SEC: Bobby Petrino

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn might have been born in Texas, but he spent the majority of his life in nearby Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeMitch Mustain, Gus Malzahn
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCurrent Auburn coach Gus Malzahn returns to Arkansas this weekend, and his Tigers have a lot at stake in this matchup.
The first-year head coach in the SEC attended Fort Smith (Ark.) Christian High School. He walked on to the University of Arkansas as a wide receiver but transferred to Henderson State after two seasons. He coached 15 years of high school football in his home state before becoming the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006, his first college job.

After coaching stints with Tulsa and Auburn, Malzahn returned home in 2012 when he accepted the head-coaching position at Arkansas State. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and the Sun Belt championship (he did not coach their bowl win over Kent State).

It came as no surprise that Malzahn’s name came up when his alma mater was searching for a new coach after last season. He had interviewed at Arkansas once before, following Houston Nutt’s departure, but the job went to Bobby Petrino. This time, the Razorbacks passed on him in favor of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

On the same day, Bielema was hired in Fayetteville, Ark., Malzahn was introduced as Auburn’s new coach.

Now, nearly 11 months later, Malzahn is 7-1 and has the Tigers in control of their own destiny in the SEC West, while Bielema has yet to win an SEC game. On Saturday, the two will meet for the first time as head coaches.

“Right now, with where are going each week, we’re trying to do everything in our power to win,” Malzahn said. “It doesn’t make any difference if we are going to Arkansas or going to [Texas] A&M or anywhere else. There’s enough to it without anything else added to it.”

But don’t think Malzahn didn’t have this game circled on the calendar when he took over on the Plains. It’s his fourth trip back to Fayetteville since leaving in 2006, and he’s yet to win as an opposing coach inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, losing twice at Auburn (2009 and 2011) and once at Tulsa (2008).

However, Malzahn isn’t want to let his emotions get the best of him or his team.

“Coach is old-school,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “He’s going to treat it like another game. I don’t think he’s going to worry about anything as far as personally for him. I think he’s going to treat it like an SEC game, and he knows how important this four-game stretch is. It’s just like any other SEC game to him.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows Malzahn better than anybody. He’s been his right-hand man since the two were at Springdale (Ark.) High School together nearly a decade ago.

“Coach is pretty locked in all the time,” Lashlee said. “I would think these next several weeks are going to be pretty amped-up no matter what. Let’s be honest, it’s a place we’re from and we’ve been before. It’s a big game, but it’s a big game because we have a lot of opportunity out in front of us.

“I have known coach, and back in high school it didn’t matter who we were playing, he prepared the same way. That’s what I anticipate we’ll do.”

Malzahn and Lashlee aren’t the only two coaches who will have more friends and family in attendance than normal come Saturday. It’s also a homecoming for running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who both coached for Arkansas at one time or another during their careers.

“I’ve been there and done it before,” Malzahn said. “Those guys, a lot of them haven’t. We hadn’t really talked about it. We’ve been focused on preparing and trying to give our guys the best chance of being successful.”

There will continue to be plenty of talk this week surrounding Malzahn’s return. Regardless of what he says, there’s going to be extra emotion leading up to the game. But come Saturday, it’s about winning the next game on the schedule.

That would make for the perfect homecoming.

Midseason report: Arkansas

October, 15, 2013
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It’s only been two years since Arkansas finished 11-2 and knocked off No. 8 Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. The Razorbacks were considered one of the up-and-coming teams in the SEC, but then the Bobby Petrino incident happened. Now the Razorbacks are still trying to pick up the pieces.

First-year head coach Bret Bielema got off to a good start. His Arkansas team looked impressive in a 34-14 win over Louisiana Lafayette to open the season. They won the next two games and looked well on their way to 4-0 before a second-half collapse to Rutgers. The Razorbacks allowed 21 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes, losing 28-24 on the road.

Since the loss, Arkansas has dropped three straight games. It went from bad to worse this weekend when South Carolina came to Fayetteville and spoiled homecoming, dominating the Razorbacks, 52-7. It was their seventh straight conference loss, and it won’t get any easier this weekend when they visit No. 1 Alabama.

To make matters worse, the staff learned Monday that they will be without defensive tackle Robert Thomas for the remainder of the season after he broke his leg against the Gamecocks. Thomas had 31 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks.

It’s been a far cry from Bielema’s first season at Wisconsin where he went 12-1 with the Badgers, but it’s a rebuilding project and the Hogs still have three winnable games left against Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins might be the best running back in the conference, and he’s only a freshman. Through the first seven games, the former ESPN 300 recruit has rushed for 720 yards, good for second in the SEC, and four touchdowns. Even in Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, he went for 69 yards and a score and averaged 6.9 yards per carry. Bielema loves to have a workhorse in the backfield, and Collins has shown he can be that guy this year and for years to come. He’s the type of talent you can build a team around.

