SEC: Alex Collins

Teams to watch in the 2015 SEC race

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
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Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
If you're looking for an off-the-wall pick in the SEC Western Division in 2015, don't look at Arkansas. Find someone else to come out of the woodwork to take the SEC West by storm.

Why aren't the Hogs on my spoiler radar? Well, I think they might deserve more than just dark horse status in 2015.

But Edward, Arkansas won just seven games last season and didn't have an SEC win until Nov. 15 (after 17 straight league losses). The Hogs have sleeper written all over them, right?

[+] EnlargeSebastian Tretola, Bret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDespite some close losses in 2014, Bret Bielema, right, has Arkansas on the rise in the SEC West.
True, a 7-6 team isn't exactly the team you pick to be swimming in blue-and-yellow confetti inside the Georgia Dome in early December, but I think we can all agree that the Hogs left a couple more wins on the field last fall -- four losses were by seven points or less. This team lost to Alabama and Mississippi State, which both ranked No. 1 in the nation this season, by a combined eight points. With the way this team bounced back from being so snake-bitten for most of the season, I think it's safe to assume there is a lot of momentum in Fayetteville.

After losing three straight in the middle of the season, Arkansas won four of its last six games, including shutting out No. 17 LSU 17-0 and pummeling No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0. The season culminated with a decisive 31-7 romp of Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.

After a very strong finish to 2014, Arkansas should enter the new year oozing the type of confidence exhibited by its head coach. The Bret Bielema tenacity showcased in games and on social media has bled into his players. What was a relatively soft group before he took over has transformed into one of the league's most physical teams on both sides of the ball. Teams hurt and will continue to hurt against Arkansas.

The brawny, pound-you-into-the-ground running style Bielema used at Wisconsin has become a sledgehammer of a tool for the Razorbacks. The Hogs finished the 2014 season averaging 218 rushing yards per game (10 games with 150-plus yards) and 5.1 yards per carry. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who return in 2015, both eclipsed 1,100 rushing yards, and each had 12 touchdowns.

Returning with that dynamic duo are four starting offensive linemen, starting quarterback Brandon Allen, and four of Arkansas' top six receiving targets. That is a lot for a coach going into his third year at a program. And though Allen, who threw for 2,285 and 20 touchdowns this season, absolutely must be more consistent, he has those running backs to lean on, making his job much easier.

It's almost unfair when you consider both backs averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry.

Defensively, please proceed with caution when you play the Hogs. I really can't stress that enough.

Outside of returning four starters along the defensive line and a relatively experienced secondary, Arkansas signed first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith to an extension. He really was the driving force behind Arkansas' complete defensive transformation in 2014. The Hogs climbed to 10th nationally in total and scoring defense, after finishing the 2013 season ranked 76th in total defense.

Arkansas ranked second in the SEC in total defense and held opponents to 17 points or less eight times, with six of those coming against eventual bowl teams. The Hogs capped the season by holding Texas to 59 total yards on 43 plays (1.4 yards per play), the lowest offensive output by any FBS team this season.

And only a few defensive starters are leaving, so watch out.

Let's not forget that Arkansas currently has the No. 21 recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN's RecrutingNation. Five commits are ESPN300 members, and Bielema won't hesitate to play any of those guys early.

Arkansas isn't perfect, far from it. Allen has to improve and the Hogs need a top-flight receiver (are you ready, Keon Hatcher?). Replacing Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight on defense won't be easy. Oh, and that whole SEC West thing.

Still, there is no reason to sleep on Arkansas. Next year's nonconference games are all winnable. And Auburn, Mississippi State, and Missouri -- who beat the Hogs in 2014 -- have to play in Fayetteville.

Bielema is building for a legitimate SEC run in 2015, and it shouldn't surprise anyone.

Viewer's Guide: AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl

December, 28, 2014
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Three things to watch when Texas and Arkansas face off in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl on Monday night (9 ET, ESPN):

Do you like defense? If so, this might be the bowl game for you. As expected, Texas enjoyed a defensive revival in 2014 under first-year coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns finished No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense, pass defense and sacks and rank No. 8 nationally in yards per play allowed. Arkansas isn't playing in this game or any bowl without its defense, which shut out both Ole Miss and LSU to reach six wins. The Hogs also held Alabama and Mississippi State to 14 and 17 points, respectively. The odds of this matchup ending in a low-scoring brawl look pretty decent.

Do you like running backs? Arkansas and Texas do. Bret Bielema built his Arkansas team around the only duo of 1,000-yard rushers (Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins) in the FBS. Their most impressive game together? The 437-yard showing at Texas Tech. Texas thought it would have a pair of 1,000-yarders in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray but never had the O-line to sustain such success. Getting that inexperienced line a month of bowl practices and recovery time ought to help. Expect stacked boxes all night long in Houston.

Winning season vs. losing season: The one-game stakes for Arkansas and Texas are pretty simple. One team finishes 7-6; one team ends up 6-7. The Razorbacks just survived arguably the toughest schedule in the country, with seven SEC foes that won eight-plus games (combined record of their SEC opponents: 73-25). A win Monday would be a just reward for a team that had to fight for everything. Same for Texas, a squad that has played better than its 6-6 record indicates and came close to stunning UCLA and Oklahoma at neutral sites. (Plus the Horns have this bonus motivation.) Both teams will get up for this one, but who has enough left in the tank?
Arkansas needed to upset LSU and Ole Miss. Texas had to knock off Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Both did just that --and just enough to go bowling.

There is plenty at stake when these 6-6 teams square off at Houston's NRG Stadium on Monday night. Pretty simple, really: One team goes home with a winning record, the other doesn't. Which team will embrace the momentum-building moment?

ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf and Max Olson break down the matchup.

