SEC: Blake Sims
2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.
Around the SEC
- Plenty of fresh faces are likely to emerge as starting quarterbacks in the SEC in 2015. AL.com ranks the projected starters.
- A look at Georgia's recruiting class heading into the final week before national signing day.
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, one of the top backs in the SEC in the last two seasons, received an invitation to the NFL scouting combine.
- Another combine invitee is Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who will have a chance to prove whether he has a future as an NFL quarterback.
2. Speaking of Sims, he was among the SEC contingent in Saturday’s Senior Bowl. And no, he didn’t have his best day through the air, going 4-of-11 for 50 yards, but he did show off his athleticism with 23 yards on three carries. It begs the question; does Sims have a future in the NFL as a quarterback? Fellow SEC signal caller Nick Marshall has already moved on from the idea of playing quarterback at the next level. The former Auburn star played cornerback all week and finished with five tackles in Saturday’s game. The transition didn’t come without some hiccups along the way, but many expect Marshall to be playing on Sundays next fall. After all, he did begin his career as a defensive back at Georgia.
3. Who says Missouri can’t recruit? The Tigers saw an uptick in that department when they joined the SEC and now they’re reaping the benefits from playing in back-to-back conference championship games. Over the weekend, Missouri hosted a handful of official visitors and landed two commitments, one from ESPN 300 wide receiver Brandon Martin and the other from three-star defensive tackle Tyrell Martin. The Tigers have now landed six pledges in the last six weeks and with 19 commitments in all, their class ranks just outside the top 25 on ESPN. The big name still on the board is five-star defensive end Terry Beckner Jr., who is scheduled to visit Missouri next weekend. A commitment from him could give the Tigers a top 20 class.
Around the SEC
Leonard Fournette’s younger brother, Lanard, will join him at LSU next fall.
Best pitch ever? Ole Miss makes jersey cakes for visiting recruits over the weekend.
Steve Spurrier promises a faster, tougher South Carolina team. “We’re going to do better.”
Butch Jones: Vols to “enhance,” not “overhaul” offense with new coordinator.
Tweet of the day
11. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama
One of the SEC’s feel-good stories of the year, Sims was not the favorite to win Alabama’s starting quarterback job once news broke that Jacob Coker planned to transfer from Florida State. But the fifth-year senior Sims not only claimed the job, he had an excellent season. He finished second in the nation in Total QBR (85.8) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and helped the Crimson Tide win the SEC title. This week he’s at the Senior Bowl trying to grab a job in the NFL, which would have seemed very unlikely before his standout senior season.
12. Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn
He was Tre Mason’s backup when Auburn shocked the college football world by reaching the BCS title game in 2013, but Artis-Payne proved as a senior that he has plenty of game himself. He led the SEC with 1,608 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and he figures to be an early-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft after rushing for 100 yards or more nine times in 13 games in 2014.
13. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
One of the SEC’s most entertaining players, Cooper can do it all. Take his performance against Tennessee, for example. Cooper caught 11 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns, took a direct snap and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds and also rushed for an 11-yard score. If Cooper had played defense, too, maybe South Carolina would have won the game instead of suffering an excruciating overtime loss. Nonetheless, Cooper was nothing short of outstanding as a sophomore, finishing the season with 1,136 receiving yards and giving Steve Spurrier an obvious weapon to utilize entering the 2015 season.
14. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
The leading tackler on Mississippi State’s “Psycho Defense,” McKinney was probably the group’s emotional leader as well. He won first-team All-SEC honors after totaling 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries and decided to enter the NFL draft after a strong redshirt junior season. The 6-foot-5 inside linebacker is the No. 1 prospect at his position, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who said last month that McKinney is “a good bet to be a first-rounder if the draft were tomorrow.”
15. A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina
Another of Kiper’s top positional prospects, Cann heads the list among guards for the upcoming draft. It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Cann was again the rock on the Gamecocks’ veteran offensive line. He and his fellow linemen’s protection helped Dylan Thompson lead the league in passing, and Cann was named to several All-SEC and All-America squads after the season. Not a bad way to cap an outstanding career as a Gamecock.