Defensive MVP: DE Chris Smith

There’s no way to devalue the loss of Smith, but Arkansas still boasts one of the top defensive lines in the SEC even without him. They lead the conference in sacks (20) this season, and the main culprit has been Smith, who is tied for the league lead with six. The senior defensive end has 23 tackles including eight for a loss and five quarterback hurries. He’s currently projected to go on the second day of next April’s NFL draft, but he could slide into the first round if he keeps playing at the level he’s been playing.

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 7

October, 11, 2013
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Brandon Joyce (@BrandonJoyce_1) writes: What are the Gators’ keys to victory against LSU on Saturday?

Greg Ostendorf: It starts with the defense. Florida is ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217 yards per game. In a season that has been dominated by the offenses in the SEC, the Gators are winning with defense. If anybody can stop or slow down LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season, it’s Florida. They have two NFL-caliber cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and maybe the conference’s best freshman, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. On offense, the Gators need to establish the run early and often. LSU ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. That could mean a big day for running back Matt Jones.


Kevin Paul (@KevinJPaul) writes: Does LSU have the best offense in the conference?

Greg Ostendorf: As good as Florida’s defense has been this season, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop this LSU offense. Sure, Georgia outscored LSU when they met in Athens. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been the most explosive player in the SEC. But how can you argue against the Tigers’ offense? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has turned the page and is looking like a first-round draft pick. They have the top wide receiver tandem in the conference. And if you try to shut down the passing game, they can just hand the ball off to Jeremy Hill. There’s not a more balanced offense in the league. LSU is averaging 291 yards per game through the air, and since the return of Hill they’re rushed for more than 200 yards in three of the last four games.


Jerrod Piker (@d1nonlyhogfan) writes: With or without Clowney, does South Carolina struggle in Fayetteville this weekend? Could this be Bielema’s signature win in season No. 1?

Greg Ostendorf: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to pay for South Carolina this weekend, per his defensive coordinator. However, even with the star defensive end on the field, I think the Gamecocks will get all they can handle from Arkansas. Freshman running back Alex Collins is leading the SEC in rushing with 651 yards through the first half of the season, and he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, South Carolina has struggled in recent weeks against the likes of Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. There's no doubt this would be a signature win for Brett Bielema and put them one step closer to making a bowl game.


Adam Hathcock (@adam_hath) writes: Does Tennessee's bye week help or hurt them?

Greg Ostendorf: It all depends on how the Volunteers respond after a gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. You could argue the bye week would be helpful because the team is still devastated after Saturday’s game and might have come out flat this weekend. However, the overtime loss to the Dawgs seemed to re-energize the program and the fans. Butch Jones & Co. could use the game as a springboard for the rest of the season. Ultimately, I think the off week will be helpful. It gives the players a chance to rest up and get healthy, and they will have extra time to prepare for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come to Neyland Stadium a week from Saturday.


Daniel Badger (@badger_daniel) writes: Is Dan Mullen on the hot seat? If so, who are some possible candidates to replace him after the season?

Greg Ostendorf: It’s hard to argue with what Mullen has done for the Mississippi State program. He has taken the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, which is no easy task. But they have seemed to hit a ceiling of sorts and are in danger of missing the postseason this year. I think it’s too early to fire Mullen, but in this day and age in college football, nothing is out of the question. If he were let go, Mississippi State might look at Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was born in in Mississippi and coached in Starkville once before. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bobby Petrino’s name came up as well.

Saturday SEC roundup

September, 7, 2013
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A quick overview of this weekend in the SEC makes one think that today should be called "Cupcake Saturday." The conference has a relatively light load overall with all the tuneups spread out around the league, but if you dig a little deeper, you'll find that there are a couple of big games to headline the day for SEC.

The game of the week takes place in Athens, Ga., as No. 11 Georgia (0-1) hosts sixth-ranked South Carolina (1-0) at 4:30 p.m. ET in a game that will have major implications on the SEC Eastern Division race. The Gamecocks have won three straight against the Bulldogs, but that hasn't stopped Georgia from winning the East and making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game the last two seasons.

Last week, these two teams went in opposite directions against ACC teams. The Gamecocks overwhelmed North Carolina at home with a 27-10 win, while Georgia suffered a heartbreaking 38-35 loss at Clemson.

The key for both teams will be controlling the line of scrimmage. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney looks to improve upon a lackluster Week 1 start, while the Bulldogs' offensive line has to tighten up after giving up four sacks last week.

