SEC: Austin Shepherd


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
ATLANTA -- In the waning moments of Alabama's 42-13 win against Missouri in the SEC championship game, quarterback Blake Sims beelined toward the man in white.

Rocking that patented visor and his light, white Alabama jacket, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin embraced his signal-caller, swaying back and forth, as if they were the only people inside the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Lake Kiffin
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOffensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has helped to revolutionize an already powerful Alabama offense under coach Nick Saban -- in just one season.
It was a sign of victory and raw elation. It was also a sign of the times, something many familiar with Alabama's program didn't see coming the day Kiffin, essentially a runoff head coach, was hired by Nick Saban to guide his offense.

"He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do," Saban said of Kiffin the day before the SEC title game. "I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people.

"But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected."

Saban isn't one to make many mistakes, especially when it comes to who he puts around himself and within his program. He knew what he was doing with Kiffin, and now, No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) is weeks away from playing in the first round of the College Football Playoff (the Allstate Sugar Bowl vs. Ohio State, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m.) because of Saban's willingness to evolve and leap outside of his incredibly successful box.

The master of controlling, power football decided to speed things up and spread things out. He supported "fast ball" and "speed ball" after initially challenging the up-tempo philosophy. He has mixed in some of that previous burly ball, but for the most part, Saban has adapted to the more modern offensive approach. He is letting his passing game set up the run and has his most explosive Alabama offense ever.

This likely wasn't easy for Saban, but it was necessary.

"A couple of years ago, I don't know if we would have done that," senior center Ryan Kelly said of Alabama's new fast-paced offense. "That's just kind of the difference that [Kiffin] brings. Whenever you can do that, it throws the defense off track."

The man who famously -- or infamously -- left Knoxville under the cover of darkness and never excelled as a head coach on the West Coast has become a born-again genius inside the Church of Saban. When Kiffin is dialed in, as he was for most of Alabama's 504-yard offensive clinic in Atlanta at the SEC championship game, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better coordinator in the game.

He immediately befuddled Mizzou's impressive defense with a barrage of quick passes and a tiring pace on Alabama's opening drive that led to 10 plays, 68 yards of brilliance, and a touchdown by the Crimson Tide -- and 3½ minutes of pain for Mizzou.

During Alabama's 14-point second quarter, Kiffin threw more misdirection in with the short passes and tempo. He even called a third-down quarterback draw with an empty backfield on Alabama's side of the field. Kiffin had no fear. He trusted his players and knew exactly where and how to hurt his opponent.

"He's a great offensive coordinator for a reason," Kelly said.

And after a lull in the third quarter, Kiffin mixed bruising ball with speed to bury the Tigers with 134 rushing yards, 21 straight points and 9.5 yards per play in the fourth quarter.

"When we can do that in the fourth quarter," Kelly said, "that's when we finish people off."

The diversity of Kiffin's play calling has been the backbone of this offense. Sims, who is second in the SEC with a school-record 3,250 yards this season, has been the one coming up in the clutch and extending plays with moves and decisions that Saban's quarterbacks rarely ever contemplate. Sims, a former running back and safety at Alabama, has been molded into an SEC title-holding quarterback who set a record for completion percentage (85.2 percent) in the SEC championship game and has thrown an SEC-leading 26 touchdowns this season.

Kiffin's management has Alabama averaging 490.5 total yards and 281 passing yards per game, the highest ever during Saban's eight years in Tuscaloosa. This isn't Alabama's typical ground-and-pound approach; this is Kiffin's near-Air Raid philosophy that has Alabama cruising into the modern age of offensive football.

He has a Heisman Trophy finalist in receiver Amari Cooper (115 catches, 1,656 yards, 14 touchdowns) and an offense that has registered 500-plus yards eight times, including the past three games; the next highest during Saban's tenure came in Alabama's 2012 national title season (five).

There is so much movement, and there are so many signals and so many unique formations that Alabama can utilize now, thanks to Kiffin. Speed is killing at Alabama, and it isn't just because of foot speed anymore.

"You kinda never know what he's gonna draw up," offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "I think he's a genius at it -- offensive mastermind, as I'd say."

Kiffin has put the pedal to the metal with his offensive vision and has created a dangerous partnership with Saban that has Alabama's offense chugging into the playoff.

"When they get rolling, they get rolling," linebacker Trey DePriest said of his offensive counterparts.

"I wouldn't want to play against them."
ATLANTA -- Shortly after the blue and gold confetti drenched giddy Alabama players on the floor of the Georgia Dome, reality sunk in inside the Crimson Tide's locker room.

That just wasn't good enough.

Excuse me? A 42-13 beat down of No. 16 Missouri wasn't good enough?

Unfortunately for Alabama's next opponent -- No. 4 Ohio State -- it wasn't. You see, for as complete of a performance as that was for the Tide, you couldn't find anyone wearing crimson and white completely satisfied with what had just transpired on a day in which Alabama took yet another SEC title and clinched a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper and Alabama rolled up 504 yards and 21 fourth-quarter points against Missouri.
"Tonight, we probably left three touchdowns [on the field]. It’s not clicking every time, like we want to," said wide receiver Christion Jones, whose 6-yard touchdown catch to start the fourth quarter essentially put the game away. "Basically, you could say our standard is to always play a perfect game, and if we don’t do that, we feel like we cut ourselves short."

That's just the mindset of a Nick Saban-led football team. Sometimes, Alabama's "good" is another team's fantastic, so you can imagine what "great" feels like to the Tide, and sometimes, like Saturday, it isn't good enough.

Against a Missouri team rocking a six-game winning streak and reinventing the art of grinding out wins with one of the SEC's best defenses, Alabama rolled up 504 yards and 21 fourth-quarter points. If not for some miracle throws under duress by Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk, Alabama's defense might have pitched a shutout. However, it did allow just 41 rushing yards (1.8 yards per carry) and three first-half points.

