SEC: Bret Bielema

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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Alex CollinsMichael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins has amassed 411 yards on 50 carries and five touchdowns in three games this season.
Before the start of spring practice in late May, Bret Bielema noticed a change in his program. It was Year 2 for him at Arkansas, and the dark days of Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith were fading into the distance. Bielema saw fewer heads down, better communication and a renewed sense of focus. He saw more physical, tough players, which was the goal all along.

Bielema couldn't turn around Arkansas in an instant. His brand of football -- smash-mouth, old school football, that is -- requires time and patience. The losing got old last season, of course, but there was some solace outside the final score. The games were close. On average, Arkansas entered the fourth quarter of games against Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M down by less than a touchdown.

But the divide between building and breaking through is cavernous. Looking at his players through spring and fall camp, Bielema saw the gap closing.

On Saturday at Texas Tech, Arkansas broke through, snapping a losing streak against Power 5 teams that dated back to 2012. And not only did the Razorbacks win big, they won their way, abusing the Red Raiders with a power running game that produced 438 yards and seven touchdowns. "Normal American football," as Bielema so famously described it, won the day.

"When I left Wisconsin we had been winning a long time," Bielema told ESPN on Sunday evening. "It was very hard to see our guys here do anything but that.

"When you haven't tasted success, when you haven't felt those things, it's tough to get it going. But I think we're stepping in the right direction now."

Bielema admitted that there were times last season where, "I don't know if we took the field with 100 percent conviction of expecting success." There was a belief that things would get better, but not much evidence to back it up. Against Texas Tech, there finally was.

Jonathan Williams rushed for 145 yards and four touchdowns. Alex Collins, a star recruit in Bielema's first signing class, carried the ball 27 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Their skepticism about sharing carries turned into a full-fledged belief that there is "strength in numbers," Bielema said.

With fullbacks Patrick Arinze and Kody Walker leading the way behind a well-built offensive line, the physical running game Bielema promised finally delivered.

In a day and age of spread offenses, it was a win in the column of the committed.

"The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent," Bielema said. "We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.

"Those programs that don't recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we're doing it now."

Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it's a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power.

"Programs just don't have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback," Bielema said. "They don't have a 280-pound tight end. They don't have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that."

Texas Tech learned the hard way.

But how will that translate for Arkansas moving forward?

"In SEC play we have to be a lot more balanced and there might be games where we have to throw it more than we run it," Bielema said. "It's just with that game on the road against that type of offense I thought we had to monopolize the clock and take the wind out of them."

Brandon Allen, Arkansas' second-year starting quarterback, will have to become more involved. He was efficient against Texas Tech, completing 6 of 12 passes for 61 yards, but not inspiring.

"Our numbers aren't huge in volume, but they've been very, very productive numbers," Bielema said. "They've done what we've asked them to do. ... It's been the perfect storm to keep our passing game quiet, and we all feel it's one of the best kept secrets in the SEC right now."

A win at Texas Tech isn't the end of the turn around at Arkansas. It's probably just the beginning. But in terms of perception and recruiting, it was a huge step in the right direction.

With five coaches recruiting Texas -- "We talk all the time about Tex Hogs," Bielema said -- the Lone Star State might be ripe for the picking. Maybe there Arkansas can continue to grow.

"To get a win on Saturday on the national stage, that said a lot for our program," Bielema said. "It does a lot for our recruiting, it does a lot for our players' confidence and, more than anything else, it gives the Hog nation something to smile about.

"There have been some dark days the last couple of years. If they even just began to see what we're doing on the field, it's very positive."

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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Running game dominant for Razorbacks

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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Bret Bielema has never deviated from the plan. He’s not spreading it out. He’s not changing to a hurry-up offense. He’s old school. He wants to run the ball, dominate up front and ultimately wear down the opposing defense.

That’s exactly what his Arkansas team did Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. The Razorbacks rushed for 439 yards in a 49-28 win over former Southwest Conference foe Texas Tech. It was the school’s first victory over a Power 5 team since October 2012.

Running off left tackle

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What’s more impressive about this play? The push the left side of the offensive line gets for Arkansas or the move Jonathan Williams puts on the defender before trotting into the end zone? Either way, it was a sign of things to come in this game. The touchdown run capped an 11-play, 68-yard drive that lasted more than six minutes. How did it take that long? Bielema drew up 11 straight rushing plays.