How Arkansas can control the game: Run the ball and control the clock. This has been Arkansas’ strength all season. The Razorbacks have 14 touchdown drives of five minutes or longer, second most in the FBS behind only Georgia Tech. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each have more than 1,000 yards rushing. No other FBS team can say that. When the Razorbacks are gashing the opponent on the ground, they are hard to stop. -- Ostendorf

How Texas can control the game: Charlie Strong wins games with his stout defense, and when this group forces turnovers it can be awfully tough to beat. Texas had the Big 12's No. 1 total defense and pass defense, and the pressure that Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Cedric Reed get up front ought to make running the ball a challenge at times. It's a bend-don't-break defense that will keep this game relatively low-scoring. -- Olson

Arkansas' X-factor: Trey Flowers has been a quarterback’s nightmare this season. The senior defensive end has 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries. When he’s not chasing him down, he’s batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. He has been the heart and soul of an Arkansas defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game in the month of November, and this will be his final game in a Razorbacks’ uniform. -- Ostendorf

Texas' X-factor: The play of Tyrone Swoopes, obviously. His five-turnover showing against TCU gave the Longhorns no shot and raised doubts among the fan base about whether he's "the guy" for the future. Swoopes can kill those questions with a bounce-back showing. He had one of the finest performances of his career (305 yards, two TDs, 72 percent passing) against Oklahoma State right before facing the Frogs. Can he bring his best against the Hogs? -- Olson

What a win would mean for the Razorbacks: The rebuilding process at Arkansas took a big step this season under second-year coach Bret Bielema. The Hogs won an SEC game, nearly knocked off the eventual conference champion, and now they are playing in a bowl game. A win could propel them into next season and validate them as a contender in 2015. -- Ostendorf

What a win would mean for Texas: The Longhorns got their recruiting momentum rolling last week with a commitment from elite linebacker Malik Jefferson. This 'W' can get the rest of the program rolling. An important win would aid an important offseason for growth, and the Horns badly need to move past the buzzkill of getting beat up by TCU. -- Olson

Arkansas season review

December, 15, 2014
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What started as a season that included several close SEC losses finished as one that has Arkansas playing in a bowl and feeling a sense of optimism for the first time in a while. With a throwback Southwest Conference battle against Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl looming on Dec. 29, let’s take a look back at the 2014 season for the Razorbacks:

Best win: Arkansas’ 17-0 victory over LSU probably felt the best because it ended the Razorbacks’ 17-game SEC losing streak, came over a rival and ended with fans storming the field, but the most impressive win came the following week over then-No. 8 Ole Miss. The Hogs shut out the Rebels 30-0, became bowl-eligible and dominated a team that was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally at one point. The Razorbacks forced six turnovers and it was the first time they shut out a conference team in back-to-back weeks since joining the SEC in 1992. It's hard to go wrong with either, but we’ll go with the victory over the Rebels on Nov. 22.

Worst loss: Every Razorbacks loss came to a team that was ranked in the Top 25 at the time, so it’s hard to nitpick about any of them, but the defeat that looked the worst was a 45-32 loss to Georgia. As Arkansas kept knocking on the door of an SEC win, the Razorbacks were a popular upset pick against the Bulldogs on Oct. 18 in Little Rock, but Georgia quickly erased such thoughts by racing out to a 38-6 halftime lead. The Hogs tried to rally in the second half but never trimmed Georgia’s lead to single digits. They surrendered 202 rushing yards to freshman Nick Chubb.

Players of year: Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. It’s hard to pick just one, and because the Razorbacks named them both team MVPs, we’ll do the same. Flowers finished the year with 63 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, six pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries. Spaight led the SEC with 123 tackles and had 8.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one recovery, a sack and an interception. Both players were critical to the Razorbacks’ defensive success.

Breakout players: There are a couple good choices here: Darius Philon and A.J. Derby. Philon, who was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2013, collected 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries en route to AP All-SEC second team honors. Derby, who was a quarterback before this season, switched to tight end and did an admirable job, becoming the team’s No. 3 receiver with 22 receptions for 303 yards and three scores. He had his best games against Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia.

Play of year: There’s zero doubt about this one: It’s the “fat guy touchdown pass” from offensive guard Sebastian Tretola to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio on Oct. 25 vs. UAB. It was a thing of beauty for offensive linemen everywhere who only dream of getting the glory that’s usually reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The Razorbacks lined up in a swinging-gate formation on fourth-and-goal, but rather than shifting into traditional field goal formation, the Hogs snapped the ball to Tretola whose pass – while leaning back away from pressure -- was picture-perfect to D’Appollonio for the 6-yard touchdown. The Razorbacks put together a Heisman Trophy campaign video for Tretola after the fact and Bret Bielema said afterward: “Come to Arkansas ... if you’re [an offensive] lineman, we’ll make you famous.”
video 2015 outlook: Though the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC West, the future seems bright. They were within seven points or fewer in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri, so another year of development and experience could turn some of those close losses into victories. Arkansas ended its SEC losing streak and became bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons, generating strong momentum for the program as Bielema enters his third season. And he seems committed to hanging around; he was rumored to be connected to the Nebraska opening, but Bielema stated he’s “All Hog.” The Hogs will have to replace some key defensive pieces, particularly Flowers and Spaight, next season, but the returning players’ experience gained in Robb Smith’s scheme as he enters his second year as defensive coordinator will help. Most of the offense returns, led by the backfield duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who both surpassed 1,000 rushing yards this season.
On Monday, we wrote about Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M as they all get ready for their upcoming bowl games. Earlier Tuesday, we looked at the two Mississippi schools as they prepare for their New Year’s Six bowl games. Now it’s time to look at the other four bowl-eligible SEC teams and their matchups.