As far as the East is concerned, this is an important game for both teams, but a win or loss for either won't crown or crush anyone. Remember, Georgia made it to the SEC title game in 2011 after an 0-2 start that included a loss to South Carolina.

The other big game on the docket takes place in South Florida, as No. 12 Florida (1-0) faces rival Miami (1-0) at noon ET. This could be the last time we see these two teams play against each other during the regular season for a while. They'll have to make it count, and something tells me they will.

Both showed strong running games in Week 1, as a Duke Johnson-led Miami team rushed for 303 yards in a blowout win over Florida Atlantic, while the Gators put up 262 yards in the opening win over Toledo. Adding to Florida's running game is the return of starter Matt Jones, who missed the opener as he recovered from a viral infection. Everyone knows Johnson is an elite back, but Florida should have the defensive advantage, especially with starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Antonio Morrison returning.

For the Gators, the passing game still has a lot of questions. Florida opened things up a little bit more with Jeff Driskel and his receivers, but it still doesn't really feel like this passing game is very explosive yet. Time will tell.

Then there's Tennessee's home game with Bobby Petrino-led Western Kentucky. The Vols (1-0) demolished an overmatched Austin Peay team last week, but now they have a tougher matchup with the Hilltoppers in town. Butch Jones takes on the coach that the Vols said no to. And last week Petrino walked into Lexington, Kent., and beat Kentucky. Will Petrino take down back-to-back SEC first-timers?

Here's entire SEC lineup for today:
  • Miami (Ohio) at Kentucky, 12 p.m. ET, FSN
  • No. 12 Florida at Miami, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
  • Western Kentucky at Tennessee, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network
  • Toledo at Missouri, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Alcorn State at Mississippi State, 3:30 p.m. ET, CSS
  • No. 6 South Carolina at No. 11 Georgia, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
  • SE Missouri St. at Ole Miss, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
  • Sam Houston State at No. 7 Texas A&M, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
  • Samford at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
  • UAB at No. 9 LSU, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Arkansas State at Auburn, 7:30 p.m. ET, FSN
  • Austin Peay at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. ET, CSS

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
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The second week of the college football season is upon us.

Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:

[+] EnlargeClowney
Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesAfter his lackluster showing in the season opener, all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when South Carolina faces Georgia.
1. What will Clowney do? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has endured much criticism after a pedestrian performance in the Gamecocks' season-opening win against North Carolina. After a three-tackle, no-sack performance, some observers questioned Clowney's conditioning and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney was definitely affected by the heat. This week, the No. 6 Gamecocks meet No. 11 Georgia and you can bet people will watch Clowney even more closely as the stakes are raised as each team opens SEC play.

2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?

3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.

4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.

5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.

6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.

7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.

8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.

9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.

10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.

Kentucky falls to WKU in Stoops' debut

September, 1, 2013
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In a battle of debuting coaches, Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky came out on top, earning a 35-26 win over Kentucky and its new coach, Mark Stoops.

Kentucky struggled early offensively, especially in the passing game, netting just 18 first-half passing yards, yet still staying in the game, down 21-17 at the half. Western Kentucky outgained the Wildcats in total offense 487-419 for the night.

The Hilltoppers pulled away in the late third and early fourth quarters. Quarterback Brandon Doughty connected with Mitchell Henry for a 9-yard touchdown to extend their lead to 11 with 1:50 to go in the third, then Leon Allen gave Western Kentucky a 35-17 lead with a 14-yard touchdown run with 13:32 remaining.

Doughty was 27 of 34 passing for 271 yards and a touchdown. Allen (10 carries, 92 yards) and Antonio Andrews (20 carries, 99 yards) each neared the century mark in rushing yards.

Sophomore Maxwell Smith replaced starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow in the fourth quarter. Smith was 8-of-13 for 125 yards and a score while Whitlow finished 10-of-15 for 78 yards and added 75 rushing yards and a score on the ground.

The Wildcats had a stretch where they punted on four straight possessions that spanned the 1:46 mark in the second quarter to the 1:36 mark in the third.

Missouri 58, Murray State 14

Quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey turned in productive days to help lift the Tigers to a blowout win over FCS foe Murray State.

Franklin was 26-of-38 passing for 318 yards and three touchdowns before exiting the game in the third quarter.

Murray State hung tough with the Tigers in the first quarter, taking a 14-13 lead, helped by a Missouri fumble on the first drive of the game that Murray State later turned into a Maikhai Miller 17-yard touchdown pass to Walter Powell for a 7-0 lead.

But Missouri pulled away with 45 unanswered points. The Racers punted or turned it over on their next 11 possessions.

Josey, who was making his first appearance since having two knee surgeries that kept him out of action last season, had 113 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Russell Hansbrough also got involved in the running game, posting 104 yards on eight carries. Miller threw three interceptions in the game for Murray State.

