SEC: Jake Coker

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before Saturday's Alabama-Florida game, Amari Cooper and Vernon Hargreaves III acted no different. Both players kept to themselves, showing no emotion despite the magnitude of the game. There was no trash talking when they lined up across from each other on that first play. There was a sense of respect.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Amari Cooper got the best of the personal matchup with Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III, but both played well.
It was no different after the game. Cooper finished with 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns, clearly winning the individual matchup, but there to congratulate him afterward was Hargreaves. It didn't matter that Hargreaves was banged up and missed the final eight minutes. He knew he was facing one of the nation's best.

"He just said, 'Good game. You played great," Cooper told reporters after the game. "He's a very humble player. You can tell he comes from a good family.”

Looking back, both played well. Cooper is obviously on another level and showed why he's the better of the two, but Hargreaves didn't have a bad game despite what the stats might indicate.

Alabama found ways to move its top receiver around before the snap and match him up against somebody other than Hargreaves. On two separate plays in the first half, Cooper lined up in the slot with Hargreaves playing outside. The first play went for 37 yards, the second for 79 yards and a touchdown.

When the two were matched up in clear one-on-one situations, Cooper had five catches for 51 yards and one of his three touchdowns. His last score came with Florida's top cornerback on the sideline.

After the game, Alabama coach Nick Saban was complimentary of both.

“Coop did a great job in the game,” Saban said. “We have a lot of respect for their No. 1 guy [Hargreaves]. He is a very good player. But when you have matchups like that with two good players and you analyze the whole thing, both guys will end up making some plays.”

VH3 draws first blood: On its first play from scrimmage, Alabama used Cooper as a decoy and threw a long touchdown to Kenyan Drake on the other side. The next time the Tide got the ball, they ran to Hargreaves' side, and he was ready. Both he and safety Marcus Maye helped strip the ball from Drake, and Hargreaves was the one to recover it before going out of bounds. For the most part, Hargreaves played well against the run and finished with six tackles including one for a loss.

Cooper gets behind defense: How do you leave the SEC's best wide receiver wide open for a 79-yard touchdown pass? It came down to simple miscommunication. Cooper lined up in the slot with Hargreaves on the outside and Florida running zone coverage. The Alabama wide receiver took off on a go route, and because of a mix-up between defensive backs Brian Poole and Keanu Neal, the entire Gators defense had to watch as Cooper caught what might have been the easiest touchdown of his college career. It was simple pitch and catch.

The touchdown that wasn't: Cooper might have had four touchdowns Saturday if not for an offensive pass interference called against him in the third quarter. It was Cooper against Hargreaves, one-on-one, and the Alabama wide receiver gave a little shove before turning around and catching the ball. Once he caught it, he showed off his moves and maneuvered his way through traffic to find the end zone, but it all went for naught. Cooper caught another long pass with Hargreaves draped on him that was called back due to illegal formation.

Cooper shows why he's elite: If there was one play the NFL scouts will turn to when evaluating Cooper, it was his touchdown grab late in the third quarter. Backup quarterback Jake Coker had checked into the game, and it was once again one-on-one with Hargreaves, the matchup everybody wanted to see. Cooper ran a fade to the back of the end zone, and with the ball at its highest point, he went up and simply took it away from Hargreaves, who had good position on the play. It didn't matter who was throwing it. It didn't matter who was covering him. Cooper was catching that ball.

Advantage: Cooper
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can see it in his body language; Blake Sims has settled down. His head isn’t on a swivel any more. His eyes aren’t feverishly bouncing from side to side. His feet have suddenly stopped dancing around inside the pocket. Everything he does on the football field he’s now doing more confidently, and it’s paying off.

Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.

Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Blake Sims has a higher QBR than Jameis Winston three games into the season.
But more importantly, the former running back/receiver has executed Lane Kiffin’s offense with near-perfect precision, while his chief competition, Jake Coker, has struggled to call the right play and make the right decisions. Too many times Nick Saban has had to pat the former Florida State transfer on the behind and walk him through what he did wrong.

Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?

Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.

But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.

In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.

“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.

Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.

“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”

Now Sims is a new man.

“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”

His teammates do, too.

Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.

“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.

“He’s really matured over these last three games.”

Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.

“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.

Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.

“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”

But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?

“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”

"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”

If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.

Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.

“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.

“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”

Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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After Week 2, the quarterback battles in the SEC seem to be dwindling. Nick Marshall returned as the starter for Auburn while it looks like both Kentucky and Tennessee have found their man. The same can’t be said just yet at Alabama and LSU, and nobody knows what’s going on at Vanderbilt. The SEC quarterback tracker is back. Have a look.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Sims continues to do what coach Nick Saban and his staff value most: manage the offense. It might not be flashy, but Sims has taken what the defense has given him time and time again. Relying on mostly short, quick passes, Sims threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing against Florida Atlantic. He also ran in a touchdown from 7 yards out.