Running off right tackle

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If it works off the left side, why not run it to the right side? With the game still in doubt, Williams took the handoff to the right side this time, broke one tackle and followed a caravan of blockers into the end zone. It was the fourth touchdown of the day for Williams, who finished with 22 carries for 146 yards. And he wasn’t even the Hogs’ leading rusher. That honor belonged to Alex Collins (see below).

Running right up the middle

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Collins couldn’t let Williams have all the fun. On a simple draw play early in the fourth quarter, Collins took the delayed handoff, made a couple moves, broke a tackle, and he was off to the races. Again, it was a dominant effort up front by the Arkansas offensive line, but once Collins was free there was nobody catching him. He finished with 27 carries for 211 yards.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.

Arkansas' bowl hopes rest in Lubbock

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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I won’t sit here and claim that I can predict the future, but if Arkansas is going to make a bowl game this season, the Razorbacks have to beat Texas Tech Saturday.

It’s that simple.

Given the nation’s toughest schedule (there are currently six ranked teams on Arkansas’ schedule, including four top-10 opponents), the Hogs have to sweep the nonconference slate and pull at least two upsets in SEC games. It certainly isn’t impossible, and there is no doubt this Arkansas team is better than last season’s, but finding three conference wins on this slate isn’t exactly easy.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBrandon Allen and the Razorbacks know a win at Texas Tech could really boost their confidence.
That means the Red Raiders have to fall by the sound of calling the Hogs.

Though Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his players aren’t ready to call this a make-or-break game, they all understand how important it is for the confidence and psyche of this team going forward.

"I’m excited to see exactly where we can go with this chance," Bielema said. "It’s an opportunity for your guys to gather confidence, and that’s something this program needs really needs a lot of."

Added senior defensive end Trey Flowers: "Getting a win over a pretty good team will put us up there and help us move forward for the rest of the season."

Yes, it would.

The thing about this Arkansas team is we didn’t know if it could be physical enough to survive this season. Last season, the Hogs were continuously pushed around during their 0-8 SEC journey, and little was done on the surface to tell us anything would be different in 2014.

Well, look at the tape from the first two games, because change has come. Yes, Arkansas lost steam in the second half of its opening loss to Auburn (45-21), but the Hogs kept it very tight in the first two quarters and actually erased a 21-7 deficit.

Last week’s 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State might be scoffed at by some, but it was a chance for this team to get better and iron out some of the deficiencies it saw in the second half against Auburn.

"This year, we go into every game knowing we can win every game -- we can play with the best of them out there," quarterback Brandon Allen said. "It all comes down to us executing and playing clean football. We’ve shown that when we do that we can play with anyone, we can beat anyone on any day."

That game also stood as a very important notch on the win belt.

The truth is that we still don’t know a ton about this team. Though it might be better -- and Bielema said he sees more talent and development in his locker room now -- it’s still an enigma.

With the coaching turnover this program has dealt with in recent years, it’s only natural for Arkansas to still be behind the rest of the SEC West. But improvements have been made in the first two weeks.

The offensive and defensive lines have played with a tougher demeanor. The running game went from a two-headed monster with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to adding a third weapon in speedster Korliss Marshall. And Allen looks more confident and comfortable in Arkansas’ offense, something this team desperately needs.

So can this team survive a schedule that includes consecutive games in the middle of the season against Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia -- all current top-seven teams -- and make it to the postseason? What about with a November that houses Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri?

Those are legitimate questions for a program that still has a lot of building to do in all areas.

Allen wouldn’t say that a Texas Tech win holds the key to Arkansas’ postseason, but he knows it would go a long way toward empowering the Hogs before the teeth of conference season approaches.

"I think it’s going to be huge, especially when you go into SEC play where you’re going to play a tough opponent every week," he said. "Anytime you can have the momentum and the swagger on our side, it’s only going to help us play better and compete with some of the best teams in the country."

That is the kind of confidence this team didn’t have last season, and as the loses piled up, players' spirits disappeared. However, in the months since last year’s dismal showing, attitudes have changed, and Arkansas players feel they can -- and will -- surprise a lot of people this fall, starting Saturday.

"We’re capable of doing something special," Flowers said. "A lot of people are looking down on us. Our backs are pretty much against the wall and they gave us the toughest schedule. Those are the cards we were dealt, but we’re capable of doing some big things around our league, shock a few people and get some big wins."