2. So maybe Nick Marshall is a defensive back, after all. Since it seemed likely that he would shift from quarterback -- where he starred at Auburn -- to cornerback during the run-up to the NFL draft, it seemed surprising when initial stories had Marshall coming to the Senior Bowl as a quarterback. Marshall cleared things up on Tuesday, however, saying he expects to be a defensive back in the pros after practicing at corner and as a gunner on special teams. When Southeastern Louisiana's Bryan Bennett joined the South team's roster Tuesday, it enabled Marshall to shift to cornerback full-time for this week's practices.
3. He's been rumored to be a front-runner for the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator opening, but Lane Kiffin continues to recruit for Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Tuesday at Senior Bowl practice that he couldn't say with certainty that Kiffin would return to his staff next season, but he's “hopeful that will continue.” Kiffin certainly provided a jolt for Alabama's offense last season, helping Blake Sims become one of the nation's most efficient passers and funneling the ball to receiver Amari Cooper enough to solidify his status one of the most coveted prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. . Kiffin predicted during Sugar Bowl week that he would return to Alabama in 2015, but an NFL coordinator job would have to be tempting for the former NFL coach.
Around the SEC
Age is just a number to Steve Spurrier, 69, who said he feels “really good” physically and has dedicated himself to improving South Carolina's performance from its disappointing 2014 campaign.
Former Missouri football player Phil Pitts reportedly stepped down from his position as head coach at Helias High School in Jefferson City, Missouri, to accept a coaching position at Mizzou. Pitts played at Missouri under Gary Pinkel, who is still recruiting Helias' star tight end Hale Hentges, a 2015 Alabama commit.
Tennessee will play its annual Orange and White spring game on April 25.
Louisiana athlete Donte Jackson will announce his pick between LSU and Georgia on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. ET.
Alabama defensive end prospect Prince Tega Wanagho Jr., whose “Coming to America” story we mentioned in Monday's morning links, suffered a serious left leg injury during a basketball game Tuesday night. Wanagho recently emerged as one of the nation's hottest football prospects by flashing a rare combination of size and athleticism in his first year playing football after moving to the U.S. from Nigeria.
Tweet of the day
Lets try this college thing one more time! thanks @ncaa = = see you in the fall!— Jake McGee (@JakeOvaTheWorld) January 20, 2015
But the number of concerns coach Nick Saban and his staff face this offseason are aplenty. On both sides of the ball, there are major reconstructions to take place. And philosophically, it feels as if the program is at a crossroads -- to further embrace Lane Kiffin’s wide-open offense and try to win games by way of a shootout or go back to the basics and attempt to re-create the hard-nosed defense that typified Alabama’s first three national titles under Saban.
It’s why we at the SEC Blog went against the grain and did not rank the Crimson Tide among our projected top three teams in the conference. With so much up in the air, we felt better about the chances of Georgia and Auburn.
Now there are two sides to every debate, and here we’ll reveal the point-counterpoint behind our thinking.
Point: Saban built Alabama on defense. So to see the regression there this past season was troubling. While the line was strong and the linebackers were more than adequate, nothing seemed to save the secondary. It seems like so long ago now, but the season-opener against West Virginia when it gave up 365 yards passing was a harbinger of things to come. Outside of the now departed star safety Landon Collins, there wasn’t a lot of solid on-ball coverage. In the final three games against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, the once-dominant Crimson Tide defense surrendered an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game. Without Collins to lean on and no sure thing at safety ready to step into his shoes, can we honestly expect an improvement in Alabama’s pass defense? And even bigger than that, is there anything to suggest that Saban and his staff have learned to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle any better? Especially when there’s a mobile QB involved, Alabama has been found lacking.
Counterpoint: There’s always the chance that this was a transitional year at cornerback. Cyrus Jones came to his own, Eddie Jackson returned from a torn ACL quickly, and freshman Tony Brown was able to see the field with some regularity. So, if you’re looking on the bright side, all three could be better next season, whether it’s Jackson’s knee getting stronger or Brown’s knowledge of the defense increasing. Along with that, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Marlon Humphrey, a five-star corner in last year’s signing class, will shed his redshirt, and there’s the chance that a few stars from the 2015 class emerge, whether that’s early enrollee safety Deionte Thompson or one of the two top-five cornerbacks already committed to the Tide.