What it means: Sims has done nothing to lose the starting job, but it's still what he hasn't done -- throw the football deep -- that's most troubling. Coker, on the other hand, can do that. In fact, he seemed intent on chucking it deep in his first real action under center for the Crimson Tide. Coker was 15 of 24 for 202 yards and a touchdown against FAU. But it was what he couldn't do -- manage the offense, minimize mistakes -- that is keeping him from truly challenging Sims. – Alex Scarborough

Sims’ hold on position: 8

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson

How Marshall performed: After missing the first half in the opener, Marshall returned as the starter in Week 2 and played well. He threw for over 100 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored twice. A solid effort, but by no means was it perfect. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts, and he fumbled on the opening drive. With that said, the Auburn offense still racked up over 400 yards through three quarters with Marshall under center.

What it means: The big takeaway from Saturday was that Johnson didn’t see the field until the fourth quarter with the Tigers already ahead 45-13. That’s not the “role” we all envisioned for Johnson after Week 1. I believe it was Gus Malzahn’s way of re-enforcing the fact that Marshall is this team’s quarterback. If there was any doubt at all after the Arkansas game, he wanted to make it crystal clear on Saturday. – Greg Ostendorf

Marshall’s hold on position: 10

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker and Reese Phillips

How Towles performed: After passing for 377 yards in the opener, Towles did his damage on the ground in a 20-3 win against Ohio. Towles had 22 rushing attempts (five of which were sacks) for 59 yards, with six runs covering 10 yards or more. He also went 17-for-31 for 170 yards and tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker for the Wildcats’ first score. If there was anything to criticize, it’s that the Wildcats’ offense bogged down after jumping out to a 17-0 lead.

What it means: It was another impressive, and turnover-free, start from Towles, who won the starting job during preseason camp. He’s about to face an enormous step up in competition, however. Saturday’s visit to Florida, which allowed just 125 yards in its season-opening 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan, is going to be one of the toughest tests of the season for Kentucky’s reconstructed offense. If Towles can stay composed and move the offense against the Gators, Kentucky will truly have something to get excited about. – David Ching

Towles’ hold on position: 9

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Jennings took the majority of snaps in a 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State and connected with Travin Dural for three touchdown passes -- including a 94-yard score on LSU’s first play from scrimmage. Jennings also ran eight times for 43 yards and played by far his most efficient game yet out of three college starts. It was another step in the right direction after a solid second half in the Tigers’ comeback win against Wisconsin in the opener.

What it means: We saw Harris (4-5, 62 yards, TD) get his first substantial playing time against SHSU, too, and the freshman made a couple of huge plays -- most notably a 46-yard touchdown run. LSU coach Les Miles was critical of the freshman’s fourth-quarter fumble, but it was overall a strong home debut for Harris. He’s probably not ready to push Jennings for the starting job yet, but we’re going to see a lot more from the freshman as the season progresses. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman

How Worley performed: It was another impressive performance from Worley. He completed nine straight passes to start the game and finished 22 of 38 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He even rushed for a third score. The only negative came in the third quarter when Arkansas State defensive back Money Hunter, son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, dove in front of one of Worley’s passes and intercepted it.

What it means: Through the first two games, Worley is looking like the most improved player in the SEC. The two touchdown throws to Marquez North on Saturday were not easy throws, and he put them on the money. The senior quarterback will have to play a nearly flawless game this weekend if the Volunteers hope to upset Oklahoma on the road, but win or lose, Worley is still the guy for Tennessee. – Greg Ostendorf

Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen

How Hill performed: Hill wasn't quite as accurate in his second game (17-of-26) as he was in his debut (44-of-60) but still performed well, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he wants to see Hill improve on his intermediate and deep-pass accuracy and the Aggies took more shots downfield in their win over Lamar than they did in their season opener vs. South Carolina. Allen got some work in both the first and second half once the Aggies had a big lead.

What it means: Spavital called the game in such a way to work on some areas where Hill isn't as strong and by doing that, Hill was out of his comfort zone a little, but he handled it well overall and turned in a strong performance. A game against an FCS opponent was an opportune time to get a live look at how Allen would perform. He had some freshman moments, like throwing an interception on his first drive, but bounced back well. Still, Hill did just fine and while Allen is not backing down, Hill is the starter. – Sam Khan

Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: TBD
Options: Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette

How Rivers performed: Rivers got the nod last week but the performance wasn't pretty. He was 6-of-25 passing for 60 yards and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss. Head coach Derek Mason noted that "we should have done a better job of using those guys' skill sets and getting the ball in playmakers' hands," and said that they've made schematic changes as a result. It is worth noting that Mason stuck with Rivers for the entire game Saturday rather than playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks, as he did in the season-opening loss to Temple.

