SEC: Cam Robinson

The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.

But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Todd Bennett/Getty ImagesMissouri center Evan Boehm has been providing a lift to the Tigers for years.

You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.

With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:

Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.

Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.

Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.

Five more to watch:

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It took 2 minutes for reality to sink in. After Nick Saban professed his excitement for spring camp beginning and touched on the idea of the next 14 practices providing a "snapshot" of where the team is, he had to turn his attention to personnel.

Cornerback Cyrus Jones was out with a hip injury.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoAlabama coach Nick Saban says he's unsure at the start of spring practice whether returning QB Jake Coker will be the starter heading into the season.

Linebacker Denzel Devall was sidelined after having an operation on his foot.

Running back Tyren Jones was still suspended for undisclosed reasons.

Offensive lineman Grant Hill, meanwhile, was on "medical leave."

There was good news, of course. Kenyan Drake, one of the offense's most explosive weapons at tailback, was back on the practice field after breaking his leg last year and had recently run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Saban said. But with two starters on defense sidelined until fall practice, one hopeful starter on the offensive line under a cloud of health concerns and the team's fourth-leading rusher in the dog house, the biggest takeaway from the start of spring camp was just how different everything looked.

On offense, the team's leading passer (Blake Sims), leading receiver (Amari Cooper) and leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon) were are all gone. On defense it was more of the same with three of the top four tacklers (Landon Collins, Trey DePriest and Nick Perry) off preparing for the NFL draft.

In a statement that should reverberate over the next few weeks of practice and on into the offseason, Saban said, "Any time you lose experienced players it's a work in progress to try and replace them."

Patience with the QBs

Before the start of spring practice last year, Saban warned reporters.

"You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game, who's the first-team quarterback," he said, "and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.'"

Ready for more of the same? You should be.

Saban all but scoffed at the notion of evaluating the progress of freshman and former five-star prospect Blake Barnett, noting how, "Like all freshmen, they all have a lot to learn." And to hit both ends of the spectrum, Saban wasn't up for judging the difference in former Florida State transfer Jake Coker either.

"We only had one practice and you guys act like we've been practicing illegally everyday in the offseason," Saban said.

He later said of Coker: "Obviously when he started last year it was a whole new offense to him, everyone was ahead of him and right now I feel like right now he's a lot more comfortable and confident with what we're doing."

Whether it's Coker, Barnett or another QB on the roster, what Saban wants from the starter is clear.

"I want to see what every coach would want to see and what every fan would want to see and everyone sitting in this room would want to see, is that the guy can go in and provide leadership for our team, make good choices and decisions about what he has to do to play winning football as his position," he said.

Retooling the offensive line

Hill's absence lessens the pool of O-line candidates by one, but the battle to replace Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown at guard and Austin Shepherd at right tackle is still quite competitive.

On Friday, Saban mentioned Dominick Jackson and Bradley Bozeman, who appeared in a combined 16 games last season, as potential replacements. He also singled out redshirt junior Alphonse Taylor and Brandon Greene, who had spent time at tight end last season but was back with the linemen this spring.

"Having Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson back certainly is very, very helpful," Saban said. "I think every player out there is going to get an opportunity.

"[Ross] Pierschbacher was redshirted last year. He's a guy that we had high hopes for."

SEC pre-spring position rankings: OL

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
10:30
AM ET
The SEC is still won in the trenches so the teams with good offensive line play will likely do well for themselves. As we look ahead to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest up front? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season arrives, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.

2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.

3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.

4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.

6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.

7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.

11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.

12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
Four consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes Insider. Arguably the best head coach in the country. And a schedule that's manageable by most any standard.

For Alabama, the baseline is New Year's. With everything already going right for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, there are no excuses not to make one of those top six games. Read more from this series here.