Duck Commander Independence Bowl, Dec. 27
South Carolina vs. Miami

Initial thoughts: Before the season, nobody could’ve predicted South Carolina would end up in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks had aspirations of winning the SEC East and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll head to Shreveport, Louisiana, to face a Miami team that has lost three straight. It’s not the ideal destination for the Head Ball Coach, but at least it’s a bowl game.

Key for South Carolina offense: Stay balanced. The Gamecocks have been unstoppable on offense at times this season. Dylan Thompson leads the SEC with 3,280 passing yards, and Pharoh Cooper is second only to Amari Cooper with 966 receiving yards. Those two will hook up early and often, but it’s important to get Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the ground game going. Their backfield is too talented not to.

Key for South Carolina defense: It won’t be easy, considering they haven’t stopped anybody all season, but the Gamecocks have to find a way to stop Duke Johnson. The Miami running back has 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards the last two games, so he’ll be primed to turn that trend around and finish the season on a high note. If he gets going, this one could quickly turn into a shootout.

What a win would mean: Looking back, most people won’t remember if South Carolina won or lost this game. The coaches will probably tell you the extra practice time is just as important as, if not more important than, the game itself. Still, it’d be nice to send Thompson off with a win in his final game.

AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas

Initial thoughts: Everybody was hoping to see Texas vs. Texas A&M in this game, and it almost happened, but Arkansas is not a bad consolation prize. The two teams were longtime rivals in the Southwest Conference, and this will be the 78th meeting between them. It brings you back to the days when Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal were manning opposite sidelines. Now we get Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong, two coaches rebuilding their respective programs.

Key for Arkansas offense: The Razorbacks got away from the run a little bit in the second half against Missouri, and it cost them. Expect Bielema to go right back to it in this one, using his tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins early and often against the Longhorns. Health will also be a factor. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be 100 percent, and he’ll get tight end AJ Derby back for this game.

Key for Arkansas defense: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, if not the nation. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon have 24 tackles for loss between them, and linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles on the season. Needless to say, the Razorbacks should be able to wreak havoc in the backfield and keep Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes contained. The key will be not letting Swoopes beat them deep.

What a win would mean: It’s the next step in the rebuilding process. Arkansas proved it was competitive with every team in the SEC West, and back-to-back wins over LSU and Ole Miss validated this team. Now the Razorbacks have a chance to win their bowl game and gain some momentum heading into next season.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1
Missouri vs. Minnesota

Initial thoughts: Raise your hand if you had this Citrus Bowl matchup pegged before the season. No hands? Exactly. Missouri made it all the way to the SEC championship game, and after a loss to Alabama, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Tigers get snubbed again. Not this year. Instead, they were rewarded for a terrific season. The matchup might not be sexy, but the Citrus Bowl is the top SEC bowl game after the New Year’s Six. And it’s in Florida.

Key for Missouri offense: Is Maty Mauk just not the quarterback everybody thought he was? At times, he looks great. But more times than not, he’s been erratic and inconsistent this season. The running game has stepped up behind Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, but Mauk has to play better. He’s only a sophomore, and this is a perfect opportunity to play well and get his confidence back before next season.

Key for Missouri defense: Shane Ray will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Missouri defensive end still has one game left with the Tigers -- and don’t think he won’t be motivated after getting ejected in the first half against Alabama. It’s also the final game for fellow defensive end Markus Golden, and it’s the last chance we get to see the two together. Sacks, however, will be hard to come by against the Gophers, who are primarily a running team.

What a win would mean: All Missouri wants is a little respect. After all, this team has won the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, a win over Minnesota will do little to help that, but it would look much better than a loss. The Tigers typically play well in the postseason, winning four of their last six bowl games.

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa

Initial thoughts: Most people thought Tennessee would stay in state and play in either the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the SEC rewarded the Volunteers by sending them down to Florida for their bowl game. And why not? They finished the season on a high note, winning three of their last four games to become bowl eligible. It’s no surprise head coach Butch Jones was given a contract extension and raise earlier this week.

Key for Tennessee offense: How will the offensive line hold up against Iowa? It’s been the Achilles’ heel all season, but it’s a group that’s improved every game. It’s important they create room for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs off his back. And speaking of Dobbs, he’s one to keep an eye on. He’s struggled his last two games, but he has the talent to have a big day against the Hawkeyes.

Key for Tennessee defense: Third down for what? Inspired by the Lil’ Jon song, the Vols’ defense has been very good on third down this season, allowing a 35 percent conversion rate to opponents. As a whole, this unit is best when it’s getting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the secondary. Tennessee is among the SEC leaders in sacks (35) and interceptions (15), which is bad news for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.

What a win would mean: The goal this season was to play in a bowl game. This Tennessee team reached that goal. For most of the players, it will be their first bowl game, but they’re not satisfied with just playing in one. They want to win. There’s already talk of the Volunteers making a run at the SEC East next season. It starts Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.

At first glance: SEC Week 14

November, 24, 2014
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It all comes down to this.

The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn

Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?

Lane
Prescott
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.

Lane
Muschamp
Coach under the microscope: Will Muschamp, Florida

This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?

Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?

There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.

Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read

Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 22, 2014
11/22/14
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It was a relatively weak slate for the SEC, but we still learned a few things about the league as we head into the final week of the regular season:

    [+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
    Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsTrey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have been downright nasty the past two weeks, when they shut out LSU and Ole Miss, respectively.
  • If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
  • Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
  • Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
  • Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
  • Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.

Arkansas' old-school run appeals to Tigers

November, 13, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- To heck with the misdirection plays and spread offenses that dominate LSU’s schedule. The Tigers know that effectively defending Saturday’s opponent starts with slowing down Arkansas’ downhill running game.

While Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is known for pulling a trick play out of his hat once in a while, the Razorbacks’ offensive identity is fairly straight-forward. They typically attempt to pound opposing defenses with tailbacks Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams running behind a bruising offensive line.

“You get to show what you’ve been doing all summer with [LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt: strength and training and running, being physical,” strongside linebacker Lamar Louis said. “Old-school football, that’s what I like to call it. Pretty much the football we’ve been playing since we were younger. So I like games like this.”

[+] EnlargeJonathan Williams
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Williams and the Arkansas offense churns out an average of 248 rushing yards per game.
LSU’s defense got off to an awful start against opponents’ running games, regardless of whether they ran traditional schemes (Wisconsin) or read-option spreads (Mississippi State and Auburn). However, the Tigers turned things around during their three-game winning streak and the progress continued even in last week’s overtime loss to Alabama.

In the past four games, LSU has largely shut down opponents' rushing attacks, surrendering 109.3 yards per game and just one touchdown. That’s a complete turnaround from its first three games against Power 5 opponents (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn), when opponents averaged 289.3 yards per game on the ground and totaled seven rushing scores.

The Alabama game might have been the season’s high-water mark for LSU, as the Tigers limited the Crimson Tide’s talented backfield duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry to a combined 72 yards on the ground, and Louis also forced a Yeldon fumble that allowed the Tigers to kick the go-ahead field goal with 50 seconds left in regulation.

“I think the whole game we were very physical,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said. “Alabama’s a physical team. We had to counter that with being very physical, as well.”

That mentality will be necessary again on Saturday.

Williams (137 carries, 877 yards, 10 TDs) is fourth in the SEC with 97.4 rushing yards per game and Collins (134 carries, 840 yards, 10 TDs) is fifth at 93.3. They run behind an offensive line that averages 328.4 pounds per man, making the group heftier than most offensive lines in the NFL.

And they come right at you -- which shouldn’t seem too unfamiliar to a group that practices against a Les Miles offense every day.

“We’ve seen it all spring with our offense, the way they run the ball, so it shouldn’t be too complicated for us,” middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith said.

A word of caution, though: Arkansas’ passing attack is more dangerous this season with a healthy Brandon Allen at quarterback. The Razorbacks attempted 40 passes for 246 yards in a 14-13 loss to Alabama and 44 passes for 238 yards in a near-miss against top-ranked Mississippi State.

It’s easy to get so caught up in defending Collins and Williams that Allen can catch a defense by surprise with a play-action pass for a big gain.

“That’s what they’re setting you up for,” safety Jalen Mills said. “You know that they’re a big run team, but then again, you see where the quarterback may have a lot of passing yards. That’s where guys are biting for the play-action and then he’s hitting you over the top.”

The Razorbacks seem unlikely to win on Saturday by throwing 40 passes against LSU, which boasts the SEC’s top pass defense (163.5 yards allowed per game), however. The Razorbacks’ hopes of ending a 17-game SEC losing streak likely hinge on their ability to move the ball on the ground -- and LSU’s defenders expect the Razorbacks to come straight at them.

“[We need to] knock their heads back, make sure they know that we came to play,” LaCouture said of the LSU defensive line’s approach, which will come in handy again this week.

“Alabama’s a very physical team. We knew that coming in, so we knew that we had to attack the line of scrimmage, first and foremost, push the offensive line back into the running back’s face and make them go sideways so guys like Kwon [Alexander, LSU’s starting weakside linebacker] could make plays. And if they come up the middle, that’s when we make our plays.”
With No. 5 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) preparing to visit No. 16 LSU (7-2, 3-2), LSU writer David Ching and Alabama writer Alex Scarborough take a look at some key factors in Saturday’s game.

LSU stats to watch

506 rushing yards by QBs: Only five FBS teams have surrendered more rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks than LSU. That is not a particularly encouraging sign against Alabama and Blake Sims.

The converted running back has performed well in his first season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, but he still possesses the ability to break long runs. Sims accelerated for a 28-yard touchdown run in Alabama’s last game against Tennessee and broke a 43-yard touchdown run the previous week against Texas A&M.

LSU has done a better job defending the quarterback run since Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, New Mexico State’s Andrew Allen and Auburn’s Nick Marshall all broke the 100-yard mark in consecutive weeks against the Tigers. If the Tigers can limit Sims’ running opportunities, they will likely give themselves a much better chance of slowing down Alabama’s offense.

50 rushing attempts: Les Miles insists the Tigers want to be balanced on offense, but the numbers prove otherwise. LSU is unquestionably a run-first offense, having kept the ball on the ground 69.4 percent of the time this season.

LSU’s rushing totals will almost certainly indicate whether the Tigers are competitive in this game. During their three-game winning streak, the Tigers ran at least 50 times for at least 195 yards in each game. They’re coming off a win over Ole Miss where they ran 55 times for 264 yards -- and that’s the blueprint for success for LSU.

If they eclipse the 50-carry, 200-yard mark on the ground, things will be going according to plan for the Tigers. If they fall behind like they did against Mississippi State and Auburn -- when they ran 35 and 36 times, respectively -- they’ll have to pass more often. The next time they win by leaning heavily on the pass will be the first time they’ve done so in 2014.

Alabama stats to watch

49 percent: Can Sims spread the ball around? That’s the chief question facing Alabama.

So far, Amari Cooper has been responsible for a whopping 49 percent of the Crimson Tide’s total receiving yards this season, which happens to be the highest percentage in all of college football.

While he’s explosive, leading the country in receptions of 20-plus yards, there has to be more to the passing game than him. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will do everything he can to make sure Cooper doesn’t beat him. That means Sims getting guys such as Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard involved. If he can’t make the offense more dynamic, LSU will make him pay.