What it means: The Commodores still don't have a starter at the moment, as Mason referenced the quarterbacks will compete for the right to start this week. Now, there's a fourth name in the mix in addition to Rivers, Robinette and McCrary -- Freebeck, the true freshman from Florida. Mason said he's very much in the competition this week. Who starts this weekend against Massachusetts is anyone's guess. For what it's worth, Mason promised "explosive offense." We'll see. – Sam Khan

Rivers’ hold on the position: 0
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can keep calling it a competition if you want.

But if you’re going to continue referring to Alabama’s quarterback battle, you must now admit that Blake Sims is well ahead of Jake Coker, maybe far enough out of reach to call the race.

It’s not the result many people expected, to be sure, but all you had to do was watch the reaction of players and coaches during Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic to see where the quarterbacks stood.

Nick Saban threw his headset to the ground when Coker took an ill-advised sack.

Lane Kiffin held his arms out in disbelief when Coker failed to manage the play clock.

Amari Cooper pointed toward the sky when Coker threw a back shoulder pass instead of a fade to the corner of the end zone.

Some of it was Coker shaking off the rust. Some of it was his own self-inflicted mistakes. But whatever the reason, he didn't look sharp against an inferior Florida Atlantic defense, completing 15 of 24 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. Though he didn’t turn the ball over, he did miss a number of open receivers, sailed a few passes high and wide, and generally looked uncomfortable within the offense.

Meanwhile, Sims was in total command, with the exception of an incorrect call that resulted in a fumble. The fifth-year senior didn’t stretch the field nearly as much as Coker, but he didn’t have to. Instead, Sims took what the defense gave him, time and time again. And boy was it effective as he ran in one score and finished 11-of-13 for 202 yards and two touchdowns passing. He was accurate, decisive and reliable.

In other words, he was everything Coker was not.

“He has strengths where my weakness are,” Sims said, “and I’ve got strengths where his weaknesses are.

“We’re a team.”

And that team seems to be headed in the direction of the ever diplomatic Sims. As someone who takes care of the football and manages the offense well, he’s earned the coaches’ trust, which is the end-all be-all for Saban, who values results far more than potential.

With two weeks remaining until a home date with Florida, one has to think that Coker has fallen too far behind, despite his big arm, prototypical size and affinity for staying within the pocket. Even though he looks like what Alabama values in a quarterback, he simply hasn’t performed like what we’ve come to expect from the position.

Things can certainly change in a hurry, though. There is, after all, one more audition left (Southern Miss) before the real test against the Gators.

After Saturday’s game, Saban didn’t tip his hand one way or the other. In fact, he was complimentary of both quarterbacks. He said he was pleased that Coker got some much-needed experience against Florida Atlantic, which he hoped would help “his confidence and his ability to play with a little better rhythm.” He even said that Coker would learn from his mistakes in the first half, most notably that sack he took with time expiring.

But as a team competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, how much on-the-job training can Alabama afford? How long before it's forced to pull the trigger and name a starter?

It’s clearly been Saban’s hope to have one quarterback take the reins, but he’s not taking sides this early, despite the battle that rages on among fans and pundits.

“I really don’t care what side they take,” Saban said. “The only side that matters is the side we take, which is me, our staff.”

The way they practice, the way they prepare, the way they improve; those are things that matter to Saban when evaluating Sims and Coker, he said.

“This is not one that’s going to be a popularity contest. It will be what’s best for our team.”

What’s best for Alabama now is Sims.

If Coker wants to change that, he better start gaining ground in a hurry.
Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.
You really can't take a lot from a week that featured more cupcakes on the slate than your neighborhood bakery, but we did learn a little more about SEC teams Saturday:

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
John Raoux/Associated PressDemarcus Robinson was a key cog in Florida's explosive offense on Saturday.
1. Florida's offense is better: OK, so it was against Eastern Michigan, but there's no question Florida's offense looked better during the Gators' 65-0 route of the Eagles than it has since Tim Tebow was running things in Gainesville in 2009. The Gators outgained an incredibly outmatched EMU team 655-125 and averaged 7.6 yards per play. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returned from last year's season-ending injury to throw for 248 yards and a touchdown on 31 completions. Running backs Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Brandon Powell combined to rush for 215 yards and four touchdowns, while backup quarterback Treon Harris threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns on two passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida posted the most points (65), yards (655) and 30-yard plays (six) in any game under coach Will Muschamp. This isn't what Florida's offense will look like every week, and its opponent wasn't much competition at all, but it was the exact dress rehearsal Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wanted -- and needed. Roper had the Gators' offense moving with that tempo, as Florida ran 86 plays and had run 49 plays on EMU's side of the field by the early part of the fourth quarter. Driskel looked comfortable throwing downfield, as he went through his progressions and his receivers were actually finding space and making plays. Keep an eye on sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson, who caught six passes for 123 yards and a 70-yard touchdown.

