SEC: DeAndrew White

For most big-time college football programs, January is a time of letting go.

On Friday, Alabama had to do just that as three of the program's most prolific underclassmen -- Landon Collins, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon -- announced that they would forgo their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWithout Landon Collins, Alabama's secondary enters a period of uncertainty that it hasn't experienced in some time.
Really, who can blame them? For three years they've been an integral part of the Crimson Tide's success, leaving no stone left unturned in their careers.

Yeldon ran for 100 yards in his first game and has proved himself ever since. Cooper caught the game-winning pass in the SEC title game as a freshman and made it all the way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December. Collins may have taken a little longer to develop than his fellow juniors, but when he shifted from special-teams stud to a starting safety as a sophomore, you knew he would become an All-American.

But now they must move on.

And now Alabama must move on.

While no one should weep for coach Nick Saban as he sends this latest trio of underclassmen off to the pros, it should be said that his job of replacing them won't be easy. Granted, the duo of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake should pick up right where Yeldon left off, but in the case of Cooper at receiver and Collins at safety, there are no obvious replacements.

Three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes have assured Alabama plenty of talent from which to draw, but there's a difference between a potential star and an already-known commodity.

In fact, what's known about the secondary without Collins isn't necessarily promising. Setting aside the rocky situation at cornerback, there are two vacant safety positions ahead of spring practice, and there's no clue who will fill them.

Alabama's amazing run of continuity at the position is over. This won't be 2011 when Mark Barron returned for another year. It won't be 2012, with a seasoned Robert Lester. It won't be 2013 with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, and it won't be this past season with Collins stabilizing the back end of the defense as a veteran starter.

While there's Geno Smith, who has played at safety and nickel, and Hootie Jones, who saw the field as a true freshman, neither has shown he's ready for the spotlight. It could be a wild card who ends up starting, such as redshirt freshman Ronnie Clark or one of the two top-10 rated safeties Alabama has committed in its 2015 signing class (four-star Deionte Thompson is already on campus).

The situation at receiver without Cooper is just as murky, because it's not just Cooper and his 124 receptions heading out the door. It's the next two leading receivers, too, as Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have moved on.

So who is Alabama's top returning receiver? That would be Chris Black, who caught 19 passes this past season. Besides him, there's ArDarius Stewart, who caught 12 balls, Cam Sims (seven) and Robert Foster (six). It's a talented group, to be sure, but none of the four underclassmen has had to deliver in crunch time.

With a new quarterback set to take snaps under center, it will be interesting to see who develops into the go-to targets in the passing game.

Don't discount someone like the 6-foot-4 Raheem Falkins or the 6-5 Derek Kief getting into the mix. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 receiver in the 2015 class and an Alabama verbal commitment, could vie for playing time right away, too.

With so much up in the air, stay tuned for what unfolds during spring and fall practice.

It will be a different group of playmakers leading Alabama next season now that Collins, Cooper and Yeldon are gone, but by now Saban and his staff should be used to this game of plug-and-play.

It's January, which is as good a time as any to start anew.

LSU Tigers season review

December, 17, 2014
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LSU will enter 2015 with the same glaring question that faced the Tigers entering a roller coaster 2014 season: Who will be the starting quarterback?

The job belonged to Anthony Jennings for all but one game this fall – a blowout loss at Auburn – but freshman Brandon Harris hasn’t been able to push past the inconsistent sophomore.

While LSU’s defense rebounded from an awful start to eventually lead the SEC in total defense at 305.8 yards allowed per game, the quarterback issues plagued the offense for most of the season, and Cam Cameron’s attack was frustratingly unproductive as a result.

It remains the leading storyline of the season as LSU (8-4, 4-4 SEC) prepares to conclude the season against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

Here is a recap of the Tigers’ season to this point:

Best win: Rival Ole Miss came to Tigers Stadium undefeated and ranked third nationally, but the Rebels left with a disappointing 10-7 loss. Tight end Logan Stokes scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard catch late in the fourth quarter – Stokes’ only catch of the season – and senior safety Ronald Martin sealed the win with an interception at the goal line with 2 seconds remaining. The win briefly reignited LSU’s hopes of sneaking back into the SEC West race, although an overtime loss to Alabama in its next game snuffed out those aspirations.

Worst loss: A 41-7 loss at Auburn was the ugliest, but the Tigers’ most painful defeat was probably its 20-13 overtime loss to Alabama. LSU was in position to upset the eventual SEC champs, grabbing a 13-10 lead on a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds to play. But Alabama drove for the game-tying field goal in the final minute and then won the game with a touchdown pass from Blake Sims to DeAndrew White in overtime. That gave the Crimson Tide, LSU’s bitter rival, its fourth consecutive win in the series.

Player of the year: La'el Collins. Although he could have entered the draft after last season like teammates Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill, Collins returned and almost certainly improved his draft stock. The senior left tackle won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker and generally dominated opponents while becoming LSU’s only first-team All-SEC selection. A three-year starter at LSU, Collins will leave an enormous hole on the left side of the line in 2015.