Tennessee 45, Austin Peay 0

The Volunteers launched a new era and made a little history in the process as they cruised to an easy win over FCS foe Austin Peay.

The Butch Jones era at Tennessee got off to a positive start as the Vols scored three touchdowns in the first quarter and three touchdowns in the second quarter to take a commanding 42-0 halftime lead.

The win marked the Volunteers' 800th win in program history. They are the eighth school in the country to reach that mark, joining Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas.

Quarterback Justin Worley was an efficient 11-of-13 for 104 yards and three touchdowns while running back Rajion Neal turned in a 141-yard, one-touchdown performance on 16 carries.
Even before reports surfaced earlier this week that the NCAA was investigating whether Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel signed autographs for profit, fans had their doubts about the Aggies.

In our SportsNation poll last week, we asked which of the five 11-win teams from the SEC last season would most likely take a step back in 2013.

Texas A&M took an early lead, and now with the uncertainty swirling around Manziel, the Aggies have moved way out in front.

With nearly 18,000 votes cast, Texas A&M has received 44 percent of the vote as compared to second-place Florida with 30 percent.

The Gators have faced their own adversity this preseason with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones both being sidelined. Driskel is recovering from appendectomy surgery, while Jones is trying to bounce back from a viral infection. The Gators are hopeful that both players will be back for the season opener against Toledo.

South Carolina checked in at third place in the poll with 12 percent of the vote. Georgia garnered 10 percent, and Alabama was the team fans least expected to fall off with only four percent of the vote.

You don't have to go too far back in this league to find a team that went from 11 wins one season to a losing season the next. Arkansas went from 11-2 in 2011 to 4-8 last season after the firing of Bobby Petrino.

Auburn went from 14-0 and a national championship in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011 and then 3-9 last season, which led to Gene Chizik's ouster.

So the bottom can fall out quickly in this league.

We'll see if that happens to any of the 11-win teams from a year ago.

 
Kentucky's season opener against Western Kentucky has found a TV slot.

The Wildcats will face the Hilltoppers on ESPNews at 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 31, the Sun Belt Conference announced Monday. The game will be played at LP Field in Nashville and will bring Bobby Petrino back to SEC country against a team that he was linked to before he took the job at Western Kentucky.

With Petrino manning things, this certainly won't be an easy opener for Kentucky or new coach Mark Stoops. The Hilltoppers were a bowl team last year and should be even better under Petrino. It'll be a challenging opener for Stoops, but that might not be a bad thing for him.

Kentucky fans are very excited about the Stoops era getting started on the field and getting a win against someone like Petrino will definitely give Stoops some momentum. No, it's not Arkansas, but Western Kentucky bested Kentucky last year and just having the Petrino name on the other sideline will make this a very intriguing game. Every win will be big for Stoops in his first year, but starting off the season with a win will go a long way.
A time has been set for Kentucky's season opener against Western Kentucky.

The Wildcats will take on Bobby Petrino's Hilltoppers at 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 31 in Nashville at LP Stadium, Kentucky announced Monday. This will mark the second time in three years that these two teams have met in Nashville. The Wildcats won their 2011 opener against Western Kentucky in Nashville 14-3.

Kentucky had won two straight over the Hilltoppers before dropping last year's game 32-31 in overtime.

There are some interesting storylines in this game, especially with the two head coaches. This will be Mark Stoops' first game as Kentucky's new man in charge, while Petrino is back in SEC country. Remember there were rumors about Kentucky having interest in hiring Petrino, who was dismissed from Arkansas last year after he lied about having an affair with a woman he hired, but those rumors turned out to not have much substance.

Petrino made it very clear he wanted to return to the SEC. Well, he isn't coaching an SEC team, but he has a chance to take one down in his first game as Western Kentucky's head coach.

Hope springs in the SEC

May, 22, 2013
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Monday, we took a look at the 100-days checklist for the SEC. Today, we're taking a look back at what the SEC was able to do during the BCS era. In short, the conference has had a ton of success and is hoping to close out the BCS the way it began it -- with yet another national championship.

Here's a look at the best and worst for the SEC during the BCS era:

Best

1. Rings/crystals for days: The SEC and the BCS have had a great relationship. The SEC kicked the BCS era off with a bang in 1998 when Tennessee took home the first BCS national championship with its 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. Five years later, LSU won the conference's second BCS title with a 21-14 win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. But things really got out of hand starting in 2006, when Florida's 41-14 win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl sparked a string of seven straight BCS national titles for the SEC. Florida won again in 2008, Alabama has won three (2009, 2011, 2012), two-loss LSU won in 2007 and Auburn won in 2010. The SEC has won nine of the 15 BCS national championships, and its only loss came to itself when Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship in 2011.

