SEC: Chris Smith

Viewer's guide: AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December, 28, 2014
As we get closer to New Year’s Day the bowl games become more compelling, and that’s certainly the case with Monday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl between Texas A&M and West Virginia. It’s a matchup of two head coaches familiar with each other and two similar offenses, and it gives us a dose of Big 12 vs. SEC, which always is good for debate. Let’s break it down:

What’s at stake: In the 119-season history of Texas A&M football, the Aggies have never won four consecutive bowl games. They have the opportunity to do so here, seeking a fourth straight bowl win dating back to 2011. West Virginia is appearing in its third bowl game in four seasons under Dana Holgorsen and seeks its second bowl win in that span.

Players to watch: West Virginia receiver Kevin White is worth the price of admission. The senior is one of college football’s best receivers, ranking sixth in the nation in receptions (102) and seventh in receiving yards (1,318), with nine touchdowns. He shows a knack for making big-time, highlight-worthy plays. For Texas A&M, true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett has lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Aggies land. He finished the regular season tied for second in the SEC in sacks (11), which broke Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record, Garrett had 12.5 tackles for loss, and he has been a headache for opposing offensive tackles and quarterbacks.

Familiar faces: These head coaches know each other well. Kevin Sumlin’s first offensive coordinator hire as a head coach in Houston was Holgorsen in 2008. The two won 18 games together in two seasons before Holgorsen left for the same position at Oklahoma State. He took then-graduate assistant Jake Spavital with him from Houston to Stillwater and eventually to West Virginia before Sumlin tabbed Spavital to replace Kliff Kingsbury’s spot on the Texas A&M staff when Kingsbury left his offensive coordinator post for the head-coaching job at Texas Tech.

Similar attacks: Both teams operate in a one-back spread attack rooted in Air Raid principles. Each team scores a lot (West Virginia averages 33.2 points, Texas A&M 34.4) and throws quite a bit, too; the Mountaineers average 314.6 passing yards per game, while the Aggies average 306.4.

Trickett out: West Virginia starting quarterback Clint Trickett will miss the game, announcing last week that he is hanging up his cleats because of concussions he's suffered. Sophomore Skyler Howard will start at quarterback for the Mountaineers. In three games, including a start versus Iowa State, Howard has thrown for 483 yards and five touchdowns.

Record breaker: Texas A&M sophomore receiver Josh Reynolds has emerged as one of quarterback Kyle Allen’s favorite receivers, and even when Kenny Hill was starting, Reynolds was making things happen. The unheralded junior college recruit tied the single-season school record (held by Mike Evans and Jeff Fuller) with 12 receiving touchdowns. One more would put Reynolds at the top of the list, lofty status for someone who received little buzz when he enrolled at Texas A&M in January.

Coaching attrition: Texas A&M will be without three coaches that it ended the regular season with: defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson and receivers coach David Beaty. Snyder was fired the day after the Aggies’ season-ending loss to LSU; linebackers coach Mark Hagen will serve as the interim defensive coordinator for the Liberty Bowl. Beaty accepted the head-coaching position at Kansas, and earlier this month Sumlin announced that Anderson won’t return next season or coach in the bowl game. The Aggies will operate with two full-time offensive assistants (Jake Spavital and Clarence McKinney), while graduate assistant Chris Smith assists with the offensive line duties for the game. West Virginia will say goodbye to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson after the Liberty Bowl, as he will become Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, but Dawson will be with the Mountaineers’ staff working Monday’s game.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 9, 2014
Thursday night's draft was pretty entertaining, but let's not forget that the real entertainment starts next week when the greatest superhero ever returns!
Bobby Petrino. John L. Smith. Bret Bielema.

Willy Robinson. Paul Haynes. Chris Ash.

Defensive lineman Trey Flowers has seen too many coaches come and go in his four years at Arkansas, and that’s only counting his head coaches and defensive coordinators, forget his position coach.

[+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesTrey Flowers opted to return in 2014 despite the disappointment of going winless in the SEC.
Flowers was an SEC All-Freshman selection under Petrino and Robinson in 2011, built on that with a six-sack campaign under Smith and Haynes in 2012 and did so much under Bielema and Ash in 2013 that he earned a spot on the All-SEC team. The 6-foot-4, 267-pound end absolutely filled up the stat line last season with 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, an interception and two pass breakups.