2. Too many questions on offense
Point: Blake Sims is gone after one spectacular year as a starter. And while Alabama lucked out with his out-of-nowhere development, can we expect lightning to strike twice? Maybe, but most programs aren’t so fortunate. At some point, you have to think Saban’s run of solid QBs will end. If it does, how will it affect Alabama? Do we know for sure that Derrick Henry is ready to become a feature back? After all, the way Kiffin subbed an ailing T.J. Yeldon into the game against Ohio State on most every third down indicated that Henry is a liability blocking. And beyond Henry’s ability and Kenyan Drake’s health, who will be the go-to receivers? Amari Cooper’s 124 receptions are gone, along with the next two leading pass-catchers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White.
Counterpoint: Who would have thought a year ago that Alabama would be bemoaning the loss of Sims? The former wideout was never supposed to become the starting QB, which is both a testament to his ability and that of Kiffin to coach the position. After all, if Sims can throw for 3,000 yards, maybe Jake Coker can too -- or Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett. Because in fact, we don’t know who will win the starting job. But there are plenty of options, and a number of them possess the traits to do well in Kiffin’s offense, as evidenced by Cornwell and Barnett’s high ratings as recruits or Coker’s much ballyhooed arm while at Florida State.
3. Increasing competition
Point: The bowl season said one thing, but the regular season said quite another. The West, contrary to popular opinion these days, might still be the best division in college football next season. If you don’t believe that to be true, come up with your predicted order of finish. Who do you have as the sixth and seventh teams? Mississippi State, which possesses a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB? Texas A&M, which should upgrade on defense thanks to the addition of John Chavis? How about Arkansas, which won four of its final six games and could begin the season ranked in the top 25? While Alabama might still be the most talented team in the SEC, the gap seems to be dwindling.
Counterpoint: It’s not so weak that it fails to merit playoff consideration, but Alabama’s schedule is not exactly a high-wire act. Outside of nonconference cupcakes Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern, the big draw, Wisconsin, will have a new coaching staff and will be without its star player, Melvin Gordon. Then consider that the home portion of the schedule is about as favorable as possible: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Going to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn won’t be easy, granted, but at least those games come in October and November, rather than when the team is still developing in September.
That’s an awfully long time to sit and wait and wonder. And like every offseason, we will eventually slip into a state of surefire prognosis, where predictions morph into reality and what we think we know overrides all we are only on the cusp of understanding.
It’s a time when preseason polls rule the world and coaches fight helplessly against the never-ending tide of speculation.
But it’s also dangerous, because all too often we get it wrong.
This sportswriter, along with scores of others, were dead wrong at this time last year when we thought we knew exactly who Alabama’s starting quarterback would be. Whatever we didn’t know about Jake Coker, we were certain we knew about Blake Sims. After four years of toiling in obscurity, there was no way it could be Sims, who didn’t match Alabama’s recent run of quarterbacks who were picturesque in the pocket with solid throwing motions and even more spectacular bangs.
There were other reasons for our opinions about Sims, of course, but that’s a moot point now considering the way he beat out Coker and went on to set a school record for passing yards in a single season. We looked foolish with each Sims touchdown and each win that led to Alabama reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. We ate our crow along the way, and deservedly so.
With that said, how about we swallow that last bite of humble pie and start this offseason right? Let’s try as best we can to not crown the next leader of the Crimson Tide so early. Let’s not put that pressure on Coker or any other QB on Alabama’s campus.
It very well could be Coker who ends up winning the starting job a year late. We know he has taken some first-team snaps during the season, and we’re certain he should have a better grasp of the offense after spending a year in the system. But there is also Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to consider. And don’t count out Blake Barnett, the five-star prospect who enrolled in school this week.
If we learned anything from Sims, it’s that anything is possible. Any of the five current candidates could develop into a starter.
Lane Kiffin might have driven Alabama fans crazy with his play-calling late in the game against Ohio State, but the offensive coordinator has shown he has the ability to coach quarterbacks. Like his clever use of misdirection in the passing game, he could surprise everyone with the quarterback he chooses coming out of fall camp.
With eight months remaining until that happens, let’s just relax and see what happens.
Let’s take a cue from someone who knows best: Coker, who is entering his third quarterback competition.
"Just trying to get better, that’s all you can do," he told reporters prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, you can’t worry about all the other stuff outside. I just try to go to practice and not read anything. Just stick to the program."
The program worked last season despite our best guesses. Maybe it will work again in spite of another offseason fraught with speculation.
NEW ORLEANS -- Never mind the score, Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal was an Alabama-style manhandling. Only this time, Alabama was on the receiving end of the beating.
