitive!

2. The SEC absolutely did the right thing in suspending Mississippi State center Dillon Day for stomping on two LSU players last Saturday. Let's break this thing down like the Zapruder film, shall we? In this video you can see both incidents:

video

In his letter to Bulldog fans defending himself, Day said he was "going too fast at 300 pounds to stop." That sounds reasonable. But he goes on to blame the LSU players basically for being on the ground where he was stepping. In the first incident, Day did slow down enough to see MSU quarterback Dak Prescott get tackled (thus ending the play). Then Day chose to blatantly jump onto Davon Godchaux's gut. In the second incident, it's clear that Day could have stepped on the ground between Rashard Robinson's legs but spiked his thigh instead. MSU coach Dan Mullen's reaction might be worse, though. "I didn't see anything wrong with it," he said on Tuesday after the suspension had been handed down. This is the same coach who last year suspended Day for a half against Troy after Day did the same thing to an Auburn player. Hmmm, what could be the difference between Troy and MSU's next opponent, No. 6 Texas A&M? Could be the division title implications, but that's just a wild guess. Later on Tuesday, Prescott tweeted #FreeDDay in support of his center, but this kind of repeated behavior should not be condoned.

3. Staying on our soapbox, let's do a little "Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger" or T-dubs as Stephen Colbert would call it. Cheers to Tennessee head coach Butch Jones for his zero-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence. Despite no charges being filed, UT dismissed true freshman running back Treyvon Paulk on Monday after police said he hit a woman in the mouth. Jeers to Auburn and LSU for recruiting ex-Georgia Bulldog Jonathan Taylor, who has the good fortune of being 6-foot-5, 340 pounds and playing the important defensive tackle position. Taylor was dismissed by UGA coach Mark Richt in July (cheers to Richt for that, by the way) after being arrested on an aggravated assault/family violence charge. Police said he choked and struck his 5-11, 170-pound girlfriend. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on Tuesday said he too has a zero-tolerance policy, but it should be noted that Tigers defensive line coach Rodney Garner also recruited Taylor when he coached at Georgia.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

video
If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.

SEC morning links

September, 23, 2014
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1. The SEC is all over the Top 25 this week, but let's just come right out and say it -- there's no dominant team. Oh, a few of the West's best will have their chances to make a case, but right now there isn't a team without some warts. Take Texas A&M for instance. The Aggie offense with Kenny Trill pulling the trigger is a nightmare to game plan against. But A&M's defense is scary, too, and not in a good way. This unit was the worst in the SEC last season in total defense and run defense. Sure, the Aggies have improved since then. Maybe a lot. But who have they played for us to be sure? Aside from the season-opening ambush of South Carolina (a game in which the Gamecocks piled up 433 yards), A&M has played Lamar, Rice and SMU. Kevin Sumlin and Co. would be wise to not overlook the Razorbacks. Since their loss to Auburn in Week 1, the Hogs have averaged 58 points of offense in winning their last three. Their SEC-best rushing attack has the potential to give Texas A&M some nightmares as well.

2. Despite the roller coaster the Gamecocks have already been on in the season's first month of games (you can just see it on Steve Spurrier's face), it should be noted that South Carolina leads the SEC East. Does anybody want to win this division? Maybe we'll get an answer on Saturday when Missouri visits USC. Spurrier isn't sounding too confident after the way his team looked against what had been a dreadful Vanderbilt team. On the other hand, Mizzou is banged up. Starting left guard and fifth-year senior Anthony Gatti tore his ACL and MCL in the Tigers' loss to Indiana. And second-leading receiver Darius White will be out with a strained groin. This one isn't exactly shaping up to be the epic battle for East supremacy that some thought it could be a month ago.

3. ESPN's "College GameDay" is headed to Columbia, South Carolina. Not to be outdone, the other big game in the SEC East -- Tennessee at Georgia -- will be the site of the SEC Network's pregame show "SEC Nation". The Vols have something to prove and will hit the road with a much-improved defense. UT is sixth in the SEC in total defense, giving up 343 yards a game. That should give Tennessee some hope in preparing to face Georgia's star running back Todd Gurley and his SEC freshman of the week understudy, Sony Michel. The Bulldogs are also short-handed with Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley among the injured. The biggest challenge for Tennessee, however, is likely to come on the other side of the ball. Georgia has an intimidating pass rush, and the Vols O-line has given up an SEC-worst nine sacks already this seasons. Buckle up.

