SEC: Kevin Norwood

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:00
PM ET
Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.
NEW ORLEANS -- As Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron slowly trotted off a confetti-covered field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, he took with him more than just a right arm that had guided Alabama to a 36-4 record with him under center.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry could step into a much larger role with the Tide in 2014.
Gone with McCarron is also a ton of leadership and experience that will be extremely difficult to replace. And unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he isn't the only one leaving.

Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.

The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.

"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."

One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.

"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.

"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."

Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.

"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."

And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.

As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.

No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.

"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.

"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.

"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Who to watch in the SEC bowl games

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:45
AM ET
Now that we’ve opened all of our Christmas presents and spent some quality time with family, it’s full speed ahead to the bowl games.

We know who the stars are in the SEC. But here’s a checklist of guys to watch in the bowl games who aren’t the usual suspects and aren’t necessarily household names ... yet.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: The Tigers make their living running the ball, but Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions. Auburn is going to need some big plays in the passing game to take down Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil got most of the pub this season among the Ole Miss freshmen, but Conner is a big-time player in his own right and will play a huge role in the Rebels’ defensive efforts against Georgia Tech’s option offense.

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Even though he played behind All-American Michael Sam, Golden was hard to miss this season after making the move from linebacker to end. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6 1/2 sacks, and will be looking to make amends (similar to the entire Missouri defense) after the way the Tigers were shredded in the SEC championship game.

Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for one of the most promising freshman defensive linemen in the country, keep your eyes on Jones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He’s freakishly big, athletic and disruptive.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: Recently elected as one of Alabama’s permanent team captains, Norwood is as steady as they come. All he does is make big catches on big stages. In other words, look for him to come up big against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Patton Robinette, QB, Vanderbilt: It’s Robinette’s show now that Austyn Carta-Samuels is recovering from ACL surgery. Robinette had the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee on the fake jump pass. He has the smarts and tools to be an excellent quarterback in this league, and leading the Commodores to a ninth win (for the second year in a row) would be a perfect way to head into what will be critical offseason for Robinette.

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina: With Damiere Byrd out for the Capital One Bowl with a knee injury, Roland becomes an even bigger part of the Gamecocks’ passing game. He has gobs of talent, and after a slow start to the season he began to play up to his talent level down the stretch.

Relaxed McCarron moves past Iron Bowl

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
9:30
AM ET
McCarronESPN Stats & InformationThis season, Alabama QB AJ McCarron was at his best while playing the best.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As AJ McCarron sat and answered questions about his Heisman Trophy candidacy this week, there was a sense of calm in his voice. He smiled, leaned back and relaxed as he laid his case bare.

It was strange. He wasn't agitated to be there. He wasn't itching to leave. A senior who has built a reputation as being gruff with the media, McCarron seemed genuinely happy and almost giddy to be talking about his upcoming trip to New York City for the award ceremony.

McCarron said he never would have traveled to New York unless he was nominated for the Heisman Trophy or invited to attend the NFL draft. Now one of those two dreams is about to become a reality.

"I just can't wait," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it, and being able just to see everything and going through the process is just a dream come true. It's going to be cool."

There was no talk of the Iron Bowl and Alabama's crushing defeat at the hands of Auburn. It has been less than two weeks since that game knocked McCarron and the Tide out of the championship picture, but it seemed like a distant memory as he spoke comfortably about what's next.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Dave MartinWith his collegiate career coming to a close, AJ McCarron has been uncharacteristically reflective.
And true to his word, McCarron -- who said after the loss that football is just a game, it's not life -- seems to have moved on from the game.

"You've got to move on, live life and be happy," he said. "Because life's way too short to sit back and think about what you should have done and be mad about it."

Recently, McCarron has found time away from football. He has continued to work out and run with the team, but he hasn't thrown a football since the end of the regular season. Instead, he's letting some of the younger guys take reps during practice.

"My old self is taking a break for a minute," he said.

Last Saturday, McCarron turned off the SEC championship game at halftime so he could go Christmas shopping with his girlfriend, Katherine Webb. This week, he and his family are making the rounds at various awards shows and ceremonies.

He was in Orlando on Thursday for the Home Depot College Football Awards Show. He will be presented with the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in Baltimore on Friday. And he'll wrap up the tour in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Saturday night.

McCarron never has been one for awards and individual recognition, but his teammates believe he's more than deserving of college football's most prestigious honor.