SEC morning links

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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1. Let's make this quick, OK? Will Muschamp may have overreacted a touch when he was asked Wednesday about the suspensions of three players. He got a little emotional, but, hey, he's defending his program, and since he arrived in Gainesville he has kept a clean house. Now here comes the “but.” But he shouldn't have been offended when he was asked about players being suspended for a game that was never played. He shouldn't say that missing practice is the same thing as missing a game, because it's not. The one thing that really irked me, though, was this: “At the end of the day ... I handle the discipline in this program, and it's handled well.” Well, Coach, you can't play judge, jury and the court of appeals. You may be doing a good job discipline wise. In fact, I think you are. But it's not for you to say. Instead of standing up for your program, you came off as defensive. If you want to say, “There's a lot of things that go into those situations, a lot more than people know,” then don't act surprised when we don't know and ask questions. Otherwise, tell us and let the record speak for itself.

2. Nick Saban loves himself some competition. Despite Blake Sims' strong showing against in the season opener, Alabama's head coach insists the quarterback battle isn't over. In fact, he's committed to playing both Sims and Jake Coker against Florida Atlantic. On Wednesday, Saban said, “It's important for a couple of reasons,” one being the ability to evaluate both players in live game action, and the other being that regardless of who wins the job, he wants the backup to have plenty of game reps. That's nice and all, but there's only one true reason why both will play: He needs to know what he has in Coker. If he felt good about Sims after what he saw against West Virginia, wouldn't he have couched his comments by saying that he was the starter until notified otherwise? Watching Sims complete 22 of 30 passes in Atlanta, I thought we were witnessing the very best version of him as a quarterback. But maybe that's not good enough. Maybe Coker can do more. We'll have to see. On Saturday we'll start to get an idea.

3. Everyone loves the Heisman Watch, even if it's only the second week of the season. Seeing Todd Gurley atop the list reaffirmed my faith in humanity. Watching him destroy Clemson put him in the driver's seat for me. The rest of the list was fine, too. Kenny Hill put up the best numbers of any QB in the country, but he still has to prove himself. Outside of ESPN's 11 Heisman contenders, I thought we ought to update a few others from the SEC, starting with the most talked about dark-horse candidate of all, Dak Prescott. He certainly helped himself with 285 yards and four touchdowns against Southern Miss. With more of the same against UAB this weekend, his numbers could get gaudy. Also, Amari Cooper did enough to hang around the outskirts for me. Wideouts rarely factor into the award, but if he keeps up his 12-reception, 130-yard output he might sneak up on some people. Finally, Mike Davis is essentially out of it. By rushing for just 15 yards against Texas A&M on national TV, he fell way behind the pack. With him doubtful to play East Carolina, it feels like it's already too little too late.

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SEC morning links

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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1. The biggest concern for Alabama's football team might not be at quarterback. After the Crimson Tide gave up 365 passing yards and 29 completions to West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, many gave the Tide's secondary some nasty looks. Cornerback Bradley Sylve drew most of the ire, as he was consistently beaten all night. Not the biggest defensive back, Sylve had a tough time with West Virginia's bigger, more physical receivers, especially Kevin White, who finished with 11 catches for 143 yards. Well, coach Nick Saban made a change Monday, having Eddie Jackson, who was recovering from a knee injury, run with the first-team defense alongside Cyrus Jones. Sylve ran with the second-team defense with freshman Tony Brown, who could see some time in the next few weeks.

2. Mississippi State's football team was met with tragedy this weekend after wide receiver Jameon Lewis' brother, Tyriunce, was shot and killed Sunday morning in their hometown of Tylertown, Mississippi. Lewis, who is Mississippi State's top returning receiver, returned to campus on Monday, but his availability for Saturday's game against UAB is still uncertain. Coach Dan Mullen made it clear that he wasn't worried about Lewis taking the field Saturday. His concern is with Lewis' emotions. Our thoughts are with Lewis and his family.