And then Ash left for Ohio State. Bielema stayed, of course, but the hiring of Robb Smith marks Flowers’ fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons. He’ll also work with another new face in Rory Segrest, who takes over the defensive line from the departed Charlie Partridge.

Are you able to keep up?

A lack of continuity has been a major problem for Arkansas since Petrino took himself and the program down with that fateful late-night motorcycle ride prior to the 2012 season. Flowers, who has the talent to be considered among the best defensive ends in the SEC, has been lost in the muck of a 7-17 record the past two years.

“It was frustrating for me going winless in the SEC,” Flowers told ESPN of last season. “What was more frustrating was how close we were. It was only one or two plays in a couple of games -- LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn we played close.”

No one would have blamed Flowers for jumping ship prior to his senior year. A third-round grade in hand, he could have entered the NFL draft and left the constant turnover at Arkansas behind. But a personal visit from Bielema and knowing just how close the program was to turning the corner nagged at him. If he bailed now, he might have to watch from afar as the Razorbacks finally reached higher ground.

Bielema put on what he described as a “full-court press,” flying to Flowers’ hometown of Huntsville, Ala. Bielema talked about Montee Ball and other prospects he helped improve their stock while at Wisconsin, laid out a plan for Flowers moving forward and hoped he’d return.

Soon after the visit Flowers announced he was coming back.

“Obviously he wants to improve his draft status, but he also let it be known that he doesn’t want to be somewhere else and not see what’s going to happen at Arkansas through,” Bielema said. “As a head coach that means the world to me just because I know he’s a leader that’s seeing what we’re asking kids to do and wants to be a part of it.”

Said Flowers: “We’re capable of turning around this season and I just wanted to come help out.”

Flowers said he felt like he could help “instill an attitude and let them understand that, hey, we need to close. Just a little more work, a little more preparation, a little more focus and we can get there.”

Going winless in the SEC hurt. This spring, the team is moving past last year's losses while also using them as a source of motivation. A play here, a play there and the outcome could have been different, Flowers said. With a new defensive coordinator and a new position coach, he’s hoping that change will be for the better.

A new emphasis on playing fast, playing physical and creating turnovers could be just what the doctor ordered as Arkansas created the fewest turnovers in the SEC last season (14) and had the worst turnover ratio, to boot, with a minus-9 margin.

Ball disruption has been a major talking point this spring, Flowers said. And though he and the Razorbacks finished with a respectable 28 sacks (fourth in the SEC), they want more. Flowers put on double-digit pounds this offseason to improve his lower body strength, something he can feel in his first step off the line.

Bielema I know he's a leader that's seeing what we're asking kids to do and wants to be a part of it.

-- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema
Flowers isn’t setting any personal goals. He said that they “set limitations on myself and I’m just working hard to be the best.” With the likes of Jadeveon Clowney no longer wreaking havoc on the SEC, Flowers feels he could be the best defensive lineman in the league.

“Most definitely,” he said. “I want to be considered the best and set records all around the SEC and all around college football.”

How does he accomplish that? The same little things Arkansas must do to get better as a whole.

“It’s preparation. It’s focus. It’s determination. It’s all those things tied together,” Flowers said. “In the offseason I do my workouts and then I go home and do another workout. Then I watch film and watch more film. It’s all about doing more.

“My dad always told me, ‘If you do what you’ve always done you’re going to get what you’ve always got.’ If I do more than I’ve always done then the results will come two-fold back to me.”

It will be different for Flowers this season. His head coach will be the same for the first time in his career, but the defense will be much different. The coordinator has changed, his position coach has changes and so have the faces of many of his teammates. Former All-SEC teammate and defensive end Chris Smith is gone. When Flowers looks down the line he sees guys who are all younger than him.

Coaching up the youngsters and helping turn around a program might seem like a lot to some people, but not to Flowers.

“It’s not really pressure,” he said, “it’s motivation that I embrace that they’re watching me and looking for me to set the perfect example. I just go out there and every rep I have to play as hard as I can.”

Arkansas hires Robb Smith as DC

February, 10, 2014
Nearly a month after losing defensive coordinator Chris Ash to Ohio State, Arkansas found his replacement over the weekend in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach Robb Smith. Smith will coach Arkansas' secondary.