Breakout player: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Travin Dural probably deserves mention here, too, after leading the team with 758 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but we have to go with Fournette. The freshman running back – formerly the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect – flashed moments of brilliance and carried the Tigers to narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. The SEC All-Freshman team member leads the team with 891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 126.8 all-purpose yards per game. It wasn’t enough to maintain a Heisman Trophy campaign like some expected, but it was a solid debut effort.

Play of the year: We have to go with Fournette’s touchdown run against Texas A&M where he evoked memories of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by running over Aggies safety Howard Matthews on his way to the end zone. LSU fans can only hope it was another sign of great things to come.

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While Fournette’s powerful run takes the cake, Dural’s school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State deserves a mention, too. The speedy wideout’s catch from Jennings was a heck of a first offensive play in the Tigers’ home opener at expanded Tiger Stadium.

video 2015 outlook: As has been the case in several recent seasons, LSU’s success in 2015 might hinge on which underclassmen decide to enter the draft. The Tigers have been hit hard by the draft lately and might lose a handful of draft-eligible players again this year. Four of LSU’s starting offensive linemen are eligible to enter the draft, as are defensive backs Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins and linebacker Kwon Alexander. This was a young team that should improve next year, and the Tigers could be Western Division contenders if the draft hit isn’t too painful and a consistent quarterback emerges.
It's not about being ranked No. 1.

It's not about playing a cupcake FCS team in Western Carolina.

For Alabama, this Saturday can mean one of two things, said coach Nick Saban.

Do you want to take advantage of the opportunity you have created for yourself or do you just want to do what you have to do to go on and win the next game?" he said.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama needs more consistency from quarterback Blake Sims as it begins its late-season push.
Focus, Saban explained, is like momentum. Lose it and it's difficult to get back.

"If I say 'what do we have to do to win this game,' I might think, 'Well, I don't have to practice as hard this week. The guy's not quite as big as what I'm used to having to play against, or whatever,'" he said. "Are you going to get better that way or not? Taking advantage of the opportunity that you have is much bigger than that. ... The major thing for me is stay focused on what you need to do to improve, so you take advantage of the opportunity. And that's for every player."

With that said, what areas do need to improve?

The final score on Saturday should be outrageous, but what should people hope to see from Alabama as it gears up for an enormous showdown the following weekend against Auburn?

More consistency from Blake Sims: It's been an up-and-down season for the quarterback. One week he's completing between 65-70 percent of his passes, the next week he's in the 50s. Against LSU, he was a paltry 20-for-45 passing. Of course, he followed that up with a solid 19-for-31 performance against Mississippi State. But that is the point. Sims needs to keep his accuracy up for consecutive weeks and show heading into the Iron Bowl that he can maintain a firm hold on the offense for all four quarters.

Keep getting other receivers involved: It has become a broken record, but Sims needs to expand the offense to receivers not named Amari Cooper. The more looks he gives the defense, the better. And in recent weeks, he has done that. Against LSU, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard each had three receptions. The following week against Mississippi State, White had four more catches and ArDarius Stewart had two, showing off the kind of breakaway speed that reminded some of Kenyan Drake.

Continue to pressure the quarterback: Alabama's defense did a fantastic job stuffing the run and getting into the backfield against LSU and Mississippi State. But it's hard to shake the sight of Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs running for 75 yards against the Tide four weeks ago. Might that be a prelude to what Auburn's Nick Marshall will do? Time will tell, but in the meantime Alabama's defense gets a good warm-up in Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell, who has run for 572 yards and six touchdowns this season.

The kicking game: Yes, we're talking about field goals. Though that might sound outrageous since Alabama should have no trouble finding the end zone against Western Carolina, it might do a world of good for Adam Griffith to see a few kicks split the uprights. After all, since starting the season 7-for-7, he has gone 5-for-11, including 1-for-4 on kicks of 40 or more yards.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- As Nick Saban walked into a small, crowded media room tucked away inside the depths of Tiger Stadium, he weaved around a throng of cameramen to find his wife, Terry.

The two embraced and shared a short kiss of both happiness and relief following No. 5 Alabama’s exhausting 20-13 win overtime win over No. 16 LSU.

“That was hard,” Saban said as he walked away from his wife.

You bet it was.

It was incredibly hard for two sledgehammers that bashed each other’s brains in for nearly four hours on a brisk night under the lights in Death Valley. In front of a raucous crowd of 102,321, the Crimson Tide came from the brink of possible SEC and playoff elimination to drowning out college football’s most famous four notes with a deafening “Roll Tide.”

[+] EnlargeAlabama, LSU
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNo. 16 LSU crunched No. 5 Alabama at every turn, but the Crimson Tide toughed it out and got a big win for their SEC and playoff hopes.
In a season in which everything a team does is meticulously dissected and criticized because of the new College Football Playoff, Alabama hasn't been dominant, but this win proved how resilient it is and how hard it's going to be to beat the Tide going forward.

“It was tough down there, and I’m really, really proud of our players for finishing the game the way they did,” said Saban, whose Tide improved to 8-1 and 5-1 in SEC play. “Great win. Great win for Alabama, and I’m really proud of our players.”