There were procedural errors on offense that slowed Alabama's terrifying tempo, and containment issues on defense that allowed Mauk to extend plays. There were a couple of drops, and lapses in discipline on defense at times. This wasn't a perfect performance, but man was it great when you look at the full body of work.

At first glance, especially with how dominant the first half was (Alabama outscored Mizzou 21-3 and outgained the Tigers 252-108), you could say it was Alabama's best overall game of the season. The 59-0 drubbing of Texas A&M was one thing, but this Mizzou team is better than the Aggies, and to dominate such a hot team in every facet of the game was a bit more impressive.

When Alabama upped the tempo, the Tigers' defense was flustered. Quick passes from quarterback Blake Sims, who was brilliant for the better part of Saturday's win, carved up Mizzou's defense. And when Alabama needed the running game to soften up the Tigers or push the chains, it did that and more, registering 242 yards, the most by anyone against the Tigers this season.

Alabama accumulated 28 first downs and 42 points on 76 total plays, and also recorded four rushing touchdowns, while completing 23 passes. All were singlegame highs for an Alabama team in the SEC title game.

But players remember the ticky-tack penalties and the blown assignments. They remember scoring 42 and not 60.

"We’re a great team. When we want to play, we play, but we lost some of it in the third quarter," offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "If we didn’t do that, it would have been a complete game."

The Tigers outscored Alabama 10-0 in a third quarter in which Mauk hit Jimmie Hunt on long, circus passes thanks to some magic, and some defensive breakdowns by the Tide. But after the miracle throws and just five Alabama first downs, the Tide totally imposed its will on the Tigers in the fourth quarter.

Mizzou's offense went cold, gaining just 71 yards to Alabama's 162 and managing just two first downs and two plays longer than 10 yards. Alabama went back to its original script on both sides, mashing the Tigers in the trenches and slicing them up with an explosive offense that averaged 9.5 yards per play.

"That’s one thing that we have to do," Jones said. "That’s our standard -- win the fourth quarter. Missouri did a great job on defense, but at the end, they got a little tired and we kept on going."

This wasn't perfection for Alabama -- which is scary because of how great a performance it was -- but it shows you just how menacing this team is and can be. Sometimes, perfectly imperfect games like this are more satisfying to players because they fought through some adversity to reach such an impressive outcome.

Still, the idea that this wasn't Alabama's best game is something that might keep the Buckeyes' up at night. There's no telling what this team will look like with momentum, and now weeks to prepare.
On Oct. 11, it didn't look like either Alabama or Missouri would be playing in the SEC championship game. Alabama, who lost to Ole Miss the week before, escaped with a 14-13 win at Arkansas that wasn't pretty. Earlier in the day, Missouri played even worse. The Tigers were blown out at home by Georgia just weeks after a home loss to Indiana.

And yet, here they are, the last two SEC teams standing. Both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers went on to win their next six games, clinching their respective divisions, and on Saturday they will play for the conference title in Atlanta.

Alabama's key to victory: Missouri’s secondary is exploitable, but it's up to Alabama's offensive line whether or not Blake Sims gets the ball downfield. More specifically, the onus is on tackles Austin Shepherd and Cam Robinson as they go up against what could be the most fearsome pair of defensive ends in the country, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. O-line coach Mario Cristobal should feel good about Shepherd's prospects, as the senior has been the most consistent starter on the line. But Robinson's health should worry Cristobal. On Monday, coach Nick Saban said his freshman left tackle is "day to day" with a sprained shoulder. That comes on the heels of an ankle sprain against Tennessee and another ankle injury against Western Carolina. If Robinson's mobility is limited, Ray and Golden will take advantage and harass Sims into mistakes.

Missouri's key to victory: To take that one step further, Missouri is 17-0 since joining the SEC when recording three or more sacks. Meanwhile, Alabama has not allowed three sacks in a game this season. Something has to give. But it's not all about the defense for Missouri. The Tigers are going to have to score to keep up with this potent Alabama offense, and that means getting production from the running game. Missouri is known more as a passing team -- and rightfully so with past quarterbacks such as Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin -- but this year's team has relied more on the ground game. The Tigers are averaging 178 rushing yards per game in their current six-game winning streak. It won't be easy against the SEC's top rushing defense, but Missouri has to find a way to establish the run.

Alabama X factor: Eddie Jackson couldn’t hide from the beating he took against Auburn. In fact, the cornerback for Alabama took to Twitter on Monday and apologized for his play. But now the question becomes whether to bench the talented sophomore or replace him in the lineup. If Jackson doesn’t play, look for either Bradley Sylve or Tony Brown to step in. Sylve got the nod late against Auburn, but it's hard to forget the veteran's struggles early in the season that led to his demotion. Meanwhile, there's Brown, who has played some as a true freshman but hasn't seen the field with much consistency. On the big stage, would Saban be willing to gamble on such an inexperienced player?

Missouri X factor: Russell Hansbrough might be the "lead" back, but senior Marcus Murphy has emerged as a perfect complement in Missouri's backfield. The diminutive Murphy has rushed for 373 yards and three touchdowns over the past five games. He’s fast, he’s explosive and he's liable to take it to the house every time he touches it. Just ask Florida. Murphy accounted for a career-best 224 all-purpose yards against the Gators and scored on a 5-yard run, an 82-yard punt return and a 96-yard kickoff return. Alabama ranks outside the top 60 nationally in both kickoff and punt return defense. Missouri is going to need hit on some big plays to upset the Tide, and Murphy is a prime candidate to make that happen.