Even with a giant question mark at quarterback, the offense should be fine. Derrick Henry (6-3, 240 pounds) will be among the biggest and most intimidating feature backs in America, and he'll have the benefit of the lightning quick Kenyan Drake to spell him off the bench. Pick a couple blue-chip receivers from the cupboard, throw in a senior center (Ryan Kelly), a franchise left tackle (Cam Robinson) and the return of X's and O's aficionado Lane Kiffin, and you're looking at a solid recipe for success.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDespite some questions at the quarterback position, Alabama's offense should still take off with the likes of Derrick Henry in the backfield.
Sure, the defense needs to pick up the slack after surrendering an average of 33 points and 493 yards in its final three games, but that porous finish should only serve as motivation through a long offseason. The defensive line, led by standouts A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, is poised be the best in the SEC. Losing Trey DePriest's experience at middle linebacker hurts, but getting Reggie Ragland back might actually to be an upgrade in terms of athleticism. And while the back end is shaky without Landon Collins, there are plenty of four- and five-star prospects at defensive back to fill the gaps.

But the biggest help to the defense and its ever-important battle for field position could be punter J.K. Scott, who routinely booms the football with his pendulum-like leg.

Outside of personnel, though, maybe the most compelling case for Alabama making a New Year's Six bowl is its schedule. While we don't want to venture into the territory of counting wins in February, it's worth noting that the Tide get Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. And while opening against Wisconsin in Dallas, might appear like a tall task, don't forget the Badgers have a new coach and are now without their best player in Melvin Gordon.

So with so much going in its favor, it's really not as simple as reaching next year's Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or Chick-fil-A bowls for Alabama.

If anything, the mantra continues to be what it's always been: playoff or bust.

What could go wrong

Blake Sims was a nice story. The way the former running back came out of nowhere to win the starting job at quarterback as a fifth-year senior last season was an excellent story, in fact.

But you can't bank on a Blake Sims fairytale happening every year. And if we're looking at it with a critical eye, doesn't Sims winning the job reveal some flaws in the other QBs on the roster? It wasn't as if Sims had a particularly strong or accurate arm, remember?

So why did Jake Coker not beat him out? What about Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or David Cornwell, for that matter? If they weren't good enough then, what makes us believe they'll be good enough now? The only thing that's changed since then is time and the addition of early enrollee Blake Barnett.

If experience doesn't dramatically improve the quality of Alabama's QBs or Barnett doesn't prove to be a rare exception as a rookie, the offense could be in shaky hands.

But even if you set that aside and assume the QB position will be fine, how confident should you be in the defense's ability to make stops? Because while the line is in good shape and the linebacking corps should to be fine, there's not a lot to feel good about when it comes to the secondary.

While there's plenty of talent to draw upon at DB, the same was true last season and it didn't exactly work out. Outside of cornerback Cyrus Jones, good luck figuring out who starts in 2015. Do you put a shaky Eddie Jackson back at corner? Do you bank on Tony Brown's improvement as a sophomore? Or does Marlon Humphrey come in as a redshirt freshman and set the world on fire?

Another year in the system might give guys such as Hootie Jones, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith the experience to become impact players, but that's not a sure thing. We might drool over the signing of Kendall Sheffield, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson, but expecting contributions from true freshmen in Saban's complex system is a lot to ask.

If someone doesn't step up in the secondary and a quality QB doesn't emerge, Alabama could be in trouble.

Overreacting in the SEC

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
10:30
AM ET
Our world is full of overreactions. The slightest flap of a butterfly's wings has us all in a tizzy.

That's why we were so quick to jump on Texas A&M as a title contender after Week 1. That's why the SEC was thrashed after going 7-5 in bowl season. It's a never-ending cycle of instant hyperbole, and it usually comes back to haunt us.

The 2014 SEC season certainly didn't lack overreaction during an exciting year, and here are some of the major ones we got wrong:

The Magnolia State takeover

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanA promising start for Bo Wallace and Ole Miss fell apart with consecutive losses to LSU and Auburn.
After Mississippi State and Ole Miss beat Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, at home on the same day, the state of college football resided in the 20th state admitted to the Union. The Bulldogs thrashed A&M 48-31, and Ole Miss topped Alabama 23-17 at home and watched the Grove overflow onto the field inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. The schools then tied for third in the Associated Press Poll, and Mississippi State would eventually rank No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

All was good in Mississippi until Ole Miss lost an ugly one at LSU and a heartbreaker at home to Auburn in consecutive weeks. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the season at Alabama. The regular season culminated with neither Mississippi team in the SEC title game after the Rebels were blown out at Arkansas 30-0, then eliminated Mississippi State from the race with a 31-17 win at home.