With the college football season in its final weeks, this was another one of the SEC West’s defacto play-in games for both a trip to Atlanta and the College Football Playoff. With the sport’s best division devouring itself in this bloody month of November, Alabama couldn’t risk being yet another victim.

The Crimson Tide nearly succumbed to the fates of Auburn and Ole Miss before it with a last-minute fumble inside its own 6-yard line by T.J. Yeldon with the game tied 10-10. Shortly after, Saban rallied his players and told them this was where his team showed how to win a game.

Alabama forced a field goal, then drove 55 yards in 50 seconds -- with no timeouts -- to tie it at 13-13 before Blake Sims threw a beautiful, back-shoulder touchdown pass to DeAndrew White for the eventual game-winner in overtime.

Players and coaches celebrated like children after LSU’s offense went four-and-out. Sims, who couldn’t get out of his own way for the better part of the game, sprinted toward Alabama’s band and the team’s section of fans as if he were going to leap into the stands. Players jumped in each other’s arms and hugged a few lingering fans in the back of the very end zone, where Alabama crushed LSU’s upset hopes. Offensive lineman Leon Brown strutted toward the party with his hands raised and tongue out.

Saban even smiled as he jogged off the field, thumbs up, radiating toward the crimson faithful who made the trip.

“When Coach Saban’s smiling, you know that we did a good job,” Sims said.

No other rivalry game hits like this one or causes so much pain and anguish for the loser. In the ultimate play-in game, Alabama ground out an old-school slugfest to stay in control of its own destiny and show the country it’s very much a real threat to be one of the last four teams standing when the playoff rolls around.

There was even another Alabama missed field goal in a game that perfectly summed up this hellacious rivalry.

“That’s a tough, physical game,” Saban said. “That’s old-fashioned ball. That’s the kind of football that, when I played, we played. Nothing spread about that.”

There’s nothing soft about this Alabama team. It isn’t the team that won games by halftime in previous years, but it’s tough and wears down opponents. There were 85 rushing plays in this game and hardly a passing game to save anyone’s life, but Alabama never stopped chugging.

It wore down an equally tenacious LSU team and made critical plays in critical moments while stopping LSU in even bigger moments.

This wasn’t sexy by any means, but it was the kind of game these two teams thrive in and play better than anyone.

We’ve quietly wondered if this Alabama team is elite or even great. Honestly, we still don’t know because of its inconsistencies. But it’s winning, and I’m sure there are a lot of teams outside the SEC that wouldn’t want to see the Tide in January with the national championship on the line.

Alabama didn’t earn style points Saturday night. It earned respect.

“You’re not going to be able to blow everybody out by 45 points every game,” center Ryan Kelly said. “You look at playing in Baton Rouge at night time, we knew it was going to be a hard game. We anticipated a four-quarter fight, and that’s what we got.

“This is the SEC. This is football to me. ... This is the only football I’ve ever known. You know in the SEC that this is what you’re going to get.”

With Mississippi State and Auburn looming, there’s no question Alabama has to get better, but Saban and his players know that. But a win like this can do wonders for a team’s confidence and serve as a turning point with so much left to still play for.

“It’s always good when you go in a hostile environment in the SEC and you make a statement win,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “I feel like games like this will keep your hope high. When you’re in a tough situation, you think back to games like this.”

What we learned in the SEC: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
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Another eventful Saturday in the SEC. Here’s what we learned:

Bama is still alive but needs work: It wasn’t pretty, but Alabama’s playoff hopes are still intact after the Crimson Tide survived a thriller in Death Valley 20-13 in overtime. Despite a critical T.J. Yeldon fumble in the final minutes of regulation, the Tide were able to hold LSU to a field goal then benefited from a special-teams miscue as Trent Domingue booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. Blake Sims came up big by directing a game-tying drive then threw a picturesque pass to DeAndrew White for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. With No. 3 Auburn losing on Saturday, Alabama looks poised to move into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, and with No. 1 Mississippi State coming to town next week and the Iron Bowl in three weeks, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny. One thing is clear though: They can’t make the mistakes they did Saturday if they’re going to win out. Sims has to be better in the earlier portions of the game (he missed some open receivers), they can’t drop the football (Amari Cooper had one in crunch time) and surviving a late turnover like the one they had Saturday is hard to replicate against elite teams. They were fortunate to win Saturday; now they must turn the page and improve before the Bulldogs come to Tuscaloosa.

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's Kyle Allen helped diminish Auburn's playoff hopes with a four-touchdown effort.
Auburn’s playoff hopes are likely done: There are a lot of quality one-loss teams remaining in the field; a second loss is a killer for Auburn -- especially coming at home to an unranked team that hadn’t played well since September. For a little bit, it looked like the Tigers would pull off some of the late-game magic that has become a signature trait of theirs in the Gus Malzahn era, but two late fourth-quarter fumbles squashed their hopes and left them with a 41-38 loss. “It hurts,” Malzahn said. “It hurts our team. We have goals and dreams, and we did not get it done tonight.” The turnovers on offense late were one factor, but there were others: the first-half defense was poor and the secondary was torched in the first two quarters. On special teams, an Auburn field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown to end the first half. The Tigers were sloppy quite a bit on Saturday and they paid for it in the end. Now the Tigers must turn around and head to Georgia next week and close out at Alabama in three weeks, so the road remains tough down the stretch.