Playoff impact: Sorry, Missouri, even with an upset win on Saturday it's implausible that you sneak into the playoff. It's not just the two losses that cost you; it's the fact that you lost at home to Indiana, the same team that couldn't beat Bowling Green. So with that said, this game is essentially about whether or not the SEC will be represented in the College Football Playoff and whether or not that team will be Alabama. If the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide win, they're in as the top seed, as which they'll play a semifinal game in nearby New Orleans. If the Tide lose, the SEC is likely to be shut out of the top four entirely.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Austin Shepherd hadn’t had the time to study Missouri.

After all, he spoke less than an hour after he and Alabama beat Auburn last Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRyan Kelly understands that he and his teammates on the offensive line need to keep Missouri's rush away from Blake Sims.
 But Shepherd, a senior offensive tackle for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, knew something of the team he’d be playing for the SEC Championship.

He knew of Shane Ray.

“He’s the SEC sacks leader, a great defensive lineman,” Shepherd said. “Really, that’s all I know about them right now.”

But there’s more to Missouri, as Shepherd would soon find out.

The Tigers may fly under the radar because of their two losses, but that’s no fault of the defensive line. Whether it’s Ray, who has 13.5 sacks, or Markus Golden, who has 8.5 sacks of his own, Missouri knows how to get in the backfield.

“These guys are obviously very quick guys that are instinctive, that beat people with their quickness,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “They're very productive in their system and scheme. They do a good job of executing.

“Not many guys have made that kind of an impact with their defense anywhere in the country, in terms of giving the offense negative plays.”

All told, Missouri ranks sixth nationally with 40 sacks. It’s tied for eighth with 91 tackles for loss, tied for first with 16 forced fumbles and 35.7 percent of the plays opposing offenses run result in zero or negative yards.

Missouri’s plus-nine turnover margin ranks second in the SEC.

Alabama, meanwhile, is negative-two in turnovers on the season.

“Really, they got a lot of good players on the offense,” Golden said of Alabama. “They've got a good offensive line, they've got a nice quarterback [who] can scramble and get out of the pocket, and they've got some good running backs.

“Really, we've just got to run our game plan and play the Mizzou way and play hard and tough and physical. We like games like that.”

Golden said he and the rest of the defense are well aware of Alabama QB Blake Sims.

“No matter what, we're going to be able to get after the passer,” he said. “We know he's fast, but we're fast enough to run him down.”

We’ll find out on Saturday in Atlanta.

We know the Tigers can get to the quarterback, but we also know the Crimson Tide are good at protecting theirs.

Alabama has allowed only 11 sacks this season, which ranks seventh nationally and first in the SEC. Only 26.6 percent of its plays result in zero or negative yards, which ranks 11th nationally.

When you look at Missouri’s production, you see something has to give.

For playoff hopeful Alabama, the keys are simple. According to center Ryan Kelly, it starts with keeping Sims safe. Then you control the line of scrimmage and open up holes for the running game.

“If we do that, I’m sure well be fine,” Kelly said.

That’s a big if, though.

“They’re a great team,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be the SEC Championship, so I think our team’s really excited. I know we are up front. It’s a great challenge for us up front. They’ve got a great front seven. It’ll be a good game.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There were plenty of times when Blake Sims could have packed it in, said enough was enough and resigned himself to not playing quarterback for the University of Alabama.

Way back in the spring, he could have thrown in the towel. He’d just tossed two interceptions during the final practice of camp, and Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State, was expected to waltz into Tuscaloosa and take over.

But Sims surged ahead of Coker during fall camp, won the job and started the season off on a tear, throwing eight touchdowns and two interceptions during the first four games.

It was great. Until it wasn’t.

Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, then lost on the road at Ole Miss. Sims was ineffective, completing 19 of 31 passes with no touchdowns and one interception. He looked ordinary again. He looked uncomfortable, like someone who was still learning to play quarterback, not someone who could lead an offense to a national championship.

For three quarters of the following game, those suspicions were on the verge of being confirmed. Sims couldn’t get anything going and Alabama fell behind on the road against an unranked Arkansas team that hadn’t won a conference game in two years. The only thing at stake was everything, the entire season. Back-to-back losses would have meant the end of Alabama’s playoff hopes.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBlake Sims waited a long time for his turn, and he's made the most of it. He has 12 touchdowns and one interception since an Oct. 4 loss at Ole Miss.
It was then that Sims came into his own. With the season hanging in the balance, he proved to be the quarterback Alabama needed.

Whatever happens on Saturday against No. 15 Auburn, Sims’ comeback is complete. Whether you take the long view of the spring until now or dive deeper into three game-clinching drives, you’ll see a quarterback who matured into the leader of a team fighting for playoff contention.

Oct. 11: Fayetteville, Arkansas

It would prove to be his first comeback.

Down 13-7 on the road, Sims got the ball with 36 seconds left in the third quarter.

Seven plays and 50 yards later, Sims faced a pivotal third-and-3 inside the red zone.

Sims took the snap, scrambled to his right and slung his arm across his body. DeAndrew White, in the middle of the end zone, came down with the pass.

“When we had to score, he became a real vocal guy,” said running back T.J. Yeldon. “He was firing us up and getting us motivated to go and score a touchdown.”

Nov. 8: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Every Alabama quarterback has to survive Death Valley.


AJ McCarron did it two years ago when he orchestrated a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. His TD pass to Yeldon saved the season and sent Alabama to the national championship.

Sims, who is close friends with McCarron, got the same opportunity.

Down 13-10 with less than a minute left in regulation, Sims had to act. On third-and-4, he scrambled for the first down. After an uncharacteristic drop by Amari Cooper, Sims took the next snap, darted to his right and found Christion Jones for 16 yards.

Sims killed the clock with 12 seconds left, went to the sideline and watched the game-tying field goal split the uprights.

“Blake kind of said, 'This is where we have to do it right here,'” said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. “We all kind of said, ‘Let’s go.’ Kind of a surreal experience. We knew we could do it.”

In overtime, Sims screamed out an audible on second-and-goal. He took the shotgun snap, shuffled his feet and threw a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown to White.