"For a quarterback to come in, [run] Alabama's system under Nick Saban and go out and do the things he's done, help this team win two national championships -- he has less interceptions than anybody -- but for him not to get the recognition he needs, it's ridiculous," said Tide wideout Kevin Norwood.

His résumé is pretty impressive. During three years as Alabama's starting quarterback, McCarron has led the Tide to two national championships and a record of 36-3. As a senior, he has thrown for 2,676 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, and he played his best games against the likes of Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn.

"If you look at my play over three years, I feel like no quarterback in the SEC or the country has played as consistent as I have," McCarron said in a rare moment of self-reflection. "I think the numbers do the talking. When you look at my stats against top-10-ranked teams, I don't think anybody's stats compare to mine.

"I just let my stats and play do the talking and sit by the side, I guess."

SEC lunchtime links

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
12:40
PM ET
We're entering the dreary time of year with no SEC football Saturdays ahead for quite a while. But with bowl season still in front of us, there's plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."

But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has a lot in common with Nick Saban.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.

It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.

As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top … Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.

And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.

Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.

Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.

Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.

It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.

Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
12:00
PM ET
It's Friday, which means only a day until game day. Thank goodness. Here's some reading from around the league to get you ready:
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The home crowd cheered, oblivious to the billboard-sized scoreboard pointing to their 20-7 defeat. Even some of their players looked content as they sang the school's fight song after the game. The No. 1 team in the country just came into their house and beat them, and yet they all seemed to OK with it.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Butch DillThe win over Mississippi State wasn't impressive so AJ McCarron and Alabama have some work to do before their Iron Bowl game on Nov. 30.
Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood took note of the mood and knew something was wrong. His top-ranked Crimson Tide traveled to Starkville and beat the sub-.500 Mississippi State Bulldogs in such an unconvincing way that the losers of the game didn't even feel like they'd lost.

"If the other team is cheering after a loss," he said, "then you definitely didn't do your job."

Alabama was sluggish, uninspired and out of sorts. The offense turned the ball over a season-high four times, and the defense struggled with communication. The Tide remained undefeated, but at a cost.

A week after beating a BCS-level LSU team convincingly, Alabama was suddenly flawed. UA coach Nick Saban said his team had won, but it really didn't beat Mississippi State in the process. He put the so-so performance on his shoulders and said that there was no question Alabama has to get better if it wants to reach its ultimate goal of a national championship.

"That’s really not how we usually try and do it," Saban said, "but there’s a lot our players [who] can learn from this."

Auburn, a state away and still celebrating its heart-stopping win over Georgia, could take heart: Alabama, for the first time in a long time, appeared beatable. College football's king finally looks capable of being dethroned and the Iron Bowl might just be the game to do it.

When the rivals go toe-to-toe in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, everything will be on the line. And if Alabama plays anything like it did on last Saturday night, it can kiss all hope of an undefeated season and a third straight trip to the national championship goodbye because Auburn will beat it.

You can question whether Auburn's program is on the same level of Alabama's right now, but it's hard to argue that the Tigers aren't much better than Mississippi State is today. Their nine wins speak for themselves, even if it took a miracle pass to survive Georgia.

The Iron Bowl won't come down to the wire if Alabama starts slow and turns the ball over four times as it did against Mississippi State. Auburn will run away with the game well before the final minutes.

Everything about last Saturday's game was sloppy on offense. AJ McCarron threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, and T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, brining their combined season total to eight.

Mississippi State didn't take advantage and converted just one of those turnovers into points. Auburn and its fleet-footed quarterback, Nick Marshall, won't have the same trouble. Auburn is 30th nationally in points off turnovers this season, while Mississippi State ranks 99th.

Don't think for a second that Auburn won't look at Alabama's ball control over the next two weeks.

But the Tigers will key in on the Tide's defense, too. Alabama may have knocked down or even intercepted the tipped pass Marshall threw to beat Georgia, but there's also a possibility no one would have been there at all. Considering the way Alabama let Mississippi State's receivers run into empty coverage, there's no telling what would have happened.

Though Alabama allowed just seven points to Mississippi State, the defense looked out of whack at times. Cornerback Deion Belue waved his hands and shouted the coverage clear across the field at a hapless Cyrus Jones, and Landon Collins got caught releasing a receiver into thin air. A better offense would have exploited their issues of miscommunication. Gus Malzahn may not have a ton of experience as Auburn's head coach, but no one out there doubts his skill as a play-caller.