3. Last weekend, we saw Saban face West Virginia. Why was that significant? Well, Saban is from West Virginia, so there was a little bit of a storyline there. But for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Saturday's game with Toledo actually means a lot to him. Why, you ask? Well, he coached at Toledo from 1991-2000, becoming the school's all-time leader in wins after going 73-37-3 with the Rockets. Man, three ties? That's so old school. Toledo might hold a special place in Pinkel's heart, but he won't let that get to him this weekend. “Great people, great community. It was a big part of my life, big part of my career,” Pinkel said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket. Not this weekend, but I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first half Saturday, Arkansas stayed right with No. 6 Auburn. The score was tied at 21 and the Razorbacks had 151 yards on the ground, nearly doubling Auburn’s rushing total. However, the second half was a different story.

Arkansas gained just 2 rushing yards and picked up three first downs in the second half as Auburn pulled away to win easily, 45-21.

When asked about his halftime adjustments or lack thereof, Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema told reporters that his assistant coaches got stuck in the press box elevator at Jordan-Hare Stadium and were unable to come down and meet with the players.

"We ran into a little glitch," Bielema said. "Our coaches never made it down from the half. They were stuck in elevators. There was kind of a little audible there we had to deal with, but the great thing was the kids had big eyes and big ears."

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was among the coaches who were stuck in the elevator, but Bielema tried to downplay the incident when asked if it affected his game plan.

"It is what it is," he said. "We had to roll with the flow. Obviously I have coaches up in the booth who look forward to coming down here and meeting as a staff and get on the same page. We were able to communicate by phone.

"I'm not trying to make a big deal out of it. They just weren't able to get down there. I don't have the full story on it. I just know they were actually stuck."

Arkansas­­ will return home to the friendly confines of D.W.R. Razorbacks Stadium next weekend to play Nicholls State.

If only the elevators at Auburn were working as fast as its ball boy Saturday night.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:
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Back in July at SEC media days, Bret Bielema predicted that his Arkansas team would see Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall in the season opener despite Marshall’s run-in with the law just days prior to the event.

“I think knowing what I know as a head coach, Nick will be there,” Bielema said. “I think we want to play against the best, and I’m sure he’ll be there.”

Bielema was right. His counterpart Gus Malzahn announced Tuesday that Jeremy Johnson was the starter but that Marshall would definitely play.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/John BazemoreArkansas can expect to face QB Nick Marshall, but how much is unclear.
What does that mean? Nobody knows for sure, but Malzahn made it clear that he and his staff have a plan for the quarterbacks in Week 1. Well, the Razorbacks have a plan too. They’re preparing the same regardless of who’s under center.

“We can only control what we can control,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “We’re preparing for the Auburn Tigers. No matter who’s in there at quarterback, they’re going to have a great scheme. At the end of the day, it’s going to be about our discipline, our eye discipline, the effort in which we play, and that’s kind of the attitude that we’re taking.”

In last year’s game, Auburn won 35-17 and Marshall was nearly perfect through the air, going 7-of-8 for 118 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed nine times for 59 yards. Meanwhile, Johnson threw one pass and completed it for 15 yards.

Despite those splits, the Arkansas defense wants another crack at Marshall.

“I would rather see the starter (Marshall) because we would always want to play their best,” Hogs safety Alan Turner said. “I feel like he’s a good player, and he makes their offense go.”

Turner, along with All-SEC defensive end Trey Flowers, lead a defense that hopes to be much improved in 2014. The Razorbacks finished toward the bottom of the SEC in both total defense (410 yards per game) and scoring defense (31 points per game) last year, but Smith is hoping to turn that around in his first year as coordinator.

“The biggest thing for our defense has been the attitude and the effort in which we play,” Smith said. “That’s what we’ve got to hang our hat on in order to be successful. We’ve got to run to the football. We’ve got to play with great passion.

“The term that we use for that here at Arkansas is 'smart swarm.' That ties in everything that Coach B believes in and hangs his hat on. It’s playing through the whistle and being mentally and physically tough. That’s the No. 1 thing we ask our guys.”

Saturday’s game will be a prime opportunity for Arkansas, opening against the defending SEC champions and facing one of the top offenses in all of college football a season ago. Even the players say they’ve had a little extra spring in their step during fall camp.

“It does give us a little extra motivation to start the season off against the defending SEC champions,” Turner said. “Right off the bat, you get a quality opponent. I know a lot of people are doubting us, but if we can go in and play like I think we can, we can prove them wrong.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback for Auburn. The goal for Arkansas remains the same.

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.

