SEC: 2011 Music City Bowl

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
2:30
PM ET
The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

The SEC started bowl season 1-0 after Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday night.

Mississippi State racked some points up early, but Wake Forest fought back before the Bulldogs' defense hunkered down for most of the second half.

Here's the instant analysis:

How the game was won: Mississippi State's offense racked up 246 yards and 16 points in the first half, while the Demon Deacons managed just 130 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense played well all night, especially the closer Wake Forest got to the end zone. Mississippi State held Wake Forest to 287 total yards. On offense, quarterback Chris Relf overcame two interceptions to play effectively both throwing and running the ball. Mississippi State's running game put up 253 yards, including 180 from senior Vick Ballard.

Turning point: After Wake Forest cut Mississippi State's lead to 16-14 early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs' offense was pretty quiet in the third quarter. But with almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ballard took a carry up the middle for a 72-yard touchdown, making it a two-score game and giving the Bulldogs enough points for the win.

Stat of the game: The teams combined to go 7-of-30 on third downs, with Wake Forest converting just 2-of-17.

Stat of the game 2: Wake Forest won the turnover battle 4-0.

Player of the game: Ballard made the most of his final game in a Mississippi State uniform. The senior carried the ball only 14 times, but had 180 yards and had touchdowns of 60 and 72 yards. Ballard pounded the Demon Deacons' defense through the middle of the field and used his speed to make a handful of plays off the edge. He outrushed Wake Forest by 117 yards on 24 less carries.

Unsung hero of the game: Friday might have been defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's final game with the Bulldogs as well. He had a strong game, recording seven tackles (including two for loss), assisting on a sack, blocking his fifth career kick (a school record) and providing plenty of pressure inside Wake Forest's backfield all night.

Second guessing: Dan Mullen has a pretty aggressive coaching style, but he made a bad call when he decided to go for the end zone from the Wake Forest 9-yard line with six seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal. Wake Forest grabbed a chunk of momentum and drove 64 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it 16-14. Luckily for Mullen, the play didn't cost Mississippi State the win.

What it means: Mullen has now directed Mississippi State to bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade. It also gives Mississippi State its fifth straight bowl win overall. The Bulldogs have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Mississippi State didn't live up to its higher expectations this season, but getting to seven wins -- including a bowl victory -- will make the offseason much easier for Mullen and his players.

Record performance: Cox wasn't the only one taking home a school record. Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens entered the game with a school-record 1,276 receiving yards. The ACC's leader in receiving for the 2011 season added to his record-setting year by gaining 54 more yards on nine catches, giving the junior 1,330 yards on the year.

Music City Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
10:30
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Here are three keys for Mississippi State heading into Friday's Franklin American Mortgage Music Bowl against Wake Forest:

Get the passing game going: With Tyler Russell's knee still not 100 percent, the Bulldogs will send veteran quarterback Chris Relf out first against Wake Forest. Relf was one of the biggest SEC surprises last year, but lost his starting job during the second half of the 2011 season. While Relf has struggled this season, the Demon Deacons rank 72nd nationally in pass defense, allowing nearly 240 passing yards per game and have allowed 21 touchdowns through the air. Mississippi State's offense has stalled at times this year, but opening up the passing game could overwhelm Wake Forest.

Blanket Chris Givens: Mississippi State has a pretty talented secondary, but there was more bend in that unit than people expected. Now, that group will have to contain Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 receiving yards (a school record) and had nine touchdowns. Givens recorded seven 100-plus-yard performances this season, including an eight-catch, 191-yard outing against Maryland late in the year. The Bulldogs are giving up 195 passing yards a game, and containing Givens should be the top objective for this defensive backfield.

Keep Vick Ballard going: Quietly, Ballard eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. With his 5-11, 220-pound frame, Ballard is a bullish downhill running back. He struggled with consistency throughout the season, but he's coming off a 144-yard performance against Ole Miss and the break should make his legs fresh. Wake Forest is giving up 163 rushing yards a game, and opponents have scored 19 touchdowns on the ground against the Demon Deacons. Passing will be important for Mississippi State, but Ballard is too much of a force to ignore.