Before his stint with the Bucs, Smith served as Rutgers' defensive coordinator in 2012, helping to run a unit that ranked 10th nationally in total defense (311.6 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (14.2). Rutgers also ranked sixth nationally in rush defense (95.2) and tied for third in rushing touchdowns allowed (six).Equipped with a top-notch defense, the Scarlet Knights claimed their first conference title since 1961.

“I’ve been able to watch Robb Smith grow in the profession, and I know he’ll bring in an attacking defensive philosophy that is built specifically to stop offenses in the SEC,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said in a statement through the school. “Robb has been promoted time and time again at every place he’s been. With his background, he captivates a room no matter where he is and players gravitate towards him. He’s demonstrated an understanding of what it takes to build a team into a championship program.”

The arrival of Smith should be a welcomed one in Fayetteville. Last season, the Razorbacks surrendered nearly 500 yards per game in SEC play and a league-high 6.9 yards per play. Arkansas allowed 30.8 points per game and gave up an SEC-high 37.9 points per game in conference play. Also in league play, the Razorbacks gave up 253.9 passing yards per game and allowed 19 passing touchdowns and 9.3 yards per pass attempt with just four interceptions.

For the last three years, the Razorbacks have ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense and scoring defense. As Bielema looks to turn things around in Fayetteville, he knows he his defense has to improve. The Razorbacks' defense hasn't been consistently competitive for a while, and we all know you can't survive in the SEC without a defense.

This certainly won't be an overnight fix for Smith, who will begin his time at Arkansas without four senior starters, including defensive end Chris Smith, who led the team with 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. But his past success could help rejuvenate Arkansas' defense. Improvement has to come soon in Fayetteville, and a lot of that will fall on Smith's shoulders.

Season report card: Arkansas

January, 24, 2014
It's time to grade Arkansas' first season under coach Bret Bielema:


[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsIn his first season at Arkansas, Bret Bielema went 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC.
The offense never really got off the ground during Bielema's first season in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense (357.2 yards per game) 12th in scoring (20.7) and last in passing (148.5). Starting quarterback Brandon Allen never really looked comfortable as the Hogs' starter, and the offensive line struggled with consistency all season. The brightest spot was freshman running back Alex Collins, who finished the year ranking eighth in the conference with 1,026 yards, but had just four touchdowns.


There was certainly more life to Arkansas' defense than its offense in 2013. The Hogs had a talented defensive line, starting with senior Chris Smith (8.5 sacks), and finished the season with 28 sacks (2.3 per game). Arkansas, however, ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense (413.4 yards per game), scoring (30.8), rushing defense (178.4) and passing defense (235). Arkansas was last in the SEC with 14 takeaways (14) and allowed 22.2 first downs per game.


Kicker Zach Hocker capped off an impressive career with the Hogs making 13 of his 15 field-goal attempts (86.7 percent). He also had a long of 54 yards. Sam Irwin-Hill averaged 44.3 yards per punt, with 20 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and nine that went 50-plus yards. Arkansas allowed a league-high 13.2 yards per punt return and 24.3 yards on kickoffs. The Hogs averaged 21 yards on their own kickoffs.


This certainly wasn't the start that Bielema envisioned when he took the job at Arkansas, but the Hogs just weren't built on either side to properly adapt to his style. After winning their first three games of the season, the Hogs lost a school-record nine in a row to go 3-9 on the season and 0-8 in conference play. Arkansas was outscored by 117 points in its three games in the month of October. Though they didn't win down the stretch, the Hogs showed heart in their final three games, taking each game into the fourth quarter.

Past grades:


SEC lunchtime links

January, 20, 2014
After this weekend, all the underclassmen who wanted to go to the NFL are officially gone. Now begins the hectic final push in the recruiting season. Nick Saban did the electric slide, Lane Kiffin sang karaoke and that's just the nonsense going on at Alabama to impress recruits. Signing day is Feb. 5, so strap in tight because things could get really weird before it's all said and done.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:


QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia


DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State


PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

SEC lunchtime links

October, 31, 2013
There’s no time for trick-or-treating in the SEC as teams have just two days left to prepare for Saturday’s slate of games. However, feel free to take a look around the league in Thursday’s Halloween edition of the lunch links.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The sun was setting on Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and Bret Bielema stood at midfield holding a steaming cup of coffee in his hands. His team was warming up behind him, but Arkansas' burly head coach looked straight ahead at the defending champions with a kind of quiet focus, sipping caffeine as he took mental notes.