2. New Vanderbilt looks more like old Vanderbilt: After three great years with James Franklin manning Vandy's ship, the anchor appears to have dropped on this program. Through two weeks, the Commodores have been absolutely embarrassed in their home city by Temple (37-7) last week and Ole Miss on Saturday (41-3). Vandy is without an offensive touchdown and averaging just 222.5 yards of offense per game. This team looks nothing like the three that went to three consecutive bowl games and had back-to-back nine-win seasons. The body language was bad, and there just didn't seem to be much rhythm among the players or between the players and the coaches. Quarterback Stephen Rivers finished Saturday's game completing 6 of 25 passes for 60 yards and an interception. Vandy's defense surrendered 547 yards of offense to the Rebels, who moved up and down the field at will and never punted. Vandy is the only team in the SEC without a win, and it appears next week's game against UMass is far from a given for the 'Dores. Oh, and this.

3. Alabama's quarterback competition is ... complicated: We finally saw extensive work from Jake Coker, but we also saw a very efficient Blake Sims in Alabama's 41-0 win over FAU. So now what? Well, as my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough said earlier, it's complicated. Sims finished the day with 214 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-13 passing. Coker threw for 202 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-24 passing. Sims did everything he was asked to do, but where Coker clearly has the advantage is throwing downfield. He has a cannon for an arm and might be the best solution down the road when it comes to facing better defenses, but he still struggled with directing the offense and failed to score close to the goal line just before halftime. He hasn't earned the starting job, and Sims is clearly ahead right now. Still, Coker will have every chance to win the job. Both get one more tuneup in Southern Miss before they host Florida.

4. Mississippi State's defense has some fine-tuning to do: For all the positive talk about a very talented -- and deep -- defense coming back in Starkville, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the pass defense in the Bulldogs' 47-34 win over UAB was "embarrassing." And he was right. Mississippi State, which allowed just 205 passing yards per game this past season, surrendered 435 passing yards and touchdowns of -- wait for it -- 75, 81 and 88 yards Saturday. The Blazers averaged 27.2 yards per completion. UAB's offense exposed Mississippi State's secondary and its pass rush. The good news for the Bulldogs is they get cream puff South Alabama next.

5. The SEC West worked out some kinks: Remember that saying about teams making the biggest jumps from Week 1 to Week 2? Well, that can be said about the SEC West. After contenders Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss all had their struggles, they bounced back royally Saturday. Yes, Bama and LSU were playing overmatched, nonconference opponents, and this certainly isn't the Vandy we've seen the past couple of years, but all three played exactly like they should. Alabama's secondary made vast improvements against FAU, while LSU ran, threw and stuffed Sam Houston State. Ole Miss went from ugly in Week 1 to a swan with its rout of Vandy, with Bo Wallace throwing for 320 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions. Auburn made quick work of San Jose State, and Arkansas ran for 495 yards and scored 73 points in their route of Nicholls State. Texas A&M manhandled Lamar 73-3 and didn't allow a touchdown. Mississippi State was the only West team to take a step back, but the offense still registered 516 yards.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The game was never about the final score, which happened to be a perfectly lopsided 41-0 in favor of No. 2-ranked Alabama. It wasn’t about the opponent, either. Florida Atlantic just happened to be there for the second phase of the Crimson Tide’s quarterback competition between Blake Sims and Jake Coker.

Sims' hot start

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Alabama’s opening drive was Sims at his very best. He was decisive, accurate and made smart decisions with the football. Lane Kiffin drew up one quick pass after another, and Sims put the ball right where it needed to be. Amari Cooper and Chris Black took it from there, picking up good yards after the catch and moving the chains. But on 3rd-and-5, Sims had to take the game into his own hands, and rather than force a pass to a covered receiver, he tucked the ball and scrambled 7 yards, diving into the end zone for the game’s first score.

"Going fast helps me out a lot," Sims said of running Alabama's new-look up-tempo offense. "It gives us a chance to get the defense off-balance, because they’re not very used to us doing that. When you think of Alabama, you don’t think of a fast-paced team.

"It gives you the chance for the players to get open quick. ... When you have playmakers like Amari Cooper and Chris Black, they do the job for you."

Coker gains confidence

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How would he respond? That was the question facing Coker after a terrible end to the first half in which he took a sack with time expiring, prompting Nick Saban to throw his headset in disgust. But Coker showed some moxie in his first series of the second half. On his first pass attempt, he found Cooper for 20 yards. After another pass to Cooper for 6 yards, Coker decided to take a shot downfield. With a defender bearing down on him, Coker zeroed in on ArDarius Stewart, letting go of the ball right as he was hit in the back. Still, the pass was on target and Stewart picked up 40 yards, moving the ball inside the red zone. Kenyan Drake would do the rest, carrying the ball twice before scoring a touchdown.

"Jake played just as well in the second half as he did the first," Saban said. "He played a little better as time went on.

"Missing the guy in the flat down in the red zone wide open, nobody feels worse about that than him. He’ll definitely get better because of it."