Around the SEC
  • LSU's stunning pratfall in Saturday's home loss to Mississippi State will prompt some changes. Most notably, the QB battle is back on.
  • Mississippi State center Dillon Day, accused of stomping on two LSU players, wrote a letter to Bulldogs fans to defend himself. Day has some history, though. He was suspended for a half last year after he stomped on an Auburn player.
  • File this under "Oh, they're friends now." Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to Gus Malzahn after Auburn's win at Kansas State: "Some of you may faint. I shot Gus a congrats text and just said, 'Hey I know how tough that place is. Congrats.' "
  • Will Muschamp has fallen off the hot seat and directly into the fire. Here are some ideas for fixing Florida.
Tweet of the day

At first glance: SEC Week 5

September, 22, 2014
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Another week in the SEC provided more intrigue after Mississippi State went into Death Valley and upended LSU, Missouri was stunned by Indiana and Auburn went into the Little Apple and pulled off a tough win over Kansas State.

The SEC West continues to flex its muscle with four teams in the top 10, five in the top 14 and six in the top 17 of the rankings. It’s hard to know what to make of the SEC East right now but this week could go a long way in providing some clarity with three intradivisional games. Let’s see what’s in store.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
"College GameDay" is going to Missouri-South Carolina but some of the pizzazz has escaped after the Tigers’ loss to Indiana. Keep an eye on the Aggies and Razorbacks, a game that provides a clash of contrasting styles (power running versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a chance for each team to prove something. Arkansas (3-1), a team that has already matched last season’s win total, could take a huge step forward with a win. It has already shown signs of progress with a road win at Texas Tech and when it battled toe-to-toe with Auburn for a half before the Tigers ultimately pulled away. No. 6 Texas A&M raced out of the gate with a big season-opening win over South Carolina but have had what has basically amounted to three straight preseason games against overmatched opponents since then. The Aggies run defense has yet to be truly tested (the Gamecocks were behind early and were mostly without Mike Davis) and the Razorbacks are the best in the SEC at running the ball. This was an interesting affair in Fayetteville last season; JerryWorld will set the scene for a potential shootout here.

Players under pressure: Missouri’s offensive line
The Tigers struggled mightily in its loss to Indiana. They committed three false start penalties, allowed two sacks and Indiana collected 11 tackles for loss, the most the Hoosiers have had in nearly two years. There were bad snaps and even worse, the Tigers lost senior left guard Anthony Gatti to a torn ACL during the game. Missouri hasn’t run the ball as well as it did a year ago (the Tigers are averaging 4.76 yards per carry, ninth in the SEC, compared to 5.66 yards per carry last season) and quarterback Maty Mauk was under pressure often against the Hoosiers. If the Tigers are going to bounce back from Saturday’s loss and start SEC play on the right foot at South Carolina, the offensive line play has to be better.

Coach under the microscope: Florida coach Will Muschamp
The Gators don’t play this weekend and that might be a bad thing after the taste left in their mouths following a 42-21 loss at Alabama. The week off will allow the “hot seat” talk of Muschamp’s job to only intensify during an idle week. Florida had a chance to redeem itself in Tuscaloosa after a home scare courtesy of Kentucky but allowing 645 yards to the Crimson Tide will only fan the flames. There will be talk about other topics (see: Jeff Driskel) and there are nine games left for Florida to turn things around but the bottom line is the Gators are 6-10 in their last 16 games including 4-6 in their last 10 SEC contests.

Storyline to watch: LSU’s quarterbacks
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris battled for the starting job all offseason and Jennings won the competition, but Saturday night’s relief performance by Harris against Mississippi State raised a few eyebrows. Jennings, a sophomore, was 13-of-26 for 157 yards but left the game with an injury. Harris, a true freshman, entered in the fourth quarter to give the LSU offense a lift and rally the team back into the ballgame in the final minutes, going 6-of-9 for 140 yards and two scores. Was it simply a case of Harris taking advantage of LSU’s hurry-up offense at the time while the Bulldogs enjoyed a seemingly-comfortable lead or is it a sign of things to come for Harris? Should the Tigers change quarterbacks? Will Harris see more time playing time, even if the Tigers don’t make the change? This will be an interesting situation to monitor.

Intriguing matchup: Tennessee versus Georgia
These two teams played a dramatic, memorable game in Knoxville last year, a 34-31 overtime win for Georgia. The Bulldogs were without star running back Todd Gurley; Aaron Murray led a gritty game-tying drive in regulation and who can forget the image of Pig Howard giving maximum effort by diving for a touchdown at the pylon in overtime only to have it overturned and ruled a fumble? This time, the game is in Athens and both are looking for their first SEC win of the season. Tennessee had time to regroup in an off week after its loss to Oklahoma while Georgia cruised to a win over Troy last week. Can the rematch meet the drama last season’s battle provided?

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