Under Nick Saban, the top-ranked Crimson Tide simply doesn't lose games of this magnitude. But not only did No. 1 Alabama fall 42-35 to No. 4 Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it surrendered an enormous yardage total (537 yards) and completely got away from the staples of Saban's best seasons in Tuscaloosa.
"It's not really about what you do most of the time, it's really more about how you do it," Saban said. "And they did a better job of executing what they do than what we did."
Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama's offense no longer runs to set up the pass. Quite the opposite. Although the run worked well at times Thursday -- for instance, Derrick Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry but ran just 13 times -- Kiffin kept putting the ball in the air.
And yet out of all those Blake Sims passes, Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper -- who already held the SEC single-season receptions record with 115 entering the game -- didn't get his customary frequent touches. With Ohio State understandably shading its pass coverage his way, Cooper made only three receptions in the second half.
"Every time Blake looked at me, a safety would run full speed over there and got a little bit of double coverage," said Cooper, who finished with nine receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
"It was frustrating, but at the same time, I expected it."
Although Alabama led 21-6 at one point in the first half, Ohio State's offense moved the ball effectively throughout. The Buckeyes settled for early field goals and turned the ball over in their own territory, paving the way for Alabama to claim the big lead.
Eventually, the Buckeyes' trips into Alabama territory yielded touchdowns, and they sprinkled in a couple of big-play scores, as well. Meanwhile, Alabama's offense bogged down, allowing Ohio State to mount a 28-0 run between the second and third quarters.
Alabama led 21-20 at halftime, but the yardage total told a completely different story. Ohio State outgained Alabama 348 yards to 139 in the first half, with that 209-yard differential representing the greatest disparity the Tide have ever faced in a first half under Saban.
Oddly enough, Auburn outgained Alabama by 200-plus yards in the first half just two games ago, but the Tide were able to rally and win that game 55-44. There would be no such comeback against Ohio State with the Buckeyes shutting down the staples of the Alabama offense.
"Their front did a really good job," Saban said. "We didn't handle them well in running the football like we thought we might be able to when we spread them out, and they did a good job on our perimeter screens and smokes. And we made the blocks, but they made the plays, and you've got to give their players a lot of credit for the way they executed."
Conversely, Sims was unable to bounce back the way he did against Auburn, when after tossing three interceptions he led the Tide's comeback bid. With Ohio State largely taking away Cooper, he struggled to keep drives alive. The Tide converted just twice in 13 attempts on third down -- and Sims even tossed a third-down interception that Steve Miler returned 41 yards for a touchdown that put Ohio State up 34-21 late in the third quarter.
He also threw an ugly pick on the first play after a horrendous Ohio State punt gave Alabama possession at the Buckeyes' 23-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Alabama's senior quarterback pointed the finger at himself after the game.
"We weren't having no problems. It was all on me," said Sims, who finished 22-for-36 for 237 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. "I take full responsibility for everything that happened tonight. It was no other person's fault but mine."
There was more than enough blame to go around, however.
Philosophically, this was not the ruthless Alabama machine Saban has built in his eight seasons in Tuscaloosa. Certainly, Ohio State deserves credit for taking away what Alabama has done well this season -- and in the recent past -- but Saban's staff will also face reasonable scrutiny over their decision-making when a victory was within grasp.
"I think that we're certainly capable of playing a little better than we played tonight," Saban said, "and I think everybody would say the same if you asked them that, from player to coach."
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama and Ohio State spent an hour apiece at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Tuesday's media day leading up to their meeting in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day.
Here are some of the highlights from Alabama's morning interview session:
Alabama coach Nick Saban on Jim Harbaugh's return to college coaching at Michigan: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Harbaugh family. I knew his dad when he was a secondary coach at Michigan and I was a secondary coach and we used to spend time together. So to see both of the Harbaughs do really, really well as NFL coaches in Baltimore and San Francisco, tremendous amount of respect for the entire family, and Tom Crean, who is the head basketball coach in Indiana, is married to another Harbaugh coach, which I'm sure she does a good job of supporting him just like my wife does me. And they were at Michigan State when we were there. He was an assistant for Tom Izzo, and we were really good friends. So I've had a good relationship with the entire Harbaugh family for probably 30 years. So I'm happy and excited that someone of Jim Harbaugh's character and quality is going to come back and be a part of college football."
Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest on growing up in Ohio and the difference between Alabama and Ohio State fans: "It's similar. Ohio State, they've got some diehard fans, too, regardless of the situation, whether it's up or down, just like the fans in Tuscaloosa. They do a good job regardless of the situation with us. If we're down, they're still going to scream for us."