What it means

Coker has some work to do if he wants to stay in this race. Sims was just too sharp, completing 11 of 13 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Barring an epic meltdown next week, there hasn’t been anything he has done to surrender the starting quarterback job heading into Alabama’s SEC opener against Florida. Sims been accurate with the football and managed the offense well.

Coker, meanwhile, has struggled in both areas. Against FAU, he was 15-of-24 for 202 yards and one touchdown. But it was his mental mistakes that set him back most, failing to get the offense in the right alignment and struggling to manage the play clock.

A lot was made during the offseason about the talent disparity between Sims and Coker, and maybe some of that is true. But the ability to execute is the most important thing to Saban and his coaching staff. And, frankly, with the skill players Alabama has at receiver and running back, it doesn’t need a herculean effort from its quarterback.

Just look at what Cooper can do. All you have to do is get him the ball in space, and he will handle the rest.


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Forget for a second that you ever watched Kiffin Cam. For that matter, forget that you followed the saga of Lane Kiffin’s hiring at Alabama all offseason. Forget all the talk about his pearly white visor, his new ideas and his colorful history. Forget that he and Nick Saban do indeed represent college football's odd couple.

Take a second to wipe that from your memory, and then think back to the game we saw last Saturday in Atlanta. Think about the way Alabama’s offense looked: how the line played, how the running backs carried the football, how the quarterback managed the pocket. Remember the actual plays and let the melodrama fall by the wayside.

Do that and you’ll be left with something oddly familiar: Alabama football. Saban’s brand of ball-control, pro-style offense didn’t change much with Kiffin calling the plays. It was still a matter of running to set up the pass. In fact, it was still a matter of running between the tackles. As Saban said after the game, "We’re one of the few teams in the world that still plays regular people."

"You know what 'regular people' means?" he asked. “A tight end, two backs and two wideouts. When I played, that was like getting in empty. Now we’re like the dinosaur age when it comes to that."

Despite all the speculation otherwise, Kiffin hasn’t single-handedly brought Alabama’s offense into the 21st century. Instead, he’s done exactly what he was asked to do: Keep what existed and make it better. It’s what Kiffin said he would do, remember? During his only media obligation this year, he said, "The last thing we would want to do is come in here and change a bunch of stuff."

Kiffin didn’t go entirely unnoticed on Saturday, though. His effect just wasn’t on the nuts-and-bolts of the offense. If he had gone exclusively to four-receiver sets or went no-huddle for more than series or two, maybe then we would have seen sparks fly on the sideline between he and Saban. But he didn’t, and Kiffin Cam yielded very little in the way of drama.

Instead, Kiffin worked the sideline quite effectively, huddling up with quarterback Blake Sims between series and during timeouts. If there was a check at the line, Kiffin whistled to Sims on the field and signaled the change. And judging by Sims’ final stats -- 24 of 33 for 250 yards and one interception -- it worked out well. Alabama racked up 33 points and 528 yards of offense, won the time of possession battle handily and was balanced with two 100-yard rushers.

"If he wasn't on the sidelines, we would have had a lot more issues, maybe more issues than we could overcome to be successful in the game," Saban said on Monday. "He did a really good job of managing Blake and helped him manage the game as much as you could ever do it."

Kiffin clearly passed his first test as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but many more remain. Saban wants competition between Sims and Jake Coker at quarterback, injuries are bound to happen, and in some games either the run or the pass won’t come so easily. Adjustments will have to be made.

For now, though, the Kiffin/Saban drama has been much adieu about nothing.

Forget all the offseason talk and speculation, if you wish, but remember that we've got a long way to go before the whole story has played out.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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Week 1 is in the books, and the big storyline in the SEC was quarterback play. There were some who took the starting job and ran with it, and there were others who struggled at times, opening the door for the backup. As the second weekend approaches, here’s the latest on all the SEC quarterback battles and where each team stands.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker
How Sims performed: Nick Saban couldn’t have asked for more from Sims, who stayed out of trouble and got the ball to his playmakers in space. Completing 72.7 percent of his passes was better than anyone expected, but he did turn the ball over once on an interception and missed a handful of open receivers. He’ll need to work on that and getting the ball downfield more effectively, but for a first start he played quite well.
What it means: If it wasn’t before, it’s now Sims’ job to lose. Though he might not be an electric passer that strikes fear into a defense, he does bring some nice tools to the table, especially his escapability. But until we see Coker actually attempt a pass, nothing is settled. We’ll get that chance on Saturday when Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic in Tuscaloosa. If Sims continues to play well, he shouldn’t be in trouble. If he struggles some and Coker looks solid, we could be in for a race. – Alex Scarborough
Sims’ hold on position: 6.5

