SEC: Kirby Smart

Even at Alabama, where it’s become national championship or bust, SEC championships are nothing to sneeze at. The Crimson Tide won their third SEC championship under Nick Saban in 2014, and winning an SEC title always constitutes a successful season.

The ride wasn’t always smooth, and there were some glitches in all three phases of the game, ending with the disappointing loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. This wasn’t a dominant Alabama team, but still one good enough to win 12 games.

Offense: B-plus. The patches of inconsistency are what keep this grade from being an A. Alabama was lights out offensively at times (see Auburn, Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M) and not so hot in other games (see Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss). Amari Cooper was the best receiver in college football and led the SEC with 16 touchdown catches. He was the Tide’s go-to guy all season, and fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Sims was one of the better stories in the country with his school-record 3,487 passing yards, not to mention his 28 touchdown passes. The running game blew hot and cold, and the Tide also turned the ball over 22 times. They were a much different team offensively on the road. They were held to 17 points or fewer in regulation in three of their four true road games. At the end of the day, they tied for second in the SEC in scoring offense, averaging 36.9 points per game, and lost in the playoff semifinal despite putting up 35 points.

Defense: B. The back end was again a problem for Alabama, particularly at cornerback, where the Crimson Tide had trouble eliminating the big plays. The pass rush did improve some, although the Tide are still looking for the kind of explosive finishers off the edge they had during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Alabama’s defensive standards have been set so high under Kirby Smart that anything other than a suffocating defense is persona non grata in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide were plenty good on D in 2014, allowing just 18.5 points per game in nine SEC contests, but gave up the most passing yards per game (226) in the Nick Saban era. They allowed seven pass completions of 40 yards or longer in their last three games, and that doesn’t even count the 85-yard touchdown run Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott broke off in the fourth quarter to seal Alabama’s fate in that game. The big plays are the reason this grade is a little bit lower than it usually is for the Tide on defense.

Special teams: C-plus. We’ll start with the good. True freshman punter JK Scott was exceptional. He led the country in punting with a 48-yard average and had 31 of his 55 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. The Tide finished first nationally in net punting (44.7 yards), and Scott was the difference in a couple of close Alabama wins. Alabama was shaky just about everywhere else. The Tide were 14 of 22 on field goals, and are just 17 of 42 the last two seasons. Adam Griffith gets a little bit of a pass because he kicked through lower back pain for much of the season. Fielding punts and kickoffs were also problematic. A fourth-quarter fumble on a kickoff return against Ole Miss led to the Rebels’ game-winning touchdown, and Alabama gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia in the opener. Thank goodness for Scott, or this grade would be a lot worse.

Coaching: B-plus. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did an exemplary job with Sims, who really developed under Kiffin’s tutelage and played better than anybody probably envisioned. Kiffin also opened up the Alabama offense, spread it out and played faster. He was a master at finding ways to get the ball to Cooper. Obviously, the play Kiffin would love to have back is that late interception against Ohio State when Alabama was trying to hit the tight end for a touchdown. The defense being torched the way it was against Auburn and then Ohio State (1,167 combined total yards) was disappointing for Saban and Smart, but to get 12 wins and an SEC title out of this group when there were several pressing questions coming into this season was still a solid coaching effort.

Overall: B-plus. Saban has created a monster at Alabama. How else do you explain the Crimson Tide winning 12 games, beating rivals Auburn and LSU, winning an SEC title and the fans still being bummed at season’s end? That’s what happens when you win three national championships in a span of four years, and suddenly, two seasons pass and you don’t even play in the big game. Alabama is always going to be ranked in the top 10 (probably the top 5) in the preseason poll as long as Saban is there, so those are enormous expectations to live up to. But even by Alabama’s dizzying standards, this was a very good season. Had the Tide been able to hold onto an early two-touchdown lead against Ohio State, it could have been another great year.
NEW ORLEANS -- Lane Kiffin’s media muzzle finally came off on Monday as the Alabama offensive coordinator’s team prepares to face Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since August, the always-quotable Kiffin did not disappoint at Monday’s news conference. Here is the best of Lane from his time at the podium:

On his first season working under Nick Saban after being fired as USC’s head coach midway through the 2013 season: “I’m sure I haven’t rubbed off on him. And he shouldn’t. Here’s a coach that got fired, unemployed, he brings in [during] one of the best runs in the history of college football. So I’m just a [graduate assistant] sitting there trying to learn every day, no, literally taking notes from him and how he runs it and what an unbelievable opportunity to have after the great run at USC in those years being there with Pete Carroll, and now to be able to be with him, it will be a good book someday.”