Nov. 15: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Nick Saban called it, “Probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history.”


Keep in mind that the longtime head coach is not one for hyperbole.

But the 15-play, 76-yard drive Sims led against then-No. 1 Mississippi State was one for the ages. Sims, who couldn’t seem to make a play in the second half, suddenly clicked into gear after Mississippi State made it a six-point game.

Sims was so calm, so effective. On a pair of third-and-longs, he went through his progressions, saw nothing and scrambled for first downs.

On second-and-goal, he handed the ball off to Yeldon for a touchdown. Alabama went ahead by two scores and ate six minutes off the clock.

“I’m just happy that he’s doing other teams like that, because he does that to us every day at practice during two-minute drill,” said safety Nick Perry. “He’s always with a black jersey, so when we’re going up to try to tackle him, we have to tag him. He’ll always get back in the locker room, ‘Oh, you didn’t touch me. You couldn’t tackle me in a game.’ So when I see him make a play like that [against Mississippi State], I’m like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I wouldn’t tackle him.’”

Saturday: The Iron Bowl

Sims now understands what to expect of these types of games.

“It’s that one play, those 2-3 plays, that determines how the game plays out,” he said.

With Sims’ hands on the ball, Alabama fans should be confident. After leading three pivotal drives already this season, he feels like he’s done it before.

“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Sims said. “It lets my team know that I’m ready to play.”

As a senior, this will be Sims’ only shot starting against Auburn. So what’s at stake isn’t just the season. In many ways, it’s his legacy.

“It’s a great feeling,” Sims said, forever downplaying his emotions. “I’m glad that I got the opportunity to play here at the University of Alabama and I’m trying not to pressure myself too much and think of it like that.

“I’m just trying to go out and have fun with my teammates, and pretty much be in the backyard and have fun and play catch with my wide receivers.”

In other words, Sims is determined to play his game.

“I make my body language look confident so they can go out and play with ease knowing that I’m ready to play,” he said, giving away one of his secrets: deception. Like everyone else, he's eager to play Auburn. “I know the team is ready to play by how we’re walking around the locker room right now. Everybody is excited and ready to play on Saturday.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- "Everybody was knocked out," Blake Sims recalled.

[+] EnlargeArDarius Stewart
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesArDarius Stewart and the Crimson Tide must recover quickly as they face the nation's No. 1 team in Mississippi State on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
More than 60 minutes of bone-crushing football will do that to you. The emotional highs and lows of a come-from-behind victory on the road will have that effect, too.

Alabama's quarterback turned around during Saturday night's flight home from LSU and saw his teammates exhausted. He looked back on what they'd done and how they "gave it their all," and was proud.

"They played their hearts out," he said.

Games like Saturday's overtime battle with LSU don't stop having an effect as soon as the whistle blows, though. The collisions catch up with you. Soreness sets in and bruises rise to the surface.

"It was tough, but I got out of bed," said Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland. "I didn't really feel it until I started moving around. I came up here for treatment [Sunday] and my shoulder just started killing me, so I had to get in the hot tub and cold tub and calmed it down a little bit."

Austin Shepherd said he was "sore everywhere."

"Like you got hit by a Mack Truck," the senior offensive lineman explained.

"I've been in here getting treatment and getting my legs flushed and stuff, so I'm ready to go this week because it's going to be another war."

While Alabama slugged it out with LSU, Mississippi State sprinted past UT Martin.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs got to rest their starters. The No. 5-ranked Crimson Tide had no such luck.

Now the two get to meet in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for what promises to be another struggle in the trenches.

"Massive," Shepherd said to describe State's defensive line. "I still remember playing them last year and walking on the field and saying, 'Wow.' They're all 6-5, 6-6, big, physical guys."

It won't be easy, but Shepherd said it's important to "get back on our feet."

"We have to put the past in the past," he said.

It's true, there's nothing to be done about the physical toll Alabama took this past weekend. Starting running back T.J. Yeldon has to rest a few days to help his sprained ankle, for example.

But while trainers can help with the pain and soreness, it will ultimately come down to who wants it more.

"My body was sore and I was kind of mentally drained," Ragland said. "But we're playing the No. 1 team in the country. They're a very good team. We have to come out and reestablish our focus on them and get our bodies back right."

Said coach Nick Saban: "I think it's the mindset that is the most important thing for guys to ... not give what I call relief syndrome -- like we just won a big game so we're supposed to get a week off, go to the golf resort. It's the wrong time of the year. We have another tough game coming up."

For both Alabama and Mississippi State, the stakes couldn't be higher. The Crimson Tide can't afford another loss. It would hand the Bulldogs the SEC West and simultaneously knock Alabama out of playoff contention.

So while the body has its limits, motivation shouldn't be a factor.

"Mentally, we just have to put this last game behind us and keep looking forward," Sims said, "and realize that this is the next step to get to the promised land."
The stakes in the SEC and postseason races will be huge when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.

Today we’ll compare how the two teams stack up at each position group on offense and defense.

Quarterback

Alabama

It’s probably time to stop waiting on Blake Sims' downfall.

Alabama brought in another QB to take his job, but that didn’t work. The SEC was then supposed to eat him alive, but that didn’t work either.

Sims might not look like your typical pocket passer, but the senior has gotten the job done with 2,034 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air. He’s completing 65.5 percent of his passes and has thrown just three interceptions.

Just when we thought we found a weakness with him struggling on the road against Ole Miss and Arkansas, he went to Tennessee and threw for two touchdowns, no interceptions and just shy of 300 yards.

Player to watch: Blake Sims

LSU

Possibly the most important player on the field Saturday will be LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings. Not because he will throw it around like a Big 12 quarterback -- Jennings has averaged just 16.8 pass attempts in his eight starts -- but because he’ll have to make it count when he does drop back to pass.