No hangover for Georgia: If you thought the Bulldogs were going to let the upset loss to Florida affect them moving forward, think again. Mark Richt’s crew responded emphatically, jumping out to a quick three-touchdown lead in Lexington and rolling to a 63-31 win over Kentucky. Georgia had success in all three phases, rolling up 559 offensive yards, holding Kentucky to 139 passing yards on 16 of 31 attempts and scored two special-teams touchdowns -- a kickoff return (90 yards) and punt return (59 yards) for scores by Isaiah McKenzie. Nick Chubb had another great performance at running back (13 carries, 170 yards) and Hutson Mason threw for four scores. The Bulldogs still need help from Missouri in the form of a loss, but they’re still very much alive in the SEC East.

Treon Harris can throw it around: Last week, the Florida quarterback attempted only six passes versus Georgia but on Saturday, the Gators trusted their true freshman more and Harris delivered, completing 13 of 21 passes for 215 yards. There were no touchdown passes, but more importantly, no interceptions and Harris was accurate and showed off his deep ball with this 59-yard beauty to Quinton Dunbar. Harris did solid work on the ground, too, rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns in Florida’s 34-10 win over Vanderbilt. The Gators need to continue to win and need help from others, but they still have a pulse in the SEC East race.

Kevin Sumlin can still pull a rabbit out of his visor: Texas A&M was a 23-point underdog going into Jordan-Hare Stadium, lost its past three SEC games, had a true freshman quarterback, a beat up offensive line and a defense with a lot of youngsters starting. All the Aggies did was jump out to a 35-17 halftime lead and hang on for dear life to upset the No. 3 team in the nation in its own house. Sumlin’s Aggies pulled off a similar stunt almost two years to the day when they went into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and took down the No. 1 Crimson Tide 29-24 behind freshman quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Is Kyle Allen (four touchdown passes) the next star quarterback in Aggieland? It’s too early to say but he had a memorable performance on Saturday at Auburn and he gives the seemingly left-for-dead Aggies some reason for optimism in the final weeks of the regular season. Sure, Auburn made a lot of mistakes, but Texas A&M played better than it had in more than a month, showing flashes of the team that started 5-0 this season.


BATON ROUGE, La. -- Alabama found another way to break LSU fans’ hearts.

The Crimson Tide kicked a game-tying field goal with three seconds left in regulation, then beat the Tigers 20-13 in overtime on DeAndrew White's 6-yard touchdown catch.

After beating LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC) for the fourth straight time, No. 5 Alabama (8-1, 5-1) seems likely to jump into the top four in the next College Football Playoff rankings.

Let’s recap how the Tide rallied for a key SEC West victory.

How the game was won: LSU’s defense dominated the second half, but Alabama managed to drive 55 yards in the final minute of regulation and force overtime with Adam Griffith's 27-yard field goal. After White’s OT touchdown, Cyrus Jones broke up Anthony Jennings' fourth-down pass to Malachi Dupre in the end zone to secure the win.

Game ball goes to: Blake Sims. Alabama’s quarterback couldn’t get anything done for much of the second half, but Sims (20-for-45, 209 yards, 2 TDs) coolly led the Tide downfield after LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye's 39-yard field goal put the Tigers up 13-10 with 50 seconds to play. After forcing overtime, Sims hit White with what turned out to be the game-winning pass.

What it means: Alabama is alive and well in the playoff and division races. The Crimson Tide can jump into the driver’s seat in the SEC West by beating top-ranked Mississippi State on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. LSU had a chance to re-enter the division and playoff pictures but likely drops out of contention for both with its third conference loss.

Playoff implication: Thanks to Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M, Alabama will probably enter the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. Meanwhile, any talk of LSU becoming a playoff dark horse ended with Saturday’s loss.

What’s next: Alabama will host No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday. LSU will play at Arkansas next Saturday night.
With No. 5 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) preparing to visit No. 16 LSU (7-2, 3-2), LSU writer David Ching and Alabama writer Alex Scarborough take a look at some key factors in Saturday’s game.

LSU stats to watch

506 rushing yards by QBs: Only five FBS teams have surrendered more rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks than LSU. That is not a particularly encouraging sign against Alabama and Blake Sims.

The converted running back has performed well in his first season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, but he still possesses the ability to break long runs. Sims accelerated for a 28-yard touchdown run in Alabama’s last game against Tennessee and broke a 43-yard touchdown run the previous week against Texas A&M.

LSU has done a better job defending the quarterback run since Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, New Mexico State’s Andrew Allen and Auburn’s Nick Marshall all broke the 100-yard mark in consecutive weeks against the Tigers. If the Tigers can limit Sims’ running opportunities, they will likely give themselves a much better chance of slowing down Alabama’s offense.

50 rushing attempts: Les Miles insists the Tigers want to be balanced on offense, but the numbers prove otherwise. LSU is unquestionably a run-first offense, having kept the ball on the ground 69.4 percent of the time this season.

