SEC: Derrick Henry

Alabama lets loose on Texas A&M

October, 18, 2014
Oct 18
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Let your horses run. Let them jump and dance and dominate.

Nick Saban wanted that. He wanted his guys loose. Forget being anxious, he said, and just play football. Have fun. Be fast. Recalling the story of Secretariat he hoped to "just let 'em run."

Alabama hit its stride on Saturday afternoon, blowing past Texas A&M for a 59-0 win that had the previously sluggish Crimson Tide looking like playoff contenders once again.

T.J. Yeldon dodged and darted his way to 114 yards and two touchdowns.

Derrick Henry churned his long legs for 70 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Even Blake Sims let loose in the second quarter, running by a slew of defenders for a spectacular 43-yard touchdown.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Austin Shepherd
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonT.J. Yeldon and Austin Shepard celebrate one of Yeldon's two touchdowns against Texas A&M.
Alabama fired on all cylinders while Texas A&M flamed out. It proved to be the Tide’s largest margin of victory in more than 30 years.

The emotion Saban said his team had been lacking was instead ramped up to an 11. The normally business-like Crimson Tide played the game like kids again.

If you’ve never seen a group of 280-pound men jump up and down to a beat, it really is something. A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and the rest of Alabama’s defensive linemen couldn’t sit still. During each kickoff, they huddled on the edge of the field and danced to the music played over the loudspeaker.

Amped up, they took the field and held Texas A&M to 31 yards rushing on 24 carries. They sacked Kenny Hill six times and forced an interception. The Aggies were shut out for the first time since 2003.

It wasn’t just emotion, though. Alabama won by being faster, stronger and more aggressive. It was smarter, with no turnovers and zero penalties.

"There was a lot of anxiety on our team," Saban said, "a lot of guys worrying about expectations, about being defined by external factors.

"Everybody has to forget about all that other stuff," he added. "It does affect you. It affects a lot of teams. That’s why you see these top teams struggling."

On a day when Alabama could do no wrong, Texas A&M was left with nothing but second-guessing.

The Aggies ran defender after defender at Amari Cooper but never could wrangle the junior receiver as he racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns. Keeping up with all their missed tackles was a dizzying task. Mark Snyder’s defense gave up 45 points and 449 yards of offense -- in the first half.

"However you cut it, that performance was unacceptable and embarrassing," said coach Kevin Sumlin. "Alabama had a lot to do with that, but we have to get back to work and examine where we are right now and how we can get better."

Given the stark contrast in the quality of play, it’s hard to make any sweeping statements about the prospects of Alabama. It’s surely back in the playoff conversation, but this is still the same team that lost at Ole Miss and nearly fell to unranked Arkansas a week later.

But for now the critics should be silenced.

Saban wanted more emotion. He wanted his horses to run.

On Saturday, he got the right attitude and the right results.
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The winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to win or play for the national championship in each of the last five seasons, and this season was supposed to make it six. The November showdown in Tuscaloosa was thought to be a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff, a winner-take-all matchup similar to last year.

Through the first six games, there has been a slight hiccup by way of the Magnolia State, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama and Auburn aren't still a part of the conversation when it comes time to choose the top four teams in college football.

So we ask the question: Which team is in better shape today to reach the playoff?

Ostendorf: The team that showed up Saturday did not look like the Auburn team we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past year and a half, did it? Silly turnovers and struggles in the red zone took away from what actually wasn't a half-bad performance. You can't spot the other team 21 points and expect to come back and win.

Maybe Mississippi State is just that good, or maybe Auburn simply had an off day. Either way, I expect Gus Malzahn and his team to use the upcoming bye week to regroup and right the ship. Remember the last time the Tigers lost an SEC game? It was last September at LSU, and they proceeded to win nine straight games en route to the BCS title game.

Now, this isn't last year's team. Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Dee Ford are all gone. But I argue that the addition of D'haquille Williams, the team's leading wide receiver through the first six games, makes the passing game that much better, and the difference between last year's defense and this year's defense is night and day. Last year's group relied too much on getting pressure up front. This year, Auburn is getting quality play from the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary, and it has already forced 13 turnovers.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe winner of the past five Auburn-Alabama games has played for the national title. Will this year's winner make the College Football Playoff?
Also, it's not like Alabama's offense is off to a record-setting pace. The offseason hire of Lane Kiffin looked promising at the time, but after 227 yards and 14 points against Arkansas on Saturday, maybe it's time to admit that we were wrong about him. Maybe he's not the answer to all of the Tide's woes on offense.