If you look at this past weekend in Alabama's bubble, it's alarming. If you're Auburn, you feel great about what you saw.

But that's not how college football works. One bad game or one good game doesn't equal a trend.

Alabama, which will host hapless Chattanooga this coming Saturday, has essentially two weeks to recover from its hangover and get ready for Auburn. The way the Iron Bowl will be hyped, no one with a pulse will enter Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30 without the proper sense of preparedness.

Alabama survives a gut check

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
12:42
AM ET

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If you're a team with championship aspirations, these are the games you have to win. On the road. Without your best stuff. Everything going against you. The sound of cowbells jarring your very sense of time and place.

Yes, cowbells.

Alabama cornerback Deion Belue had to ask for earplugs to deal with the constant clanging of 57,211 Mississippi State fans Saturday night in Starkville. The deafening chatter was enough to rattle even the battle-tested Crimson Tide, who gave the ball away a season-high four times.

"We struggled to run the ball at times, didn't control the line of scrimmage like we like, turned the ball over four times," UA coach Nick Saban said after the game, his hair blown every which way by the wind and his own frustration. "That's not the kind of football we need to play if we're going to be the kind of team we're capable of being."

To borrow a favorite phrase of Saban's, No. 1 ranked Alabama went "rat trap" against Mississippi State, lacking all sense of rhythm and communication. The offense was ineffective, the defense out of sorts. Mississippi State, a sub-.500 team, had the Tide on the ropes.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisAJ McCarron endured some struggles on Saturday.
A week after beating LSU in dramatic fashion, Saban had the letdown he'd spent all week avoiding. The "relief syndrome" he described to reporters on Monday was playing out in front of his eyes. Mississippi State was a field goal away from tying it up in the third quarter.

Then AJ McCarron took over and Alabama pulled away for a 20-7 victory that won't look impressive upon replay but might just be the gut check the Tide needed with an all-or-nothing showdown with No. 7 Auburn looming on the horizon.

McCarron had his fair share of struggles during the first half. Alabama's veteran quarterback completed just 9 of 19 passes. Frustrated, he threw his first interception in 139 attempts. But none of that mattered when he took the field with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Barking orders like a determined general, he led a nine-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a spectacular back-shoulder touchdown pass to Kevin Norwood. Alabama took a two-score lead and never looked back.

Alabama wasn't perfect for the remainder of the game. McCarron threw another interception and Mississippi State was able to move the ball effectively, albeit without finding the end zone. Like a pitcher without his best fastball or his sharpest curve, Alabama found a way to win.

"We won the game, but we didn't really beat the other team, if that makes any sense," Saban explained. "That's not how we usually try to do it, but there's a lot that our players can learn from this."

Norwood later crystalized his coach’s comments.

"If the other team is cheering after a loss, then definitely you didn't do your job," he said.

Norwood said "it wasn't us" and "we didn't play Bama ball," noting how the offense came out sluggish and stayed that way until the very end. Why that happened, he couldn't say.

"It was the most difficult game I've played all season," UA right guard Anthony Steen said. " … It took us a while to warm up and we had our ups and downs, but luckily we won the game."

Where many of his teammates were somber and even negative, McCarron chose to look on the bright side. He had his second-lowest quarterback rating (113.5) of the season, but he saw the game as a teaching moment.

In a move that would have made his coach proud, McCarron said that "it was good for us to struggle and win."

"It reminds you that you're not as good as you think," he added.

The voters in the Associated Press and coaches' polls may not see it that way, but the fact remains that Alabama escaped Starkville with a win, undefeated and still in the driver's seat to win the SEC West. All that separates the Tide from a trip to the conference title game and a berth in the BCS National Championship is a Nov. 30 matchup against Auburn.

If Alabama is going to make it that far, games like Saturday night's can't happen again, Saban said. Everything needs to be clicking.

"That takes a heck of a lot of process, it takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of character, and you have to have those things if you're going to separate from other teams," Saban said. "That's something that we have to prove that we can do."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

"I've been waiting for it," he said, flashing a slight grin. An ear-to-ear smile would have required too much energy. "I'm one of the guys [who] needs to be healed."

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones, Amari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter playing for seven straight weeks, No. 1 Alabama gets the weekend off to recover and heal.
The nature of his injuries are unknown, a buildup of bumps and bruises on his 6-foot-4, 292-pound frame. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, no lightweight at more than 300 pounds, is out in what coach Nick Saban describes as a "medical issue." H-back/running back Jalston Fowler can't make contact in practice because of a concussion. Cornerback Deion Belue is dealing with a nagging toe injury and the starter opposite him, Bradley Sylve, isn't yet 100 percent either.