2.71 yards per carry: With space eaters A'Shawn Robinson and Brandon Ivory on the defensive line and big-bodied Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland at linebacker, Alabama is built to stop the run. In fact, the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards per rush allowed (2.71).

To take it one step further, Alabama has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (two) in the country. Against an Arkansas rushing offense that’s similar to LSU’s, the Crimson Tide held Jonathan Williams to less than 100 yards and Alex Collins to a grand total of 13 yards on six carries.

While LSU’s offensive line is arguably better than Arkansas’, that’s a sign Alabama’s defense will be able to handle Leonard Fournette and Tiger rushing attack

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsGetting production from players such as sophomore tight end O.J. Howard will prevent LSU from keying completely on star Alabama WR Amari Cooper.
Why LSU pulls the upset

David Ching: The Tigers’ 10-7 win over Ole Miss essentially provided the blueprint for how LSU can win this game: Keep the chains moving with a power running game, play tough defense, avoid major mistakes. That last part was nearly the Tigers’ undoing -- they turned it over four times and missed a short field goal, which was the only reason the score was so close -- and they probably can’t beat Alabama with a minus-three turnover margin. But if that trademark Les Miles game plan is working on Saturday night, this is a game that the Tigers can win.

Alex Scarborough: There’s something about Death Valley at night. Since 2010, LSU is 21-2 in home games that start at 4 p.m. or later. The crowd starts rocking. Sometimes the fog rolls in. The environment plays tricks on you, and I think Alabama will succumb to the pressure. The offensive line will commit a few ill-timed penalties and Sims, who was avoided a number of interceptions thanks to some stone-handed DBs, will finally face a secondary that can take advantage of his mistakes. LSU gets a few key turnovers, controls the tempo on offense with its running game and pulls off the second straight upset at home.

Why LSU’s upset falls short

David Ching: If the Tigers fall behind early or struggle to move the ball on the ground, they are not efficient enough in the passing game to hang with Alabama. Anthony Jennings and Travin Dural have combined for some huge pass plays, but Dural’s position mates haven’t accounted for much production this season.

Alex Scarborough: Unfortunately for pundits, there’s no near-INT statistic. The fact of the matter is Sims has thrown only three picks all season, so while he may have been lucky with some poorly thrown passes in previous games, you can’t assume his luck will change. Actually, the numbers indicate that LSU is more likely to throw an interception than Alabama. The Tide rank eighth nationally in interceptions per pass attempt (1.2 percent) compared to LSU’s standing of 99th (3.6 percent). But to make your head totally spin, consider this: Despite a relatively high percentage of interceptions thrown, LSU is plus-4 in turnover margin while Alabama is minus-2.

LSU offensive X-factor: Anthony Jennings. LSU’s quarterback hasn’t completed better than 50 percent of his passes against any Power 5 defense. If the Tigers run the ball better than anyone else has against Alabama’s defense, maybe they won’t need much from Jennings. But our bet is they’ll need him to make a few big throws -- and avoid any crippling mistakes.

LSU defensive X-factor: Kendell Beckwith. It’s no coincidence that LSU’s defensive turnaround started with Beckwith’s introduction to the starting lineup. The sophomore middle linebacker seems to be getting more comfortable in his new role and will be a central figure in the Tigers’ efforts to slow down Alabama’s running game.

Alabama offensive X-factor: O.J. Howard. No defensive coordinator wants to look over and see Cooper on the other side of the field. But there’s another player on Alabama’s roster who can give opposing coaches fits: Howard. An athletic tight end who can run after the catch, Howard’s a matchup nightmare. He has only six receptions, but he made the play of the game last year against LSU with a 52-yard touchdown catch.

Alabama defensive X-factor: Brandon Ivory. What Ivory does best doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. In fact, he has only three tackles and has started just two games this season. But that’s because he’s a throwback in today’s game: A true nose guard who sits in the middle of the defensive line and eats up blockers. If he can help take away LSU’s power rushing game between the tackles, Alabama’s defense will be in great shape.

Four key storylines in Georgia-Arkansas

October, 17, 2014
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If the SEC West is going to finally lose to a non-Western Division team this season -- it’s 26-0 so far -- Saturday’s game between No. 10 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC) and Arkansas (3-3, 0-3) might be when the streak finally ends.

Even if Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley remains suspended, the Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 34-0 win at Missouri where freshman Nick Chubb established himself as a workhorse back. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks haven’t won a conference game since beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012, with their conference losing streak growing to 15 games with last week’s 14-13 loss to Alabama.

Regardless of who wins, a streak will end on Saturday. Here are some key elements to watch in the game, with an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group.

Run and run some more: Saturday’s game pits teams that have shared similar offensive philosophies this season. The question is who will do it better at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium when the SEC’s top two rushing offenses meet.

Everyone knows that ground-and-pound is Bret Bielema’s mantra, and the Razorbacks have embodied that philosophy by running the ball 64.6 percent of the time (268 runs in 415 plays). It might come as a surprise, though, that Georgia’s offense is just as run-heavy, keeping it on the ground on 64.3 percent of its plays (264 of 410).

The Bulldogs typically emphasize balance between the run and pass, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has leaned heavily on onetime Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley and a stable of talented running backs. With Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel out with injuries against Missouri, Chubb carried the load almost singlehandedly, totaling 38 carries and 143 yards and a touchdown.

Arkansas boasts one of the nation's best 1-2 backfield punches with Alex Collins (92-634, 6 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (86-569, 9 TDs), and that duo, coupled with an imposing offensive line, have helped the Razorbacks become the SEC’s top rushing offense at 278.7 ypg.

Georgia (275.7 ypg) is right behind Arkansas in the league rushing standings, with both teams having scored 21 rushing touchdowns and Georgia barely edging Arkansas in yards per carry (6.3 to 6.2).