Scarborough: While I'm not ready to say Kiffin isn't the right guy to lead Alabama's offense, he has struggled in pivotal moments late in each of the last two games. The offensive output against Arkansas -- fewer than 70 yards rushing, two touchdowns -- was about as bad as it gets. But I think with Ryan Kelly eventually sliding back in at center, some of those issues will be settled. It's hard to imagine that running game with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be kept down for long.

With that said, Blake Sims needs to play better. His confidence and decision-making in recent games have been lacking. The fact that Amari Cooper caught just two passes against Arkansas is inexcusable. He's arguably the best player on either side of the Iron Bowl rivalry.

The thing that should concern Alabama fans the most, though, is the execution from this team. If you didn't know it was Nick Saban on the sideline, you would wonder about the coaching. Mental errors, penalties and fumbles have been pervasive. The crisp play of Alabama teams in the past simply hasn't been there this season.

But for those very reasons, I see Alabama as having a higher ceiling than Auburn. The Tide's issues are fixable with practice and good coaching. The Tigers' problems, on the other hand, strike me as more personnel based, whether that's not enough quality players on the offensive line or playmakers on defense.

Ostendorf: Higher ceiling? Maybe. But this Alabama team will go only as far as Sims takes it, and if I'm picking a quarterback, it's not Sims. It's Nick Marshall. He might not be the best passer in the SEC, but he's the perfect fit for what Malzahn wants to do offensively. When Marshall gets going, Auburn is hard to stop. Say what you will about his passing, but he has thrown for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns in three of the last four games. He's much better than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for the Tide considering he accounted for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns in last year's game.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that winning last year's game will give Auburn more confidence heading into this year's game. This team now knows what it takes to beat Alabama, and it won't be afraid to play on the road in Tuscaloosa. If the Iron Bowl does become a play-in game for the playoff, I like the Tigers' chances.

Scarborough: That's great and all. I'm sure we'll see the replay of Chris Davis' 100-plus-yard kick return hundreds of times before the Iron Bowl, as if we had somehow forgotten how that game ended. But while I don't doubt that Auburn's confidence should be high, I'm not sure how much it will matter by that point in the season. The Tigers' schedule is brutal with games against South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia -- in consecutive weeks. After what they have already gone through (Kansas State, Mississippi State), I'm not sure there will be enough gas in the tank come late November.

The Tide's schedule, on the other hand, isn't nearly as daunting. There's this weekend's game against Texas A&M, but after that it's a pair of unranked teams in Tennessee and LSU. Mississippi State will be an enormous challenge, but that game is at home. As is the Iron Bowl. Alabama's home-field advantage could prove to be the difference in both games.

Week 6 roundtable: Breakout player

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
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Derrick HenryKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry has 320 yards and two scores on 53 carries this season.

Saturday should be fun -- a full-scale clash of the SEC West titans. We're focused on three games from the nation's toughest division featuring six top-15 teams -- Alabama-Ole Miss, Auburn-LSU and Mississippi State-Texas A&M. So far, our roundtables have discussed the game we'd pay to see, the team with the most to prove and the best clutch quarterback.

The West crown, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, a berth in the College Football Playoff … it all hangs in the balance on Saturday. With that in mind, here are our SEC writers' picks for the breakout players whose performances will carry the day.

Alex Scarborough: Call him Megaquon. Laquon Treadwell is the star no one is talking about, and against Alabama, that's going to change. Ole Miss' sophomore receiver is the complete package: big, physical and explosive. Just look at his stat line last week: Five receptions, 123 yards, two touchdowns. Alabama's cornerbacks can't handle that. Cyrus Jones gives up four inches and 30 pounds to Treadwell. Eddie Jackson is a better matchup physically, but we don’t know how his body will hold up. Tony Brown is on a level playing field as far as talent goes, but the true freshman lacks experience. All that adds up to a matchup nightmare for Alabama.

Greg Ostendorf: If Alabama wants to beat Ole Miss on Saturday, it has to run the football. There, I said it. I don't care how good Blake Sims looked against Florida, this Ole Miss secondary is no joke. AJ McCarron struggled against the Rebels last year, and I can see Sims having a rough day on the road. That means it's up to T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry to carry the load. Take your pick for breakout player -- they're all good -- but I'm going with Henry. He's averaging 6.0 yards per carry, had a big game against Florida and has a knack for ripping off long runs. The only question is do the coaches trust him? I say yes.

David Ching: Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne, Mississippi State's Josh Robinson and Treadwell all came to mind as I considered this question, but I'm going with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. He'll get his first career start on Saturday at Auburn, which is a tall order for anybody. But this kid possesses special talent. Even if he makes some mistakes or if LSU fails to pull the upset, he's going to become a star eventually. My bet is he will validate Les Miles' decision to allow him to guide the Tigers offense by keeping Saturday's game competitive.