LSU’s rushing totals will almost certainly indicate whether the Tigers are competitive in this game. During their three-game winning streak, the Tigers ran at least 50 times for at least 195 yards in each game. They’re coming off a win over Ole Miss where they ran 55 times for 264 yards -- and that’s the blueprint for success for LSU.

If they eclipse the 50-carry, 200-yard mark on the ground, things will be going according to plan for the Tigers. If they fall behind like they did against Mississippi State and Auburn -- when they ran 35 and 36 times, respectively -- they’ll have to pass more often. The next time they win by leaning heavily on the pass will be the first time they’ve done so in 2014.

Alabama stats to watch

49 percent: Can Sims spread the ball around? That’s the chief question facing Alabama.

So far, Amari Cooper has been responsible for a whopping 49 percent of the Crimson Tide’s total receiving yards this season, which happens to be the highest percentage in all of college football.

While he’s explosive, leading the country in receptions of 20-plus yards, there has to be more to the passing game than him. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will do everything he can to make sure Cooper doesn’t beat him. That means Sims getting guys such as Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard involved. If he can’t make the offense more dynamic, LSU will make him pay.

2.71 yards per carry: With space eaters A'Shawn Robinson and Brandon Ivory on the defensive line and big-bodied Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland at linebacker, Alabama is built to stop the run. In fact, the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards per rush allowed (2.71).

To take it one step further, Alabama has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (two) in the country. Against an Arkansas rushing offense that’s similar to LSU’s, the Crimson Tide held Jonathan Williams to less than 100 yards and Alex Collins to a grand total of 13 yards on six carries.

While LSU’s offensive line is arguably better than Arkansas’, that’s a sign Alabama’s defense will be able to handle Leonard Fournette and Tiger rushing attack

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsGetting production from players such as sophomore tight end O.J. Howard will prevent LSU from keying completely on star Alabama WR Amari Cooper.
Why LSU pulls the upset

David Ching: The Tigers’ 10-7 win over Ole Miss essentially provided the blueprint for how LSU can win this game: Keep the chains moving with a power running game, play tough defense, avoid major mistakes. That last part was nearly the Tigers’ undoing -- they turned it over four times and missed a short field goal, which was the only reason the score was so close -- and they probably can’t beat Alabama with a minus-three turnover margin. But if that trademark Les Miles game plan is working on Saturday night, this is a game that the Tigers can win.

Alex Scarborough: There’s something about Death Valley at night. Since 2010, LSU is 21-2 in home games that start at 4 p.m. or later. The crowd starts rocking. Sometimes the fog rolls in. The environment plays tricks on you, and I think Alabama will succumb to the pressure. The offensive line will commit a few ill-timed penalties and Sims, who was avoided a number of interceptions thanks to some stone-handed DBs, will finally face a secondary that can take advantage of his mistakes. LSU gets a few key turnovers, controls the tempo on offense with its running game and pulls off the second straight upset at home.

Why LSU’s upset falls short

David Ching: If the Tigers fall behind early or struggle to move the ball on the ground, they are not efficient enough in the passing game to hang with Alabama. Anthony Jennings and Travin Dural have combined for some huge pass plays, but Dural’s position mates haven’t accounted for much production this season.

Alex Scarborough: Unfortunately for pundits, there’s no near-INT statistic. The fact of the matter is Sims has thrown only three picks all season, so while he may have been lucky with some poorly thrown passes in previous games, you can’t assume his luck will change. Actually, the numbers indicate that LSU is more likely to throw an interception than Alabama. The Tide rank eighth nationally in interceptions per pass attempt (1.2 percent) compared to LSU’s standing of 99th (3.6 percent). But to make your head totally spin, consider this: Despite a relatively high percentage of interceptions thrown, LSU is plus-4 in turnover margin while Alabama is minus-2.

LSU offensive X-factor: Anthony Jennings. LSU’s quarterback hasn’t completed better than 50 percent of his passes against any Power 5 defense. If the Tigers run the ball better than anyone else has against Alabama’s defense, maybe they won’t need much from Jennings. But our bet is they’ll need him to make a few big throws -- and avoid any crippling mistakes.

LSU defensive X-factor: Kendell Beckwith. It’s no coincidence that LSU’s defensive turnaround started with Beckwith’s introduction to the starting lineup. The sophomore middle linebacker seems to be getting more comfortable in his new role and will be a central figure in the Tigers’ efforts to slow down Alabama’s running game.

Alabama offensive X-factor: O.J. Howard. No defensive coordinator wants to look over and see Cooper on the other side of the field. But there’s another player on Alabama’s roster who can give opposing coaches fits: Howard. An athletic tight end who can run after the catch, Howard’s a matchup nightmare. He has only six receptions, but he made the play of the game last year against LSU with a 52-yard touchdown catch.

Alabama defensive X-factor: Brandon Ivory. What Ivory does best doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. In fact, he has only three tackles and has started just two games this season. But that’s because he’s a throwback in today’s game: A true nose guard who sits in the middle of the defensive line and eats up blockers. If he can help take away LSU’s power rushing game between the tackles, Alabama’s defense will be in great shape.
Les Miles, Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban differ in methodology and personality, but they share a winning mentality that has turned their programs into powerhouses.
Separated by more than 340 mostly rural miles, Nick Saban and Les Miles are giants of their time.