This was the team he wants to build in Fayetteville: big, talented, determined. Each movement had a purpose. Each drill was defined. The organization of it all is something. When Alabama takes the field, it oozes professionalism. There's no wasted movement, no amount of time unspent. Nick Saban runs a business and the return, more often than not, has yielded championships.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBret Bielema is 3-5 in his first season as Arkansas coach. The Razorbacks have a bye this week before playing No. 11 Auburn on Nov. 2.
Saturday's game against the top-ranked Crimson Tide started out about winning for Bielema and the Razorbacks, but it quickly became clear that an upset wasn't in the cards. Alabama dominated from the opening snap, taking the kickoff out to the 35-yard line before going on a 12-play, 68-yard drive that lasted 5:51 and ended with the easiest of touchdown passes from AJ McCarron to Jalston Fowler. Arkansas got the ball, went three-and-out and watched its punter boot the ball just 22 yards. Alabama took only five plays to score from the Arkansas 35-yard line. Its two-touchdown lead grew and grew until the Tide ran away with a 52-0 victory.

All Bielema could do was watch. There wasn't a call he could have made to change the outcome of the game. He stayed committed to the run with 31 carries to his top two tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- but neither broke the 100-yard mark and only four times did they rush the ball for 10 or more yards. When Brandon Allen did get a chance to throw the ball he had very little success, completing 7 of 25 passes for 91 yards and no touchdowns. His longest completion -- a 25-yard pass to Hunter Henry -- was followed up by an interception on the very next play. In fact, it was the very same play thrown to the very same receiver, only flipped and run out of shotgun instead of under center.

"Obviously, this is getting a little old," Bielema said, the first words of his postgame news conference ringing true on the heels of a 52-7 beat down against South Carolina a week earlier. "Nothing we did out there can give us any indication that the things we need to do are that far away. It's a long way to go. We are at a point where we have to look at ourselves offensively, defensively and special teams, all the things we are asking our kids to do."

The frustration in Bielema's voice was obvious. He came to Arkansas from Wisconsin hoping to compete sooner. But it was the same tune we heard less than a week earlier. Heading into the game, he sounded dejected. He sat at his Monday news conference, the steam of another warm cup of coffee rising near his face as he talked about how difficult the previous game's film was to get through. "I want to win now," he told reporters. "I want to win as soon as possible." But he didn't want to be a "Debbie Downer." He said that expecting history to repeat itself was an "easy, simple way of thinking."

"If you want to get out of this doldrum, if you want to move forward as a person, you take pride in what just happened."

Pride, though, seemed absent following the loss on the road to Alabama. There wasn't much for Bielema to rally around. His offense didn't have a positive play until 4:22 in the first quarter. His defense barely had a chance. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, who entered the game with 10 combined sacks, had none against the Alabama offensive line. Neither had a quarterback hurry. Alabama had two running backs gain more than 100 yards and neither was named T.J. Yeldon.

You've got to look toward the future. It's tough right now but we've got to keep working toward the future.

Running back Jonathan Williams on Arkansas' five-game losing streak.
Against Alabama, Arkansas showed its youth as much as its lack of talent. The Razorbacks, who haven't finished with a top-15 recruiting class once since 2006, had more first-year starters and underclassmen on the field Saturday than most teams in the SEC. Two of its offensive linemen were true freshmen. Its brightest young star on defense, defensive lineman Darius Philon, was a redshirt freshman Alabama tried to grayshirt coming out of high school.

"You've got to look toward the future," Williams said. "It's tough right now but we've got to keep working toward the future."

What that future is might be in doubt. For now, Arkansas is two games under .500 and winless in the SEC. Reaching a bowl game is unlikely. An infusion of young talent is desperately needed. Bielema's best player, center Travis Swanson, will be gone after the season, as will his best player on defense, Smith. Collins, who ranks in the top 20 nationally in rushing as a freshman, is someone to build around, but he can't do it alone.