Gurley vs. Chubb: If Gurley remains sidelined on Saturday -- and as of Thursday evening, Gurley’s status remained unclear -- Chubb (69-367, 3 TDs) and sophomore Brendan Douglas (and possibly J.J. Green, who practiced at running back this week after shifting to defense earlier this season) might have to carry the offense again. The duo combined for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri, including a highlight-reel touchdown run by Douglas where he tried to jump over a Tigers defender and instead was hit in the legs and somersaulted into the end zone.

More impressive than Douglas’ acrobatics was Chubb’s tough running against the Tigers. He accumulated those 143 rushing yards despite being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22 of his 38 attempts. Gurley made it past the line of scrimmage before first making contact with a defender on 73 percent of his carries this season, compared to 52 percent for Chubb.

Bulldogs fans had been comparing the hard-running Chubb to Gurley since well before Georgia suspended the junior superstar while investigating whether he accepted money to sign autographs. Chubb’s production against Missouri was impressive, but he has enormous shoes to fill while trying to replace Gurley’s production (94-773, 8 TDs).



He’ll attempt to do that against an Arkansas defense that was stout last week against Alabama. On nine of the Crimson Tide’s 13 drives last Saturday, it failed to achieve either a first down or a touchdown -- its most such drives in any game since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007 and the most by an SEC team in the last three seasons.

Further, Alabama had just 15 yards before contact on its 37 designed runs against Arkansas, its fewest in a game and lowest average in the last four years.

In other words, Georgia’s offensive linemen had better pack their lunch pails for this trip because producing against Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Arkansas’ front seven might be tougher than it was against Missouri’s.

Big-play Razorbacks? Considering its run-based philosophy, it might come as a surprise how frequently Arkansas manages to post a quick score. The Razorbacks lead the FBS with 13 touchdown drives that required three plays or fewer. The next-closest FBS programs are Michigan State and Baylor with 11 apiece.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsArkansas is known for its ground-and-pound offense, but Alex Collins and company are capable of scoring touchdowns quickly.
Georgia’s six such drives are slightly above the national average (five).

Neither team has been especially explosive overall. Georgia has 87 plays that covered 10 yards or more and 26 that covered at least 20. Arkansas has 95 plays of 10-plus and 27 plays of 20-plus. The national averages for FBS teams are 88 and 29, respectively.

Quarterback play: The X-factors on Saturday might be which team gets the steadiest performance from its quarterback.

Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (79-137, 997 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) has played better than he did last season, but still hasn’t been a game changer. For instance, he floated an across-the-field pass off his back foot that Alabama’s Landon Collins intercepted with 1:59 to play in last week’s narrow loss.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Hutson Mason (91-129, 843 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the epitome of a game manager for the Bulldogs. Mason’s average pass has traveled 6.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, the shortest average distance for any Power Five quarterback with at least four starts. The return of previously injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley might help Mason stretch the field, however.

If the running game keeps working for these teams on Saturday, don’t expect to see Allen and Mason throw it around too often. But it might come down to which of them can make key completions -- or avoid costly interceptions like Allen’s last week -- with the game on the line.
Not everyone can be a first-team All-SEC selection. When we created our midseason all-conference team, we understood that some players would be left off. When you have Dak Prescott making a Heisman run, other quarterbacks are forgotten. But that doesn’t mean we should go without mentioning those who didn’t make the cut. Here’s a rundown of some of the SEC's most underrated players at the midseason point.

OFFENSE

QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins is averaging 6.9 yards per carry for the Razorbacks.
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).

WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).

TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.

OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.

DEFENSE

DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.

LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.

CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.

S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.

SPECIALISTS

K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).

P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.

KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.

At first glance: SEC Week 8

October, 13, 2014
10/13/14
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There is never a dull moment in the SEC, is there?

Between Mississippi State’s ascension, Ole Miss’ continued rise and Alabama’s sudden ineptitude, this past weekend was a thrill-a-minute. It had everything, even a bit of Les Miles magic and Will Muschamp melodrama.

Sadly, that is all behind us. Only the replays remain.

Now we get to look forward to what promises to be another compelling slate of SEC action.

Game of the week: Texas A&M at Alabama

Talk about two teams with something to prove.

Alabama survived Arkansas in the purest sense of the word. After all, you normally don't go 4-of-15 on third downs, turn the ball over twice and win. But now comes the real test. Everything from the play of the offensive line to the play of the secondary to the play of the quarterback needs fixing.

Texas A&M, on the other hand, must decided whether or not it wants to compete for the postseason. One more loss and it’s over. Heck, after losing by two touchdowns to Ole Miss, it may already be that time. But a win over Alabama on Saturday could change that. Quarterback Kenny Hill still has potential and the Aggies still have plenty of talent. Will they find a way to put it together before it's too late? That’s the million dollar question.

Player under pressure: Maty Mauk

No one in the SEC had a worse week than Missouri quarterback Mauk. He looked absolutely hopeless against Georgia on Saturday, throwing four interceptions.

But Mauk is a gunslinger, and you never know when someone with his gambler’s mentality will find himself riding a hot hand.

Against Florida, we will find out exactly what kind of quarterback Mauk wants to be. Does he want to learn to play within the offense, or will he continue to force passes? Does he want to hit his check down from time to time, or will he continue his all-or-nothing play? Does he want to rediscover his promise from late last season, or will he continue down this path of interceptions and failed opportunities?

Coach under the microscope: Nick Saban

Nick Saban was visibly upset, repeatedly disappointed and then simply frustrated. The only player who got a smile and a pat on the back from Alabama's demanding head coach was the punter, JK Scott. When Blake Sims failed to convert on a fourth-and-inches quarterback sneak, you thought Saban might implode right there on the sideline. Poof. He’s burned away in a white hot fury.