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson
How Johnson performed: Marshall’s suspension stemming from an incident this offseason gave Johnson an opportunity to start the season opener, and he took full advantage of it. The sophomore, listed No. 2 on the depth chart, played the first half and went 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall returned in the second half and re-energized the Tigers, but statistically, it was clear that Johnson had the better day.
What it means: Maybe nothing. Maybe a whole lot. After the game, Gus Malzahn said that while Johnson will certainly have a role this season, Marshall is still the team’s quarterback. So expect Marshall to return to the starting lineup this weekend against San Jose State and for the foreseeable future. Don’t be surprised if fans start calling for Johnson if Marshall slips up down the road against a Kansas State or an LSU, though. It’s not a bad problem to have, but the last thing the coaches want is a controversy. – Greg Ostendorf
Marshall’s hold on position: 9

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker or Reese Phillips
How Towles performed: After winning the job during preseason practice, Towles got off to an outstanding start against overmatched UT-Martin. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Wildcats went up 35-0. Towles turned it over to Phillips in the fourth quarter, finishing the day with a line of 20-for-29 for 377 yards and one TD, plus a 23-yard TD run.
What it means: It’s just one game against a mid-level FCS program, but Towles didn’t do anything in the opener to lose ground to Barker or Phillips. He gave a composed performance and the Wildcats’ offense looked great in the 59-14 rout. Kentucky hosts Ohio this weekend before facing a huge test in its Sept. 13 SEC opener at Florida. That will provide the first legitimate litmus test for Towles and the revamped Wildcats offense. – David Ching
Towles’ hold on position: 8

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris
How Jennings performed: Jennings and LSU’s offense looked awful in the first half against Wisconsin, but the sophomore performed a bit better down the stretch. He was 4-for-6 for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half after his improvised 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the first quarter provided nearly all of the Tigers’ offensive production in the opening half. Jennings played every possession but one, while Harris underwhelmed in his single series under center.
What it means: LSU has a couple of easier non-conference games ahead -- Saturday against Sam Houston State and the following week against Louisiana-Monroe -- so Harris should get some much-needed work against live competition. Likewise, Jennings will benefit from some more game reps before the Tigers host Mississippi State on Sept. 20. He looks like the clear leader for now. – David Ching
Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman
How Worley performed: Tennessee clearly made the right decision in going with Worley as its starting quarterback. The senior looked like a completely different player than last year as he went 27 of 38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State. The most impressive part was his decision-making. He didn’t try and force any balls. He took what the defense gave him and simply picked it apart.
What it means: For starters, it means that barring injury, Dobbs and Peterman will have to wait until next year before they see the field. Worley is the guy. Even if he struggles in two weeks against Oklahoma, he showed enough improvement in the first game that Butch Jones will likely ride it out. However, before the Volunteers head to Norman, Worley has a chance to put up big numbers again this Saturday against Arkansas State. – Greg Ostendorf
Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen
How Hill performed: The sophomore, who was making his starting debut, was nearly flawless. Considering the circumstances (on the road against a ranked opponent in a hostile environment), you couldn't ask more of Hill, who broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school records for passing yards (511) and completions (44). He was poised and productive against South Carolina.
What it means: Life after Manziel won't be so rough. If this is what the Aggies can expect from Hill moving forward, the ceiling on their season changes drastically. Most assumed there would be growing pains, but Hill seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' Air Raid-inspired offense. He has numerous talented weapons to throw to and an excellent offensive line protecting him. Allen made it a close battle in camp and continues to compete, but the Aggies made the right decision as Hill was ready to take the reins. Sumlin's not the type to shuffle quarterbacks, so this looks like Hill's job for the forseeable future. – Sam Khan
Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Stephen Rivers
Other: Johnny McCrary
How Robinette performed: Robinette's numbers weren't bad (4-for-6 passing, 38 yards) but the offense was unable to generate much while he was in, punting four times and turning it over in five drives. Unfortunately for Robinette, he was yanked before having a real chance to develop a rhythm in favor of Rivers, who went 12-for-25 for 186 yards and an interception.
What it means: The Commodores don't have a starting quarterback. The musical chairs that played out in the 37-7 loss to Temple (redshirt freshman McCrary appeared briefly that night, too), means Vanderbilt is searching for an answer. Derek Mason told reporters this week that the quarterbacks know who will start Saturday vs. Ole Miss but he won't announce who it is publicly. The Vanderbilt quarterback depth chart for the Ole Miss game reads: Stephen Rivers "OR" Patton Robinette "OR" Johnny McCrary. – Sam Khan
Robinette’s hold on the position: 0
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks were what everyone wanted to see when Alabama took the field against West Virginia on Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s new offensive coordinator would be calling plays from the sideline, mere feet away from head coach Nick Saban. And on top of that, he’d be managing the quarterback situation, which promised to pit Blake Sims, the veteran who had paid his dues, versus Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State.

But Kiffin Cam and the QB battle didn’t yield much in the way of controversy. There were no sideline sparks between Kiffin and Saban, and Sims played well enough to hang on at quarterback until the game was essentially over. Coker came on for the final series, only to turn and hand the ball off to the running backs until the clock struck zero.