2. Two's company: If five straight championships wasn't enough, the SEC got really greedy in 2011, when Alabama and LSU met in New Orleans, shutting the rest of the country out of a chance at the belt. This game sparked a ton of controversy after LSU had already defeated Alabama 9-6 in Tuscaloosa earlier in the season. But the Crimson Tide went unbeaten afterward and jumped up to the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings after Oklahoma State was upset by Iowa State. After LSU beat Georgia in the SEC championship game, the all-SEC title game was set, in which Alabama would have its revenge.

[+] EnlargeLSU vs. Alabama
AP Photo/Tom HauckAlabama's win over LSU was the only time two teams from the same conference faced off for the national title during the BCS era.
3. Alabama's dominance: Nick Saban brought LSU a national title in 2003, but he's done real wonders at Alabama. With Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame in last season's Discover BCS National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide became the first team in modern history to win three national championships in four seasons. Alabama has won two straight national championships, has dynasty status and should be one of the favorites to win it all in 2013.

4. Heisman collection: The SEC's dominance during the BCS era hasn't just been about bling. The league also has a nice collection of bronze statues, as four of the past seven Heisman Trophy winners have come from the SEC. Last season, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the award, while Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win it in 2007 when he became the first player to rush and throw for 20-plus touchdowns in a single season. Alabama running back Mark Ingram took home the trophy in 2009, while Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who became the first SEC player to run for at least 1,000 yards and pass for at least 2,000 in the same season, won in 2010.

5. Dominating the NFL draft: The SEC couldn't have won all those BCS titles without a little talent here and there. In last month's NFL draft, the league had 63 players drafted. That's a record for any league. The next closest was the ACC with 31 picks. The SEC had 32 players drafted within the first three rounds, including 12 in the first round.

Worst

1. Auburn getting snubbed: It wasn't often that the SEC got the short end of the BCS stick, but it certainly did in 2004 when Auburn was left out of the national championship after going undefeated during the regular season and winning an SEC title. Auburn went on to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma, which passed Auburn in the BCS standings late, was blown out by USC in the national championship.

2. Not showing up: The SEC had two Sugar Bowl appearances it would love to get back. Fresh off its only blemish of the season in its loss to Florida during the 2008 SEC championship game, Alabama truly looked uninspired a month later in its 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Last season, Florida, which was No. 3 in the BCS standings at the time, laid a real egg with its 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Both Alabama and Florida were favorites and the more talented teams.

3. The Albert Means scandal: Back in 2002, the NCAA placed Alabama on five-year probation, gave the Tide a two-year bowl ban and reduced football scholarships by 21 over three years for major recruiting violations. The NCAA said a booster agreed to give Means' high school coach more than $100,000 to get Means, a highly-rated defensive lineman, to sign with Alabama. He signed with the Tide but later transferred to Memphis. Alabama narrowly missed getting the death penalty, but, as chairman of the infractions committee Thomas Yeager said, it was "absolutely staring down the barrel of the gun."

4. Tennessee's fall: The Vols might have captured the first BCS title, but Tennessee's program has been a shell of its former self since. Tennessee has endured losing seasons in four of the past five, has missed out on bowl trips in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the late 1970s and will enter the fall with its fourth different head coach in the past six seasons. Since winning it all in 1998, the Vols have been to the SEC championship game three times -- all losses.

5. Bobby Petrino's disgraceful exit: Last spring, Arkansas felt like a legitimate national championship contender. With the talent Bobby Petrino had assembled, the Razorbacks appeared equipped with the team ready to take the SEC West and more. However, Petrino's motorcycle accident in early April changed everything. He was caught lying about an affair he was having with a woman he hired and was later fired. Arkansas hired former special teams coach John L. Smith, who brought more giggles than wins, as Arkansas fell from contender to pretender with a 4-8 season. Petrino completely embarrassed himself and the program, but confidence seems to have been restored with the hiring of former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

SEC lunch links

May, 21, 2013
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Our Tuesday stroll around the league:

Arkansas Razorbacks spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
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2012 record: 4-8

2012 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Jonathan Williams, WR Javontee Herndon, C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, DE Trey Flowers, DT Byran Jones, CB Tevin Mitchel, S Rohan Gaines

Key losses

QB Tyler Wilson, RB Dennis Johnson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, OG Alvin Bailey, S Ross Rasner, P Dylan Breeding

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Dennis Johnson (757 yards)
Passing: Tyler Wilson (3,387 yards)
Receiving: Cobi Hamilton (1,335 yards)
Tackles: Ross Rasner (92)
Sacks: Chris Smith* (9.5)
Interceptions: Ross Rasner (3)

Spring answers

1. Front loaded: It’s always comforting to be good and experienced up front on defense, and the Hogs’ strength coming out of the spring was clearly their defensive line. Ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are back after combining for 26 tackles for loss last season (15.5 sacks), and the Hogs also feel good about their senior tackle tandem of Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Equally promising is a trio of redshirt freshmen – ends JaMichael Winston and Deatrich Wise, Jr., and tackle Darius Philon.