SEC morning links

August, 18, 2014
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1. Another quarterback battle came to a resolution over the weekend as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin tabbed Kenny Hill to be the Aggies' starter when they open the season Aug. 28 vs. South Carolina at Williams Brice Stadium. It was Hill's "body of work" over the course of the competition that won him the job after he and true freshman Kyle Allen received virtually equal practice repetitions with the first and second team throughout the first two weeks of training camp. Sumlin noted that "Kyle needs to keep competing, and Kenny needs to continue competing at the level he's competing to stay where he is," and all indications are that it was a close competition and a tough decision for Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. But don't be fooled -- while Allen will continue to push Hill on the practice field and is only one play away from getting on the field, Sumlin has never been a two-quarterback guy who rotates players. Allen will likely see time when the Aggies take commanding leads in some of their nonconference games but Sumlin wants his quarterbacks to operate from a place of confidence and not looking over their shoulder. Sumlin has a long list of great college quarterbacks he has been around that reinforces that belief. The Aggies open with the Gamecocks but games against FCS foe Lamar, Rice and SMU follow so don't expect a quick trigger on Hill. The sophomore will get an opportunity to establish himself. Will the competition continue? Sure. But don't expect a revolving door here. Allen is staying confident, posting on Twitter "Don't count me out yet."

2. Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the starting quarterback job is not yet situated. After a scrimmage Saturday, Alabama coach Nick Saban said that Blake Sims is "playing a little faster right now" than transfer Jacob Coker. As a fifth-year senior who has been in the Crimson Tide's system compared to Coker, who just arrived this summer, that's understandable. But with the season opener approaching, eyes begin to zero in on every twist and turn of the race. Saban declined to disclose his two quarterbacks' statistics from the scrimmage and made it clear that the coaching staff is not going to make a decision until "someone clearly wins the job." That's the right approach. It's beneficial to establish some kind of deadline so that when game week arrives, your starter is taking the first-team snaps and you're not splitting reps and allow your starter to develop a rhythm, but if it's still pretty close taking more time makes sense.

3. Arkansas held an open-to-the-public scrimmage on Saturday and there was plenty to take away, from the performance of quarterback Brandon Allen, the establishment of a backup (Austin Allen), a big day for Korliss Marshall and a glimpse of freshman receiver Jojo Robinson's ability. But perhaps the most entertaining bit came before the scrimmage, when Bielema grabbed the microphone and reminded the crowd not to video record the practice. "If you see someone videotaping, tell them that ain't right," Bielema said. "Especially if they're wearing an Auburn shirt, knock the s--- out of them." Of course, the Razorbacks open the season against Auburn and Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn have some differing opinions, but there's nothing wrong with a little good fun in the form of a joke to get your home crowd fired up.

More from around the SEC:
Tweets of the weekend

SEC morning links

August, 14, 2014
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1. If you think Nick Saban is leaving Alabama for the NFL, don't hold your breath. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told AL.com recently that Saban's next stop will be TV, maybe even adjacent to him on the set of ESPN. Saban is no stranger to the camera. He's been on College GameDay countless times, and he served as a guest analyst for ESPN during last year's BCS national championship coverage. That got me thinking. What other SEC coaches would be good on TV? The first one that comes to mind is the always-entertaining Les Miles. If he had his own show, people would watch. I also think Steve Spurrier would be fantastic as an analyst because of his candor. He was great on set with Saban during ESPN's recent carwash. Will Muschamp could provide that fiery on-air personality, and Dan Mullen could be fun, too.

2. Speaking of SEC coaches, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was the latest to take the ice bucket challenge. He and his entire team had ice water dumped on their heads Wednesday to help raise awareness for ALS, a disease that took the life of Adam Deacon's mother. Deacon is a junior offensive lineman at Arkansas. Afterward, Bielema and his team challenged athletic director Jeff Long, ESPN personalities Paul Finebaum and Joe Tessitore, and college football teams across the nation to complete the challenge and donate to the ALS association. Earlier this week, NHL player Paul Bissonnette took the ice bucket challenge to new heights, literally.

3. We're nearly two weeks into fall camp, and it's about that time when coaches start making decisions on key position battles. At Tennessee, it sounds like Butch Jones might be on the verge of naming his starting quarterback. The candidates include senior Justin Worley and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. All three started at least one game last year, and all three have shown progress through the early stages of fall camp. Across the state, Derek Mason is in no hurry to name his starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, but the competition was cut in half this week. Only three signal callers remain.