Now Saban gets to take out his frustrations. Now, despite getting the 1-point win, Saban gets to try to make things right.

It’s clear now that the blend of talent and experience of past Alabama teams isn’t there this season. But it’s the uncharacteristic things -- turnovers, penalties, poor decision-making -- that have been plagued the Crimson Tide this season. If you didn't see Saban gesticulating furiously on the sideline, you might say it was bad coaching.

Storyline to watch: Mississippi takes a break

The hierarchy of the SEC has been turned on its ear. The Magnolia State, forever the doormat in the West, is now occupying the penthouse suite.

But this week we get to take a break from all that. Mississippi State’s cowbells will be silent and Ole Miss, a heavy favorite at home against Tennessee, won’t have the chance to Hotty Toddy up the rankings any further.

Instead, this week the rest of the SEC gets to play catchup.

Georgia, which looked good even without Todd Gurley against Missouri, has a chance at Arkansas to further separate itself as the leader in the East. And Alabama or Texas A&M will emerge from Saturday alive and well, while the other will ostensibly be shut out of the division race.

Intriguing matchup: Georgia at Arkansas

Give the Bulldogs’ defense credit. Leonard Floyd played like a beast and Georgia’s much criticized secondary delivered four interceptions against Missouri. The Tigers mustered only 50 yards rushing against Mark Richt’s stout front seven.

But that was nothing compared to what awaits in Fayetteville, Arkansas, this weekend. Where Missouri’s backs try to dance around and hope for a hole, Arkansas’ run straight ahead and make a path by force.

Georgia, quite simply, hasn’t seen an offensive line and a group of running backs like Arkansas’ this season. Between Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, there isn’t a back you want to see coming off the sideline. Floyd and the rest of that Bulldogs defense will be in for a real test.

Don’t forget about ...: Kentucky at LSU

No one wants a piece of Mark Stoops’ Wildcats these days. Patrick Towles, Javess Blue and Stanley "Boom" Williams have turned around that offense. And A.J. Stamps, Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are wreaking havoc on defense. Kentucky, despite its history of mediocrity, is now a dangerous football team, a young team brimming with confidence and the youthful charm of not knowing any better.

On the other hand, there is LSU. Miles’ young Tigers haven’t been sharp this season, but you wonder about their confidence after going on the road and beating Florida in a close game. It could be just what the the doctor ordered. If Anthony Jennings can take care of the football and Leonard Fournette can continue his success running between the tackles, LSU could turn it around in a hurry.

Something will have to give when these teams meet in Baton Rouge. Either LSU is going to start heading the right direction again, or Kentucky will continue its ascent in the SEC.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
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A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

No. 13 Georgia at No. 23 Missouri, CBS: Georgia fans have been calling Nick Chubb the next Todd Gurley for weeks now. We’re about to discover how valid those comparisons actually are after Thursday’s news that Gurley is suspended indefinitely. The Bulldogs likely hoped to ride their star tailback to a win that might determine the SEC East champion. Instead, they’ll play Mizzou without Gurley for a second straight season and pray that his absence won’t hurt as badly as it did last year. Chubb is going to be a star, but the freshman is going to have a ton of pressure on his shoulders Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGeorgia will now look to freshman Nick Chubb to fill the void left after Todd Gurley's suspension.
Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky, SEC Network: Can you believe it? The Wildcats are one referee being slow to his whistle (in what turned out to be an overtime loss to Florida) away from being undefeated right now. Kentucky should erect a Mark Stoops statue outside of Commonwealth Stadium for that alone, although the school might have an even easier time soliciting funds if the statue were of Jojo Kemp after the show he put on last week against South Carolina. Stoops, Kemp and the rest of the Wildcats have one last gimme, which should help them improve to 5-1, before facing a challenging second half of the schedule, starting with a visit to LSU next week.

3:30 p.m.

No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State, CBS: The first of the day's two marquee top-15 matchups should be a shootout. Dan Mullen is just 1-4 against Auburn at Mississippi State, but he hasn't coached a Bulldogs team that was this talented, either. Everyone will focus on the quarterbacks in this one -- and for good reason, since Dak Prescott and Nick Marshall are two of the SEC's most electric players -- but there are plenty of subplots that make this one interesting. ESPN's “College GameDay” will be in Starkville for the first time, the Bulldogs -- longtime doormats in the SEC -- are tied for third nationally with cross-state rival Ole Miss and there is Heisman buzz surrounding both quarterbacks. Regardless of the outcome, this will be one of the most memorable days in Mississippi State's football history.

4 p.m.

Tennessee-Chattanooga at Tennessee, SEC Network: This is a necessary get-well game for Tennessee after the Volunteers suffered bitter back-to-back losses to Georgia and Florida. It's going to be difficult for the Vols to achieve bowl eligibility this season with a difficult second half of the schedule to go, but it will be nearly impossible if Tennessee fails to win this one and get to 3-3 at the midway point. UTC (3-2) is a fine FCS program, but it shouldn't provide much of a challenge.

6 p.m.

No. 7 Alabama at Arkansas, ESPN: Like Tennessee, Arkansas has made some good teams -- namely Auburn and Texas A&M -- sweat before eventually putting away the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team is much improved, but it needs a conference win in the worst way. The Hogs are at home today against Alabama, which helps, but it will be a tall order to avoid an 0-3 start in SEC play. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide hobbles into the game after Ole Miss beat them 23-17 last week, with the Tide losing a few key players to injury. If Alabama struggles to contain Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and the Razorbacks' physical rushing attack, this one could get interesting.

7:30 p.m.