2. Allen moves to the front: There will still be competition once preseason camp begins, but sophomore Brandon Allen exited spring as the Hogs’ starting quarterback after separating himself from senior Brandon Mitchell. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was pleased with Allen’s steady progress throughout the spring and his ability to move the team on offense. The Hogs’ coaches also have more faith in Allen right now in terms of his ability to take care of the football.

3. Getting physical: Bielema is committed to the Hogs being balanced on offense, which is a big reason why he brought in Jim Chaney as his offensive coordinator. But anybody who watched Bielema’s Wisconsin teams play on offense over the last few seasons knows how deeply he believes in being physical up front and pounding the football. The Hogs aren’t all the way there yet, but made strides this spring with their overall physicality on offense.

Fall questions

1. Finding offensive playmakers: The guys who made most of the plays on offense the last few seasons for the Hogs are gone. It’s still not clear who will be their go-to playmakers in 2013. Senior receivers Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson will step into the spotlight with Cobi Hamilton no longer around, and sophomore running back Jonathan Williams needs to keep coming. He’s up to 220 pounds and has some burst. He also has some help on the way. Heralded true freshman Alex Collins will be on campus this summer.

2. Counting on Spaight: One of the most important junior college newcomers wasn’t on campus for the spring. Linebacker Martrell Spaight will join the team this summer, and getting him up to speed will be critical. He has the ability to play all three linebacker spots. The Hogs were hit hard by injuries at linebacker last season and had to play several young guys there. If Spaight is a quick learner, he could go a long way toward solidifying the linebacker corps for the Hogs.

3. Restoring confidence: After the Hogs won 21 games during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, confidence permeated the Arkansas program. But the bottom fell out last year on the heels of Bobby Petrino’s ouster and then a forgettable season on the field. It’s important that the Hogs play well early and have some success to help regain that confidence. Bielema brought in a veteran staff, and the players have bought in. Those first four games in September would seem to set up nicely for the Hogs. A 4-0 start would provide a ton of momentum.
In keeping with our March Madness theme, I decided to take a look at one area everyone loves about the Big Dance and translate it to the football field: upsets.

We saw some good ones last year, like Louisiana-Monroe upending Arkansas, Texas A&M knocking off No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Louisville embarrassing Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Since anything -- and everything -- can happen on any given Saturday, we'll probably see some fun upsets yet again this fall.

Here are some potential upsets involving SEC teams to look out for in 2013:

Virginia Tech over Alabama, Aug. 31: The Hokies limped through a 7-6 2012 season, but return nine starters on a defense that finished the year ranking 18th nationally in total defense. With four defensive linemen returning, Virginia Tech could give Alabama's new-look offensive line fits in the opener, while quarterback Logan Thomas could make a few plays here and there inside the Georgia Dome.

TCU over LSU, Aug. 31: The Tigers have a lot of holes to fill on defense, and TCU just happens to bring back nine offensive starters. Plus, quarterback Casey Pachall is back. This game will also be played in Arlington, Texas, which is less than 20 miles away from TCU's campus.

Miami over Florida, Sept. 7: The Gators finally get some more meat on their out-of-conference schedule and you better believe the Canes, who have spent the past few years in the shadow of Florida and Florida State, are itching to pull this upset. The game will be played in Sun Life Stadium, so Canes fans should be out in full force.

Western Kentucky over Tennessee, Sept. 7: Bobby Petrino returns to the SEC with his new team with 13 returning starters, including six on offense. After getting zero love from SEC schools during his job hunt, Petrino will be looking to exact some revenge on the league. The Vols have tons of questions to answer and will be adjusting to a new staff. Also, this is a trap game with Oregon next on the schedule.

UCF over South Carolina, Sept. 28: This would be a major upset for the Golden Knights. South Carolina is clearly the better and more talented team, but this is a road game early in the year. UCF is coming off of a 10-win season and returns 11 total starters, including 3,000-yard passer Blake Bortles and five of its top six receivers. The Gamecocks also have a tendency to play down to their competition.