Jeff Barlis: I knew I wouldn't be alone in choosing Harris. He just oozes athleticism, has an efficient delivery and poise beyond his years. Despite being a true freshman, Harris has looked worlds better than LSU's previous starter, sophomore Anthony Jennings. When Harris has been in the game, the LSU offense has come alive, as evidenced by his touchdown on all seven of his possessions after relieving Jennings last week. The Tigers have plenty of skilled athletes in Cam Cameron's offense. With Harris at the reins, LSU flat out has a better chance to go into Auburn and pull off the upset.

Sam Khan: Keep an eye on Mississippi State sophomore wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's coming off a good game at LSU (four catches, 91 yards and a touchdown) and he looks like a budding star for the Bulldogs. He had success against Texas A&M last season, catching seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 51-41 loss at Kyle Field. He's big (6-foot-5), athletic and has a large catch radius, which is perfect when Mississippi State needs to move the chains on third down or get in the end zone. He leads the team in catches of 20-plus yards this year (four), and this game looks to be a shootout, so he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impression.

Edward Aschoff: My breakout player is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones. He was supposed to be an All-American this year, but he's yet to really get things going for the Bulldogs. He does have two sacks on the season, but those came against cupcakes. Texas A&M’s offensive line presents a great test for the sophomore, who I think will put some nice pressure on A&M quarterback Kenny Hill and force him into some tough situations. It's time for him to impress us. His bulky, 6-5, 308-pound frame will clog the middle against the run, but where I see him standing out is against the pass, which is the key to stopping the Aggies' offense.

SEC slant: More RBs the better

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Gone are the days of Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders. We may never see another Eddie George or Ron Dayne pounding between the tackles for four quarters. Feature backs have gone the way of the dodo as more and more teams have moved toward multiple-back offenses. Part of it is the position's devaluation, part of it is getting the most bang for your buck.

There are no more workhorses

College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Terrell Chestnut
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's T.J. Yeldon was one of four players to notch rushing carries in the Crimson Tide's win against West Virginia in Week 1.
Thirteen backs averaged 20 carries per game last season. In 2004, that total number was 23.

Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.

By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.

In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.

Two backs means double trouble for defenses

Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.

In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.

When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.

And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.

"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.

Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.

During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.

The NFL agrees

If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."

ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.

Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.

It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.

Missing the good 'ol days

The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.

Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.

Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.

The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.

There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.
You shouldn’t have much trouble remembering the year 2011. It wasn’t that long ago. There was an NBA work stoppage, the NFL threatened a lockout and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State rocked the college football world. Jack Kevorkian passed away, Aaron Sorkin released the film “Moneyball” and Miley Cyrus was only beginning to embrace her inner crazy.

Oh, and somewhere in there the SEC landed two teams in the BCS title Game.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims is reminiscent of the "game manager" quarterback that Alabama had when it beat LSU for the 2011 national championship.
It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. The BCS system has since been retired and the perception of both Alabama and LSU have changed significantly since they met in New Orleans. AJ McCarron found a way to break free of the “game manager” label at Alabama, reaching within ear shot of a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger helped reshape the image of LSU’s offense, incorporating a more vertical, NFL-style passing game.

Now things have changed again. And in so many ways it feels like 2011.

At Alabama, the phrase “game manager” is back to being embraced. If Blake Sims can only manage the game and take care of the football, then the Crimson Tide might be capable of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Like McCarron’s first season starting, he won’t be asked to do it all. Despite hopes to the contrary, he probably won’t throw the ball deep very much. We’ll all do well to remember that 43 quarterbacks had more passes of 20-plus yards than McCarron in 2011.

With two stellar running backs to lean on, the offense should be fine either way. You think the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry isn’t comparable to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Like Richardson, Yeldon is a junior with an established resume. Like Lacy, Henry is an emerging sophomore with talent to burn.

Granted, Alabama’s defense isn’t as experienced as it was in 2011, but there’s certainly more than enough talent to draw upon with the current roster. Landon Collins looks an awful lot like a leaner Mark Barron, and Trey DePriest is the same kind of physical inside linebacker Nico Johnson was. The veteran cornerbacks might not be there, but the defensive line has the potential to be better than its ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

LSU, on the other hand, is in an eerily similar boat.

In one offseason, Les Miles saw his entire passing game head for the NFL as Mettenberger graduated and both his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, declared for the draft. Now it’s a new cast of characters, starting with quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. And judging by their play against Wisconsin, we might be looking at a return to the 2011 days of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Harris clearly wasn’t ready for the big stage on Saturday, and Jennings had trouble reading the defense and seemed limited with throws outside the standard go-route.

There’s hope at receiver, though, with Travin Dural and John Diarse, coupled with young guns Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre. Sound familiar? It should. In 2011, LSU’s leading receivers were Rueben Randle, Beckham, Deangelo Peterson and Russell Shepard, with Landry coming off the bench.