And that's just the injuries we know of.

The bye week comes at the perfect time for top-ranked Alabama. The scoring margin the past six weeks, 246-26, has made it look easy. But the games have demanded their own pound of flesh, the toll evidenced in every wince and limp.

"In the SEC you bang hard every week, so you need time to rest up," Belue explained to reporters on Saturday night. "Then we have LSU, and they're going to come in and bang some more."

Ah, the matter of LSU. The 13th-ranked Tigers represent the biggest challenge to Alabama's undefeated season. Les Miles' squad always gives Alabama a hard time, and the last time his team came to Tuscaloosa (2011), it won. With a much improved offense thanks to new coordinator Cam Cameron, get ready for calls of an upset. Zach Mettenberger has progressed quickly into an NFL quarterback and with two of the best receivers in the SEC -- Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- to throw the ball to, they''ll be licking their chops to get at Alabama's secondary, which doesn't have much quality depth.

But in Alabama's camp, that's not the focus yet. At least not externally.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," quarterback AJ McCarron said Saturday in his usual no-nonsense manner, mimicking his head coach. "We've got a 24-hour rule and then a week off so I'm not really thinking about who we got next."

Said Saban: "We've got some big challenges and some stiff competition against some teams coming up here. This bye week comes at a pretty good time for us. We have a lot of guys banged up. We could use the rest, and we can use the time to try to help some of our players improve. So that's going to be our focus this week."

Notice the utter avoidance of LSU? The game was on the lips of every fan around Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, but it was nowhere to be found in Saban's postgame comments. When he spoke to the media again on Tuesday, he got three-quarters of the way through before LSU entered his consciousness, and even then it was to relive the 2011 game, not to focus on the game ahead of him.

"Just because we don't have a game doesn't mean you change anything about how you think and what we need to do to get better as a team," Saban said.

You're not going to catch this Alabama team looking ahead to LSU. Not even when LSU is the next team on the schedule. In their mind, this week is about recovery and a return to the basics. Saban said they'll spend an extra day on LSU preparation, but he doesn't want to throw the team off its usual schedule or burn them out too quickly, showing them the same plays and schemes too many times over the next two weeks.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said he didn't think they'd spend any time on LSU this week. Maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship, but he reiterated it, saying they'd go back to "camp rules." Stinson backed him up, adding that there would be "no talk at all" of LSU.

"It's a positive, and it's definitely going to help us out," said veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, opening up where his teammates hadn't. "LSU's a tough team, and that kind of gives us an advantage to study the opponents more."

Just don't expect to hear much beyond that. Mettenberger and the LSU offense haven't been brought up. Neither has LSU's defense. Right now it's a matter of staying focused on the task at hand, even if that task doesn't involve another football team.

Really, it's Saban's way. When asked how he'd celebrate his birthday this week, he responded bluntly, "Whatever Miss Terry has planned is what I'll be doing."

If he could, he'd blow out his candles in the film room watching practice tape.

His is the kind of singular focus, and that makes Alabama unique. The build up to big games is the same as smaller ones. In fact, you often see a more fired up coaching staff for cupcakes like Georgia State than for "Game of the Century" type contests with LSU. They have to light a fire under their players for some games, but that won't be the case for next Saturday's home game against LSU. The battle lines were drawn well before the start of the season.

So why emphasize the matchups and specifics of the game now? With so many players hurt, why not take the week to rest? Inside the walls of Alabama's football offices, it might be different, but outwardly players aren't anxious for what's next.

"Our bodies need time to get ready for another physical game," said veteran wideout Kevin Norwood. "That's what we're going to do."

SEC helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
9:23
AM ET
There were numerous blowouts around the SEC on Saturday, but it was capped by a thriller in Columbia, Mo., as South Carolina came from behind to defeat Missouri 27-24 in double overtime. Definitely one of our helmet stickers is going to a player from that thriller. Check out who he is and the rest of this week's recipients below:

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: What a gutsy showing by the senior. Because of a knee injury and illness prior to the game, Shaw was not expected to play. But with his team down 17-0 midway through the third quarter, coach Steve Spurrier sent in Shaw to replace Dylan Thompson. Shaw completed 20 of 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns in relief of Thompson, including a huge touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the Missouri 15 at the end of the first overtime session. As a result, the Gamecocks became the first team to knock off Missouri this season and put themselves back in the SEC East championship chase.