Ole Miss over Texas A&M, Oct. 12: The Rebels choked away a second-half lead in this game last year, so there's plenty of motivation on Ole Miss' side. This game is in Oxford again, too. The Aggies have to replace five starters in their front seven, and the Rebels' explosive offense, which returns eight starters, could be a bad matchup for a younger defense like that.

Arkansas over South Carolina, Oct. 12: Everything is new in Fayetteville, but the Hogs have won three straight at home against the Gamecocks. A physical Bret Bielema team could catch the Gamecocks off guard, and you know that environment will be rocking.

Missouri over Florida, Oct. 19: The Gators will be coming off of what should be a tough, physical game at LSU, and must stay on the road to play these Tigers. Fatigue could set in and if Mizzou can stay healthy, its offense should be better than what we saw last year. Florida's offense still has a bunch of questions and can't afford to let another road environment rattle it.

Vanderbilt over Georgia, Oct. 19: In 2011, the Commodores came very close to pulling this upset. Last year, Vandy was run out of Athens. And we all know how much James Franklin wants this one. A solid defense returns and with the playmakers Vandy has on offense, this team could put some points up on Georgia's younger defense.

Auburn over Alabama, Nov. 30: Yep. This could happen. Alabama is going to lose again and while most are looking at the Tide's trip to College Station as the most likely loss in 2013, don't sleep on Bama's biggest rival. Auburn will be a better team next year and could be a nuisance late in the season. If that offense gets going, the Tigers could really challenge Alabama on the Plains.
Bret Bielema guided Wisconsin to Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances each of his last three seasons in Madison.

But when Arkansas called, he was immediately interested and admits that there was a burning desire to see how he would fare in college football’s toughest conference.

Bielema takes over an Arkansas program that fell flat on its face in 2012 following the Bobby Petrino scandal last spring and Petrino’s subsequent firing. The Hogs dipped to 4-8 last season under interim coach John L. Smith after winning 10 or more games each of the previous two seasons under Petrino and playing in the Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season.

The Hogs are still searching for their first SEC championship, and Bielema said that’s the goal.

Here’s Part II of our Q&A with Bielema:

Was it even more crucial, moving over to the SEC, to make sure you brought in proven recruiters?

Bret Bielema: It was extremely important to hire a group of coaches who were relentless recruiters. I think this is the first time I can say that all nine of my assistants are detail guys and they love to recruit. That’s going to pay dividends, and they all have a vast amount of experience. We’ve got NFL. We’ve got SEC. We’ve got every type of conference known to man. It’s going to be fun to watch this group grow. If you talked to every one of my assistants, no one is enjoying this more than we are. I’ve got a group that’s engaged with a lot of different chemistry and a lot of different personalities coming through, and they’ve all been great.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArkansas assistant Randy Shannon, the former Miami head coach, should provide a lift to the Hogs' recruiting efforts in Florida.
You went down to South Florida and got a couple of coveted prospects in your first signing class (running back Alex Collins and offensive tackle Denver Kirkland). What recruiting territories will be critical for you at Arkansas?

BB: With Randy (Shannon) and Charlie (Partridge) and my success in South Florida, we expected to have success there and thankfully had it. A big push for us is that we’re putting six recruiters in the state of Texas. We have to be more than competitive in North Texas and East Texas for us to have a chance here at Arkansas. We play Texas A&M for the next 10 years in Dallas. That has to be a big, big area of emphasis for us.

What will be your biggest adjustment as a head coach in the SEC?

BB: Without a doubt, the recruiting landscape. It’s not an adjustment, just different from what I’ve done. Great recruiters can recruit anywhere. That’s the philosophy I took into this year, and we’ll carry it forward.

What about the league? How long will it take you to get up to speed on the league?

BB: My summer project is to watch seven to 10 complete games of everybody on our schedule. I’ll watch the TV copy and football copy and get a feel for what’s happening during the course of the game. It will be great teaching. I also have to get to know the personality of my team, if I can go for it on fourth-and-2 or do I kick a field goal. Those are all things in progress for me.

Have you gotten a feel for the leadership on this team yet?

BB: The most pleasant surprise when I came here was the group of 22 seniors who walked into my office who have tremendous respect for Arkansas and what it can be. They’re extremely eager to jump in and change gears. The last 18 months haven't been something that was very special to them. There’s been a lot of disappointment and a lot of heartache, and they’re hungry. I really don’t care how many of those guys are going to be All-Americans or NFL draft picks. But it’s been very apparent to me that it’s very important to them to be at Arkansas and to be a Hog.

Even with all your success at Wisconsin, did you find yourself wondering about the SEC and whether or not you could win big in this league?