Their footsteps shake the southern ground and their wins stack as tall as Atlanta's Bank of America Plaza.

Saturday, the two will meet for the ninth time at their current jobs, with Saban holding a 5-3 lead in this wildly exciting series. Two coaches who thrive on winning and captivated the SEC after stints and upbringings well outside the confines of the country's most polarizing conference.

Miles went from being a Michigan Man to a Cowboy before settling in Cajun country. Saban went from a Michigan State man to Cajun to Dolphin then T-Town. Cross-country journeys brought these two to the Deep South and winning binds these iconic coaches.

Think Hayes-Schembechler with a little more southern hospitality.

While their personas are poked, prodded and overanalyzed countless times each season, and their methods and personalities are sometimes worlds apart, there's no denying that they share an equally impressive winning attitude.

Saban has a 172-58-1 (.747) collegiate record with four national championships -- three at Alabama and one at LSU -- and five conference championships. Miles is right behind him with a 130-47 (.734) record with a national championship and two conference titles.

Miles won 10 or more games seven times in his first nine seasons at LSU, while Saban did it in six of his first seven years at Alabama.

They are the class of the SEC, a conference that has only gained strength since their arrivals. Even with the SEC saying hello and subsequently goodbye to a handful of coaches since the arrival of Miles and Saban, they've stayed put, despite growing pressure and enormous expectations.

"It's really impressive to see how focused, driven and prepared he is every day," Alabama center Ryan Kelly said of Saban. "As you get older, that kind of wears off on you as well."

Saban's rough exterior can overshadow a fun side that Miles seems to embrace more openly. Miles is the quirky genius, while Saban is the evil genius, but Saban knows how to keep things loose, players say.

"He's funnier than you would think," Alabama receiver DeAndrew White said.

There are jokes cracked in practice and his well-known love for Motown and Michael Jackson. There are even multiple videos of him dancing that have come close to breaking the Internet.

It isn't quite repelling off the side of a building or eating grass, that's Miles' territory, and he's perfected off-the-wall .

"I've never seen anyone eat grass," LSU safety Ronald Martin said. "I guess that's his good luck charm."

Miles knows when to be serious, too. He's had emotional news conferences defending his players and his status as LSU's coach. The jokes die during games and when he has to, he isn't afraid to line up with his offensive linemen at practice – knees bent and trusty hat backward -- to show them what perfect technique looks like.

"It's always a great time being coached by him," LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. "He definitely gets down and dirty with us every now and then."

What makes them great is their undeniable coaching ability, but what makes their interaction that much more enjoyable is how different they really are.

People scratch their heads and often giggle at his sometimes indecipherable jargon, while Saban's dry humor is actually hilarious because it's so smart, even if it can come across as smug.

Saban has "the process" and Miles has "the want."

There are palm claps versus near headset destruction.

There's Miles hat, barely sitting atop his head, and Saban's glare, piercing through his own players and coaches, along with opponents.

There's Saban's meticulous attention to detail and Miles' off-the-cuff, Mad Hatter coaching style that can teeter on improbable bliss and disaster.

They differ in methodology and personality, but they share a winning mentality that has turned their programs into powerhouses.

Their teams mimic them in so many ways, and that's why Saturday is once again a huge deal. Excellence has bred success with these two coaches, making every encounter exemplary.
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
 
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Well, Alabama coach Nick Saban talked about this one being a a return to old-time, physical football.

It was at least a return to when football didn't yield a lot of points, as these two slogged their way through a game in which No. 7 Alabama (5-1, 2-1 SEC) edged out a 14-13 win over Arkansas (3-3, 0-3) in front of 72,337 inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Here's how it happened:

How the game was won: Well, it certainly wasn't pretty, as Alabama did absolutely nothing on offense for most of the first three quarters. But quarterback Blake Sims engineered an eight-play, 56-yard scoring drive that was capped with a 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver DeAndrew White with 12:36 remaining. After that, it was just more ugly, ugly offense on both sides before Landon Collins officially ended it with an interception with 1:59 left.

Game ball goes to: Alabama's defensive line was the only consistent and impressive part of the Crimson Tide's win. A'Shawn Robinson and his teammates put good pressure on Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen, but more importantly, the line helped hold the SEC's top rushing team to a season-low 89 yards and 2.3 yards per carry.

What it means: It means that Arkansas has now lost 15 straight SEC games. That's a big number, but this team will get a conference victory this season. It had opportunities to do it on Saturday night and just didn't take advantage. For Alabama, we know it isn't even close to the ones from previous years. You have no clue what you'll get from this bunch. The defense let Allen, who averaged 150 passing yards coming into the game, throw for 246 yards. Special teams is a mess in both kicking and returning (four fumbles, two lost). And Sims must regain his composure after being wildly inconsistent on Saturday.

Playoff implication: Alabama is still in the playoff race, but the team that played Arkansas wouldn't stand a chance of getting into the final four. There's a lot of work to do, but winning is the most important thing. Alabama certainly didn't get any style points in Fayetteville.