Music City Bowl: Miss. State-Wake Forest

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
9:00
AM ET
Mississippi State (6-6) makes its second straight bowl trip and takes on Wake Forest (6-6) on Friday night in Nashville in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Here’s a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Mississippi State junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. This may be the last chance to see him play, period, at least in the college game. Cox is being projected by some analysts as a first-round NFL draft selection and is thinking about turning pro. He was the best interior defensive lineman in the SEC the second half of the season and enters the bowl game with 12.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. That’s after getting off to a slow start and going four straight games without a tackle for loss. The Mississippi State coaches challenged him publicly, and the 6-4, 295-pound Cox ended the regular season on a tear.

WHAT TO WATCH: Johnthan Banks vs. Chris Givens. Banks is one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, and Givens is one of the top receivers in the ACC. The two talented juniors are both thinking about leaving school early and entering the NFL draft. Banks has five interceptions this season and 12 for his career. He was one of two players in the NCAA this season to have an interception return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. It was a breakthrough season for Givens, who caught 74 passes and a set a school record with 1,276 receiving yards. He also caught nine touchdown passes and is the player on Wake Forest’s team that will command the most attention from Mississippi State’s defense.

WHY TO WATCH: The winner leaves Nashville with a winning season and the loser with a losing season. In Mississippi State’s case, the Bulldogs are trying to put together their second straight winning season for the first time since 1997-2000 when they had four straight winning seasons under Jackie Sherrill. The postseason brought out the best in the Bulldogs a year ago when they thrashed Michigan in the Gator Bowl. They're still looking for a complete game this season. Maybe they'll put it all together again in the bowl game.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 31, Wake Forest 17. Both teams just did squeeze into the postseason, but Wake Forest was really wobbling there at the end. The Deacons' only victories since the second week of October came over Duke and Maryland. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were playing their best defense when the regular season ended, and that will be the difference in the Music City.

Fletcher Cox has come full circle

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
1:45
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From time to time, Fletcher Cox will go back and peek at his freshman video.

The sight of his undersized, younger self flailing about makes for good comedy for him and his coaches.

“I always go back and laugh at it,” Mississippi State’s junior defensive tackle said.

“My freshman year, I was pretty much playing off of talent and didn’t quite know what was going on.”

Early on, it was painful for him to dissect film of himself after his freshman season. Though he started four of the 12 games he played in, recording 29 tackles and 3.5 for loss, Cox said the sight of his sometimes-awkward technique and raw behavior left him cringing.

He used his faults as motivation for his second season and he burst onto the SEC scene as a more disruptive lineman, with 11 starts and 29 more tackles, including 6.5 for loss.

[+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJunior Fletcher Cox will decide whether to enter the NFL draft after the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Now, Cox enters the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Wake Forest as a top junior prospect in the 2012 NFL draft. He’s grown physically and mentally, and he ended the regular season as one of the most imposing defensive linemen in the SEC.

Cox has a career-high 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Scouts Inc. ranks Cox as the No. 20 overall prospect in next year’s draft.

“This is the best season I’ve had at Mississippi State,” Cox said.

But things didn’t start great for the 6-foot-4, 295-pound lineman. After garnering a ton of preseason love from around the league, Cox was one of five Mississippi State players suspended for the opener against Memphis for violating team rules.

Cox was forced to sit at home and watch as his Bulldogs routed Memphis 59-14. Cox was happy to see his teammates win, but it was hard for him to watch from afar.

There were moments when he was shouting at the TV, playing coach from his couch. He called his teammates afterward to congratulate them and talked about specific things to change going forward, but no matter how much constructive criticism he delivered, he knew it wouldn’t make up for letting his teammates down.

“I never look back at that game,” he said.

Cox said that moment changed his outlook on the season, motivating him to work harder on the field. It took him a few weeks to get on track, but recorded all of his tackles for loss in SEC play.

Cox also used his time to energize defenders around him. Defensive playmakers had to be replaced from the 2011 season, and Cox took it upon himself to make sure those bodies up front didn’t stumble.