BB: As the SEC began to build its superiority in college football, that naturally appealed to any competitor. As we had success at Wisconsin, I had more and more opportunities. I’m not one of those coaches that likes to have my name out there. Other coaches throughout the world of college football love to see their name being mentioned for different jobs. I’m just not one of those guys. That’s why we took the world by storm when I came here. Nobody really knew about it. I made sure it was done that way.

What about the Arkansas job appealed to you?

BB: A lot of it was finding the right fit in the SEC. I’m not saying Arkansas and Wisconsin are identical twins, but I think they’re from the same family. They’re proud states, have great fan support and have a handful of good players every year. You’re going to have to go out of state every year to complement your whole team to win a championship, and that’s some of the challenges we have here at Arkansas.

Does your philosophy change any now that you’re in the SEC?

BB: In today’s world of up-tempo offenses and all the things that go into it, you need to have depth in the defensive line. And offensively, you’ve got to be able to knock somebody off the line of scrimmage. You can’t rely on tricking somebody. If your offensive game plan is built around tricking someone, you don’t have a chance. You’ve got to be able to put a hat on a hat and play big-boy football and be able to play in a world where you’re tougher than the guy in front of you.
Is there a direct correlation to highly ranked signees and wins in the SEC?

Well, you be the judge.

Over the past four years (2009-12), Alabama and Florida have tied for the most ESPN 150 prospects signed with 41 apiece. During that span, the Crimson Tide have won an SEC-high 49 games and three national championships.

The Gators, meanwhile, have won 10 fewer games (39) than the Crimson Tide and haven’t won any SEC or national titles during that span. In fact, they’ve been shut out of the SEC championship game the last three years.

The most ESPN 150 prospects any SEC school has signed in one year going back to 2009 was Florida in 2010 when the Gators signed 17 ESPN 150 prospects.

For perspective, that’s more than eight SEC schools -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- have managed to ink in each of their last four signing classes.

Every SEC school has signed at least one ESPN 150 prospect over the past four years, although Kentucky and Vanderbilt have both been limited to one each. The Wildcats’ only ESPN 150 signee during that period was quarterback Morgan Newton in 2009, while the Commodores signed running back Brian Kimbrow last year.

The school doing the least with the most over the last four years has been Tennessee. The Vols have signed 20 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is tied for the fifth most in the SEC. However, the Vols are just 23-27 during that stretch (9-23 in the SEC) and have suffered through three straight losing seasons.

Tennessee signed six ESPN 150 prospects in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s only signing class in Knoxville. But four of those players (Jerod Askew, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Jr., and Nu’Keese Richardson) were kicked off the team, and the other two (Bryce Brown and David Oku) wound up transferring out of the program.

The school doing the most with the least has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have signed 13 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is seventh in the league. But the Gamecocks have the third-best record over the last four years (38-15) behind only Alabama and LSU. They’re also one of two teams in the league (along with Alabama) to have won 11 or more games each of the last two seasons.

As the Head Ball Coach himself would say, somebody’s coaching ‘em up in Columbia.

Arkansas, prior to its collapse this past season, had managed a nice run despite not reeling in very many highly ranked signees under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Hogs won 11 games in 2011 and 10 games in 2010, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl, and signed just five ESPN 150 prospects between 2009-12.

Below is a breakdown of how many ESPN 150 signees each SEC school has signed over the past four years along with each school’s overall and SEC record during that span. We’ve also included Missouri and Texas A&M even though they’ve just played one season in the SEC.

Of the Aggies’ nine ESPN 150 prospects signed over the past four years, five came last year in Kevin Sumlin’s first signing class.

One other interesting nugget is South Carolina is the only team to have played in the SEC championship game over the past four years that hasn't signed at least 20 ESPN 150 prospects during that span.

Here’s a closer look:
  • Alabama: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 49-5 (.907), 27-5 SEC
  • Florida: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 39-14 (.736), 22-10 SEC
  • LSU: 28 ESPN 150 signees, 43-10 (.811), 25-7 SEC
  • Georgia: 26 ESPN 150 signees, 36-18 (.667), 21-11 SEC
  • Auburn: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635), 15-17 SEC
  • Tennessee: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 23-27 (.460), 9-23 SEC
  • South Carolina: 13 ESPN 150 signees, 38-15 (.717), 20-12 SEC
  • Texas A&M: 9 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635)
  • Ole Miss: 6 ESPN 150 signees, 22-28 (.440), 8-24 SEC
  • Arkansas: 5 ESPN 150 signees, 33-18 (.647), 17-13 SEC
  • Mississippi State: 4 ESPN 150 signees, 29-22 (.569), 13-17 SEC
  • Missouri: 3 ESPN 150 signees, 31-20 (.608)
  • Kentucky: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 20-30 (.400), 7-25 SEC
  • Vanderbilt: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 19-31 (.380), 8-24 SEC

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