It’s no secret that LSU will lean heavily on the run. The Tigers have kept the ball on the ground 70 percent of the time this season, and they will almost certainly be a run-first team on Saturday.

But when Alabama has been vulnerable on defense, it has been in pass coverage. Jennings needs to be able to make the Crimson Tide at least respect the pass.

Player to watch: Anthony Jennings

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonA week of rest should do wonders for T.J. Yeldon and Alabama's stable of running backs.
Running back

Alabama

The bye week came at the right time for Alabama’s running backs, as T.J. Yeldon needed it to nurse a foot injury and Derrick Henry's shoulder likely benefitted from the rest as well.

With no Kenyan Drake, Alabama’s running game is slightly less dynamic than it was at the beginning of the season, but it’s still quite potent as Yeldon and Henry each average more than 5 yards per carry.

Look for H-back Jalston Fowler to be mixed in at running back some and don’t discount Sims' effect on the running game from the quarterback position. He might not escape the pocket much these days, but he did play running back and receiver for Alabama once upon a time.

Player to watch: Derrick Henry

LSU

All eyes will be on freshman Leonard Fournette, who has broken the 100-yard mark twice during the Tigers’ three-game winning streak.

With 671 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, Fournette is already the lead figure in the LSU backfield, but its true strength is its depth.

Terrence Magee has been outstanding lately, raising his yards-per-carry average to 6.1 thanks to a number of long runs during the winning streak. And Kenny Hilliard probably doesn’t get enough credit for his impact on the 10-7 win over Ole Miss. Hilliard’s tough running was one of the keys as the Tigers drove 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Player to watch: Leonard Fournette

Wide receiver/tight end

Alabama

Amari Cooper can’t do it all on his own. Or maybe he can.

The junior wideout has been among the best receivers in college football, and he’s been the absolute focal point of Alabama’s passing game. With 96 targets, he’s accounted for 40 percent of the Tide’s pass attempts. As Nick Saban said, “Should you play to your strengths or not?”

But Alabama needs more than No. 9. It needs Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Chris Black. It needs O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler at tight end. Those guys are capable of making plays, and against LSU they’ll likely have to do so.

Player to watch: Christion Jones

LSU

Sophomore Travin Dural exploded out of the gate with 100-yard outings in three of the first four games, but nobody at LSU has done much in the passing game lately. It remains to be seen whether they can get away with being so one-dimensional against a defense as good as Alabama’s.

During LSU’s three-game winning streak, wideouts Malachi Dupre and John Diarse have combined for one catch for 8 yards. Dural (5-102) and Trey Quinn (5-73) haven’t done much more, but LSU has worked in several throws to running backs and tight ends lately.

The target of the passes is irrelevant, though. It seems unlikely that the Tigers will be effective on offense if they fail to make at least a little something happen through the air.

Player to watch: Travin Dural

Offensive line

Alabama

Cam Robinson might be available. That’s an awfully lot to ask, though, considering the starting left tackle was said to be out 3-4 weeks after tweaking his ankle against Tennessee two weeks ago. But Saban is playing it close to the vest and not ruling out the talented true freshman.

If Robinson doesn’t play, expect Austin Shepherd to flip sides from right to left tackle. Grant Hill, a former top recruit, could then take Shepherd’s place in the lineup.

The good news for Alabama is that Ryan Kelly appears to be holding up well. After sustaining an injury against Ole Miss and missing a few weeks recovering, the starting center played all game against Tennessee and hasn’t been limited since.

Player to watch: Grant Hill

LSU

This group was a disappointment early in the fall, but they’ve picked it up considerably once new position coach Jeff Grimes got center Elliott Porter back from an early suspension and settled on a starting lineup.

They’ll have their work cut out against an Alabama defense that ranks second nationally against the run (78 ypg), but the Tigers did a good job against sturdy defensive lines from Florida and Ole Miss.

Left tackle La'el Collins is the group’s star, but it might be the interior line’s play that determines LSU’s level of success in what will surely be a smashmouth game.

Player to watch: Elliott Porter

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban slowly brushed his hair back after one botched play. He slammed his headset to the ground after another. He threw his hands up and looked dejected throughout the game.

Alabama survived Arkansas on Saturday, 14-13, and the mistakes keep piling up for the Crimson Tide, which lost to Ole Miss two weeks ago.

But Saban insists he isn't frustrated. At least that’s what he’s saying.

“It is frus-tra-ting that we make these mistakes,” Saban said on Monday, carefully drawing out every syllable.

Saban eventually erupted, of course. By now you’ve seen the video of him railing against outside expectations.

A day later and more than 600 miles away, Kevin Sumlin faced a similar situation. Sitting before a gathering of reporters, Sumlin had to answer for the way his Texas A&M Aggies sputtered out in recent weeks, first losing to Mississippi State and then losing again to Ole Miss on Saturday.

But Sumlin didn’t explode. Very calmly, he explained some his offense’s inconsistencies.

“We got whipped up front; that usually does not happen,” he said. “We challenged them and it didn’t work out.”

The team’s expectations, Sumlin said, haven’t changed.

“An old coach told me, ‘You start listening to everyone else, you ain’t never been that good and you ain’t never been that bad,’” he said. “What you try to do is keep an even keel and be honest with where you are.”

Once the No. 6-ranked team in the country, Texas A&M now comes in at No. 21.

Once the No. 1-ranked team in the coaches poll, Alabama now comes in at No. 7.

Neither team has lost the race to the playoff just yet, but both have work to do.

When the Tide host the Aggies on Saturday, only one will leave in position to make a run.




Only a few weeks ago, everyone had Alabama or Texas A&M in their projected final four. Some had both.

Now, the Tide and Aggies are on the outside looking in.

But maybe we should have never been so high on either team. Maybe what we’ve seen these past two weeks is simply a regression to the mean.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, Blake Sims' completion percentage has dipped.
Take the quarterbacks, for instance.