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertAlabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin runs drills during Monday's practice at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On what he has learned in working for Saban: “There’s a list that would go on forever about it. For Coach Saban to afford me this opportunity to come here for myself and to be able to be the offensive coordinator is one thing, but to be able to sit every day -- just like our staff meeting this morning we’ve already had -- and to be able to learn from somebody like him and his process, shoot, I would have done it for free. I would have paid him for it, like most people would.”

On coaching a game this season at Tennessee, where he was head coach in 2009: “I was sitting there before the game and I said, ‘Who would have thought, Coach, that one day I was going to go back here working as an assistant for you?’ It was just he and I sitting there, and how this crowd base was getting off the bus. ‘And then our next game we’re going to go into LSU and have the same thing to you.’ I don’t know. He’s funnier than you guys think. He made a joke one time about how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that.”

On his habit of throwing up his hands to signal a touchdown at the start of promising plays: “I do that 30 times a game. They only show it when it works. A lot of times … I don’t even know I’m doing it, really. It’s just in my head that they’re in this coverage and so there’s an excitement that, because you’re calling plays to get a defense, if we get this defense, we’re going to score.”

On his job prospects last year before Saban hired him in January: “The phone wasn’t ringing a lot. That’s the reality. Regardless of we all see ourselves in a different view a lot of times than others. I thought, ‘Well, OK, probably not going to get a head-coaching job, but it will be easy to get an offensive coordinator job because of what we’ve done before and places we’ve been.’ And like I said, the phone wasn’t ringing. And he called. And he took a chance. I know he thought a lot about it. Because it wasn’t going to be the popular, necessarily the media hire, as he’s referred to before. But he believed in what he thought and what the interview was and the times we had discussions before.”

On whether he misses regularly speaking to the media after frequently putting his foot in his mouth as a head coach in the past: “I don’t think you miss it. I just always took the approach, and it haunted me at times -- especially when you lose, everything gets magnified -- that I was just going to say what was on my mind. And it wasn’t going to be coach speak, and I wasn’t going to get up there and say what every coach gets up and says. That’s not what you guys want to hear, so I’d answer questions exactly what I was thinking as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you like it did.”

On the perception that he and Nick Saban have wildly different personalities: “I think that assumption about us being so different is very fair, but I don’t think it’s really accurate. We may not have the same personality, but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching. One of the many stupid things I said was when I took a shot at Urban [Meyer] in the SEC championship game when I was doing ESPN, I said, ‘Well, Florida has better players, but Alabama has better coaches.’ Well that wasn’t very smart to say, but what I was trying to say was my respect for watching Coach Saban’s teams and programs over the years is unbelievable. And I do totally believe in a lot of the exact same things that he’s always been about.”

On the difference between being a head coach and being a coordinator: “I think being a head coach for as long as I was, you kind of forget the value of being able to be with your quarterback, to be able to be with your offensive players the entire game. Now I don’t even watch a [defensive] play. At the end of the game, I go in and I’m in the locker room with Kirby [Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator], I’ve got no idea what we did on defense, any plays that happened because rarely ever do I even see a play. I just stay with Blake [Sims], stay with the offensive guys, go over the last series in detail, go over what we will potentially see in the next series, adjustments and that’s very foreign to what I had been doing, where before you have to watch the game.”
NEW ORLEANS – The first thing that Tom Herman noticed about Alabama’s defensive line wasn’t its talent, although the Crimson Tide certainly have plenty of that.

It wasn’t the players' size, either, although Alabama’s starters along the front line average 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds per man. Nor was it the depth within a group that runs 10 deep.

What made Ohio State’s offensive coordinator shake his head while reviewing Alabama film was how much Alabama had of all three attributes.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and Alabama's defensive line can swallow up an opposing offense.
“What stood out to me was not only the size of them, but then the fact that they have backups that were just as big and good and they have backups to the backups that were just as big and as good, and they played,” said Herman, whose offense faces Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. “And they didn’t really miss a beat when those backups were in.”

That’s hardly a surprise for a program that has earned a reputation as the most effective recruiting machine in college football. In its past three recruiting classes, Alabama has signed 13 defensive linemen whom ESPN’s recruiting analysts awarded with either a four-star or five-star grade.