Texas A&M's defense: Forget that it was against a freshman quarterback making his first start (Vanderbilt's Patton Robinette); the Aggies' have struggled against almost everyone they've played, so their performance on Saturday was a breakthrough. They held Vanderbilt to 329 yards (95 rushing) and generated seven sacks as well as three turnovers. Quite a contrast after allowing 45 points, 615 yards and 379 rushing yards to Auburn the week before. A lot of good performances on the Aggies' D, so it's hard to single out one player.

Odell Beckham, WR, LSU: Beckham continues to shine and turned in a 200-yard performance on Saturday against Furman. He caught six passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. His scoring grabs went for 37 and 63 yards.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: The senior had season highs in catches (six) and receiving yards (112) in the Crimson Tide's 45-10 rout of Tennessee. He also had a pretty highlight-worthy grab while falling backward. Afterward, coach Nick Saban used the word "unbelievable" to describe Norwood's catch.

Ja-Mes Logan, WR, Ole Miss: The senior had touchdown grabs of 37 yards and 65 yards from quarterback Bo Wallace and finished with six receptions for 122 yards in the Rebels' 59-14 rout of Idaho.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This is what Alabama football has become. It's no longer a matter of how the top-ranked Crimson Tide will win, but rather who is there to see it happen. The score gets out of hand quickly, the bleachers empty around halftime and Alabama continues its merciless march toward an undefeated season and a return trip to the national championship.

The outcome is routine. The journey's a matter of semantics.

With apologies to Nick Saban, this is where his program is. He might not like seeing fans head home before the game is over, but at some point it's understandable to leave. The way Alabama has demolished opponents lately -- hapless Tennessee being the latest sacrifice -- there's little reason to stick around Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama is so clearly the No. 1 team in the country, it's gotten boring. Why not find a couch, turn on the TV and see who might be worthy of No. 2?

[+] EnlargeKevin Norwood
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKevin Norwood and Alabama's offense added a few highlight plays in their easy 45-10 win over Tennessee.
Scared Saban's death stare might find them on their way to the exits Saturday, not many fans dropped their red and white shakers to head home early. Only a small fraction of spectators left at halftime, satisfied with what they'd seen after sophomore safety Landon Collins intercepted a Justin Worley pass and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown to go ahead 35-0. The unranked Vols upset then-No. 11 South Carolina Oct. 19, but there would be no such letdown this weekend.

Alabama manhandled rival Tennessee on the way to a 45-10 win to improve to 8-0 on the season. AJ McCarron orchestrated the Alabama offense beautifully, completing 19 of 27 passes for 275 yards and no turnovers. Kevin Norwood led the team with six catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. The defense, meanwhile, gave up only its second touchdown since Sept. 14 against Texas A&M. All told, Alabama has outscored its last six opponents 246-26.

An Alabama fan held up a sign in the stands: "Saban, we'll stay for 60 [minutes] if you stay FOREVER."

"Sounds like a good deal to me," Saban said in response, cracking a smile. "I'm too damn old to go somewhere else and start over."

Saban was in a good mood after the game, clearly pleased with the turnout against Tennessee. He opened his postgame comments by applauding the fans' efforts.

"I know I'm really happy, I know our players are really happy and I hope our fans are really happy," he said. "I certainly appreciate our fans today. They stayed for the game and did a great job of supporting our team. It was a great atmosphere for our players to play in."

Ed Stinson soaked in the final minutes of the game from the sidelines. As Alabama's starting defensive end, he was off the field well before the clock struck zeroes. The familiar tune of "Rocky Top" was drowned out as the crowd celebrated Alabama’s 50th all-time win over Tennessee.

Stinson, a senior, said he's been happy with the way his team has come into its own in recent weeks. Alabama's rough start to the season against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M seems like a thing of the past after winning so handily since then.

"I feel like we're clicking right now," Stinson said. "We're on the right track. Everything is going fluidly."

But Saban, forever the cynic, focused on what's next, looking ahead to the matter of getting better during the bye week.

"You get defined by what you do every week," he said. "It's going to be important for us to focus on the bye week to try to improve, to try to get more players to play winning football.

"We've got some good challenges and some stiff competition against some really good teams coming up here."