Bowl season erased any remnants of that magical Magnolia run, as Ole Miss was demolished 42-3 by TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and Mississippi State surrendered 452 rushing yards in a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Kenny Thrill for Heisman

After a record-setting 511-yard passing debut by Kenny Hill in Texas A&M's 52-28 drubbing of South Carolina in Columbia, we all thought we were seeing another College Station Heisman winner. And he just kept bringing us back in with more jaw-dropping performances. By the start of October, Hill had thrown for 1,745 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also had a QBR that didn't dip below 91.5 at any point during the Aggies' 5-0 start, which pushed them to No. 6 in the country -- another thing that caused us to overreact.

Then the meat of the SEC season arrived, and the Thrill was gone. During three straight blowout losses, Hill turned it over seven times with just six touchdowns. After a disastrous 59-0 loss at Alabama, Hill was benched for freshman Kyle Allen and would never see the field again. He dealt with a suspension and decided to transfer from A&M after the season.

South Carolina's East run

We in the media picked South Carolina and Steve Spurrier to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. After opening night, that prediction imploded. Despite sporting a record-setting offense, the defense was atrocious, ranking 13th in the SEC (432.7 yards allowed per game). South Carolina surrendered 36.8 points per game in SEC play; made choking in the fourth quarter with double-digit leads an art; and finished the season 7-6 (3-5, SEC). Not exactly title-worthy.

The SEC West

The SEC West took a lot of heat for its embarrassing 2-5 bowl record. Arkansas and Texas A&M -- the only winners -- were ashamed of their division mates, and the 5-0 SEC East was left smiling after being lambasted for most of the season. Chants of "overrated" rained down around the SEC, especially after No. 1 Alabama was left out of the national title game after losing to Ohio State -- the eventual champion -- in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. All that talk of how great the West was during the season went out the window because of its bowl showing. Is the SEC still the deepest conference? Yes, but when your star attraction (the West) fails to show up against everyone else, it's hard to call it the best division ever. It's hard not to at least listen to some of those "overrated" chants. It puts a damper on such an exciting regular season from that side of the conference. And I don't buy the excuse that the division was beaten up from the regular season.

Save it. A few teams played better opponents, and others just fell flat at the worst time.

The conference certainly isn't in ruins now, but the gap between the SEC and the rest of the nation is closing.

Some early overreactions for 2015

Alabama's run of dominance is over

You never quite got the feeling that you were looking at a dominant Alabama team in 2014, and Ohio State's 42-35 College Football Playoff Semifinal win against the Crimson Tide supported those feelings. The Tide was the No. 1 team in the country, but couldn't make it to the final game. Now, Alabama loses a lot of what pushed the team to a No. 1 ranking. Only two starters -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- return on offense, and four very valuable defensive starters are gone, including safety Landon Collins and linebacker Trey DePriest. Plus, two defensive coaches left.

Are we seeing the demise of the Tide? Heck, no! Don't throw dirt on Nick Saban and his squad just yet. The Tide will rebuild on offense, still has some young talent to work with, and running back Derrick Henry might as well have been a starter last season. The defense has some work to do, yes, but if you think Saban is going to let his program leave the realm of relevance, you are greatly mistaken.

Steve Spurrier is done

From three straight 11-win seasons to a disappointing 7-6, the Head Ball Coach has seen better days. Rumors swirled about his possible retirement, but Spurrier will return in 2015, and like Saban, he is not one to just let his program fall apart. The defense will be older in 2015, and you better believe that Spurrier will be coaching with a chip on his shoulder this fall. Will the Gamecocks win the East? Not gonna put money on it, but Spurrier will make his squad much more competitive in 2015.

Will Muschamp will turn Auburn's defense around

Regardless of what you think of Will Muschamp's head-coaching job at Florida, he's an excellent defensive mind. And his hiring as Auburn's defensive coordinator has the Plains all abuzz with the thought of an SEC and playoff run with only three starters departing on the defensive side. But not so fast, Auburn fans. Can Muschamp have the same sort of success Lane Kiffin did in his first year at Alabama? Kiffin wasn't exactly working with an inept offense when he arrived. Muschamp must turn around one of the SEC's worst defensive units. I'm not saying Auburn won't challenge for the West, but let's be careful immediately crowning the Tigers this early.