[+] EnlargeKevin White, Bradley Sylve
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBradley Sylve and the Crimson Tide secondary gave up 365 yards to West Virginia on Saturday.
The offense, it turns out, wasn’t the problem.

The game everyone expected to see against West Virginia wound up being turned on its ear. Alabama’s defense -- you know, the one everyone assumed would return to its 2009-2012 form -- instead laid an egg in the Georgia Dome. Tempo got the best of them once again. West Virginia’s running backs gashed the front seven. Its wide receivers ran roughshod over the secondary. Had it not been for a number of dropped passes, quarterback Clint Trickett might have led the Mountaineers to within reach of a monumental upset.

Returning to Tuscaloosa, Saban took stock of the hard-fought win on Monday. He started out optimistically, praising the team’s effort and the “intangible things” it did, like playing with toughness, competing and not letting one bad play carry over to the next. He pointed out that his defense made “two huge stops inside the 10-yard line” and that when Sims did turn the ball over, it responded by forcing a three-and-out.

That was the good news. But there was plenty of bad. Nearly 400 yards of offense and nine trips inside Alabama’s 40-yard line said so.

“We didn't play very well in the secondary at all,” Saban explained. “We didn't play very well at linebacker. We had too many miscommunications, too many missed coverages, too many missed assignments."

On one play, Jarran Reed doubled back nicely on a screen pass and helped force a minimal gain. But then, Saban said, there was another screen where the lineman didn’t get back and it ended up resulting in a 17-yard pickup.

“I think we have a lot to improve on defensively, all the way around,” he said. “So I'm not disappointed. It is what it is. This is where we are. This is the starting point.”

If Alabama hopes to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it better hope so. Because while West Virginia is certainly talented offensively, there are a handful of teams on the schedule that could give the defense even more trouble. Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all have explosive offenses that like to push the pace. Even Mississippi State, with the improvements its made at receiver and running back, can move the ball in a hurry.

There’s plenty of time to improve, though. Florida Atlantic, which lost 55-7 to Nebraska on Saturday, is up next, and its starting quarterback might not even be available to play. After that it’s Southern Miss, which has won one game since 2011. Neither opponent figures to challenge the defense.

Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.

By the time Week 4 and Florida comes around, Alabama's defense could take on a different look, especially in the secondary.

Cyrus Jones has shown signs of improvement at corner, but Bradley Sylve had a rough go of it on Saturday. Five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey are itching to take their spots in the starting lineup, but for now the fear is that their inexperience will lead to busts in coverage. Eddie Jackson might be the answer, but the sophomore is only five months removed from a torn ACL. He was cleared to play recently, according to Saban, but his status is uncertain as of today.

On top of that, veteran nickel back Jarrick Williams is out for the next four weeks with a fractured foot.

The good news is there’s time to find the right personnel and fix some of the issues we saw against West Virginia. The bad news is there are so many issues in the first place.

Maybe after so much time and energy devoted to Kiffin and the quarterbacks this offseason, it’s worth finally turning our attention to the other side of the football. It’s there where the most things are happening.

SEC morning links

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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1. So while Blake Sims earned the right to start for Alabama in the season opener against West Virginia, his 250-yard performance in the Crimson Tide's 33-23 win wasn't enough to cement him as the starter going forward. He'll likely be the guy who walks out with the starters against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, but expect to see him share snaps with Jake Coker. As Nick Saban puts it, there's still a quarterback competition going on in Tuscaloosa. The good news is that the Tide doesn't really need a true starter until the week of the Florida game, which isn't until Sept. 20. Don't have a starter set then? Well, that certainly isn't ideal. Speaking of quarterbacks, it didn't matter who Auburn threw out under center, Arkansas' defense just couldn't stop either of them. Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for nearly 300 yards, with Johnson throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Now, here's the problem for Arkansas: Expect a lot more of that read-option because that's what the majority of the SEC West will be running this fall.

2. You guys have to feel bad for the Gators, right? I mean put your college colors aside for a second and think about the fact that a program looking to rebound from a disaster of a season was soooooo ready to get back on the field and debut its new offense only to be washed away by a swamp inside the Swamp. So instead of joining all the fun with everyone else in the country, Florida and Idaho huddled inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for hours while it poured and lightening bolts shot through the skies. Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is very much coaching for his job this year, said he supported the officials' decision to suspend the game due to weather and unsafe field conditions. Whether or not that game will be played at a future date is unknown at this point. They both have a bye week on Oct. 25, which just so happens to be the week before Florida's crucial game with Georgia. Yeah, you try convincing Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley to play a game during the open week before Georgia. No, seriously. ... Well, the good news for the Gators is that when their season officially opens this Saturday against Eastern Michigan they'll have three suspended players back. Now, before you bash Mushcamp, remember that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin did something similar in 2012 with the postponed Louisiana Tech game.