LSU at Florida, SEC Network: We're accustomed to these two teams entering this game with conference and national title hopes intact. That isn't the case this season, as both are unranked and in turmoil. This one might come down to which team's quarterback -- a position that has been problematic for both clubs throughout the season -- shows some competence. With Jeff Driskel and Anthony Jennings taking the snaps, it's hard to know what to expect from either offense.

Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt, FSN: Surely Vandy's going to win this one, right? Probably -- come on, this is an SEC team against an FCS club -- but it's difficult to count the Bucs out completely. They're 5-0 and ranked 23rd in this week's FCS coaches' poll, while Vandy is 1-5. Remember, the Commodores trailed UMass by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter before rallying for a 34-31 win -- their lone victory to this point.

9 p.m.

No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 14 Texas A&M, ESPN: Capping off the day is the other top-15 matchup, one that will pit one of the SEC's top offenses against arguably its top defense. Last week, Ole Miss admirably managed the “GameDay” hoopla that Mississippi State will encounter on Saturday and emerged with a landmark win over Alabama. It turns right back around this weekend with a road trip to meet Kenny Hill and the Aggies, who lead the SEC with an average of 47.8 points per game. Ole Miss boasts the SEC's top-scoring defense, though, at 10.2 PPG, and Mississippi State proved last Saturday that Hill & Co. can be stopped. Can the Rebels do it at Kyle Field, though? What an entertaining way to conclude a huge day around the league.

At first glance: SEC Week 7

October, 6, 2014
10/06/14
12:00
PM ET
The state of Mississippi is on top, but Auburn is lurking.

Alabama isn't out of it, but South Carolina is.

Texas A&M doesn't have a defense, but Ole Miss certainly does.

Todd Gurley has the Heisman lead, but Dak Prescott isn't far off.

A lot happened this weekend, but like all the coaches we run into, we have a 24-hour rule, so it's time to take a look at the weekend ahead:

Game of the week: No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State
Yeah, no one thought this is how we'd see this game before the season started. But both of these teams appear to be for real, and, man, are they fun to watch. Both have explosive offenses, Heisman candidates at quarterback and defenses that are getting better every week. Mississippi State is coming off of a historic blowout over Texas A&M, while Auburn took LSU to the woodshed on the Plains. Both have a lot of momentum, and will likely be very emotionally charged in Starkville. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be in town, and for the second straight week, the state of Mississippi will be front and center for the college football world to see. The matchup at quarterback could be the best we've seen yet. Prescott and Nick Marshall are a spread coach's dream with the way they can run, but they are also throwing the ball better. This one will come down to defense. First one to hold strong, wins.

Player under pressure: Bo Wallace
After a dazzling performance in the win over Alabama (251 yards and three touchdowns), it's time to go right back out there and do it all over again. You better believe Wallace and his teammates will still be coming off a high from that upset win over the Crimson Tide, but it's time to shake that win off. Wallace has had a very up-and-down career with the Rebels in big games, but he took a major step forward against Alabama. Now, he has to keep it up if the Rebels are going to really challenge for the SEC West crown. As he goes, so does the Rebels' offense. He can't afford a letdown on the road in College Station. He gets a bad defense in Texas A&M, but he also faces a team that is reeling after such a bad day in Starkville. They'll be motivated and will throw everything at Wallace.

Coach under the microscope: Kevin Sumlin
No, Sumlin isn't remotely close to the hot seat, but it will be interesting to see how Sumlin changes things with his team this week. The offense, which was ineffective for most of the day against Mississippi State's defense, gets the SEC's top defense. The Rebels' defense has allowed just four touchdowns this season and is barely giving up 10 points a game. Sumlin needs to make sure quarterback Kenny Hill gets better protection against a very athletic Ole Miss front. Obviously, the defense is in major need of some real work. Now, a week won't fix everything, but the Aggies gave up 559 yards and 7.3 yards per play to the Bulldogs Saturday. Prescott engineered that performance, and Wallace should be licking his chops at the thought of playing this defense. If the Aggies want to stay in the West race, Saturday is a must-win game.

Storyline to watch: How much will Treon Harris play?
There is a quarterback controversy in Gainesville, but coach Will Muschamp isn't ready to say how he's going to handle it. Just what Gators fans need. Veteran Jeff Driskel just hasn't been effective enough in games, and his benching for Harris against Tennessee looked inevitable. Harris wasn't great, but he did lead the Gators on their only two scoring drives in an ugly win over Tennessee on the road. Hey, it's a start, right? Now, the Gators face an LSU defense that was torched by Auburn and steamrolled by Mississippi State. This is the perfect week to get Harris really involved in the offense because it needs a spark. Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have to have some packages for Harris, regardless of who starts.

Intriguing matchup: No. 7 Alabama at Arkansas
The Tide has now lost to its last three ranked opponents. For all the unnecessary flack that Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt took when he said that this wasn't the same Alabama team people were used to, he was absolutely correct. The offense took a few steps back against a talented Ole Miss defense, and its own defense gave up 20 points in the second half to the Rebels. Now, Alabama has to face a rested Arkansas offense that is rushing for 316 yards per game. The Tide will be jacked up to turn things around, but this is no gimmie for Alabama. Arkansas might not have much of a passing game, but running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have combined to rush for 1,107 yards and 14 touchdowns. Alabama is allowing only 64 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry, but the Tide haven't faced a running game like this. Should be interesting to see how the defense responds Saturday in Fayetteville.

Don't forget about ...: No. 13 Georgia at No. 23 Missouri
The SEC East is still around, and this game will say a lot about how that race shapes up. Even though both of these teams are ranked, this game will take a back seat this weekend because of how strong the West is. That's OK, because these teams have no concern with what's happening on the other side of the league. Here are the matchups to watch: Todd Gurley vs. Missouri's defensive front and Maty Mauk vs. Georgia's secondary.

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