Nick Chubb for Heisman

Yeah, he's the best running back returning in the SEC and should be one of the nation's best ... again ... but come on, this a quarterback award.

Teams to watch in the 2015 SEC race

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
12:00
PM ET
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

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

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

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

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

EAST

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

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

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

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

WEST

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

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

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

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.
With all due respect to the quarterbacks and other skill position players, the Allstate Sugar Bowl will ultimately come down to who wins the battle of the trenches.

If Ohio State can’t protect Cardale Jones, his youth will show.

If Alabama can’t give Blake Sims a clean pocket, he could struggle, too.

So which team has the edge in the battle of offensive line versus defensive line? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough preview the matchup.

 Alabama OL: This isn’t the Alabama offensive line of two years ago, the one that consistently moved the line of scrimmage four and five yards ahead with each snap. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker have long since left the building. But while this season’s group hasn’t met that lofty standard, it has exceeded the nationally average. Just look at the past four games when the line surrendered only four sacks. And that was with a less-than-100-percent Cam Robinson at left tackle, who should be healthy again after a few weeks of rest. Robinson is still a true freshman, though, and starting right guard Leon Brown has been inconsistent, drawing penalties at some inopportune moments. -- Scarborough

Ohio State DL: The Buckeyes might not have lived up to the preseason hype as the best unit in the nation after losing star defensive end Noah Spence for the entire season (second failed drug test), but they’re pretty close. With three more surefire, high-round draft picks in the starting lineup, including perhaps the most disruptive pass-rusher in the country in sophomore Joey Bosa, there’s still no shortage of talent up front. Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington make life miserable on the inside, and Bosa has shown signs of becoming a more complete, even more frightening defensive end late in his second year with the program. -- Ward

Advantage: It’s awfully close, but give the slight edge to Ohio State, which might have the best lineman on the field in Bosa.

 Ohio State OL: There was plenty of growing up to do for an offensive line that was replacing four starters while also moving the only veteran with first-team experience to a new position. But the Buckeyes zipped through the learning curve. The unit is virtually unrecognizable at this point when compared to the one that struggled mightily in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. Left tackle Taylor Decker emerged as a cornerstone for Ohio State. He has both on-field ability and is a respected leader who helped usher those new starters through a rough patch and into players capable of keeping the highest-scoring attack in the Big Ten rolling. -- Ward

Alabama DL: Everyone who watched this team closely and followed its recruiting exploits over the past few years knew that this promised to be one of the most deep and talented D-lines in Nick Saban’s time at Alabama. Saban, of course, scoffed at the idea, and for the first few weeks of the season he looked to be right as the unit largely underperformed. But somewhere along the way things kicked it into gear. A'Shawn Robinson returned to his freshman All-American form, anchoring the interior of the line, and Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and others pitched in at defensive end. Throw in hybrid end/linebackers Ryan Anderson and Xavier Dickson, and Alabama has a wealth of options to rush the passer. -- Scarborough

Advantage: Another close call with both units steadily improving throughout the year, but we’ll give the nod to Alabama’s depth and ability to roll in fresh linemen.

Alabama-Missouri primer

December, 5, 2014
12/05/14
10:00
AM ET
On Oct. 11, it didn't look like either Alabama or Missouri would be playing in the SEC championship game. Alabama, who lost to Ole Miss the week before, escaped with a 14-13 win at Arkansas that wasn't pretty. Earlier in the day, Missouri played even worse. The Tigers were blown out at home by Georgia just weeks after a home loss to Indiana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC playoff tracker: Nov. 26

November, 26, 2014
11/26/14
9:00
AM ET
For the first time all season, there was no movement among the top four teams in this week's College Football Playoff rankings. In fact, the only movement in the top 10 was Ole Miss plummeting from No. 8 to No. 19 after its loss to Arkansas last Saturday. It's no surprise the Rebels also dropped out of this week’s playoff tracker.

Here's a look at where the three remaining SEC playoff contenders stand heading into the final week of the regular season:

Alabama
Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Saturday versus No. 15 Auburn

Reason for optimism: It all comes down to this. Beat Auburn this weekend and Alabama wins the West, has a shot at the conference title and a trip to the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide should be heavy favorites, too, seeing as Auburn has hit the skids ever since beating Ole Miss in dramatic fashion.