3. Georgia coach Mark Richt thinks the running back group that he has now is the best he's ever had. Yeah, I'd agree with that when you consider that the Bulldogs had 328 rushing yards and averaged 8 yards per carry against Clemson. Todd Gurley, who I think is the nation's best player, got 198 of those yards and had three rushing touchdowns. Chubb had 70 yards and a touchdown on four carries and Sony Michel had 33 yards on six carries. By the way, those two are true freshmen. And Keith Marshall will only get better as he comes back from his knee injury.

More from around the league
Tweet of the day

Blake Sims will start at quarterback for Alabama when it kicks off the season against West Virginia, coach Nick Saban told ESPN’s Tom Luginbill.

Sims, a fifth-year senior, earned the start ahead of Jake Coker, a redshirt junior who transferred to Alabama this summer after getting his undergraduate degree at Florida State.

Sims
“Both guys have done really well in fall camp and there’s still a quarterback competition on our team, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Saban said. “But we needed to get our team ready to play this game with the most knowledge and experience, which Blake Sims has been in the system longer, is a little more comfortable and plays with a little better rhythm.

“Jake is still sort of learning and growing.”

Saban said the plan is to start Sims and evaluate the position from there, though he didn’t commit to playing Coker.

“We’ll see how [Sims] does and make the decisions and judgements from there,” Saban said.

It’s important to note that, as Saban said, the competition is still ongoing. In all likelihood it will be something that plays out over the next three weeks. Alabama is a multi-touchdown favorite over West Virginia and will be a heavy favorite in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic and again Week 3 against Southern Miss.

In other words, there’s no rush. Alabama’s date with Florida is far enough away not to panic.

But for today at least, it’s the veteran Sims who gets the nod. And why not? He’s bided his time and should know the offense best. He has more friends in the locker room and deserves the chance to show what he can do with meaningful snaps.

Fournette, LSU will live up to hype 

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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Leonard FournetteAP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette has been dubbed 2014's "prodigy" -- before even playing a single game.
Leonard Fournette is not a freshman.

Just keep repeating that to yourself, over and over, though not so loud that people think you’re strange.

I’ve spent the past few months working to condition and program myself to this thought. Maybe we should just call him LSU’s “first-year” running back.

Fournette doesn’t look, act -- or, most importantly -- run like a freshman. So let’s just move past the fact that he is one.

It’s a dangerous game, hyping those who have yet to gain a yard, throw a pass or make a tackle. It’s one that can make someone like me look quite foolish, causing hand-wringing from fans. (“He’s 18, HANEY!”)

But what happens when we’re right? What happens when Jameis Winston, as a first-year starter, wins the Heisman?

From all I’ve gathered, including a stop last week in Baton Rouge, we’re right on Fournette. You’ve seen the comparisons, from Michael Jordan’s determination to Adrian Peterson’s physique as a teenager.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” someone close to the program told me. “Never.”

College football’s 2014 prodigy will debut Saturday night in Houston, when LSU meets Wisconsin in a top-15 matchup at the Texans' stadium.

In addition to Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn are expected to be in the receivers rotation. Jamal Adams is a defensive back who isn’t getting enough buzz because of the offensive guys.

And, oh by the way, coach Les Miles has said QB Brandon Harris will play. He might even start.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman QB Brandon Harris will also headline LSU's young group of impact players.
These players, and other youngsters, were recruited to play immediately.

“We just want to get the best players on the field,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me last week. “We don’t care what year they are. We tell them that.”

In addition to natural attrition, LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL draft the past two cycles. That precipitates need unlike anything we’ve ever seen, really.

“These kids have embraced that idea since day one in the recruiting process,” said Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN.com senior recruiting writer. “They knew they were good. They knew they were going to have to play early. And they didn’t back away from it one bit.”

If some or all of the freshmen hit, LSU will be a dark horse playoff contender. Three of the 20 coaches I polled this week had the Tigers in the four-team field.

“They can sneak up on you some years,” one of them told me. “That’s when they’ve won [titles]. There’s a lot of attention on Alabama and Auburn right now, and Les probably likes it that way.”

ESPN analyst and national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who covered Harris in the Under Armour game, said his arm is in the top three for the past decade.

“He’s a great kid with a high ceiling,” he said. “[He’s] a superior talent to [Anthony] Jennings, but he hasn’t played yet.”

Even with Fournette, expect veteran RBs Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee to get the first carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will roll Fournette in gracefully; those on staff agreed with my theory that the frosh would see between 10-15 planned carries. Don’t expect Peterson’s bruising running style as much as power mixed with elusiveness. Fournette would rather juke than bulldoze. And he’ll be more effective in the screen game.

But if he gets hot, the script could soon flip, with Hilliard and Magee serving as the complements. And that’s what I would expect, given the preface of his legend.

Fournette goes for 100-plus. A star is born.

Other breakout players to watch this week

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