But the real heart of LSU’s offense is still at running back with a three-headed monster of Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette. In 2011, it was much of the same with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue shouldering the load.

Will the Tigers defense be as good now as it was then? Only time will tell, but there are certainly the parts in the secondary to harken back to the days of old. Jalen Mills played lights out at safety against Wisconsin, as did Ronald Martin. Between Jalen Collins, Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, we might be able to call it DBU once again.

This is all to say that while Alabama and LSU looked quite different this past weekend than we’ve become accustomed to, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their respective passing games might have taken significant steps back, but it’s not the end of the world.

It might feel like forever ago now, but in 2011 these two programs didn’t rely on quarterbacks to win football games. McCarron wasn’t a star when he took his first trip to New Orleans. Neither were Jefferson or Lee. Strong defenses and solid running games got them there.

Given the tendency toward overreaction and overanalysis this early in the season, it felt like a good time to remind everyone that three years isn’t that long ago. The SEC probably won't land two teams in a national title game again, but there's nothing to say that Alabama and LSU are out of the playoff hunt altogether.
These are the best debates to have, the ones that don't have a wrong answer.

Would you rather have Georgia's group of running backs or Alabama's?

If you gave the 120 other FBS coaches in the country a choice, their answer would likely be, "Yes."

You can't go wrong with either, you see.

But for the sake of argument, we had Edward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough take sides.

Edward Aschoff: Don't get me wrong, I love what Georgia has at tailback. I think Todd Gurley is the best player in the country, regardless of position. A healthy Keith Marshall is scary, and those freshmen could be special.

But Alabama still has the best running back duo in the SEC with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Both of those guys could start at just about any school in the country, and they have health on their side. Yeldon has carried the ball 405 times for 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career and has missed only one game because of an injury. Gurley missed a month of work last year and Marshall missed most of last season with a knee injury.

What we've seen from Yeldon and Henry in the past two games has been nothing short of fantastic. The two have combined to rush for 411 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries. That's 6.3 yards per touch. Yeldon has had fumbling issues in the past, but the Yeldon we saw against West Virginia ran with that ball tucked tightly. He also ran with a purpose and looked faster than ever. He became the first back at Alabama to ever rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and if he can continue to run with the power and speed that he displayed Saturday, he'll get to 1,000 again.

And that's even with Henry chugging right alongside him. I think Henry, who looks a like a tank on the field, could hit 1,000 yards as well. He's a bigger, more physical runner than Yeldon, but has that explosive speed to hit the home run ball. These two are going to absolutely punish defenses.

Don't forget about Kenyan Drake (982 career yards) or big ol' Jalston Fowler. When Drake gets on the field, he's the most dynamic running back the Tide has. He's the fastest and shiftiest of the three. He'll get more chances to run the ball and he'll show off that lightning speed and Playstation moves. Fowler doesn't have the speed that any of those other backs have, but he just runs people over. He's one of the toughest runners in the league.

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Alex Scarborough: It appears Aschoff beat me to the punch. The conservative in me -- don't even think I mean politics, OK? -- says to go with the backfield less likely to fail. And that, to me, is Alabama's. Yeldon has been the most consistent tailback in the county since bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in 2012. He's never had injury concerns and can do it all on the field: run, block, catch passes. His steady hand, combined with the dynamite talents of Henry and Drake, makes for a terrific trio at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's disposal.

But if I'm going for sheer upside, there's no question in my mind Georgia is the backfield to choose. Gurley, when healthy, is the best player in the country, hands down. He's big, strong and explosive. Backs that well built aren't supposed run as fast as he does. Yet he's the one guy I look at in the SEC and know he can take over the game whenever he wants. Just look at Saturday against Clemson. He got the ball only four times in the first half. So what'd he do? He went in on special teams and took the kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown. In the second half he ran for 154 yards, doing everything he could to win the Heisman Trophy Week 1 of the season.

You think Henry is a beast? Just look at Nick Chubb. You didn't need to see the freakish Herschel Walker-type photo that surfaced of him this summer to know how physically gifted the true freshman is. All you had to do was watch Clemson's defenders struggle to tackle him Saturday. He was a bowling ball with jets, running around or right through would-be tacklers. No one in college football has a better yards per rush average (17.5) than he does (minimum four carries).

Oh, and lest we forget, there's also Keith Marshall and Sony Michel to consider. When Marshall is healthy, we all know what he brings to the table. But Michel, another freshman, has the chance to be special. He's a lot like Drake. Each time he touched the football against Clemson, it looked as if he was shot out of a cannon. Six carries for 33 yards may not sound like much, but watch the tape.