Cause for concern: Could last weekend's game against Western Carolina have gone any worse? Alabama started sluggish and saw a number of starters sidelined with injuries, the most alarming of which were Amari Cooper and Cam Robinson. Both should be fine for Auburn, but it would have been better to escape Western Carolina without the bruises.

Who they'll be rooting for: Missouri over Arkansas. It's hard to believe Alabama would rather see Georgia than Missouri in the SEC championship game.

-- Alex Scarborough

Mississippi State
Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Saturday at No. 19 Ole Miss

Reason for optimism: Saturday's Egg Bowl looked like a much tougher challenge for Mississippi State before Ole Miss absorbed a 30-0 beating from Arkansas last weekend. This probably won't be a cakewalk, but Ole Miss has to be demoralized because of the way things have gone downhill over the past month.

Cause for concern: The home team typically dominates in the Egg Bowl. And even if State wins, numerous teams can claim conference titles and possibly jump the Bulldogs in the playoff rankings. Remember, though, that State can still play for an SEC title if it wins Saturday and Alabama loses to Auburn. An unlikely outcome, but still a possibility.

Who they'll be rooting for this week: Auburn over Alabama, Texas over TCU, Michigan over Ohio State, Texas Tech over Baylor

-- David Ching

Georgia
Record: 9-2 (6-2 SEC)
Rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Saturday versus No. 16 Georgia Tech

Reason for optimism: Georgia is a double-digit favorite over Georgia Tech on Saturday, but a win over the rival Yellow Jackets will still impress the committee. It would be the Bulldogs' fourth win over a Top 25 opponent, and right now they need all the help they can get. A win Saturday and a win in the SEC title game should give them a shot.

Cause for concern: There's no guarantee Georgia will even play for the SEC championship. The Bulldogs need Missouri to lose to Arkansas first before they can book their trip to Atlanta next weekend. And even if everything falls in place, they're still not a lock for the playoff. They probably need at least one of the one-loss teams in front of them to go down.

Who they'll be rooting for this week: Arkansas over Missouri. The SEC East is on the line. Georgia has done its part. Now it's up to the Razorbacks to provide an assist.

-- Greg Ostendorf
Dan MullenAP Photo/Jim LytleDan Mullen and Mississippi State have been building toward the matchup with Alabama for weeks.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen twisted and squirmed to remove his wireless mic as he walked off the field on Saturday night.

"Load 'em up," he told his wife the moment his postgame TV show had ended.

No. 1 Mississippi State had just throttled UT Martin, 45-16, and the Bulldogs’ head coach was eager to get his family home and unwind in front of the TV.

His job was done. Now he could relax and watch someone else struggle.

Because there on the screen waiting for him was Alabama-LSU. What Mullen saw during that four-hour slugfest had to make him smile. All the hits. All the collisions. All the wear and tear next week’s opponent, Alabama, took as it eked out a 7-point win in overtime.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Against UT Martin, Mullen was able to pull quarterback Dak Prescott in the third quarter and told Josh Robinson to take it easy after just six carries. He didn’t bother making Jameon Lewis or Justin Malone practice, because they were dinged up and he wanted them 100 percent for the following week, he said.

Against LSU, Nick Saban had no such luxury. Quarterback Blake Sims struggled to less than 50 percent passing and running back T.J. Yeldon aggravated an ankle injury. Reggie Ragland played through a broken hand and Cam Robinson worked on an ankle that was supposed to take a week or two longer to heal.

While Alabama laid it all on the line, Mississippi State was able to relax and lie in wait.

Prior to Saturday, Bulldogs defensive linemen Ryan Brown reached out to a friend who plays center for LSU. His message: "Bang them up so my boy Dak can get a couple extra yards."

Building toward Alabama game

For Mississippi State, everything has led to this.

"These are young kids, so you know in the back of their mind what they’re thinking," Mullen said, "and they’re thinking about next week’s game."

It wasn’t just the players, though. When you’re on top of the polls, everyone looks ahead.

After beating three straight ranked teams to climb to No. 1, Mississippi State took a step back and played unranked Kentucky, unranked Arkansas and FCS opponent UT Martin. So naturally it wasn’t about any of those games; it was about top-10 Alabama on the horizon.

In fact, the first question Mullen faced after beating UT Martin was about turning the page to the Crimson Tide.