Quarterback Jake Coker on the importance of winning to protect SEC bragging rights: "We always talk, I guess trash-talk, because we are in the SEC. If we didn't say the SEC was the best, then there'd be something wrong with us because we came to play in the SEC for a reason. So heck, we've just got to make the SEC look good."
Coker on whether he felt that way last season as a Florida State player before transferring to Alabama prior to this season: "I don't know. There were some really good ACC teams, and hey, the ACC's a really good conference, especially this year now that they've acquired all those other teams. But my stance on it this year is the SEC's the best, I'll tell you that."
Alabama safety Landon Collins on whether it's difficult for an opposing offense to function because of the way the Crimson Tide defense disguises its coverages: "That would be a question to ask Blake [Sims, Alabama's quarterback] because he plays against us all the time. I mean it would be one of the hardest because we sometimes will sit there. Then I know me and Nick [Perry], we'll try to mess with the quarterback. We'll look at the quarterback and just sit there and just stare at him the whole time while he's looking at us to see whether we're going to move or anything like that. But by the time he thinks it's going to be something, we've totally changed the whole front."
Collins on how Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones might have difficulty against those disguised coverages since this will be only his second career start: "When you mess with a quarterback that just got in the game and has to play a defense like ours, definitely it's going to be a competition for him because they don't know what we're going to throw at them and what we're coming with."
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland on how his family and his roommate Collins' family typically hang out together at their apartment after games -- for a little while, anyway: "After the game and stuff, we'll crack up and have jokes, and then it's time for them to get up out of our house."
Cornerback Eddie Jackson on the key to defending Ohio State's speedy receivers: "Basically just keeping the receivers cut off, not letting them stretch the field vertically because they are pretty fast, nice route-running receivers so they can get down the field. And also going to get the ball at its highest point when it's in the air. A lot of times quarterbacks just throw the ball up and receivers go up to make plays, so we're going to try our best to keep them cut off."
Fullback Jalston Fowler on what it takes to play multiple positions (also including running back, tight end and receiver) like he does: "It's a whole bunch of knowledge I have to have. You have to look over that playbook a lot because you've got to know what you're doing at receiver, you've got to know what you're doing at H-back, you've got to know what you're doing at running back. So it's just a lot for me, but I appreciate it because it helps me show my versatility."
Here's what West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley tweeted after Richardson's elbow struck him in the back of the head:
to the A&M coach, assistant, trainer whatever you wanna call yaself that punched me in the head.. just know ima see you again in life!— Daryl Worley #ã7ã (@dworley7) December 30, 2014
2. Georgia might be in the market for a new offensive coordinator, but one thing the new guy won't have to worry about is finding a No. 1 receiver for whoever the new starting quarterback is. That's right, Georgia will have a new starting quarterback in 2015 to go along with a new offensive coordinator and new offensive line coach. But let's forget about that for a second. The good news is that Malcolm Mitchell is coming back. @hile he wasn't his same dynamic self in 2014, with some time to heal and some time to get his feet back, Mitchell should have no problem being a very good No. 1 guy for the Bulldogs' next starting quarterback.
3. OK, so this is cheating a little, but when you get to run the links for a couple of days, you're allowed to do whatever you want. Because there was so much fun stuff with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on Monday, here are some links to check out:
- Kiffin says he's "definitely" returning to Alabama as the offensive coordinator in 2015.
- Love him or hate him, Kiffin's time at Alabama has humbled him.
- Kiffin and quarterback Blake Sims bonded as coach and recruit.
- Kiffin has boosted Alabama, and vice versa.
- Kiffin said he would have paid Nick Saban for the chance he has at Alabama.
- Mississippi State defensive back Jamerson Love is wrapping up his "unbelievable career" in Miami with the Orange Bowl.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel creates continuity with the assistants on his coaching staff.
- Ole Miss is confident with its offensive line shuffle heading into the Peach Bowl.
- LSU coach Les Miles doesn't want a repeat of the 2010 Capital One Sinkhole Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS -- There was a time when Lane Kiffin fully expected to coach Blake Sims in college. Only the year was 2010 and the school was Tennessee.
In fact, Kiffin believes that was a likely outcome before his abrupt departure from Tennessee. Instead, he became USC’s head coach and Sims held firm on his commitment to Alabama -- and the working relationship between coach and quarterback didn't begin until this season, when Kiffin accepted Nick Saban's offer to become the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.