Best play: It had to be Sims' touchdown pass to White. Alabama was reeling after giving up a 54-yard touchdown pass to Allen two drives earlier and desperately needed a spark. While Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was seen trying to get a timeout called, Sims got the snap, rolled to his right, didn't find his first option and then found White wide open in the middle of the end zone.

video 

What's next: Alabama hosts No. 14 Texas A&M Oct. 18, while Arkansas travels to Little Rock, Arkansas, to face No. 13 Georgia.

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 1

October, 1, 2014
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October has arrived and most teams have played a third of their regular-season schedule. One team has fallen off our playoff tracker (South Carolina) but the rest remain from last week. Let's dive in and see where the College Football Playoff contenders from the SEC stand as of today:

Alabama Crimson Tide
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: The bye week came at the right time for Alabama. It needed Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and DeAndrew White healthy for Ole Miss on Saturday. And if it needed any extra motivation, Rebs safety Cody Prewitt delivered, telling reporters that, "We don't think Bama has really been as good as they have been."
Cause for concern: Survive Ole Miss and things don't get any easier. You thought that Oct. 11 trip to Arkansas would be a cake walk? Ha! You thought Texas A&M would be an easier out without Johnny Manziel? That's a good one. That schedule you thought was littered with SEC cupcakes like Tennessee now looks more like a minefield.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Mississippi State over Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can upset Texas A&M and Auburn the next two weeks, the West might loosen up some. --Alex Scarborough

Auburn Tigers
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Reason for optimism: Nick Marshall continues to look more and more like his old self. On Saturday, he passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, and he also rushed for 105 yards. His new favorite target? OK, it’s still D'haquille Williams, but fellow wide receiver Quan Bray has emerged as a playmaker on both offense and special teams for the Tigers.
Cause for concern: There are a lot of question marks as to who’s going to play this Saturday against LSU. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are day-to-day with injuries, and starting right tackle Patrick Miller is questionable with an ankle injury. It also looks like Auburn will be without safety Jermaine Whitehead for the third straight game.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss over Alabama --Greg Ostendorf

Texas A&M Aggies
Record:
5-0
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: The Aggies passed a big test by showing that their run defense -- while still having a lot of room for improvement -- can do just enough to help them win after being tested thoroughly against Arkansas, the best rushing team in the SEC. The offense also showed it can win when it’s not at its best and Kenny Hill responded to adversity emphatically, showing poise in fourth quarter and overtime. Health-wise, the Aggies are in relatively good shape, which is critical considering what lies ahead.
Cause for concern: The schedule gets only tougher in the next few weeks. This weekend it’s a trip to Starkville to meet undefeated Mississippi State. They return home the following week to host Ole Miss. Then on Oct. 18 they go to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama. These are all teams and places the Aggies have won before, but now they’re doing it with a team that has a lot of young players in key positions, like quarterback, free safety, defensive end and receiver. This three-week stretch is a monumental test for Texas A&M.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn. (This would help the Aggies jump Auburn in the national rankings and gain an advantage in the standings) --Sam Khan Jr.

Ole Miss Rebels
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: The defense ranks first in the SEC and fourth nationally, allowing 248 yards per game and has 11 takeaways on the season. QB Bo Wallace is also spreading his passes around very nicely. Even with depth an issue at receiver, the Rebels already have five players with double-digit receptions.
Cause for concern: The West is easily the toughest division in college football. There really isn’t a major weak link when it comes to teams on this side of the division, and Ole Miss still has to go through everyone. We’ll find out if Ole Miss has the depth needed to make a real SEC run.
Who they’re rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn --Edward Aschoff

Mississippi State Bulldogs
Record:
4-0
AP rank: 12
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Texas A&M
Reason for optimism: With an open date between their dismantling of LSU and this Saturday’s showdown with Texas A&M, the Bulldogs have had time to rest and scheme to face perhaps the best opponent they’ve played to date. It had to help their confidence to see A&M struggle against Arkansas the way it did, too.
Cause for concern: Mississippi State’s secondary has been one of the team’s few weaknesses, and that’s a bad weakness to have against a high-flying offense like Texas A&M’s. It also doesn’t help that veteran center Dillon Day will miss the A&M game while serving a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike play against LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over Ole Miss (because why not?) --David Ching

Georgia Bulldogs
Record:
3-1
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Missouri
Reason for optimism: The SEC East is still a mess, and South Carolina’s loss to Missouri means the Bulldogs once again control their own destiny in the division. Just win, baby, and the Dawgs are headed back to Atlanta. Also, Todd Gurley seems like he’s getting better and better with each week.
Cause for concern: Passing, whether it’s by the Bulldogs or against them. Hutson Mason admitted Saturday that the chemistry between himself and his receivers isn’t where it should be, especially when it comes to throwing the deep ball. Right now, Georgia’s defense can’t stop any sort of passing over the middle of the field.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Tennessee over Florida --Edward Aschoff