He saw it coming. As the question was delivered, he pursed his lips and exhaled audibly.

"Absolutely," he said. "Bigtime game this week. This is what you play for. That’s what we want our program to be like, competing in these big games late in the season."

Ever a wet blanket of praise, Mullen insisted that, "So far, it’s pretty cool" being undefeated and ranked No. 1, but, "We still haven’t achieved all that much."

For the first time in school history, State is 9-0.

To get there, Mullen has had to clear a lot of hurdles. For one, he had to beat a ranked opponent, which he had done just twice in 23 opportunities coming into the season. So he took down three in a row, starting with LSU, which he had never beaten as a head coach.

Now he gets to try and beat Alabama, which would be another first during his tenure.

"I’d like to just make sure we do our job, win the game and go win the West, and not back into it or anything like that," Mullen said.

SEC West crown up for grabs

But can you put too much into playing Alabama?

After all, even if State loses the game it can still win the division.

The answer, Mullen said, is both yes and no.

"No, they’re going to be hyped for that game," he said before changing directions. "There’s about mathematically probably 50 different scenarios that can still happen in the SEC West. One game isn’t going to make or break or decide the season."

Though that’s technically true, the fact is that the team that wins Saturday controls its playoff destiny.

That thought has to be exciting for Mississippi State’s players, which might explain why some embraced the enormity of the matchup while others did their best to downplay the meaning.

Receivers Joe Morrow and Fred Brown weren’t exactly on the same page.

Morrow, for one, was nonchalant, saying it would "be a fun game" and "we just have to keep playing ball."

"I’m not really worried about it," he said. "I just want to keep winning."

Brown, meanwhile, said the trip to Alabama was "everything."

"We have Bama coming up," he said, "so we’re all-in this week."

Ryan Brown, the defensive lineman who asked for LSU’s help wearing down Alabama, said, "I have jitters even thinking about it."

Even so, he was careful not to get too excited.

"There is a point of being too high for a game and too amped up," he said. "But we try to stay focused and level-headed."

Taking their cue from Prescott, their quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful, the team seems to be keeping its cool for the most part.

Maybe they are not used to it yet.

For three weeks State has been ranked No. 1, but as Prescott said, "I don’t think we actually get to wear it."

Maybe a win against perennial powerhouse Alabama would change that.

"It means everything," Prescott said of the game. "Playing big time games in November, that means you’re playing for championships.

"To go into [Tuscaloosa] and being the hunted going in there, that’s a challenge we’re willing to take."
On any given Saturday, you are bound to see a true freshman make a play. It is becoming the norm in college football, and the SEC is no different. LSU running back Leonard Fournette looks like he’s ready for the NFL right now and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is as good a pass-rusher as we’ve seen at that age since a kid named Clowney.

But playing early in the SEC isn’t all about talent. It’s about what position you play, too. Some positions are easier to make a quick transition from high school to college while others take years to adjust.

Here’s a position-by-position look at how easy or difficult it is for a true freshman to play in college (10 being the hardest, 1 being the easiest).

Quarterback
Degree of difficulty: 10
Name the last true freshmen quarterback to have success in the SEC. Exactly. Jeremy Johnson was pretty good for Auburn last season, but that was against Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. It’s more typical to see debuts similar to what LSU’s Brandon Harris or Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen had this season. Not only do you have to be able to make more accurate throws, but you have to grasp the offense and make quicker reads at the line of scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU's Leonard Fournette, a true freshman, is making his presence felt in the SEC.
Running back
Degree of difficulty: 3
This number might be higher if not for all the freshman running backs in the SEC who are making it look easy this season. Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb are the two that stand out, but Jalen Hurd has had a solid freshman season at Tennessee and Roc Thomas is beginning to make a bigger impact at Auburn. As long as you are strong enough and fast enough, and you protect the football, you can play running back in the SEC.

Wide receiver
Degree of difficulty: 4
Similar to running back, talent alone can get you on the field early as a wide receiver. There weren’t many like Julio Jones and A.J. Green, but both former SEC stars took the league by storm as freshmen in 2008. Now you’re seeing players like Speedy Noil, Malachi Dupre and Josh Malone step in and make an impact from day one. They might not all be polished, but they can all make plays.