"It's to that point where you have to understand where we are going with the guys that survive this," Bielema said. "The guys that move forward with us will be rewarded. I don't know if it is going to come the next game or if it will be in the next month from now, or a year from now, but it's going to take a leap of faith."

On Saturday, Bielema saw in person just how far that leap from rebuilding a program to playing competitive football will be.

From his spot at midfield before the game, he was only a few yards away from touching the finished product: Alabama, a program running on all cylinders. He took another sip of coffee and recorded another mental note, building on the blueprint in his head. When he finally turned around to see his own team, the distance to completion must have felt like miles away.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Dad read about it first before calling his son Monday morning to break the good news. Anthony Steen had been named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, and the Alabama veteran right guard was one of the last people to find out.

Steen, according to the release, had the top grade on the line against Kentucky with no missed assignments, no sacks, no pressures and no penalties. Over the phone, his dad told him he finally had the award he'd been waiting for.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Steen
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAnthony Steen was a quiet member of Alabama's star-studded offensive line in 2012. One year later, he's one of the Tide's veteran leaders.
"I was telling my dad I've been working, trying to get that for three years now and I'm glad I finally got it," Steen told reporters in a rare moment of self reflection, one that ended as quickly as it began. "As I told him, I'm not going to sit here and celebrate like he was trying to celebrate for me. I've got another SEC game this week to focus on."

Steen's focus has never wavered since signing with Alabama in 2009. The 6-foot-3, 309-pound senior will joke about being the forgotten man, but he doesn't dwell on it. Like most members of the top-ranked Crimson Tide, his attention is always on what's next. Frankly, it's what coach Nick Saban demands.

What's next for Alabama (6-0, 3-0) this week is Arkansas (3-4, 0-3), a team many wonder if the Tide will overlook. But not Steen. He's started some 30 games in his career at Alabama and in that time he's learned how to mimic his head coach's personality.

"For me, I know that they're an SEC team," Steen said. "If we want to beat them that bad we have to go out in the beginning and play our 'A' game. That's the bottom line. Because if we go out there and don't play our 'A' game then they're going to get it in their head that they have a chance. So we've got to go out there and be on top of things."

Last year we didn't hear much from Steen. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker garnered the lion's share of attention while Steen went to work with the same blue-collar attitude you'd expect of a lineman from rural Mississippi. He pitched the equivalent of 14 perfect games, according to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who said that Steen had no penalties and no sacks allowed all season. But he was never an All-SEC selection, an All-American candidate or even an SEC player of the week. Alabama's staff voted him player of the week just once.

To his teammates, though, his worth has always been evident. We're only now starting to see it play out on a larger stage.

Steen had to step up since last season, both as a leader as well as the face of the offense. Now that Jones, Warmack and Fluker are gone, Steen is the most experienced lineman on the roster. He and Kouandjio were the only two returning starters at the beginning of the season.

But in spite of the turnover, Alabama's line has steadily improved, shaking off the rust after so-so performances against Virginia Tech and Colorado State early in the season. Steen and Co. gave up just one tackle for loss and didn't allow a sack against Kentucky this past weekend. In the two games prior, the line surrendered only one sack of AJ McCarron.

"Unbelievable player," McCarron said of Steen. "Comes to work every day. You never see Steen in a negative mood, never bringing down on the practice field, which helps tremendously because your offensive line takes you as far as you want to go as an offense and a team. You can’t say enough about him. He does everything for us. He’s practiced at center for us with [Ryan] Kelly being out, and he’s done an excellent job of that, too. He really is a great teammate and an a great person to have on the field."

Saban, for his part, called Steen "the most consistent performer that we’ve had, probably, in the offensive line." How he anchors the group in the coming weeks will be vital to Alabama's success over the long haul.

Arkansas and its leading pass-rusher Chris Smith will challenge Alabama's line this Saturday. Then comes the biggest test of the them all on Nov. 9 when sixth-ranked LSU comes to Tuscaloosa.

"Anthony’s got a lot of experience," Saban said. "I think his leadership and his affect on the other people has been critical in the development of the offensive line. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s very confident in what he does. He’s played extremely well for us. I’m pleased and hopeful that he’ll continue to be able to stay healthy and do those things in the future."