"I met Blake when he was in high school. He was committed to Alabama," said Kiffin, who was Tennessee's head coach in 2009 and accepted the USC job a few weeks before national signing day in 2010. "Myself and Ed Orgeron went to his high school, went to his home with his family, spent an entire day with him. He can tell you the story -- I don't know if he's ever told it-- and he's decommitting to Alabama to come to Tennessee. And I don't know the exact timing, but it might be one or two days later when we go to USC.
Their partnership at Alabama has been more successful than most college football observers would have predicted. Sims, a converted running back and a fifth-year senior, had been a forgotten man behind AJ McCarron at Alabama. Even this season, most expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to overtake him and win the starting job.
Even Sims was inundated with such insinuations before the season.
"Pretty much [I heard] that the position was already [given] to Jacob. That's what I was hearing," Sims said. "But even when Jacob came and I started hearing all these good things and people were putting me on the back burner, I didn't let that change my personality towards him."
Instead, Sims won the job during preseason practice and held onto the job once the season started. He capped the regular season by finishing second nationally in Total Quarterback Rating (88.5) and winning MVP honors when the Crimson Tide routed Missouri in the SEC championship game.
For a guy who was once an afterthought and easily could have opted to transfer elsewhere in search of a better opportunity to play, Sims turned in an awfully successful final college season.
"We're in an age now with kids of, 'Things don't go my way, we're going to move you. We don't like the coach there, we're going to put you on a different team because he doesn't play you.' As opposed to you stay and you play and you fight through it. And Blake's an example of that," Kiffin said.
Not only did he stay and fight through it, Sims never made his competition against Coker into an issue that could divide the locker room. Quite the opposite, actually.
Offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio recalled how media members made a big deal out of Sims being the first to congratulate Coker on the field after the backup capped an early-season drive with a touchdown.
"Some people say they're in it for the team, but you can tell he really is," Kouandjio recalled. "I remember like one of the first games or something like that, I think before he really solidified his role as the starting quarterback, I remember Jake scored a touchdown and … the media made a big deal of him running over to Jake and being the first one there. I agree that it was a big deal. I like that a lot. I shook my head -- in a positive way, though."
That mentality is why Sims was a popular choice among teammates to claim the job. But it was his production that helped him keep it.
He might not have been the Tide's anticipated starting quarterback before the season began, but he still led his team to a No. 1 national ranking entering the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State. And he played a vital role as Kiffin beefed up the passing game, completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
"[I'm] just happy for him because he's showing he can run a system that is part NFL and part spread and the success that he's had," Kiffin said, "where a year ago I don't think anybody would think about this guy potentially being drafted in the NFL, which now he should be drafted. His performance and what he's done, he's shown. When you watch the film and watch the tape of him, what has he put on there that he cannot do? He's done everything."
Speaking to reporters for the first time since August, the always-quotable Kiffin did not disappoint at Monday’s news conference. Here is the best of Lane from his time at the podium:
On his first season working under Nick Saban after being fired as USC’s head coach midway through the 2013 season: “I’m sure I haven’t rubbed off on him. And he shouldn’t. Here’s a coach that got fired, unemployed, he brings in [during] one of the best runs in the history of college football. So I’m just a [graduate assistant] sitting there trying to learn every day, no, literally taking notes from him and how he runs it and what an unbelievable opportunity to have after the great run at USC in those years being there with Pete Carroll, and now to be able to be with him, it will be a good book someday.”
On coaching a game this season at Tennessee, where he was head coach in 2009: “I was sitting there before the game and I said, ‘Who would have thought, Coach, that one day I was going to go back here working as an assistant for you?’ It was just he and I sitting there, and how this crowd base was getting off the bus. ‘And then our next game we’re going to go into LSU and have the same thing to you.’ I don’t know. He’s funnier than you guys think. He made a joke one time about how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that.”
On his habit of throwing up his hands to signal a touchdown at the start of promising plays: “I do that 30 times a game. They only show it when it works. A lot of times … I don’t even know I’m doing it, really. It’s just in my head that they’re in this coverage and so there’s an excitement that, because you’re calling plays to get a defense, if we get this defense, we’re going to score.”