LSU Tigers
Record:
4-1
AP rank: 15
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: It seems unlikely that anyone in the SEC West will finish undefeated, so the Tigers can stick around in this race if they start winning. A win in Saturday’s game at Auburn could potentially jump-start LSU’s chances, especially if Brandon Harris goes off as the new starting quarterback.
Cause for concern: Auburn’s running game has to scare LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a bit after Mississippi State had so much success against the Tigers two Saturdays ago. LSU might be able to stick around in the SEC West race with two division losses, but a playoff bid would almost be out of the question if the Tigers fall again.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Mississippi State --David Ching

SEC position rankings: WR/TE

June, 11, 2014
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We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
3/14/14
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a long and winding quote that really ended nowhere and didn’t reveal much at all. Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked what impact Lane Kiffin might have on the offense in 2014, and he didn’t bite. So far removed from the start of the season, he chose to play it close to the vest, answering the question in a way that gave away nothing.

“Every coach wants to create as much improvement as possible as he can with the players he coaches and the unit he's responsible for. I think Lane certainly has the knowledge and experience to do that," Saban said of his new offensive coordinator, the former USC and Tennessee head coach. "I think players sort of respect him and, from what I've seen so far, [they] have a good relationship. You're talking about offseason program and off-the-field kind of stuff, but I think from an accountability standpoint, coaches and players, that because of his knowledge and experience that would be something that he can contribute to our team in a positive way with.”

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Lane Kiffin to find new and unique ways to utilize players such as sophomore RB Derrick Henry.
If you were looking for more in the way of specifics, you were left disappointed. But it wasn't altogether unexpected. Kiffin should enact significant changes on the offense in 2014 -- just don’t expect to know what they’ll be ahead of time. Neither he nor Saban are ones to tip their hand early.

Overall, Kiffin is expected to bring more punch to Alabama’s attack. First, he’ll have to settle on a starting quarterback, of course, but beyond that he’ll bring a new flavor to Tuscaloosa, Ala., starting with a more up-tempo feel. Saban hinted at such a change last season when he told ESPN in September that, “It’s something we’re going to look at. I think we’ll have to.

“I think we need to play faster and will have to do more of that going forward,” he said at the time. “The only reason we haven't done more of it to this point is that our guys seem to play better when we don't [go fast] just because it's been our style and we've had reasonably good success moving the ball and running the ball.”

But that will change this spring. AJ McCarron is gone from under center. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are no longer out wide at receiver. The conservative tendencies of Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain before him have been replaced by the more forward-thinking Kiffin.

Along with a quicker tempo, expect more playmakers to emerge under Kiffin’s rule.

Alabama has too much talent at running back to continue rotating backs on the field one at a time. With versatile weapons such as Derrick Henry and Bo Scarbrough available, Kiffin could easily split them out at receiver or shift them on the line at H-back. Just the threat of a quick pass out to a player with breakaway speed like theirs should be enough to make opponents commit a defender, freeing up a teammate in the process.

Speaking of stretching the defense thin, look for O.J. Howard to do much more in the passing game as a sophomore. The former No. 2-rated tight end in the ESPN 300 showed flashes of promise as a true freshman in 2013 but went missing at times. Whether that was the fault of his own inexperience or poor coaching is up for interpretation.

Whatever the answer, though, it won’t be an excuse in 2014. There’s no greater threat to the defense than an athletic tight end who can split the middle of the defense. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds with receiver-like speed, fits that mold perfectly. Kiffin had great success with Fred Davis at USC and Luke Stocker at Tennessee and could find a similar payout with Howard at Alabama.

Finally, don’t forget the wealth of talent Kiffin inherits at receiver. Despite Norwood and Bell departing, there’s plenty left in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Amari Cooper, when healthy, is among the best receivers in the SEC. Given Kiffin’s work with Marqise Lee, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett at USC, Cooper should be licking his chops to work with his new offensive coordinator.

Throw in DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and a slew of other young, talented receivers behind them and Kiffin has more than enough weapons to work with.

The 38-year-old's reputation as a play caller and developer of talent precedes him, according to David Cornwell, who committed to Alabama prior to Kiffin's arrival and enrolled early in January just days before the hire was announced.

"Coach Kiffin, man, he’s the guy," the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the 2014 ESPN 300 explained. "I really look forward to getting to know him. I think you all know what he can do. You look at him offensively, I think he’s going to do great things for Alabama.”

But what in particular?

“His explosiveness," Cornwell said, with a smirk. "I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama. From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense."

While some of Alabama’s offensive inefficiencies in the recent past have been greatly exaggerated, there’s still more than enough room for Kiffin to improve upon. By upping the tempo and developing more playmakers, he stands to breathe some much-needed life into the Tide in 2014. Whether it's a David Cornwell, a Jacob Coker or an Alec Morris under center at quarterback, he'll have the keys to a potentially speedy ride.

Granted, we won’t know specifically what the offense is capable of until we see it in action. But from the outside looking in, the possibilities are great.

Hopefully we'll get a sneak peek when spring practice starts later this week, but don't count on it.

Video: Alabama WR White interview

October, 5, 2013
10/05/13
7:01
PM ET


Alabama wide receiver DeAndrew White talks about Alabama's 45-3 win over Georgia State.

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