He even made sure teammates forced him to take his game to new heights. Cox is good individually, but it takes more than one player to keep a defense going.

“I always tell them that I’m a leader, but sometimes, push me,” Cox said.

Cox’s Bulldog career could be coming to an end Friday, but he isn’t concerned with that. He hasn’t made a decision about the NFL and doesn’t plan to until after sitting down with his family following the bowl game.

He’s keeping quiet about which way he’s leaning, but admits it would be a “no-brainer” for him to enter the draft if he was projected to go in the first round. Beyond that, Cox will have a long discussion with those close to him.

Regardless of what Cox decides, he feels blessed. The draft questions can get stale, but they help to remind him of where he came from.

They lead him to think of how that lost freshman might have a real NFL future.

“Going back to my freshmen year and then seeing where I am now shows that hard work pays off,” Cox said.

Kicking it with Vanderbilt's Chris Marve

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
9:31
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If there were such a thing as Mr. Vanderbilt, Chris Marve would be a runaway winner.

He’s been a model for what every coach hopes he’s getting when that coach signs a player out of high school.

Marve, who’s already earned his undergraduate degree, has produced in the classroom. He’s produced on the football field. He’s produced in the locker room, and he’s produced in the community.

[+] EnlargeChris Marve
Don McPeak/US PresswireSenior LB Chris Marve hopes to get the Commodores a win in front of his hometown crowd in Memphis.
Ten tackles away from 400 for his career, Marve is one of nine seniors on Vanderbilt’s team who will play in his second bowl game when the Commodores take on Cincinnati on Saturday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. It’s the first senior class in Vanderbilt school history to make it to two bowl games.

Marve joins tight end Brandon Barden, offensive tackle Kyle Fischer, defensive end Tim Fugger, defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson, quarterback Larry Smith and receiver Udom Umoh in earning that distinction.

Having earned All-SEC honors every season he’s played at Vanderbilt, Marve took some time recently to reflect on his career, where this Vanderbilt program is headed under James Franklin and what it took to get to this point:

You’re ending your career in your hometown of Memphis. How special is that, and were you able to get enough tickets?

Chris Marve: I’m still looking for tickets. I got as many as I could. I think I’ll probably have 100 people there from a combination of family, friends, former coaches, their families and people I went to school with. I have a huge support system in Memphis.

Being part of the first senior class in school history to go to two bowl games, how much pride do you take in what you guys accomplished this season?

CM: We all take a lot of pride in this opportunity. We worked tirelessly to be in the position we’re in now. It’s a great feeling, but we’re not hanging our hat on just going to two bowl games. We’re hanging our hat on winning two bowl games.

What kind of statement would that be for the program?

CM: There’s no doubt in my mind that beating Cincinnati would be a huge statement for Vanderbilt football. We’re trying to change how Vanderbilt football is viewed. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what makes it so special. We’ve worked for everything we’ve gotten.

You’ve been such a strong leader for the Commodores. How do you view your role as a leader?

CM: You do, and others follow. I’ve really tried hard to set an example for the younger guys, how it’s done and how hard you have to work if you’re going to make any progress in this league.

How do you want this senior class to be remembered?

CM: I want people to recognize my class, but I want them to recognize the entire 2011 Vanderbilt team even more. The seniors wouldn’t be where we are without everybody on this team. I think we’ll all look back on this team and how we changed the culture of Vanderbilt football.

How far away is Vanderbilt from being the kind of program that’s going to bowl games every year and contending for the East championship?

CM: Not far away at all. We’re going to keep working, and we’re going to get there. I know a lot of people think we never will, but we will, and there’s no doubt that coach Franklin is the man to get us there. For a sport that requires team cohesiveness, his coaching style is perfect. I don’t see anything but greatness for Vanderbilt football.

Does this season make the struggles of the last two seasons worth it all, and would you do anything differently if you could?

CM: I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. We say it all the time. Vanderbilt is the whole package. It’s great football, a great learning environment and a beautiful city to live in. It exposed me to a lot of things, and I’ll forever be grateful for my time here.

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