Saban stopped short of mentioning specific teams, but his target seemed obvious: 13th-ranked LSU's visit to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9. When Alabama and LSU have gone head-to-head under Saban, the outcome has most often been defined as classics. And once again, the two teams will be competing for the chance to represent the West in the SEC Championship Game.

And for the first time in a while, we'll see a game in Bryant-Denny Stadium that demands our attention from start to finish.

Cooper showing signs of resurgence

October, 23, 2013
10/23/13
1:00
PM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was easy to look at Amari Cooper early in the season and see something was wrong.

The first clue was his inability of hold on to the football. His hands used to be vacuums for the football, but through three games, he had four drops. Clue No. 2 was his underwhelming production. He had five 100-yard efforts in his final eight games last season, but through three games he had mustered just 100 yards combined. Those tips were obvious. But clue No. 3, Cooper's name not being at the top of Alabama's depth chart, was the most telling.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the Bama wide receiving corps.
Cooper, a breakout star and consensus Freshman All-America selection at wide receiver a year ago, had fallen inexplicably back to earth.

Cooper had been banged up before the season and missed some time in practice, but the extent of his injuries was unclear. "I don't really know how much the toe is hiring or not," quarterback AJ McCarron said. It wasn't the defense's way of covering him that had caused his decline. "Coverage has been the same as always," McCarron explained. All that was certain was Cooper wasn't himself and he was frustrated by his performance.

Nick Saban lauded Cooper as a "hard-working guy" who won the points of all his tests in the summer conditioning program. He called his struggling sophomore "a guy that really, really wants to be good and do well."

"I think it's very frustrating when you have something that's nagging you that you can't do things on a consistent basis like you'd like to do them," Saban added. "I think the fact that we haven't played him as much lately, I do think he's getting healthy and he's had a really good week this week, so hopefully if we don't have a setback, he'll be able to continue to progress and do a good job."

Saban made those comments following Alabama's 45-3 drumming of Georgia State, the second time in five games that Cooper had a noticeably blank stat line: no yards, no touchdowns, no receptions. To many, it raised the question of whether this was a case of a sophomore slump or a sharp career downturn.

Saban's words seemed to indicate hope for improvement. And in the last two weeks we've seen a steady, though not staggering, gain in the 6-foot-1 athlete's game. He's been a little faster, a little more sure handed and a little more like himself. In his last two games he's combined to catch six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.

Following the Kentucky game, Saban seemed noncommittal, yet optimistic about Cooper's resurgence.

"I think it’s very, very important that all of our players on offense have a role and are productive," he said. "We’re fortunate to have really five or six really good receivers that are all capable of making plays in a game. I know Kenny had a couple drops in the last game and I know that’s disappointing to him, but we have a lot of confidence in Kenny Bell. DeAndrew White has played well. Christion Jones has played well. Kevin Norwood has played well. Amari, finally back, ready to go, played fast and was very productive in the game. I think that’s important to us. I think we have to have roles for all those guys in the game so that they can be productive."

Following Saturday's win over Arkansas, McCarron said it felt good getting Cooper back involved.

"I felt like he got involved last week," he said. "It started last week, so it's good to have him back. He seems to be running good, playing good, so that helps us."

Cooper hasn't spoken with the media since before the start of the season, so it's hard to say what his mindset is. Kevin Norwood, a leader among the receivers as a senior, said his performance of late has been a "confidence-booster."

"He knows it," Norwood said. "He knows we need him down the stretch. It's a confidence-booster for him to get going and make plays for us."

But for Alabama's offense to operate on all cylinders, it needs Cooper at full strength. Recent games seem to indicate he's getting closer. If he does return to 100 percent, he'll join a group of receivers that goes five and six deep. With Cooper spreading the field vertically, it would open up things for the rest of McCarron's targets.

If Cooper really is back, we'll see it against Tennessee this weekend. His game against the Vols in Neyland Stadium a year ago was a personal highlight reel: seven catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns.

That was the night Cooper became a star as he thrust himself squarely on the national stage with his first career 100-yard performance in Knoxville.

If he can do the same, or even close to that, this Saturday in Tuscaloosa, we'll know whether he's destined to remain on that stage for good.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- He waved his arms back and forth as he tried to capture the attention of someone in the crowd behind the north end zone at Commonwealth Stadium here in Kentucky. Kevin Norwood, his helmet off, an ear-to-ear smile lighting his face, kept looking toward the same spot in the stands as his No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide counted down the final seconds of a 48-7 victory over the hometown Wildcats.