Before the season, not much was thought of Kenny Hill or Blake Sims. In fact, both were expected to be beaten out by their competition: blue-chip freshman Kyle Allen at A&M and star transfer Jake Coker at Alabama. Instead, Hill became an instant Heisman Trophy contender with 511 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina, and Sims, through Week 4, had amassed 10 touchdowns and 1,232 total yards of offense.

But after setting the world on fire through September, Hill and Sims have taken steps back.

Sims, who had completed 73.2 percent of his passes in the first four games, slipped to 55.7 percent against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Hill, who led the country in QBR through three starts, has gone from a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13:2 to 10:6 in the past two weeks. And even those numbers are deceiving, as Hill has thrown two touchdowns and three picks in the first half, when those games were still close.

But neither coach is ready to lay the blame at their quarterback's feet.

“What happens is that attitude when you win is seen one way, and that attitude when you lose is viewed another way,” Sumlin said of Hill. “I think he’s stayed the same, the perception of him has changed.”

Both coaches agree that they have issues on their offensive lines. Neither Alabama or A&M has been good about protecting the quarterback or creating big holes for the running game.

Alabama, which has long relied on a strong line, has seen its offensive output crater as a result of poor play up front. The Tide have the most yards after contact in the SEC (900), but the flip side is they have also have the third-fewest yards before contact (402).

“I don’t know if it’s better defenses or we’re lackadaisical,” said Alabama tackle Austin Shepherd, “but we have to fix it.”




It’s not just the quarterbacks or the offensive lines that are easy to blame.

For Alabama, special teams continue to lose the field position battle and fumble away the football. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s defense continues to struggle, giving up the most yards per play in the SEC (6.79).

Saturday represents a chance to rewrite the narrative. However, only one team will be able to do it.

“We just have to stick to our technique, buy into what the coaches are saying and we'll be good,” said Tide running back T.J. Yeldon. “[The offensive line is] doing the right techniques, so we just have to keep practicing there. So we'll get better this week.”

Said Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy: “Two losses like that, that's a reality check. You don't want to [lose]; it sucks. But when it happens, you have to learn from it. You can't just throw it out the window."

There’s plenty to learn from for both Alabama and A&M. Mistakes can be corrected. Whoever does the best job of that could come out of Saturday's game with new life.

“Coming into this thing, nobody said this was going to be easy,” Sumlin said. “This is a difficult league. There’s no doubt that based on the last two weeks ... we’ve got to play better.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Blake Sims tried to keep his postgame interview low key. Drained after a hard-fought win, he entered the media room inside Bryant-Denny Stadium and propped himself up against the wall in front a few reporters. But before a single question was asked of him, he was told he’d have to move.

An Alabama media relations staffer beckoned him to the big stage.

Sims, a soft-spoken, often times deferential quarterback, couldn’t stand off to the side anymore. Not after his transformational performance earlier in the afternoon against Florida. Not after the way he orchestrated one of the most impressive offensive performances in school history. The podium and all its cameras and recorders were there for him. They’d waited after Nick Saban and all the other players had left just to hear him speak.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Jason Getz/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims shredded the Gators defense for 445 passing yards and four TDs.
After being asked about his bandaged shoulder, a reporter asked if he’d assess his play.

His response: “It was pretty fine.”

What?

“Pretty fine” is what you say after you threw a few touchdowns, tossed a few interceptions and generally didn’t throw the ball so well. “Pretty fine” is what you say when you feel like you didn’t do much to help your team win the game. “Pretty fine” is the last thing Sims has been.

But he didn’t see it that way.

“When you have great guys out there that want to protect you, want to play hard for you; when you have a great O-line that takes the time to learn the defense week by week; when you’ve got great wide receivers that want to go out there and want the ball and get open for you so you can get the ball out of your hands as fast as you can; also when you have three great running backs -- Kenyan Drake, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry -- that can keep their eyes off you by running the ball; you’re bound to have a good game,” he said, committing what was the athletic equivalent to an awards show acceptance speech.

It looked like things were getting easier for him, a reporter said, asking if that was the case.

“It’s not very easy,” Sims said. “Again, when you have great wide receivers that can get open, any quarterback can hit an open guy. I’m just blessed to have these guys beside me.”

But the truth -- the truth Sims won’t admit and that many fans couldn’t come to grips with until Saturday -- was that Alabama is just as blessed to have him.

The guy no one expected to be the starting quarterback is now the guy to whom Alabama’s playoff hopes are securely pinned.

There shouldn’t be any more questions about Sims’ ability, center Ryan Kelly said.

Not after how Sims manhandled Florida’s defense.

“Blake played great,” Kelly said. “Whoever is doubting Blake at this point, four games in, look at what we did today. He’s a great quarterback and we’re glad to have him.”

The Gators entered Saturday with one of the best cornerbacks in the country (Vernon Hargreaves III) and a front seven many thought would harass Sims into mistakes. But it turned out Sims was up for the challenge, throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns. His only interception came on a tipped pass, and on the very next possession he helped lead a 16-play drive that ended with another trip into the end zone. And that star cornerback? He didn’t matter. Sims connected with Amari Cooper time and time again, racking up 10 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

“He created a lot of things with his legs, and that was something we knew coming into the game,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “He did a nice job with some pocket movement. We had him pinned up at times, and he got away.”

If you didn’t believe in Sims’ first three starts, you had to be sold by No. 4.

If not, just look at the national QBR rankings. Sims is fifth on that list, ahead of Connor Cook, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott.

He’s been explosive, with an average yards per attempt of 11.25, which ranks third among all FBS QBs. He’s been evasive, with a sack percentage of 1.0 percent, which is tied for ninth. And he’s been as good as it gets on third down, coming in No. 1 overall with a third-down conversion percentage of 71.4 percent.