On his job prospects last year before Saban hired him in January: “The phone wasn’t ringing a lot. That’s the reality. Regardless of we all see ourselves in a different view a lot of times than others. I thought, ‘Well, OK, probably not going to get a head-coaching job, but it will be easy to get an offensive coordinator job because of what we’ve done before and places we’ve been.’ And like I said, the phone wasn’t ringing. And he called. And he took a chance. I know he thought a lot about it. Because it wasn’t going to be the popular, necessarily the media hire, as he’s referred to before. But he believed in what he thought and what the interview was and the times we had discussions before.”
On whether he misses regularly speaking to the media after frequently putting his foot in his mouth as a head coach in the past: “I don’t think you miss it. I just always took the approach, and it haunted me at times -- especially when you lose, everything gets magnified -- that I was just going to say what was on my mind. And it wasn’t going to be coach speak, and I wasn’t going to get up there and say what every coach gets up and says. That’s not what you guys want to hear, so I’d answer questions exactly what I was thinking as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you like it did.”
On the perception that he and Nick Saban have wildly different personalities: “I think that assumption about us being so different is very fair, but I don’t think it’s really accurate. We may not have the same personality, but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching. One of the many stupid things I said was when I took a shot at Urban [Meyer] in the SEC championship game when I was doing ESPN, I said, ‘Well, Florida has better players, but Alabama has better coaches.’ Well that wasn’t very smart to say, but what I was trying to say was my respect for watching Coach Saban’s teams and programs over the years is unbelievable. And I do totally believe in a lot of the exact same things that he’s always been about.”
On the difference between being a head coach and being a coordinator: “I think being a head coach for as long as I was, you kind of forget the value of being able to be with your quarterback, to be able to be with your offensive players the entire game. Now I don’t even watch a [defensive] play. At the end of the game, I go in and I’m in the locker room with Kirby [Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator], I’ve got no idea what we did on defense, any plays that happened because rarely ever do I even see a play. I just stay with Blake [Sims], stay with the offensive guys, go over the last series in detail, go over what we will potentially see in the next series, adjustments and that’s very foreign to what I had been doing, where before you have to watch the game.”
That's why we're here.
In order to help preview the Allstate Sugar Bowl, ESPN's Austin Ward and Alex Scarborough teamed up to bring you three stats that matter most to Alabama and Ohio State as they prepare for their semifinal showdown in New Orleans.
Alabama stats that matter
-1: Of the top 10 teams in the FBS in winning percentage, only three are negative in their turnover margin. One is Marshall, one is Florida State and the other is Alabama. That's what we like to call living on the edge. The last time Alabama finished the season on the wrong side of the turnover battle, Nick Saban wasn't the head coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, is plus-nine in turnovers and has created a whopping 118 points off of turnovers. It goes without saying that giving up free points isn't conducive to winning football games.
4: Thanks to Blake Sims' swift feet and the offensive line's stellar blocking, Alabama has allowed only four sacks in its last four games. Against the vaunted pass rush of Missouri, the Crimson Tide more than held their own. But Ohio State is not Missouri, and chances are it won't lose its best defensive end to ejection the way Shane Ray was tossed in Atlanta. No, the Buckeyes have a superb defensive line themselves, led by everyone's All-American, Joey Bosa. In Ohio State's last four games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, Bosa and the Buckeyes defense have racked up 15 sacks.
Ohio State stats that matter
21: Picked on by opposing offenses during games and then ripped apart in press conferences by Urban Meyer a year ago, a rebuilt Ohio State secondary has gone from the team's biggest weakness to one of the most aggressive, successful units in the nation. Only three teams have nabbed more interceptions than the Buckeyes' 21 this season, with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash having done a remarkable job getting the secondary to challenge receivers, break on balls and play without fear of being beat in the back end. It's hard to argue with the results, particularly since the Buckeyes aren't gambling for turnovers at the expense of yardage, ranking No. 17 in total passing yards allowed this year.
81.2: For a team that didn't have its starter play a single snap this season and had to turn to two different guys without any previous first-team experience at the most important position on the field, Ohio State finishing second in the nation in raw QBR behind only Oregon without Braxton Miller is nothing short of remarkable. J.T. Barrett, of course, did the heavy lifting by starting every game in the regular season before breaking his ankle against Michigan, but Cardale Jones actually boosted the rating in his debut against one of the nation's best defenses in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, posting a sparkling 90.3 to clinch the spot in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It certainly seems as if Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman know how to develop more that just one passer at a time.