Midseason report: Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

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

Defensive MVP: DE Chris Smith

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

Player of the week: SEC

October, 7, 2013
He and his team have flown largely under the radar this season, but Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is quietly putting together an impressive résumé.

With his three sacks in the Tigers' 51-28 thumping of Vanderbilt on Saturday, Sam jumped past some better-known players on the SEC's season sack list and tied Arkansas' Chris Smith for the league lead with six. Sam also claimed the SEC lead in tackles for a loss with 10, good for an average of two per game.

Two of Sam's sacks against the Commodores came on fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter, halting drives when Vandy was attempting to rally from a big early deficit.

It was actually Sam's second straight three-sack game. He recorded the trifecta a week earlier against Arkansas State and also forced a fumble in the Tigers' 41-19 win. The SEC named Sam as its defensive lineman of the week after each of his last two standout performances.

Fifteen players have recorded three sacks in a game this season across all of FBS football, but only Sam has done it twice thus far. He ranks fifth nationally with an average of 1.2 sacks per game and is sixth in tackles for a loss (2.0).

Sam will have his work cut out this week, however. After allowing Clemson to sack quarterback Aaron Murray four times in its opener, Georgia's offensive line has surrendered just three sacks since. With Sam leading the charge, Missouri ranks second in the SEC with 15 team sacks, so that will be one of the key matchups to watch in Saturday's game between the No. 7 Bulldogs (4-1, 3-0 SEC) and No. 25 Tigers (5-0, 1-0) in Athens.

Regardless, the fifth-year senior already has posted career highs for sacks and tackles for a loss through just five games, helping resurgent Missouri enter the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since early in the 2011 season. If Sam can help the Tigers keep it up on Saturday, his team will become one of the legitimate favorites to win the SEC East.

SEC Week 4: Did You Know?

September, 20, 2013
There aren't quite as many marquee games this weekend around the SEC, but we still have a couple of divisional rivalry games -- namely Tennessee-Florida and Auburn-LSU -- to look forward to, plus a couple of intriguing nonconference matchups. Let's take a look at some statistical notes from around the league with an assist from ESPN's Stats and Information group.
  • LSU's Zach Mettenberger was hardly a star-caliber quarterback last season, posting the third-lowest Total QBR (39.3) of all qualified quarterbacks in the SEC (50 is average on the 1-100 QBR scale). He's been anything but a failure through three games of his senior season, notching the biggest increase for any qualified FBS quarterback in the last two seasons. His 52.3-point increase this season gives him a 91.6 Total QBR that ranks eighth nationally. Missouri's James Franklin has posted the third-biggest increase, jumping 45.4 points to 84.2 (20th nationally).
  • Conversely, some of Florida's offensive woes can be attributed to quarterback Jeff Driskel, whose Total QBR inside an opponent's 20 (1.5) is the second lowest in the nation among quarterbacks with at least 10 action plays. Driskel is one of five qualified quarterbacks with more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one) inside the red zone. Florida's three turnovers against Miami were its most red zone turnovers in a game in the last 10 seasons. The Gators have already matched or exceeded their total of red zone turnovers from each of the past three seasons.
  • It's no secret that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wants his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to operate at an accelerated pace. The Tigers have already improved substantially over their snail's pace from a season ago, when they were the third-slowest offense in the nation with a play every 30 seconds. This season, Auburn is running a play every 23 seconds, which is 1 second faster than the FBS average. The Tigers are averaging 440.3 yards per game (135.3 more than last year, when they were last in the SEC), converting 42 percent on third down (11 percent better than last year, when they were last in the league) and scoring touchdowns on 24 percent of their drives (up 8 percent from last year's SEC-low percentage).
  • Despite last week's blowout loss at Oregon, Tennessee has enjoyed some success moving the ball on the ground. The Volunteers have gained 384 of their 733 rushing yards before contact and are averaging 2.8 yards before contact per carry. In Florida, the Vols face their toughest run defense test yet, however. The Gators have allowed 7 rushing yards before contact on 44 carries through two games.
  • Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's 562 yards of total offense last week against Alabama rank second in school and SEC history, trailing only his 576-yard performance last season against Louisiana Tech. Manziel is responsible for the top three total-offense games in league history.
  • Speaking of Manziel, last week's shootout against Alabama will certainly not be the last time the Aggies play in a high-scoring game. The next one could come this weekend when SMU visits College Station. SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert is third nationally in total offense (393.5 ypg), two slots ahead of Manziel (379).
  • A week after entering the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009, Ole Miss jumped from No. 25 to No. 21 after last weekend's win at Texas. The Rebels, who are idle this week, are 3-0 for the first time since 1989 with a visit to No. 1 Alabama coming next week.
  • Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is one touchdown pass away from becoming the second quarterback in SEC history to toss 100 in his college career. Murray is 15 away from Danny Wuerffel's career record of 114. He should catch up to former Georgia star David Greene's SEC passing yardage record of 11,528 yards soon, as well. Murray is 805 yards behind Greene with 10,723 in his career.
  • Both of this weekend's marquee SEC games rank among the top 10 closest head-to-head SEC series since 2000 (that have been played at least 10 times). The average margin of victory in Auburn-LSU in that time period is 12.38 points, with seven of those games being decided by nine points or less. Florida has held the advantage in recent years against Tennessee with eight straight wins, but the average margin of victory in that series since 2000 is just 12.54 points.
  • Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is approaching former Crimson Tide star Jay Barker's SEC career winning percentage record. Barker went 35-2-1 (93.4 percent) between 1991-94. McCarron can improve to 28-2 (93.3) if the Crimson Tide defeats Colorado State this weekend.
  • Quick, name the two SEC defenses that have allowed the fewest yards per game thus far. If you guessed Florida, you'd be correct. The Gators are third nationally with 208.5 yards allowed per game. The other team might be more of a surprise. Entering Saturday's game at Rutgers, Arkansas ranks sixth nationally by allowing 253 ypg.
  • Four players across the country have notched an FBS-high 4.5 sacks thus far. Two of them are from the SEC: Arkansas' Chris Smith and Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith, whose team is off this weekend.