“People have to respect him as a passer,” Saban said. “He has made too many plays and too many good throws for people to not respect him as a passer.”

Sims may not say it himself, but he’s a big reason for Alabama’s success. If he keeps it up -- and his numbers have stayed consistent -- then the Crimson Tide should remain a favorite to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Don’t believe him yet? Then, according to offensive tackle Austin Shepherd, you’re missing the big picture.

“Obviously he proved he can do it.”
ATLANTA -- Blake Sims wouldn’t say if he ever thought there was a question that he’d be Alabama’s starting quarterback on Saturday. But the faint smile he tried to contain when asked might have said otherwise.

Regardless of whether Sims ever worried about beating out Jacob Coker during fall camp, the starting job is his, and after a decent first start -- and win -- it’s clear his team has the utmost trust in him to be the leader in Tuscaloosa.

“He earned that position to start and did a fantastic job at it,” safety Landon Collins said.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims completed 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards in his debut as starter.
Of course there were hiccups for Sims, who is now in charge of leading the No. 2 team in the country. There were underthrows, overthrows and throws behind receivers. Sims will by no means earn any Heisman points with his performance during the Crimson Tide’s 33-23 win over West Virginia on Saturday inside the Georgia Dome, but he earned a ton of respect from his teammates and coaches with 250 yards and an interception. And we all know that openers can tell you only so much about what a team or individual players will look like come November.

Sims knows he was far from perfect, but he also knows he rebounded well after some poor plays to march the Tide down the field for scoring drives. He actually directed back-to-back scoring drives twice in the first half of his debut. He was a leader who calmed guys down in the huddle. And he learned from his own mistakes as the game went on.

Most importantly, he learned that handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will make his job much easier, and targeting Amari Cooper is a very, very good thing. He hit Cooper 12 times for 130 yards, and it’s no surprise that his first attempt went Cooper’s way, which resulted in a 24-yard pickup.

“It got the nerves out. That let me know that everybody’s behind me,” Sims said.

Oh, and they were. Players said they never got down on Sims when he struggled or got out of rhythm in the second half. His coach even went against his own nature and implemented some no-huddle in the second half to get Sims more comfortable and loosen him up after a slow start.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guy,” offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. “I’ve been here five years with him and I’m happy [for him]. He played an awesome game.

“I told him before the game, ‘Man, we got you. Don’t worry about a thing. Whatever you do, we’ll back you 100 percent and we’ll get you out of it.’”

Coach Nick Saban said Sims got a little rattled in the second half and called some formations incorrectly that forced the Tide to burn a couple of timeouts. Saban even flirted with the idea of bringing Coker in, but decided to leave Sims in and see how the no-huddle helped him.

Good call.

“That one little stretch in the second quarter where we got a little bit out of sync was really the only time, but I thought Blake did a really good job,” Saban said. “… But all in all for him to throw for 250 yards, he did a pretty good job of executing, and I’m happy with his progress.”

Sims was happy with his performance but understands he still has a ways to go. There were easy throws that he just plain missed on, but he turned around and stood tall with some big passes to extend drives. He threw out of bounds when he needed. He checked down when he had to. And his legs got him out of a few sticky situations.

“I feel like I did OK,” Sims said. “I can get better in all situations.”

He’ll have to, and the next few tuneups before facing Florida’s defense should help him do that.

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

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

1. Hustling Henry

video

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

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

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

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

2. Slippery snap

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

Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban opened fall camp with a lofty bit of rhetoric. Speaking with reporters for the first time since spring practice ended, he said how important it was for players to understand that, "The time is now." Everything they'd done during the offseason -- "from conditioning to running the stadium steps" -- had led to this.

How the season would play out, he said, was up to them.

"The challenge is to sort of resurrect our identity, in terms of what we want Alabama football to be," he said.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker is battling with Blake Sims for the starter job at Alabama.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
The morbid imagery was interesting -- and intentional. A few days later, Saban reiterated the theme in his opening comments, saying that, "The message really doesn't change. The time is now to resurrect the identity of the Alabama football program." There was even more conviction the second go-round: Alabama flatlined last season. Losing in the last second to Auburn was the knock-out punch. Getting blown out by Oklahoma was the death knell and the eulogy.

Only in Tuscaloosa would a 10-2 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl be considered an abject failure. Only a coach like Saban would insist that resuscitation and rebirth was required.

"With a program like Alabama if you don't win national championships people think that's a failure," said safety Nick Perry.

But resurrection? Isn't that a little over the top?

At the very least, it's ambiguous. How exactly does one resurrect themselves? It's not as defined as becoming a better zone-blocking team or mastering the two-minute offense.

"I think he just means that we need to be one," said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "We don't need to be little pods of people in groups. When he talks about it to us, he just says that we need to be a group, get out there, play together, and then once you're off the field you guys need to hang out because that means you guys are going to click better on the field."

Jonathan Allen, a promising young defensive end, agreed. He said the team wasn't as connected as it should have been. The chemistry wasn't there.

"We lost it toward the end of last year," he said.

"We want to be a team," Saban said, "and we want the identity of our team to include 'we,' which means all players are together, take care of each other and take responsibility."

That's fine and all, but how will that ultimately be measured? How will we know if Alabama dusted off the ashes and began anew?

The problem is we won't know for quite some time. In fact, it might not be clear until the games are over and the history of the season is written.

After all, who outside the program noticed trouble brewing before the Iron Bowl debacle? Anyone claiming to have heard forlorn whispers when Alabama was still No. 1 might be stretching the truth. Even after the loss at Auburn, many expected the Tide to pick back up and wipe the floor with Oklahoma.

Complacency? Please. That wasn't an issue, we were told time and time again. That is, until back-to-back losses put Alabama on its back. Then the explanations came in waves, most notably from AJ McCarron, who said how "success was our killer” and that there was a sense of entitlement that permeated the locker room.