That volume of talent up front has helped the Crimson Tide typically shut down opposing offenses – they rank 11th nationally in total defense (312.4 yards per game) – with sheer brute force.

“We've had some of this kind of depth before, but we usually lose a guy in the season, have a guy hurt,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “… Lost guys on the defensive line in years past. This year, haven't really lost guys. Been able to rotate guys and play a lot of guys. That helps us.

“Anytime you've got depth at that position, allows you to play more guys. That's what we like to do is play a bunch of guys.”

They’ve certainly done that. Defensive end Jonathan Allen was a first-team All-SEC pick after registering 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Fellow end Jarran Reed and nose guard A’Shawn Robinson each earned honorable mention. But every player on the line’s two-deep depth chart – a group that also includes ends Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway and nose Brandon Ivory – has double-digit tackles, and most have multiple sacks and tackles for loss.

“They’re really, really big up front. I mean really big,” Herman said. “They’ve got defensive ends who are 280, 290 pounds. They’ve got defensive tackles that are 320, 330 pounds and they don’t just have one group of them. They play about nine or 10 defensive linemen in what you would call competitive situations.”

That will certainly create a challenge for Ohio State’s youthful offensive line that has improved since Virginia Tech’s defense embarrassed the group in a 35-21 loss on Sept. 6. Herman said Alabama’s defense is somewhat reminiscent of the Michigan State defense the Buckeyes faced in a 49-37 victory on Nov. 8, but it’s safe to say Herman’s team hasn’t faced anything quite like what it will see on New Year’s Day.

Then again, the Buckeyes have come so far up front since the Virginia Tech game that it’s hard to even compare the line’s current state to where it was in the second game of the season.

“I watched a little bit of film earlier in the season, but that’s not who they are now. So we really can’t focus on who they were back then,” Allen said. “We’re going to look in terms of the most recent games and, like I said, they’re a good group, a lot of experience. They work well together.”

That is clearly the case, since Ohio State ranks fifth nationally in scoring at 45.2 points per game despite having to play three different quarterbacks because of injuries. But the Buckeyes are going to have difficulty getting anywhere near those kind of numbers on Thursday if they have difficulty moving Alabama’s oversized line out of the way.

“We have an idea of what they’re going to do,” Allen said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve been doing all year. It’s a little bit challenging because we didn’t have a lot of film on them, but I think we’ll be able to handle it.”

NEW ORLEANS -- There's an almost limitless supply of information available to Cardale Jones, more than a season of Alabama game films, anything and everything a Nick Saban defense has thrown at opponents over the last calendar year.

With just one measly game and a couple of mop-up appearances to watch as the Crimson Tide study up on Jones and Ohio State, Saban's supply is limited, to say the least.

It's almost a certainty that Alabama's defensive guru will cook up something a redshirt sophomore quarterback making just the second start of his career isn't prepared for, no matter how much footage Jones might have at his disposal. But while there is no substitute for experience and Ohio State's offensive philosophy doesn't change regardless of who is running the attack, there's at least a chance it might actually be Jones who has something of an edge leading up to Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl as a mystery man reading an open book, complex as it might be.

"There's been countless [hours], dating back to last year's Sugar Bowl, just trying to be prepared for any and everything," Jones said. "It's not so much exotic, but I would say they're a schematic defense. They prepare for the team they play that week, and they change their looks to defeat that team's offense.

"But we're not trying to fool anybody here. I mean, Nick Saban and Alabama's coaching staff have seen it all."

What the Crimson Tide haven't seen much of is Jones in action during many competitive situations, which might make it a challenge to put together a detailed scouting report of his tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

What the former third-string quarterback did put on film in the 59-0 throttling of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game certainly caught Alabama's attention, though, and it proved without much doubt that he has the physical tools to pose a threat in the College Football Playoff both as a rusher and a passer. But outside of that breakout performance, there are only 18 other pass attempts on his resume, leaving little for Alabama to evaluate as it tries to formulate a plan to shut him down.

"Well, not knowing how he reacts to different things would be the toughest thing," Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations. You haven't seen enough tape to know.

"That's probably the hardest thing for us to get prepared for is we're watching one quarterback (J.T. Barrett) in a lot of games, yet we're going to face a different quarterback. So knowing what they want to do with that guy makes it harder, tougher to get ready for."