Good luck to the poor souls trying to tackle Michel, Marshall and Chubb after Gurley has pounded them for three quarters. With Georgia's emerging offensive line, it looks like power football is the way to go.

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ATLANTA -- Blake Sims wouldn’t say if he ever thought there was a question that he’d be Alabama’s starting quarterback on Saturday. But the faint smile he tried to contain when asked might have said otherwise.

Regardless of whether Sims ever worried about beating out Jacob Coker during fall camp, the starting job is his, and after a decent first start -- and win -- it’s clear his team has the utmost trust in him to be the leader in Tuscaloosa.

“He earned that position to start and did a fantastic job at it,” safety Landon Collins said.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims completed 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards in his debut as starter.
Of course there were hiccups for Sims, who is now in charge of leading the No. 2 team in the country. There were underthrows, overthrows and throws behind receivers. Sims will by no means earn any Heisman points with his performance during the Crimson Tide’s 33-23 win over West Virginia on Saturday inside the Georgia Dome, but he earned a ton of respect from his teammates and coaches with 250 yards and an interception. And we all know that openers can tell you only so much about what a team or individual players will look like come November.

Sims knows he was far from perfect, but he also knows he rebounded well after some poor plays to march the Tide down the field for scoring drives. He actually directed back-to-back scoring drives twice in the first half of his debut. He was a leader who calmed guys down in the huddle. And he learned from his own mistakes as the game went on.

Most importantly, he learned that handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will make his job much easier, and targeting Amari Cooper is a very, very good thing. He hit Cooper 12 times for 130 yards, and it’s no surprise that his first attempt went Cooper’s way, which resulted in a 24-yard pickup.

“It got the nerves out. That let me know that everybody’s behind me,” Sims said.

Oh, and they were. Players said they never got down on Sims when he struggled or got out of rhythm in the second half. His coach even went against his own nature and implemented some no-huddle in the second half to get Sims more comfortable and loosen him up after a slow start.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guy,” offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. “I’ve been here five years with him and I’m happy [for him]. He played an awesome game.

“I told him before the game, ‘Man, we got you. Don’t worry about a thing. Whatever you do, we’ll back you 100 percent and we’ll get you out of it.’”

Coach Nick Saban said Sims got a little rattled in the second half and called some formations incorrectly that forced the Tide to burn a couple of timeouts. Saban even flirted with the idea of bringing Coker in, but decided to leave Sims in and see how the no-huddle helped him.

Good call.

“That one little stretch in the second quarter where we got a little bit out of sync was really the only time, but I thought Blake did a really good job,” Saban said. “… But all in all for him to throw for 250 yards, he did a pretty good job of executing, and I’m happy with his progress.”

Sims was happy with his performance but understands he still has a ways to go. There were easy throws that he just plain missed on, but he turned around and stood tall with some big passes to extend drives. He threw out of bounds when he needed. He checked down when he had to. And his legs got him out of a few sticky situations.

“I feel like I did OK,” Sims said. “I can get better in all situations.”

He’ll have to, and the next few tuneups before facing Florida’s defense should help him do that.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2014
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What a weekend of college football. The SEC kicked off the festivities with three games on Thursday night and wrapped it all up with the Tennessee-Utah State game on Sunday night. Here's a look at the five best performances from Week 1.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.

Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.

Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.

Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.

ATLANTA -- We got a little bit of a shootout inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but No. 2 Alabama prevailed with a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Season openers can be tricky -- and sometimes ugly -- and Alabama, which is a favorite to make the College Football Playoff, had a relatively up-and-down performance in the ATL, but will head back to Tuscaloosa 1-0.

New starting quarterback Blake Sims had some rough moments against West Virginia, but regrouped well and made some big plays throughout the game with his arm and legs. Finding All-SEC receiver Amari Cooper was smart (12 catches for 130 yards), but handing the ball off to his running backs really paid off, especially when he gave the rock to Derrick Henry halfway through the third quarter.

1. Hustling Henry

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Let's face it, the third quarter of this game started off a little stale. After seeing 37 points and 500 yards of offense in the first half, we got a failed fourth-down attempt and a missed field goal. Then, things started clicking for the Crimson Tide on their second drive. With Alabama moving at will against the Mountaineers' defense, Sims handed the ball off to the super sophomore, who immediately cut to his left. As a hole opened up, Henry put on the jets and flew through both lines before pushing off one last defender and leaping into the end zone to put Alabama up 27-17 with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama only managed two more field goals after Henry's score. It proved to be the biggest score of the game for the Crimson Tide, as they fought off a valiant comeback effort from the Mountaineers.

Henry: "It was the outside zone play and the tight end made the block and I just read it. I hit the hole and [went] right into the end zone."

Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen: "It gave us more energy and more focus because once we make a big play, we want to capitalize on it and try to keep that momentum going. It really got the momentum in our favor when Derrick scored."

Right tackle Austin Shepherd: "I think we were going 'Speed Ball' or something and we were just trying to wear West Virginia down so we were just going fast. I guess the hole opened and he got out there and made it work. We were just trying to attack and we did. ... We were trying to punish them, man. Every chance you got, drive them into the ground, get in their hand and they'll start thinking about it and finally they'll wear down."

2. Slippery snap

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Henry's play didn't officially put the game away for Alabama, but a bad snap from West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky severely hurt the Mountaineers' chances of pulling of a major upset Saturday. With Alabama clinging to a 30-20 lead with 14:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers closed in on what should have been another touchdown drive. Quarterback Clint Trickett had already marched his offense down to Alabama's 5-yard line and after two tough incomplete passes that took two touchdowns off the board, Trickett lined up in the shotgun, only to have Orlosky send the snap soaring over his head and outstretched arms. The ball hit the ground and rolled a bit before Trickett landed on it 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play took the Mountaineers out of touchdown range and forced them to kick a field goal. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could barely stand to look at the field after Trickett collapsed on the ball. It swallowed up all the momentum the Mountaineers had and clearly sapped some of the offense's energy. Only a couple plays later, West Virginia got the ball back by way of a Sims interception, but went three plays and punted.

Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
10:00
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Best of luck to the defensive coordinators tasked with devising game plans for Alabama this season. Sure, there’s no more AJ McCarron to deal with under center. That has to be a relief. But there’s more to the offense than the quarterback, and they know that. The receivers, the running backs, the tight ends -- those are the ones they have to worry about. And at each level of the Crimson Tide's offense, there’s a mismatch waiting to keep those coordinatorss up at night.

Let’s start with O.J. Howard. How do you cover that guy? His numbers as a true freshmen weren’t overwhelming -- 14 receptions, 269 yards, two touchdowns -- but that belies his athleticism and potential as a pass-catcher. For instance, his average of 19.2 yards per catch led Alabama last season. He’s 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and moves like a receiver. You can’t put a linebacker on him. He’ll make one move and leave them in the dust. You can’t put an undersized DB on him, either. He’ll push them around and create the space he needs to get open.

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard's combination of size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and speed make him particularly difficult to defend.
"Having a guy like that," coach Nick Saban said, "really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense.”

Said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: “O.J. is really extremely talented .... We’re working more with him about speed and his ability to do everything.”

Don’t focus too much on Howard, though. If you chip him at the line of scrimmage with an extra linebacker, you might miss on whoever pops out of the backfield behind him.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are mismatches in their own right. Yeldon, on the one hand, is a one-cut back who will chip away until he’s hit 100 yards and a couple touchdowns. Henry, meanwhile, is simply no fun to tackle. Running backs aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and run like that. Oklahoma’s defense had trouble getting a hand on him, and when they did they couldn’t bring him down.

But it’s not Yeldon or Henry who poses the biggest schematic challenge. The third back, Kenyan Drake, is the one you’ll have trouble accounting for. He’s Alabama’s change-up, except he throws you off with acceleration. His speed is uncanny, as evidenced by his 7.54 yards per carry average (fifth nationally among qualifying backs). Once he hits the hole and gets to the second level of the defense, he’s gone. And when you look at him in the context of Kiffin’s offense -- a shifty back with speed and the ability to catch the football -- there’s one obvious comparison to make: Reggie Bush. In each of Alabama’s last two scrimmages, Drake has taken to the role of receiver, leading the team in receptions with a combined seven catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.

“Drake is like a cat to me, very slippery runner,” said wideout Amari Cooper at SEC media days. “You can’t turn your head when he’s running the ball because he can make the big play at any time.”

Cooper should know. He’s the team’s most consistently explosive offensive weapon. The junior from South Florida isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he has that certain knack for getting open. As a freshman, he became the first rookie receiver in Alabama history to reach 1,000 yards. In spite of dealing with an assortment of nagging injuries last season, he caught 45 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns. In his final two games against Auburn and Oklahoma, he accounted for 327 total yards of offense.

As Saban put it: “He’s pretty hard to stop unless you put two guys on him.”

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Saban said this spring. "He’s got great speed. He’s got really good hands. He’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.”

On paper, Alabama’s skill players have the potential to be among the best in the SEC. When you have to account for the tight end, running back and receiver, it puts defensive coordinators in a bind. But even so, there’s still the question of how it all comes together. Without a strong offensive line, they won’t matter. Without a serviceable quarterback, there won’t be anyone to get them the football.

The good news for Alabama is that whether it’s Blake Sims or Jake Coker who ends up under center, he’ll have plenty of firepower to work with.
Derrick HenryAP Photo/AL.com, Vasha HuntDerrick Henry hopes to pick up where he left off at the end of last season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His dreadlocks were a little longer. They were brighter, too, turned yellow at the tail end of each strand, presumably by bleach. But beyond that, there wasn’t much different about Derrick Henry when he met with the media on Thursday night at Alabama.

If anything, he sounded more tired than usual.

“It was a good offseason,” the weary sophomore said. “Feel like I worked hard, progressed as a player, got in better condition just so I’d be ready for fall camp.”

Standing before him, you’d think he wasn’t the talk of college football. Henry’s 161-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was a revelation. It was the former five-star prospect’s “this is me” moment after doing relatively little during the regular season. He went from under the radar to a Heisman Trophy contender in the span of one night in New Orleans, running over and around would-be tacklers.

But if you were looking for Henry to feel as if he’d arrived, you were left wanting. He may be one of the biggest running backs in all of college football at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, but his ego on Thursday seemed nonexistent. He said all the right things -- “We’re excited for fall camp.” “We’re all working hard.” “I just make sure I’m on my P's and Q's.” -- and deferred to his teammates at all the right times.

Was he even aware of the hype surrounding him?

“I definitely tune it out. You’ve got to stay humble," he said.

Is there anything he wants to improve on?

“Everything," he said. "I just want to become a complete back.”

How about your 40-yard dash? Have you timed yourself?

“No, no, no.”

Maybe he didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire. Expectations are enormous as it is. People think he’s fast for his size already. Giving them an actual measurement would only prompt further discussion.

What's been lost in the Henry Hype Machine -- and what Henry himself seems to realize -- is that he hasn’t really done all that much up to this point. The starter ahead of him, T.J. Yeldon, has more than 2,000 career rushing yards. Kenyan Drake, who many assume will be the third back behind Yeldon and Henry, had 694 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Henry’s actual numbers as a freshman: 36 carries, 382 rushing yards, three touchdowns. He had one reception, which came against Oklahoma.

"I’d say I have a lot to prove," he said. "I don’t see I’ve done anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived or anything like that."

If Henry was willing to concede anything, it was that he feels more comfortable in the offense now. He was never asked to block or pass protect in high school, where he set the national record for career rushing yards. Now, he said, “I feel like I can catch the ball pretty well,” which is something new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is asking of all the running backs.

“I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," he said. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play.”

Last season he was nervous. He wasn’t relaxed enough and “letting it all come to me,” he said. Now he knows what he’s doing. Now he said he’s “playing fast.”

That should be a scary thought for the SEC. We all saw what Henry playing fast looked like against Oklahoma. If he can replicate that, he and Yeldon and Drake could form one of the best backfields in the country.

Just don’t expect any kind of riff there. Sharing carries won't be an issue, Henry said.

“Coach will make a decision on how he wants to play. Like I said, whenever I’m in, I’m going to go in there and execute a play, play fast, know what I’m saying?”

We do. But good luck telling that to the people who gave you 20/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Good luck telling that to the people saying you should start ahead of Yeldon and Drake. They see a completely different Derrick Henry than a season ago.

SEC 1,000-yard rushers for 2014

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
4:00
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On Monday, we checked out the SEC quarterbacks who could hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2014. After so many good quarterbacks left the league after the 2013 season, I went with four making it to 3,000.

Next up, we're looking at the folks who like running the ball. This is where the SEC could really strike gold this fall. There are a plethora of talented running backs returning in 2014 who could really wear down some of those stout defensive fronts around the league.

Last year, eight players (including a quarterback) rushed for at least 1,000 yards:
The league lost four of those players, but it shouldn't have a problem replacing them. As for how many players will hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, I'm going with nine. Here are the 14 who I think could reach 1,000 yards:

1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: Even with the nagging injuries he's dealt with in his past, Gurley enters the 2014 as arguably the nation's best running back. After sitting out a month last season, Gurley still rushed for 989 yards and 6 yards per carry. He has that rare combination of size, strength and explosion.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon will once again be a key cog in Alabama's offense this fall.
2. Yeldon: He's the only back in Alabama history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two years on campus. There are a lot of offensive weapons for Alabama to work with this fall, but Yeldon's breakaway speed and grinding ability make him a back to be reckoned with.

3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Yeldon might be the starter, but Henry will get plenty of carries this fall. Alabama is no stranger to having multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and with a new quarterback coming in, expect Nick Saban to give his backs the ball as much as possible. This freak, tank-like athlete should blow past last year's 382 yards.

4. Davis: He's one of the toughest, most explosive backs around. Somehow, Davis' legs never seem to stop moving when he gets going. He finished with 1,183 yards and had seven games in which he rushed for more 100 yards or more in 2013.

5. Tra Carson, Texas A&M: He only rushed for 329 yards last year, but now that he's the lead back for the Aggies, he'll be asked to do more than just be a short-yardage guy. Carson has home-run speed, a ton of strength and is tough to bring down in space.

6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: You might not have noticed the fact that he barely missed the 1,000-yard mark last year by 100 yards because of Arkansas' forgettable season, but Williams is the real deal. He's strong, fast and tough. Arkansas will use more than one back, but that won't stop Williams from reaching 1,000 yards.

7. Leonard Fournette, LSU: The freshman version of Michael Jordan, Fournette will have every opportunity to hit 1,000 yards. He wasn't the nation's No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class for nothing. Fournette has everything you'd want in a feature back, and he'll immediately make an impact for the Tigers.

8. Collins: He'll continue to battle Williams for carries this fall, but that won't be a problem. He dropped off a little after a fast start last season, but he still became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004.

9. Marshall: Yes, he's working to throw more and become more confident in the passing game, but Marshall knows that his legs are his bread and butter. As long as Gus Malzahn is running the zone-read, Marshall will continue to pile up rushing yards.

10. Cameron Artis-Payne/Corey Grant, Auburn: The Tigers aren't afraid to use multiple backs. Both of these guys ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last fall behind Tre Mason. One of these guys could be the lead back, or they'll work together. Either way, Auburn will be deadly on the ground.

11. Kelvin Taylor, Florida: The sophomore is faster, leaner and more agile this year after rushing for 508 yards last fall. He's still a handful to bring down and the hope in Gainesville is that Kurt Roper's offense opens up the running game even more.

12. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: He's an incredibly explosive back, who could be primed for a breakout season this fall. With his strength and speed, he should have no problem surpassing the 685 yards he had last year.

13. Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: A wrecking ball in a smaller package, Robinson is finally taking over as the Bulldogs' lead back. Behind LaDarius Perkins last fall, Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.

14. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards last season, but his coaches would like him to throw the ball a little bit more this fall. You just can't take the runner out of the player, so Prescott could still push for 1,000 yards.

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
11:45
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama wasn’t missing just three players to start fall camp on Friday.

In addition to announcing the suspensions of Brandon Ivory, Jarran Reed and Tim Williams, coach Nick Saban updated the status of two highly coveted signees who have not made it to campus.

“Two freshmen that are not here,” Saban said. “Bo Scarbrough, we have an appeal in place because he is very close to qualifying. That will take some time. We will have a plan here at his high school to try to do the things that he needs to do to finish and be able to qualify. And our goal is to get him here in January.

Montel McBride did not qualify and will be placed in junior college.”

McBride was one of six offensive linemen in the 2014 class. Multiple reports have the three-star prospect heading to Iowa Western Community College.

Scarbrough, on the other hand, was a much more highly regarded recruit. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound native of Northport, Alabama, was a five-star prospect and the No. 2 ranked athlete in his class, according to ESPN. He was the first to commit to the Crimson Tide from the 2014 class, which ranked No. 1 in the country.

Scarbrough, even if he had qualified, would have faced quite an uphill battle for playing time at running back, where T.J. Yeldon and his 2,343 career rushing yards are firmly atop the depth chart. Talented sophomore Derrick Henry, who scored two touchdowns and accounted for 161 total yards against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, is not far behind, and he’s trailed by junior Kenyan Drake, who had 694 yards on the ground and averaged 7.5 yards per carry last season. There’s also Jalston Fowler, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones in the mix.

Without Ivory and Reed, Alabama is in a bigger pickle. Ivory was one of only five returning starters on the defense after starting all 13 games at nose guard last season. And Reed, a junior college transfer, was expected to push for reps at the same position. Now the incumbent is Darren Lake, who played in all 13 games last season and mustered only 15 tackles, none of which resulted in a loss.

To balance the good with the bad, Alabama welcomed back corner Eddie Jackson to the practice field only a few months after tearing his ACL during spring practice.

The sophomore, who started four games last season, wore a brace to protect his surgically repaired knee.

Jackson is on a “pitch count,” according to Saban, but he prefaced his comments by saying that Jackson had a successful rehab this summer and is is doing “really, really well."

“With these guys, it's always about how much can they do before they start to get sore or before they start to break down relative to where they are,” he said. “We'd like to just not push the envelope too far that we get to that point. We're going to kind of keep him on a pitch count that will gradually increase and see when he gets back to 100 percent.

“Eddie took all the tests and passed them, so straight-line running is not the issue. It's cutting, changing direction, doing those kinds of things and see what issues those things create. But we're very encouraged with where he's at."

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