To keep those demons away, Saban wants a fresh start. He wants the focus on togetherness and chemistry and all the intangible things we're told make a champion.

But the truth is winning cures all. Winning makes for good teammates and happy coaches. Winning means not having to say you're sorry.

It's why Blake Sims and Jake Coker are currently entangled in a quarterback battle. Coker has the arm. Sims has the locker room. And, in the end, it's not who has the most friends in the huddle, it's who can throw the ball down the field best.

If you want to know the identity Alabama is trying to resurrect, all you have to do is look up as you enter the Mal Moore Athletic Facility from the players' parking lot. There, in full view on the second floor, are three crystal footballs. Once inside, you'll see the number 15 everywhere. That number -- Alabama's total number of national championships -- is the only thing that matters.

If Alabama wants No. 16, it will take a quarterback coming into his own, a freshman left tackle learning in a hurry, and a defense returning to form.

Call it resurrection if you want. How it's done -- whether it be with a festive locker room or a business-like sense of purpose -- is only window dressing.

There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."
How important is offensive line play?

Go back and find the last time a team with an average offensive line won the SEC championship. The translation: If you’re going to win a title in this league, you better be good and deep up front offensively.

That said, we take a look today at our offensive line rankings in the SEC for the 2014 season.

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are losing some key pieces from last season’s 11-win team, but their offensive line stacks up as the best of the Steve Spurrier era. The left side with senior tackle Corey Robinson and senior guard A.J. Cann is outstanding, and junior Brandon Shell returns at right tackle. All three have NFL potential, while sophomore Cody Waldrop is healthy again and on the preseason Rimington list as the top center in the country.

2. Texas A&M: Talent has flowed through the Texas A&M offensive line the last few seasons, and even with top-10 picks in the NFL draft departing each of the last two years, the Aggies should again be as strong as anybody. Cedric Ogbuehi, moving from right tackle to left tackle, will be the next first-rounder to come out of College Station. It looks like sophomore Germain Ifedi will move from guard to right tackle, and junior center Mike Matthews is the latest gem to come out of that family.

3. LSU: Four starters are back for the Tigers, and they also like their young talent. La’el Collins passed on the NFL draft and returns for his senior season. He’s a franchise left tackle. The left side of the line, period, should be strong with 6-6, 342-pound junior guard Vadal Alexander returning, and sophomore Ethan Pocic is good enough and versatile enough that he could be a factor at a couple of different positions.

4. Auburn: A year ago, Greg Robinson came out of nowhere to be the best offensive lineman in the league and go No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. Avery Young and Shon Coleman are in line to replace Robinson at left tackle, and the other four starters are back. Senior center Reese Dismukes leads a unit that ended last season as the best offensive line in the league and should be right there at the top again in 2014.

5. Missouri: The Tigers are big, experienced and deep. They also have some versatility with a couple of guys who’ve played different positions. Junior Evan Boehm is one of the top centers in the country, and senior Mitch Morse is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Justin Britt. Gary Pinkel’s track record for putting together a strong offensive line speaks for itself.

6. Alabama: For a change, Alabama doesn’t enter the season with one of the top two or three offensive lines in the league, but that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t get there. Junior Ryan Kelly is All-SEC material at center, and as talented as Cam Robinson is, it’s never ideal to start a true freshman at left tackle. Senior right tackle Austin Shepherd is one of the more underrated players in the league.

7. Mississippi State: The heart and soul of Mississippi State’s line a year ago, mammoth guard Gabe Jackson, is gone, but look for senior center Dillon Day to fill that role in 2014. The Bulldogs also return junior Blaine Clausell at left tackle and senior Ben Beckwith at right guard. One of the keys will be junior Justin Malone staying healthy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He brings experience, size and talent to the interior of that line.

8. Florida: The Gators should be just fine if they’re able to play most of the season with their starting five. The problem comes if somebody gets hurt, and that’s been a recurring theme. The tackle tandem could be one of the best in the league with junior D.J. Humphries on the left side and fifth-year senior Chaz Green on the right side. Again, though, Green has struggled to stay healthy.

9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have some impressive young talent in their offensive line, including sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, but they’re precariously thin. Losing right tackle Austin Golson was a blow, and they need returning senior Aaron Morris to stay healthy. He was the Rebels’ best lineman before he got hurt last season. True freshman Rod Taylor also has what it takes physically to come in and play right away.

10. Georgia: Senior center David Andrews is the anchor of the group, but three starters from a year ago are gone. Junior John Theus started eight games at right tackle last season and could move to the left side, but senior Mark Beard started at left tackle in the spring game. Fifth-year senior Kolton Houston is also back and could wind up at right tackle or left guard.

11. Vanderbilt: The deepest position on Vanderbilt’s roster is the offensive line, which has rarely been the case in Nashville. Four-year starter Wesley Johnson will be difficult to replace at left tackle, but talented sophomore Andrew Jelks is poised to move from right to left tackle. The interior of the Commodores’ line is especially stout, led by senior center Joe Townsend.

12. Arkansas: After having no choice but to play a pair of true freshmen last season, the Hogs should see that pay dividends in 2014. Bret Bielema knows what a menacing offensive line looks like, and he has some talented building blocks in sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper and sophomore guard Denver Kirkland. Replacing All-SEC center Travis Swanson will be dicey.

13. Tennessee: The Vols are faced with having to replace all five starters. Fortunately for them, junior Marcus Jackson redshirted last season and provides some experience at guard. They need junior college transfer Dontavius Blair to make an immediate impact at left tackle, and true freshman Coleman Thomas may end up being the starter at right tackle.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ struggles in the offensive line last season were well chronicled. They gave up a league-worst 37 sacks, but return four starters. They’re hopeful that a season together will lead to more continuity. The veteran of the group is senior Darrian Miller at left tackle, and sophomore Jordan Swindle has a nice future at right tackle.

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