Offensive line
Degree of difficulty: 9
It’s almost impossible for an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman. The game is faster, and you are facing players twice as big and five times stronger than you did in high school. It’s what makes Cam Robinson's season at Alabama that much more impressive. Until a recent ankle injury, Robinson had started every game for the Tide at left tackle, arguably the most important position on the offensive line, and he hasn’t missed a beat.

Defensive line
Degree of difficulty: 7
Defensive tackle? You can almost forget about it. But more and more pass-rushers are coming into the league and playing as freshmen. If you can get to the quarterback, you can play. Garrett is currently second in the SEC with 11 sacks. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is second in the league with 14 tackles for loss. The hardest part for a defensive lineman is to maintain that production for a whole season.

Linebacker
Degree of difficulty: 6
Outside linebacker can be similar to defensive end. The coaches will throw you out there on athleticism alone and expect you to make plays. Middle linebacker is a different story. They are typically the quarterback of the defense. They make the calls, which means they need to know the defense inside and out. That can be a lot for a true freshman who has only been on campus for maybe a couple months.

Defensive back
Degree of difficulty: 8
The difference between wide receiver and cornerback is that if you screw up as a wide receiver, the result is likely an incomplete pass. If you screw up as a cornerback, it could wind up being a touchdown for the other team. Coaches rarely trust true freshmen to play in the secondary, especially at cornerback. Safety can be a little easier to pick up, but a missed assignment or busted coverage could still end very poorly.
The stakes in the SEC and postseason races will be huge when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.

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

Quarterback

Alabama

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

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

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

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

Player to watch: Blake Sims

LSU

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

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

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

Player to watch: Anthony Jennings

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

Alabama

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

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

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

Player to watch: Derrick Henry

LSU

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

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

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

Player to watch: Leonard Fournette

Wide receiver/tight end

Alabama

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

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

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

Player to watch: Christion Jones

LSU

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

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

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

Player to watch: Travin Dural

Offensive line

Alabama

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

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

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

Player to watch: Grant Hill

LSU

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

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

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

Player to watch: Elliott Porter
Nick Saban, Gus MalzahnAP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Nick Saban, left, and Auburn's Gus Malzahn are on course for another big Iron Bowl clash.
As we welcome in the final month of the college football regular season, it’s worth keeping very close watch on two surging SEC squads: Alabama and Auburn.

Yes, for all the talk about the state of Mississippi -- and it sure has been fun to see the Magnolia State shine -- there is still a very good chance the SEC Western Division will be decided by the Iron Bowl in a couple of weeks.

With plenty of football left and a couple of tough road trips looming for both schools, this certainly isn’t a given, and it’s not like Mississippi State (the No. 1 team in the country) and two-loss Ole Miss are out of the hunt -- far from it. But there is just a feeling in the Southern air when it comes to Alabama and Auburn.

Both are starting to hit their stride, and with Auburn topping Ole Miss on Saturday and Mississippi State showing some weaknesses in the past two weeks, the Egg Bowl’s shine is starting to fade.

There is just something about Auburn. Notice anything familiar with how Auburn is starting to win games? Two weeks ago, the Tigers escaped with a wild win against South Carolina after a controversial final play in which refs missed that two Auburn players wore the No. 1 on the field at the same time.

Saturday, on a brisk night in Oxford, Mississippi, the Tigers won in the most 2013 way possible. There were clutch third-and-long conversions by Mr. Find A Way, quarterback Nick Marshall, that doomed Ole Miss’ defense, especially in the second half. Maybe no third down was bigger than Marshall’s 41-yard pass to D'haquille Williams on third-and-11 with the Tigers down 10 in the third quarter.

Immediately after that it appears Auburn got away with having 12 men on the field before scoring a touchdown three plays later.

Then came an excruciatingly unfortunate play for Ole Miss when star receiver Laquon Treadwell was awkwardly tackled just before the goal line and fumbled the ball into the end zone. What appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown with 1:30 left resulted in a turnover and the loss of Treadwell to a broken leg.

"Yeah, it was a big play," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. "Our guys find ways to win when it is close. Our guys truly believe they are going to win the game if it is close. They made plays defensively and offensively to win the game."