SEC players of the week

September, 16, 2013
Here are the SEC players of the week as announced by the league Monday:

OFFENSIVE: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
  • Completed 20 of 29 passes for a career-high 334 yards with four touchdowns, which tied a career-best for McCarron. His 5-yard pass to Jalston Fowler with 2:28 to play put Alabama up 49-35 and proved to be game-winner.
  • He had touchdown passes of 22, 44 and 51 yards.
  • He's now second all time at Alabama for passing yardage (passing Brodie Croyle) with 6,400 yards.
DEFENSIVE: Ego Ferguson, DE, LSU
  • Led LSU with eight tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, in the 45-13 win over Kent State. The eight tackles set a career-high for the first-year starter.
  • Anchored an LSU defense that held Kent State to just 58 rushing yards and 248 total yards.
  • LSU held Kent State to 4 of 14 on third-down conversions and just 1.8 yards per rush.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jeff Scott, PR/RB, Ole Miss
  • Returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in Ole Miss' 44-23 victory at Texas.
  • Finished with a career-high 243 all-purpose yards, including a career-high 164 rushing yards and another touchdown.
  • The punt return score marked the second of his career.
  • He moved into fourth on the school’s all-purpose yardage list with 3,421 yards.
FRESHMAN: Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
  • Rushed 25 times for 115 yards and one touchdown in 24-3 win over Southern Miss.
  • First freshman in SEC history and first true freshman in NCAA since Adrian Peterson in 2004 to begin career with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
  • His touchdown capped a 14-play, 81-yard drive in the fourth quarter that featured eight rushes for 38 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
  • He leads the SEC and ranks fourth nationally with 418 rushing yards this season, and his average of 139.9 rushing yards per game is second in the SEC and eighth nationally.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: Clayton Stadnik, C, South Carolina
  • Making his second consecutive start for the injured Cody Waldrop, Stadnik graded out at 82 percent, playing all 87 snaps at center in the 35-25 win over Vanderbilt.
  • The Gamecock offensive line did not give up a quarterback sack or quarterback hurry while rolling up 579 yards of offense, the second-highest total in the Steve Spurrier era.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN: Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas
  • Recorded career-high three sacks as part of five-tackle performance with two quarterback hurries in Arkansas' win over Southern Miss.
  • Had two sacks on Southern Miss’ final drive of the second quarter with Golden Eagles at midfield to preserve a seven-point Arkansas lead going into halftime.
  • His three sacks tied for highest single-game output this season.
In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews