SEC: Jacob Coker
11. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama
One of the SEC’s feel-good stories of the year, Sims was not the favorite to win Alabama’s starting quarterback job once news broke that Jacob Coker planned to transfer from Florida State. But the fifth-year senior Sims not only claimed the job, he had an excellent season. He finished second in the nation in Total QBR (85.8) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and helped the Crimson Tide win the SEC title. This week he’s at the Senior Bowl trying to grab a job in the NFL, which would have seemed very unlikely before his standout senior season.
12. Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn
He was Tre Mason’s backup when Auburn shocked the college football world by reaching the BCS title game in 2013, but Artis-Payne proved as a senior that he has plenty of game himself. He led the SEC with 1,608 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and he figures to be an early-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft after rushing for 100 yards or more nine times in 13 games in 2014.
13. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
One of the SEC’s most entertaining players, Cooper can do it all. Take his performance against Tennessee, for example. Cooper caught 11 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns, took a direct snap and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds and also rushed for an 11-yard score. If Cooper had played defense, too, maybe South Carolina would have won the game instead of suffering an excruciating overtime loss. Nonetheless, Cooper was nothing short of outstanding as a sophomore, finishing the season with 1,136 receiving yards and giving Steve Spurrier an obvious weapon to utilize entering the 2015 season.
14. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
The leading tackler on Mississippi State’s “Psycho Defense,” McKinney was probably the group’s emotional leader as well. He won first-team All-SEC honors after totaling 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries and decided to enter the NFL draft after a strong redshirt junior season. The 6-foot-5 inside linebacker is the No. 1 prospect at his position, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who said last month that McKinney is “a good bet to be a first-rounder if the draft were tomorrow.”
15. A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina
Another of Kiper’s top positional prospects, Cann heads the list among guards for the upcoming draft. It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Cann was again the rock on the Gamecocks’ veteran offensive line. He and his fellow linemen’s protection helped Dylan Thompson lead the league in passing, and Cann was named to several All-SEC and All-America squads after the season. Not a bad way to cap an outstanding career as a Gamecock.
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama and Ohio State spent an hour apiece at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Tuesday's media day leading up to their meeting in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day.
Here are some of the highlights from Alabama's morning interview session:
Alabama coach Nick Saban on Jim Harbaugh's return to college coaching at Michigan: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Harbaugh family. I knew his dad when he was a secondary coach at Michigan and I was a secondary coach and we used to spend time together. So to see both of the Harbaughs do really, really well as NFL coaches in Baltimore and San Francisco, tremendous amount of respect for the entire family, and Tom Crean, who is the head basketball coach in Indiana, is married to another Harbaugh coach, which I'm sure she does a good job of supporting him just like my wife does me. And they were at Michigan State when we were there. He was an assistant for Tom Izzo, and we were really good friends. So I've had a good relationship with the entire Harbaugh family for probably 30 years. So I'm happy and excited that someone of Jim Harbaugh's character and quality is going to come back and be a part of college football."
Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest on growing up in Ohio and the difference between Alabama and Ohio State fans: "It's similar. Ohio State, they've got some diehard fans, too, regardless of the situation, whether it's up or down, just like the fans in Tuscaloosa. They do a good job regardless of the situation with us. If we're down, they're still going to scream for us."
Quarterback Jake Coker on the importance of winning to protect SEC bragging rights: "We always talk, I guess trash-talk, because we are in the SEC. If we didn't say the SEC was the best, then there'd be something wrong with us because we came to play in the SEC for a reason. So heck, we've just got to make the SEC look good."
Coker on whether he felt that way last season as a Florida State player before transferring to Alabama prior to this season: "I don't know. There were some really good ACC teams, and hey, the ACC's a really good conference, especially this year now that they've acquired all those other teams. But my stance on it this year is the SEC's the best, I'll tell you that."
Alabama safety Landon Collins on whether it's difficult for an opposing offense to function because of the way the Crimson Tide defense disguises its coverages: "That would be a question to ask Blake [Sims, Alabama's quarterback] because he plays against us all the time. I mean it would be one of the hardest because we sometimes will sit there. Then I know me and Nick [Perry], we'll try to mess with the quarterback. We'll look at the quarterback and just sit there and just stare at him the whole time while he's looking at us to see whether we're going to move or anything like that. But by the time he thinks it's going to be something, we've totally changed the whole front."
Collins on how Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones might have difficulty against those disguised coverages since this will be only his second career start: "When you mess with a quarterback that just got in the game and has to play a defense like ours, definitely it's going to be a competition for him because they don't know what we're going to throw at them and what we're coming with."
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland on how his family and his roommate Collins' family typically hang out together at their apartment after games -- for a little while, anyway: "After the game and stuff, we'll crack up and have jokes, and then it's time for them to get up out of our house."
Cornerback Eddie Jackson on the key to defending Ohio State's speedy receivers: "Basically just keeping the receivers cut off, not letting them stretch the field vertically because they are pretty fast, nice route-running receivers so they can get down the field. And also going to get the ball at its highest point when it's in the air. A lot of times quarterbacks just throw the ball up and receivers go up to make plays, so we're going to try our best to keep them cut off."
Fullback Jalston Fowler on what it takes to play multiple positions (also including running back, tight end and receiver) like he does: "It's a whole bunch of knowledge I have to have. You have to look over that playbook a lot because you've got to know what you're doing at receiver, you've got to know what you're doing at H-back, you've got to know what you're doing at running back. So it's just a lot for me, but I appreciate it because it helps me show my versatility."
NEW ORLEANS -- There was a time when Lane Kiffin fully expected to coach Blake Sims in college. Only the year was 2010 and the school was Tennessee.
In fact, Kiffin believes that was a likely outcome before his abrupt departure from Tennessee. Instead, he became USC’s head coach and Sims held firm on his commitment to Alabama -- and the working relationship between coach and quarterback didn't begin until this season, when Kiffin accepted Nick Saban's offer to become the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.
"I met Blake when he was in high school. He was committed to Alabama," said Kiffin, who was Tennessee's head coach in 2009 and accepted the USC job a few weeks before national signing day in 2010. "Myself and Ed Orgeron went to his high school, went to his home with his family, spent an entire day with him. He can tell you the story -- I don't know if he's ever told it-- and he's decommitting to Alabama to come to Tennessee. And I don't know the exact timing, but it might be one or two days later when we go to USC.
Their partnership at Alabama has been more successful than most college football observers would have predicted. Sims, a converted running back and a fifth-year senior, had been a forgotten man behind AJ McCarron at Alabama. Even this season, most expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to overtake him and win the starting job.
Even Sims was inundated with such insinuations before the season.
"Pretty much [I heard] that the position was already [given] to Jacob. That's what I was hearing," Sims said. "But even when Jacob came and I started hearing all these good things and people were putting me on the back burner, I didn't let that change my personality towards him."
Instead, Sims won the job during preseason practice and held onto the job once the season started. He capped the regular season by finishing second nationally in Total Quarterback Rating (88.5) and winning MVP honors when the Crimson Tide routed Missouri in the SEC championship game.
For a guy who was once an afterthought and easily could have opted to transfer elsewhere in search of a better opportunity to play, Sims turned in an awfully successful final college season.
"We're in an age now with kids of, 'Things don't go my way, we're going to move you. We don't like the coach there, we're going to put you on a different team because he doesn't play you.' As opposed to you stay and you play and you fight through it. And Blake's an example of that," Kiffin said.
Not only did he stay and fight through it, Sims never made his competition against Coker into an issue that could divide the locker room. Quite the opposite, actually.
Offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio recalled how media members made a big deal out of Sims being the first to congratulate Coker on the field after the backup capped an early-season drive with a touchdown.
"Some people say they're in it for the team, but you can tell he really is," Kouandjio recalled. "I remember like one of the first games or something like that, I think before he really solidified his role as the starting quarterback, I remember Jake scored a touchdown and … the media made a big deal of him running over to Jake and being the first one there. I agree that it was a big deal. I like that a lot. I shook my head -- in a positive way, though."
That mentality is why Sims was a popular choice among teammates to claim the job. But it was his production that helped him keep it.
He might not have been the Tide's anticipated starting quarterback before the season began, but he still led his team to a No. 1 national ranking entering the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State. And he played a vital role as Kiffin beefed up the passing game, completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
"[I'm] just happy for him because he's showing he can run a system that is part NFL and part spread and the success that he's had," Kiffin said, "where a year ago I don't think anybody would think about this guy potentially being drafted in the NFL, which now he should be drafted. His performance and what he's done, he's shown. When you watch the film and watch the tape of him, what has he put on there that he cannot do? He's done everything."
Florida Atlantic at No. 2 Alabama, SEC Network
This one could get ugly, as the Crimson Tide defense -- the secondary, in particular -- looks to bounce back and earn some trust from coach Nick Saban after last week's too-close-for-comfort 33-23 win over West Virginia. The Owls, who lost 55-7 in their season opener at Nebraska last week, should be just what Alabama needs in its home opener. All eyes will be on Bama's quarterbacks after Saban said he would "probably" play ballyhooed backup Jake Coker along with Blake Sims, the starter. Sims was solid as a game-manager type in Week 1, but if he slips at all, Coker could make a bid for the starting job.
No. 24 Missouri at Toledo, ESPN
Gary Pinkel was the coach at Toledo from 1991 to 2000 before taking the same position at Missouri, so he's doing his old school a solid by playing on the road this week. Toledo played at Mizzou last season and lost a competitive game 38-23, but this version of the Rockets is improved. Quarterback Phillip Ely, an Alabama transfer, threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in the Rockets' season-opening 54-20 win against New Hampshire. The Tigers are just a five-point favorite in this game, according to Bovada. Missouri QB Maty Mauk and Co. will look to continue their big-play ways, but Toledo is one of just two teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown of 40 yards or more since the start of the 2013 season.
Arkansas State at Tennessee, SEC Network
The Vols opened some eyes with a convincing 38-7 victory in their opener against Utah State. Particularly impressive was their defense, which held Utah State and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton to 244 yards of total offense. The Volunteers will need a repeat performance against an Arkansas State offense that should not be overlooked. The Red Wolves have been to bowl games in each of their past three seasons and added the formidable offensive mind of coach Blake Anderson, formerly the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.
2 p.m. ET
MSU had a terrific opening week. We knew the defense was one of the best in the SEC, but quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs' offense showed a lot of bite in a 49-0 rout of Southern Miss. Prescott threw for a career-high 284 yards, and two of his four passing touchdowns went to electric athlete De'Runnya Wilson. Mississippi State faces another Conference USA foe this week in the Blazers, who could provide more of a test for MSU's run defense. UAB rushed for 338 yards in a 48-10 Week 1 win against Troy, including Jordan Howard's standout effort (179 yards and two TDs).
3:30 p.m. ET
Ohio at Kentucky, ESPNU
The Wildcats kicked the basketball offseason to the back burner last week when their fast-breaking offense captured everyone's attention in a 59-14 feel-good win against Tennessee-Martin. The 59 points were especially crowd-pleasing after Kentucky averaged just 20.5 last season. Sure, Tennessee-Martin offered little resistance, but UK quarterback Patrick Towles showed a command of the offense in his first start, racking up 377 yards passing. The only downer for the Cats is that former Nebraksa transfer RB Braylon Heard, who dazzled last week with touchdown runs of 73 and 43 yards, is doubtful with an ankle injury.
4 p.m. ET
Eastern Michigan at Florida, SEC Network
The Gators are chomping at the bit to play after last week's deluge wiped away their season opener against Idaho. And guess what? There's a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday as well. Because this will be Florida's first game of the season, it's worth noting that UF has the nation's second-longest winning streak in season openers with 24 (behind Nebraska's 29). The Gators' defense should feast on EMU's run-heavy offense. On the other side of the ball, Florida is debuting a no-huddle spread offense that should better suit athletic dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Nicholls State at Arkansas, SEC Network
The Razorbacks are riding a losing streak of epic proportions -- a school-record 10 games, dating to last season. They haven't won since Sept. 14, coach Bret Bielema's third game. Almost a year later, Arkansas has a plum chance to get off the schneid against an FCS team that will be facing an SEC foe for the first time in its history. Arkansas might have gained a measure of pride from their first-half performance at Auburn last week, but the offense generated just 61 second-half yards after piling up 267 in the first half. The defense showed it still has a long way to go, giving up 595 yards to the Tigers' offense.
4:30 p.m. ET
No. 15 Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, ESPN
Finally, a competitive game to discuss. This week's sole conference matchup pits permanent interdivision rivals who have been separated by a total of five points in their past two meetings. Ole Miss won last season but is just 1-9 in its past 10 conference openers. These teams have something in common. Vanderbilt would like to forget last week's embarrassing 37-7 loss to a Temple team that won just two games in 2013. Ole Miss would like to forget the first 3½ quarters its offense needed to get back on track against Boise State. Rebels QB Bo Wallace had 387 yards and four touchdowns passing last week but raised some eyebrows with three first-half interceptions.
7 p.m. ET
San Jose State at No. 5 Auburn, ESPN2
Nick Marshall makes his first start of the season at quarterback for the Tigers. He sat the first half last week as punishment for being cited for marijuana possession in July. His understudy, Jeremy Johnson, impressed in Auburn's season-opening win against Arkansas and will surely see time in this one, even if it's just garbage time. The Spartans are an improving Mountain West program, but their SEC history has been flat-out ugly. They have played SEC teams four times and lost all four, giving up 113 points (while scoring just six) in their past two meetings with SEC foes.
East Carolina at No. 21 South Carolina, ESPNU
The Gamecocks heard all offseason about what a dangerous and underrated opponent they've got in Week 2. But South Carolina was humbled last week in the first national spotlight game of the young season and should have every motivation to rebound in a big way against the Pirates. After getting torched for 680 yards and 52 points by Texas A&M's offense, South Carolina has to shore up its pass defense against ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for a school-record 4,139 yards last season and led the Pirates to 10 wins. Gamecocks QB Dylan Thompson and his offensive line performed well in Week 1. This one's all on the defense.
7:30 p.m. ET
Lamar at No. 9 Texas A&M, SEC Network
Who's this Lamar fella and how is he going to keep up with Kenny Hill? In all seriousness, the Lamar Cardinals are a middling FCS program based in Beaumont, Texas. This game promises to be a lopsided affair, but at least Hill likely won't have to play all four quarters. Before his record-breaking coming-out party against the Gamecocks, Hill supposedly was in a close competition for the starting job with talented true freshman Kyle Allen, the No. 1 rated quarterback coming out of high school last year. If Hill plays anywhere close to the level of his debut, Allen should get some quality time with A&M's voluminous weapons.
Sam Houston State at No. 12 LSU, SEC Network
Coming off a dramatic comeback win against then-No. 14 Wisconsin last week, it just doesn't seem fair for the Tigers to face an FCS opponent in Death Valley. The Bearkats are averaging more than 600 yards of offense in their first two games. But LSU has played FCS opponents six times in Les Miles' nine years and outscored them by a combined 232-64. The real intrigue here is the Tigers' QB situation. Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings completed less than half of his attempts last week, but freshman Brandon Harris looked worse in his only series.
Top Week 2 stories:
Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.
3:30 p.m. ET
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.
West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.
4 p.m. ET
Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.
5:30 p.m. ET
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.
7 p.m. ET
Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.
7:30 p.m. ET
Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.
9 p.m. ET
No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.
Sunday, 7 p.m. ET
Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.
Top Week 1 stories:
2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.
3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."
More from around the SEC
- It's been a long time since Tennessee defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt played, 656 days to be exact. The junior expects to be emotional come Sunday night.
- Missouri has the country's longest active turnover streak.
- Florida is confident in what's ahead on offense behind new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
- Georgia will be missing Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on Saturday. Will the Bulldogs be able to stretch the field without them?
- Getting new starting quarterback Patrick Towles into a comfort zone is an important task for coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown
KENNY FOOTBALL!!! #GigEm— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) August 29, 2014
Hill: I don't really like "Kenny Football." [crowd burst in laughter]— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) August 29, 2014
2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.
3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.
Around the SEC
- Newcomer Derrick Moncrief is living out family’s dream after long road to Auburn.
- Primetime opportunity: Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell excited for season opener.
- Rise of Pharoh: Coaches seek smart usage of South Carolina's versatile star.
- First-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has confidence in his starting quarterback.
2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.
3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.
Around the SEC
- Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen is still traveling the road to redemption.
- After missing most of last season, Keith Marshall is Georgia’s forgotten offensive star.
- No word yet: LSU’s starting quarterback still a mystery as game week begins.
- Smelling upset: Here is a list of Texas A&M's keys to victory against South Carolina.
2. Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the starting quarterback job is not yet situated. After a scrimmage Saturday, Alabama coach Nick Saban said that Blake Sims is "playing a little faster right now" than transfer Jacob Coker. As a fifth-year senior who has been in the Crimson Tide's system compared to Coker, who just arrived this summer, that's understandable. But with the season opener approaching, eyes begin to zero in on every twist and turn of the race. Saban declined to disclose his two quarterbacks' statistics from the scrimmage and made it clear that the coaching staff is not going to make a decision until "someone clearly wins the job." That's the right approach. It's beneficial to establish some kind of deadline so that when game week arrives, your starter is taking the first-team snaps and you're not splitting reps and allow your starter to develop a rhythm, but if it's still pretty close taking more time makes sense.
3. Arkansas held an open-to-the-public scrimmage on Saturday and there was plenty to take away, from the performance of quarterback Brandon Allen, the establishment of a backup (Austin Allen), a big day for Korliss Marshall and a glimpse of freshman receiver Jojo Robinson's ability. But perhaps the most entertaining bit came before the scrimmage, when Bielema grabbed the microphone and reminded the crowd not to video record the practice. "If you see someone videotaping, tell them that ain't right," Bielema said. "Especially if they're wearing an Auburn shirt, knock the s--- out of them." Of course, the Razorbacks open the season against Auburn and Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn have some differing opinions, but there's nothing wrong with a little good fun in the form of a joke to get your home crowd fired up.
More from around the SEC:
- Florida State is No. 1, but eight SEC teams make the preseason Top 25, released on Sunday. Here are the full rankings.
- LSU's quarterback battle is still too close to call between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings.
- A strong defensive effort and a shaky offensive one for Missouri in its scrimmage on Saturday.
Some people dream of playing in front of 40,000 fans, at Tennessee we practice in front of 40,000 fans! #Unbelievable— Butch Jones (@UTCoachJones) August 17, 2014
People rip UT fans. 1 winning season in 6 & this crowd shows up for Sat night practice pic.twitter.com/di7PtMDd3i— Tony Basilio (@TonyBasilio) August 16, 2014
2. Not mentioned above is maybe the most-talked about -- unless you're Nick Saban -- quarterback battle in the SEC, the battle between Jacob Coker and Blake Sims at Alabama. Coker transferred in from Florida State with the size, the big arm and the lofty expectations, but Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com is starting to think that Sims might actually start the season opener against West Virginia. Saban spoke highly of Sims during the SEC Network's launch ... but he made sure to compliment Coker, too. Some say both will play against the Mountaineers. A two-quarterback system? The last time Alabama tried that it didn't go so well. Maybe Saban and his staff know who the guy is and they're just playing us all. Maybe not.
3. Sad news Thursday as Georgia officially announced that Merritt Hall's football career was over. The junior fullback was medically disqualified for recurrent concussions. The latest incident came last week when he sustained a concussion during practice. The Bulldogs have since moved linebackers Detric Dukes and Christian Payne to fullback where they will remain during the season, but this brings back up the question, how do we prevent football players from sustaining similar injuries in the future? Tackling better? The USA Football organization, the youth partner of the NFL, is sponsoring the Heads Up Football campaign, one that teaches players to tackle an opponent by wrapping their arms around them, rather than ramming them with their heads. It's a start.
More around the SEC
- At Auburn: Star Robenson Therezie may not "be able to play early."
- At Florida: Gators' secondary might be young, but there's no lack of talent.
- At Missouri: Stagnation is not an option for Josh Henson in second year as coordinator.
With his Super Bowl ring shining, Jerome Bettis pulls aside Josh Robinson for one-on-one advice. Two bowling balls. pic.twitter.com/RXEXxrAI3Q— MSU Football (@HailStateFB) August 15, 2014
Five quarterbacks topped 3,000 passing yards -- Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards), Ole Miss' Bo Wallace (3,346 yards), LSU's Zach Mettenberger (3,082 yards), Georgia's Aaron Murray (3,075 yards) and Alabama's AJ McCarron (3,063 yards).
Only Wallace returns from that group, leaving the SEC with a handful of inexperienced and unproven quarterbacks. Oh, and defenses should be a lot better in 2014, making things that much tougher.
So how many will hit the 3,000-yard mark in 2014? I'll say four.
Here's my list in order of most likely to get to 3,000 yards:
2. Wallace, Ole Miss: Quietly, Wallace threw for 3,346 yards during his second season as the Rebels' quarterback. While Wallace has battled with inconsistency and a shoulder injury, he finally is healthy and is working with more confidence and zip on his passes.
3. Jacob Coker, Alabama: No, he hasn't been named Alabama's starter or even taken a real snap for the Crimson Tide, but come on, Coker is going to be the guy. He backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State last year and threw for 250 yards on 36 attempts. He doesn't have much experience, but he has receiving threats such as Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Chris Black and O.J. Howard.
4. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina: Another career backup, Thompson has thrown for 1,827 yards in his career. The senior spent plenty of time filling in for Connor Shaw in the past, so he knows his way around the SEC. He isn't a runner like Shaw, but Thompson might be a more polished passer.
5. Maty Mauk, Missouri: He went 3-1 as a starter last year when James Franklin was sidelined and threw for 1,071 yards. Mauk has everything you'd want in a starting quarterback, and he'd be higher on the list if there wasn't some uncertainty at receiver. If his chemistry with his receivers really gets going, watch out.
6. Nick Marshall, Auburn: Much more of a runner last fall, Marshall has been working on his passing. During the Tigers' BCS run, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards in a very run-heavy offense. Expect that number to increase with a more confident Marshall under center and more experience and talent at receiver.
7. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He's getting a lot of hype after a season filled with nagging injuries, but when Prescott is healthy, he can be a deadly player. Known for his running skills, Prescott returns the Bulldogs' top five receiving targets from last year. Prescott threw for 1,940 yards in 2013.
8. Jeff Driskel, Florida: You'd think Driskel, the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit coming out of high school a few years ago, would be higher on this list. But multiple offensive coordinators and a devastating leg injury from last year have Driskel low on the SEC quarterbacks totem pole. However, Kurt Roper's new offense fits Driskel better than any offense he has been in, so he has a chance to surpass his 2,271 career passing yards.
- LSU junior safety Jalen Mills, who was arrested in June after he was alleged to have punched a woman this spring, will be charged with misdemeanor simple battery. He has been suspended from the team since his arrest. Mills is one of two players missing from the team as the Tigers open training camp, with a quarterback battle headlining the coming weeks.
- When it comes to the Alabama quarterback competition, the majority of the attention is focused on Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. On Sunday, coach Nick Saban made it a point to say, "No one ever seems to ask about Blake Sims, but he has done extremely well so far in camp as well."
- If you're looking for a quarterback competition in Fayetteville, don't hold your breath. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said Brandon Allen is the starter and his teammates, like Bielema, have confidence in the junior signal-caller. Beyond that, the Razorbacks are ready to get down to business and are tired of talking.
- True freshman guard Braden Smith, an ESPN 300 recruit in Auburn's 2014 recruiting class, is drawing comparisons to Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.
- Vanderbilt's leading rusher from 2013, Jerron Seymour, sat out the Commodores' first four practices but coach Derek Mason said "Jerron will be out here soon enough."
- Overwhelmed at times last year, a 20-pound heavier Jordan Mastrogiovanni at middle linebacker is the key to a Texas A&M defense seeking improvement, a unit that defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said has the best depth it has had in three years.
- Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason wore a pin on Friday in honor of his fallen friend and high school teammate, former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. His story on why is touching.
- Vanderbilt senior Kyle Woestmann is making the transition from defensive end to linebacker. Mason said "He is ready."
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis wore a yellow no-contact jersey in practice on Sunday, but Steve Spurrier said Davis could be full-go in Monday's practice.
- Robert Nkemdiche is confident a strong sophomore season is on deck. So much so that the Ole Miss defensive tackle joked, "They're going to have to tell me to chill."
- Kentucky opened camp bright and early Monday morning. Junior college transfer safety A.J. Stamps was among the first day standouts for the Wildcats.
- Missouri hits the practice field Monday afternoon and with many new players stepping into key roles, the Tigers are preparing to write a new chapter while maintaining a long-established pattern of success under Gary Pinkel.
- Can Mississippi State take the next step? The Bulldogs believe this is the year.
- Vernon Hargreaves III has already established himself as an elite cornerback. Florida coach Will Muschamp says "He's a pro at what he does."
- Von Pearson's path to Tennessee, which included a journey that had him out of football for a time, has brought life to the Volunteers' receivers.
So Saban went to SEC media days and said things like, "I don't want to minimize the other quarterbacks," and insisted that, "This is an open competition, no doubt."
"Everyone knows that," he added for emphasis.
Except Coker is the clear favorite. He fits the system best, has the most talent and may be the most mature after three years of ups and downs at Florida State. He may not be as popular among teammates as incumbent Blake Sims, but he's ingratiating himself quickly if you take the word of wideouts Christion Jones and Amari Cooper, who described him as laid-back off the field and take charge between the lines.
"He looks great," Cooper said. "Strong arm, takes command in the huddle, which I think is very important. You can tell he's experienced. I'm ready to see how he progresses in fall camp."
"Jacob's doing a great job since he arrived in May," Jones said. "He's done an awesome job with our wide receivers, with our coaches, learning and doing all the little things right trying to become the quarterback we want him to be.
"But it's a competitive job for him as well, and he understands that, because we have three or four other guys that can help us win."
Really, though, it's not three or four guys competing for the starting job. It's Coker vs. Sims, to be sure. And if you believe Saban, it might be both.
"It's not something that I would hope would happen," Saban said. "Is it something that I can totally rule out? Not really because I think the skill set of Blake Sims can create problems for a defense. If we wanted to utilize him to do that in some kind of way, I guess you could say that we could possibly have a two-quarterback system."
That's right, folks, a two-quarterback system. Brace yourselves.
But to say that Sims' skill set is so different from Coker's isn't exactly true. Coker does have the tools of a prototypical pocket passer in that he's 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with above average arm strength. He's also an athlete, though. The former All-Metro basketball player at St. Paul's High School has speed and agility, and knows how to run the read-option having played quarterback in a wing-T offense as a prep.
"He's a different type of quarterback than Alabama has had," Jones explained. "I see no similarities with him or AJ [McCarron] or any other QB that's been here. He's a different type of release. He's bigger in size. He can move faster and quicker than most guys his size. He brings a lot to the table."
He brings the most to the table, which is why he will be Alabama's next starting quarterback.
Sims will push him. So will Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. But it's Coker's job to lose, whether Saban wants to come out and say it or not.
It may be a lot of pressure for a quarterback with zero career starts to handle, but at least one person thinks he can take it. It just so happens to be the one person who continues to try and keep the focus off of him.
"Let me just say this: Whoever the quarterback is at Alabama, they need to be able to manage external factors because there are lots of them," Saban said. "The clutter outside -- what people say, what people think -- you have to be able to stay focused on the process of things you need to do to play well and not worry about that stuff.
"So I would say that if you are putting too much pressure on him, that's his fault, and he needs to learn how to deal with it.
"He's never complained about it. I don't see him pressing. I like his disposition with the other players, how he engages with the other players. He just has to get comfortable with the offense. He's in a competitive situation with some other good players. It will just take a while for it to sort itself out."
How long, though, remains to be seen. Until then, prepare yourselves for plenty of coachspeak and very little talk of where each quarterback stands. We may believe it's Coker's job to lose, but don't hold your breath waiting for confirmation. Saban isn't going to tip his hand or handicap the race anytime soon.
It's an open competition, remember? Everyone knows that.
If you're just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.
We've crisscrossed the Southeast and even ventured outside the conference footprint in places like Houston and Oklahoma. We went to Columbia, South Carolina, for the season opener between the Gamecocks and the Aggies, and we made sure to hit up Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for Alabama-LSU.
Now that we've run the gamut, there are two more stops to make before the regular season comes to a close and our travels take us to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
So without further pause, let's take a look at the best options for Week 14:
Auburn at Alabama
Arkansas at Missouri
Florida at Florida State
Georgia Tech at Georgia
Kentucky at Louisville
LSU at Texas A&M (Nov. 27)
Mississippi State at Ole Miss
South Carolina at Clemson
Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Alex Scarborough's pick: Florida at Florida State
The Iron Bowl is awfully tempting, but I'm sure my colleague will pick Alabama-Auburn so I don't feel so bad going the other way. And frankly, I'm not so sure it will be the best game of the weekend anyways. Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC, but considering there's a new QB to break in and three new starters in the secondary, would anyone be surprised by the Tide had two losses by the end of November? Auburn, meanwhile, has a bear of a schedule that might make staying in the top 10 of the polls a difficult task.
With Florida State-Florida, I'm all but guaranteed a matchup with College Football Playoff implications. And, no, I'm not talking about the Gators. Given all the Seminoles return from a season ago and the fact that the schedule is, well, lenient (Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida are all at home), I'd be shocked if Florida State had more than one loss by Nov. 29.
That said, I see this being a much more competitive game than a year ago when Florida had all but given up by the time it hosted its rivals in Gainesville. This time the Gators won't be wishing for the season to end already. And if things do go miserably, there's always the intrigue of whether Will Muschamp will keep his job. So basically I'm covered no matter what.
And in the end, I'll get to see what this Jameis Winston character is all about. Harkening back to the soft schedule, I'll finally get to see what he and the Seminoles can do against a good defense, too, because let's face it, the ACC ain't bringing the wood. Florida, no matter its problems, can do just that. With Vernon Hargreaves III and Dante Fowler Jr., the Gators will be able to test FSU in the trenches and in the secondary.
Greg Ostendorf's pick: Auburn at Alabama
I appreciate my colleague letting me have the Iron Bowl on our road trip. I don't feel that bad because last year Alex had a front-row seat for what turned out to be maybe the greatest college football game in the last decade while I was forced to watch it on TV. No, I don't expect the same dramatic ending that we saw that night in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but it's the Iron Bowl and there's nothing quite like it in college football. Not Ohio State-Michigan, not Texas-Oklahoma and certainly not Florida-Florida State.
Will it be a matchup of two top-5 teams again? I doubt it. But that doesn't mean there won't be intrigue, and there will almost certainly be playoff implications. Keep in mind that the winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the last five national national championship games, winning four of them. At least one of these teams, maybe both, will be in the conversation again this year.
The matchup I'm most looking forward to is not amongst players but the rather the two coaches. Nick Saban is a renowned defensive coach while Gus Malzahn is considered an offensive genius. It's as much a mind game as anything when the two meet, and Malzahn got the better of Saban last year and in 2010 as offensive coordinator. Saban will be better prepared this year, but will Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall prove to be his kryptonite?
This will also be Jacob Coker's first Iron Bowl. Assuming he wins the quarterback job at Alabama, how will he handle the moment and the pressure that comes with this game?
There's a lot of intrigue already, and though the players won't admit it, this game is already in the back of their minds. There's nothing like the tradition, the pageantry, the tailgating and the overall atmosphere when Alabama and Auburn get together for the Iron Bowl.
You, me and everyone in between has former Florida State backup Jacob Coker taking the starting job in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but Saban isn't going to make it that easy. What Saban doesn't want is an overly confident quarterback walking into his program and screwing things up, so Saban's language makes sense.
Still, we're all pretty sure that Coker will leave fall practice ahead of Blake Sims and those youngsters who duked it out during spring practice.
While we might have it all figured out for the Crimson Tide, competition will take place next month to see who starts the opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30. And that's not the only QB battle that we'll be diving into in the coming weeks. Other teams are trying to sort things out under center heading into fall camp:
Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker vs. Reese Phillips vs. Maxwell Smith: Coming out of spring, Towles, a redshirt sophomore, had a slight lead over everyone. He's an impressive athlete and has matured considerably since his arrival on campus. Phillips and Barker have yet to take snaps with the Wildcats in a real game, but that won't stop the coaches from throwing them in on Day 1 of the season. Barker arrived with a ton of hype and is clearly the future of the position. Smith, the quarterback with the most experience on the roster, is finally throwing again after undergoing extensive shoulder surgery before the spring. If he's healthy, he'll compete, but it looks like this really is a three-horse race right now. Advantage: Towles
Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris: Jennings ended last season with mixed reviews after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger. And his spring got even tougher with the emergence of Harris, a true freshman. Both are incredibly inexperienced, but have that dual-threat quality that will help either this fall, as they try to run this offense. Harris really impressed his coaches and teammates this spring, and many think he might have a slight advantage. Coach Les Miles raved about him at SEC media days and praised his throwing ability, something Jennings has to work more on going forward. Advantage: Harris
Justin Worley vs. Josh Dobbs vs. Nathan Peterman: Worley is the old soul around the football complex. The senior had an up-and-down 2013 season that included thumb surgery, but left spring with a bit more confidence. Dobbs has the athleticism and upside to be a stud, but he has to get more comfortable in the pocket and mature as a passer. Peterman had limited reps this spring, causing some to think he would transfer, but he'll compete this fall for the starting job. Honestly, it's a murky situation at quarterback, but a complete overhaul of the offensive line might make it tough for any quarterback to succeed in 2014. Advantage: Worley
Kenny Hill vs. Kyle Allen: Hill's arrest during the spring perked a lot of ears in the Allen camp, but this race is far from over. While Hill is still looking to regain trust, he has more experience than Allen, a true freshman, and knows the Aggies' offense better to this point. Both are athletic guys, but you'll see a little more running out of Hill. Allen has the potential to be a star with his throwing ability and awareness in the pocket, and might be little more polished than Hill in that category. Sumlin isn't the kind of coach who wants to shuffle his quarterbacks, a la Steve Spurrier, but he won't be afraid to play both guys this fall if he has to. Advantage: Push
Patton Robinette vs. Johnny McCrary vs. Stephen Rivers vs. Wade Freebeck: During the spring, we thought this was going to come down to Robinette and McCrary. Robinette has the only game experience on the roster at quarterback, but McCrary is a big, physical player who can make plays with his arm and legs. He might be the most athletic of the bunch and is viewed as an exciting up-and-comer. But when Rivers transferred from LSU, things changed. He only has one year to compete, and his coaches are raving about him. Coach Derek Mason also likes that he's gotten bigger since his arrival. As for Freebeck, Mason calls him "phenomenal" and is intrigued by his size. He's grown two inches (6-foot-5 now) and is up to 217 pounds. Advantage: Push