The clock hit zeroes and Norwood finally turned away from the cluster of Alabama fans in the bleachers, walking toward midfield to congratulate Kentucky on a hard-fought game. A television reporter tried sidling up to him for a quick post-game interview. Norwood, after all, was the star of the game offensively. His leaping catch between two Kentucky defenders set up Alabama's first touchdown of the game, a 1-yard scamper by Kenyan Drake. Norwood led all receivers with 81 yards and a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeKevin Norwood
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald via Getty ImagesAs evidenced by his touchdown catch in Kentucky, Kevin Norwood has become Alabama's big-play wide receiver.
But Norwood wasn't ready to talk about all of that yet. He avoided the camera and bolted toward the end zone, to the person whose attention he was trying to get earlier. Without slowing his pace, he leaped into the stands and sat on the railing, hugging his intended target as sure-handedly as he had any football thrown his way Saturday night. Content that he'd made his final reception of the night, he stepped down and into the visitors locker room to revel in yet another win, the sixth of the season.

"It was a breath of fresh air," he told reporters of his touchdown reception, still buzzing from the game. "I felt like I hadn't been in the end zone in a while."

It had been nearly a month since his last score, a grab that was equally impressive as the one he made against Kentucky. On Sept. 14 at Kyle Field, Norwood did what he's done almost his entire career at Alabama: he made the catch that needed to be made in the exact moment it needed to happen. Down two touchdowns and on the ropes against Texas A&M, Norwood skied over the defensive back, caught the ball at its highest point and twisted around to get his feet just inside the pylon for a 22-yard touchdown. The moment will be forever memorialized in photos and painting as the point Alabama turned the corner and put itself in position to win an instant classic against the Aggies.

For Norwood, it was just another game. He's not the tallest, the fastest or the most athletic receiver on Alabama's roster. He's battled a number of injuries in recent years that have kept him from piling up the kind of statistics that would get him noticed nationally. But he's always found a way to be there on the biggest stage and in the biggest moments when his team has needed him. It wasn't just Kentucky or Texas A&M. You'll do well to remember Alabama's trip to LSU last year when quarterback AJ McCarron, down three points with a championship berth on the line, found Norwood on three consecutive passes. All three went for first downs, the final reception setting up a screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for the come-from-behind win.

At first, Norwood was uncomfortable with the distinction of being a "big-game receiver." He didn't like the idea of being called a "possession receiver" either. There seemed to be veiled insults in both, the idea that he somehow couldn't make all the plays at all times. But as a senior, he's decided to embrace the monikers. He says he doesn't care about things like yards after catch. Style points, in fact, have little affect on him.

"I’m looking for the first down -- first down or touchdown," he said a few weeks ago. Of his four receptions against Kentucky, three went for first downs and the fourth was a touchdown. "As long as we move the ball, I think that’s what really matters."

He may have been trying to do too much as an underclassman. Now he's discovered his niche. During the offseason he looked at the numbers and saw he was close to 80 percent on third down, he said. His response: "OK, so this is something I could work at."

Holding onto the football in double coverage is something he's practiced. He said it's become a habit for him to get out of his breaks quickly and look for the sticks on third downs. And when it's a jump-ball situation, he lets instinct take over.

"Really it's my ball or nobody's ball," Norwood said. "That's how I feel about it. That's something I take pride in."

But Norwood had to credit his quarterback, too. When he turns for the ball, he trusts that McCarron will have it where it needs to be. The chemistry the two have developed since coming to Alabama together has played itself out in crucial moments time and time again.

"We've been here for five years," McCarron said, "so you have no choice but to get close with him."

And like Norwood, neither gets hung up on statistics.

"To be honest, I didn't even know that," Norwood said of McCarron throwing for a career-high 359 yards against UK. "It's one thing AJ works hard for is just getting us the ball and being able to manage the game really well. He does a great job of that. All hats off to him. He's just that great of a quarterback."

He'll need to continue to be as Alabama begins the second half of its regular season schedule against Arkansas on Saturday. Tennessee will come next, followed by a home date with top-10 LSU.

Whether Norwood will have another signature moment against the Tigers remains to be seen. For now, he's hoping the offense continues to develop.

"I think we have the momentum we need," he said, "but at the same time we need to focus on doing the little things right."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

SEC SCOREBOARD

Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12