Tweet of the day

 

More around the SEC

 
Last year, the SEC welcomed four first-year coaches to the league. They were four fresh faces who had each taken a unique road to get there. Some enjoyed tremendous success right off the bat while others endured a much more difficult struggle in Year 1. But ultimately, it proved to be a learning experience for all four rookie coaches.

Now, as they embark on Year 2, they’re all at different places in their respective programs, and their messages reflect that.

Better in Year 2

Gus Malzahn had an advantage when he arrived at Auburn -- he had been there before. Malzahn spent three years as offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011, so he was familiar with some of the players, the administrators and even the fans.

It showed because the transition from coordinator to head coach was seamless. Malzahn helped orchestrate one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, taking a 3-9 team the year before and winning 12 games plus an SEC championship. The Tigers came within 13 seconds of winning their second national championship in four years.

Despite how successful his first year was on the field, Malzahn learned that off the field there were a lot of things that go into being a head coach in the SEC -- things that have nothing to do with football in some cases.

The returning Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year believes he’s better prepared for Year 2 and his goal is improve on Year 1, both on and off the field.

“It definitely helps that you’ve been through it a year and you understand it better,” Malzahn said. “And like anything else, you do something once you know the challenge is being better at it the second time.”

The power of one

Butch Jones didn’t have the same success as Malzahn in his first year at Tennessee, but when asked about the biggest difference between Year 1 and Year 2, he too talked about the familiarity that he now has with the league and his team.

“I know exactly where we’re at in our football program,” Jones said. “Our improvements that need to be made, understanding the league even that much more -- the dynamics of it, the daily grind of going through an SEC season.

“I know much more about the lay of the land and where we’re at in terms of the hierarchy in the conference, in recruiting, on the field, off the field, so much more in just one year.”

Similar to Malzahn, Jones has a new challenge ahead of him albeit a much bigger one. Tennessee lost its entire offensive and defensive lines, and nearly 50 percent of this year’s players will be going through their first college football season.

The goal last year was to play in a bowl game, and at 5-7, the Volunteers came up just short. This year, the goal is simply “the power of one.”

“With us being as youthful as we are, we have to focus on each moment, one practice, one day at a time, one snap at a time,” Jones said. “We can never get ahead of ourselves. That’s going to be the challenge.”

Don’t flinch

Bret Bielema is a Big Ten guy. He was born and raised in Illinois, he played at Iowa, and he spent seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach. That’s what made it so surprising when he left the Badgers for a job in the SEC at Arkansas.

Nevertheless, Bielema wanted to bring that power, smash-mouth style to the SEC. The only problem is that the SEC wasn’t having it. The Razorbacks lost nine consecutive games to finish the season and failed to win a conference game for the first time since joining the league in 1992. It didn’t help that his counterpart Malzahn, an Arkansas native who butted heads with Bielema at times, enjoyed the success that he did on the Plains.

Don’t look for Bielema to start implementing his own hurry-up, no-huddle offense this season, though.

“I think the biggest thing I took away, especially after the season, is you have to be true to who you are, what you've been,” Bielema said. “Don't flinch. There's a lot of times there's some teams that go through some adversity, you know, for sure a team that doesn't win a game in their conference, they're going to change out philosophy, got a new idea, new this, new that. I believe you have to do what you do better.”

Never look back

Before Mark Stoops arrived, Kentucky went 2-10 and lost every SEC game by an average of 25 points. The cupboard was essentially bare. The fans were too busy waiting on basketball season to show up for the football games. It wasn’t a good situation.

In Stoops’ first year, the results on the field were no different as the Wildcats finished 2-10 for the second straight season and failed to win a conference game for the second straight season. However, the players’ attitude was different -- they showed fight -- and the second-year coach believes you’ll see more of that this coming season.

“We showed signs of it last year, and I know everybody at Kentucky appreciates that -- being scrappy, being tough, playing with that great passion, playing with that great energy,” Stoops told Kentucky Sports Radio last week. “This year’s team is going to have that, and we’re going to never look back.”

Stoops doesn’t want his team looking back at last season. He certainly doesn’t want them looking back at what happened two years ago. He wants them focused on the present, and it starts Aug. 30 with a home game against UT-Martin.

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