51.5: The Buckeyes can dial up the tempo and push the ball down the field in a hurry if they want to, but what makes them truly dangerous and perhaps unpredictable is their effectiveness at shifting gears and methodically moving the chains if need be. Only three teams in the country were more successful on third downs than Ohio State, which converted 85 of 165 chances -- or 51.5 percent -- to extend drives on those crucial snaps. The Buckeyes only played four games all season where their conversion percentage dropped lower than 50 percent, including the first two of the year with so many inexperienced players getting their feet wet -- and Jones' first start in the Big Ten title game, when it hardly made a difference in a 59-0 blowout.
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.
The job belonged to Anthony Jennings for all but one game this fall – a blowout loss at Auburn – but freshman Brandon Harris hasn’t been able to push past the inconsistent sophomore.
While LSU’s defense rebounded from an awful start to eventually lead the SEC in total defense at 305.8 yards allowed per game, the quarterback issues plagued the offense for most of the season, and Cam Cameron’s attack was frustratingly unproductive as a result.
It remains the leading storyline of the season as LSU (8-4, 4-4 SEC) prepares to conclude the season against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Here is a recap of the Tigers’ season to this point:
Best win: Rival Ole Miss came to Tigers Stadium undefeated and ranked third nationally, but the Rebels left with a disappointing 10-7 loss. Tight end Logan Stokes scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard catch late in the fourth quarter – Stokes’ only catch of the season – and senior safety Ronald Martin sealed the win with an interception at the goal line with 2 seconds remaining. The win briefly reignited LSU’s hopes of sneaking back into the SEC West race, although an overtime loss to Alabama in its next game snuffed out those aspirations.
Worst loss: A 41-7 loss at Auburn was the ugliest, but the Tigers’ most painful defeat was probably its 20-13 overtime loss to Alabama. LSU was in position to upset the eventual SEC champs, grabbing a 13-10 lead on a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds to play. But Alabama drove for the game-tying field goal in the final minute and then won the game with a touchdown pass from Blake Sims to DeAndrew White in overtime. That gave the Crimson Tide, LSU’s bitter rival, its fourth consecutive win in the series.
Player of the year: La'el Collins. Although he could have entered the draft after last season like teammates Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill, Collins returned and almost certainly improved his draft stock. The senior left tackle won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker and generally dominated opponents while becoming LSU’s only first-team All-SEC selection. A three-year starter at LSU, Collins will leave an enormous hole on the left side of the line in 2015.
Breakout player: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Travin Dural probably deserves mention here, too, after leading the team with 758 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but we have to go with Fournette. The freshman running back – formerly the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect – flashed moments of brilliance and carried the Tigers to narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. The SEC All-Freshman team member leads the team with 891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 126.8 all-purpose yards per game. It wasn’t enough to maintain a Heisman Trophy campaign like some expected, but it was a solid debut effort.
Play of the year: We have to go with Fournette’s touchdown run against Texas A&M where he evoked memories of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by running over Aggies safety Howard Matthews on his way to the end zone. LSU fans can only hope it was another sign of great things to come.
While Fournette’s powerful run takes the cake, Dural’s school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State deserves a mention, too. The speedy wideout’s catch from Jennings was a heck of a first offensive play in the Tigers’ home opener at expanded Tiger Stadium.
2015 outlook: As has been the case in several recent seasons, LSU’s success in 2015 might hinge on which underclassmen decide to enter the draft. The Tigers have been hit hard by the draft lately and might lose a handful of draft-eligible players again this year. Four of LSU’s starting offensive linemen are eligible to enter the draft, as are defensive backs Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins and linebacker Kwon Alexander. This was a young team that should improve next year, and the Tigers could be Western Division contenders if the draft hit isn’t too painful and a consistent quarterback emerges.
Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.
There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.
Around the SEC
- Missouri junior defensive end Shane Ray hasn't decided yet whether he'll enter the NFL draft, according to his mother.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he and athletic director Scott Stricklin hope to have a contract extension done soon and that he's not looking for another job.
- Should he stay or go? Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is weighing whether to enter the NFL draft.
- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he's not looking for head coaching jobs but acknowledged it is part of the deal when you have success.
- Tennessee receiver Jason Croom will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl because a knee injury.
Saban: "Some little 10-year old boy came up to me after A-Day and asked if we had a quarterback other than Blake Sims."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) December 17, 2014