There is some luck in the air, but don’t think the Tigers aren’t good. Marshall is throwing the ball better than ever, and Auburn’s running game is back atop the rushing charts (277.5 yards per game). The offense has eclipsed the 500-yard mark four times this season, averaging 532 yards and 37.2 points per game in conference play (both league highs).

Right down the road, Alabama hasn’t been as glitzy as the Tigers, but the tough-nosed ball fans are accustomed to in Tuscaloosa appears to be returning. Alabama’s defense ranks fourth nationally in total yards (277.3), second in scoring (14.0) and has allowed a nation-low 12 touchdowns.

The offense, which actually ranks ahead of Auburn’s in the SEC, is churning out 508.9 yards per game and registered 1,071 yards and 93 points in the past two. Blake Sims is getting more comfortable under center, and Amari Cooper continues to be the country’s best receiver.

Nick Saban thrives in these situations. He understands the stakes and the planning needed. He won’t be bothered by a trip to LSU this weekend, or next week’s home date with Mississippi State, a team Alabama hasn't lost to since 2007. Alabama is favored against LSU, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Tide is favored next week against a Mississippi State team new to the limelight.

Alabama is a little beat up on offense, specifically with running back T.J. Yeldon and left tackle Cam Robinson hobbled, so that is worth keeping an eye on, but Alabama’s back is firmly against the wall when it comes to the SEC, and there is a ton of fight in an Alabama team that is growing closer and has been here before.

An early loss to Ole Miss hasn’t diminished the Tide’s season, just like that loss to Mississippi State hasn’t ended Auburn’s. It hinges on these next two weeks, but Alabama and Auburn appear to be on a collision course for an Iron Bowl that could be as big as last year’s.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 28, 2014
10/28/14
8:00
AM ET
Nick Saban took stock of the situation.

"A couple guys got ankles, toes, a sprained foot," he said.

Alabama's head coach did his best to downplay the severity of the injuries his team sustained during Saturday's 34-20 win over Tennessee, but listening to his postgame news conference it sounded like a laundry list of medical issues.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Brian Vogler, Cam Robinson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCam Robinson (74) and T.J. Yeldon (4) are among Alabama's injured players.
Moving down the roster, Saban reported that tight end Brian Vogler had a sprained left knee. T.J. Yeldon, who leads the team with 618 yards rushing, was banged up and missed much of the second half with a foot injury.

"I don't know that any of these things are significant," Saban said, "but I don't know how long they'll be out either."

While Alabama's trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, was filled with positive images -- Lane Kiffin grinning from ear to ear, Amari Cooper setting a school record for receiving yards, Reggie Ragland's continued ascension at linebacker -- it was also colored with concerning scenes as starting wideout Christion Jones hurt his hamstring during warm-ups and Landon Collins was sidelined with cramps. Seeing left tackle Cam Robinson go down with an apparent ankle injury in the third quarter sent shivers through the Crimson Tide's playoff hopes.

Saban said Robinson, a true freshman who has started since Day 1, will be out a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Leon Brown will kick out from guard to tackle and Bradley Bozeman will come off the bench to fill in for Brown. For an offensive line searching for consistency, attrition was the last thing it wanted to see.

But among the bandages and braces is some good news: Alabama has the week off. Head athletic trainer Jeff Allen gets extra time to work his magic.

The bye week couldn't have been scheduled any better for the third-ranked Crimson Tide as they prepare to travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to face No. 16 LSU on Nov. 8. Getting healthy for that annual SEC West rivalry game will be important as both teams are known for their physical style of play.

It will be all hands on deck, but it remains to be seen just who will be available. It's still unclear whether starting outside linebacker Denzel Devall will be cleared to play after missing the last few weeks recovering from a knee injury. Robinson will almost certainly be out and the timeline for Vogler and Yeldon is unclear.

A few weeks ago it looked as if Alabama's trip to LSU would be a breeze. The Tigers were 4-2 and unranked in the polls. But three consecutive wins later, including last weekend's upset of No. 3 Ole Miss, the outlook has changed considerably.

These young Tigers are getting better and more confident with each passing day.

Chances are the Tide will be favored when they head to Death Valley next Saturday, but that hinges on who makes the trip. If Saban's list of injured players doesn't shrink between now and then, Alabama could be in trouble.

SPONSORED HEADLINES