Even with all those extra hours of tape, Jones doesn't exactly have it all that much easier gearing up for the Crimson Tide, who are athletic, talented and intelligent enough to throw just about anything at the Buckeyes.

And in terms of reacting to different blitzes or coverages, the obvious downside to the lack of previous game film on Jones is that it means he doesn't have much experience putting his prep work into action on the field.

"I'm sure they will have a ton that he hasn't seen," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He hasn't seen a lot, by the way. He only played 62 plays against Wisconsin. But I don't think defenses game plan against quarterbacks. Defenses game plan against systems and plays and formations and tendencies and downs and distances.

"Will they say, this is this kid's strength or these are his weaknesses? Yes, but at the end of the day you've got to stop the entire machine."

Alabama only needed one tape to see that Jones could keep it humming along. But he hasn't left it with much else to work with to try to slow him down behind the wheel.

While the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will bring an exciting and much-anticipated coaching matchup between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer, it also brings us an intriguing player vs. coaches matchup.

That would be Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones facing a pair of defensive gurus in Saban and his coordinating partner in crime, Kirby Smart. On paper, you have a redshirt sophomore, third-string-quarterback-turned-starter taking on two guys who eat, sleep and breathe defense and preparedness. What you have is Jones making his second start, following a fantastic showing in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, battling two brilliant football minds who got nearly a month to prepare for their relatively inexperienced opponent.

But you also have those two X's and O's brainiacs taking on a lumbering yet deceptively agile gunslinger who went from being defined by an infamous tweet to piling up 257 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 59-0 pounding of Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.

While Ohio State trying to perfect the ideal game plan for a new quarterback -- for the second time this season -- against a tag team that feasts off inexperience and relishes the notion of extra time to think and scheme sounds daunting, Alabama has to be ready for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback who coaches and players really don't know a ton about. The factor of the relative unknown complicates things a little for Alabama as well.

"This guy is very, very capable," Saban said of Jones. "He's a very good passer. Big strong, athletic guy who can do all the things the other guy (J.T. Barrett) could do in terms of the quarterback runs. It's just a little different style, that's all. We did see him play almost a game and a half. And he pretty must did what the other guy did. The one thing he did really well was pass the ball. He made some really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy did, too, so we have a tremendous amount of respect what this guy can do."

Saban and Smart have kind of been down this path before. They adjusted on the fly in-game to Garrett Gilbert in the BCS title win over Texas in 2009 and prepared for a completely different quarterback -- and scheme -- against Jordan Jefferson and LSU in their 2011 national championship win.

So for the moment, this battle is a little bit of a chess match. While Saban and Smart, who watched their defense rank third in the SEC (312.4 yards allowed per game) and have combined to win four of their last five bowl games together, pose the threat of unleashing some new and threatening exotic looks to confuse Ohio State's green QB, Jones and his coaches have limited film and a plethora of offensive knowledge working in their favor as well.

See, while Jones is one obstacle Alabama's defensive brain trust must overcome, there's also the issue of preparing for any potential wrinkles from Meyer and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who won this year's Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. The Buckeyes have been down this path before. After star quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Herman helped develop Barrett into one of the nation's elite players.

In his first season of work, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards (more than Miller has in a single season) and a school-record 34 touchdowns while rushing for another 938 yards and 11 more scores. This was all before a season-ending ankle injury in the season finale against Michigan gave way to Jones.

Whether it was Barrett for so long or Jones for so little, Ohio State hasn't had to change much to help its quarterbacks.

"Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar," Alabama safety Landon Collins said. "They run the same scheme offense. We’re just gonna have to watch film on what they do because, I mean, they’re not gonna change the whole offense for one player."

Ohio State isn't, and it doesn't have to. The Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans leading the Big Ten in total offense (507.6 yards per game) and scoring (45.2) and ranking third in passing (246.8 yards per game). That's all without Miller and mostly thanks to some masterful play calling by Herman to put Barrett in the right situations. Now, it's time for Herman to use a little bit of that magic on Jones to thwart Alabama's suffocating defense.

"We feel philosophically, they are going to run their offense," Saban said. "It's just what part of it they might feature a little different. That's the part we are not sure about."

Price of playing good defense going up

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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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SEC morning links

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1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

Tweet of the day

Remember when the SEC used to be a defensive league?

In certain quarters, it still is. But there are more than a few teams in this league, proud of its black-and-blue heritage, in desperate need of a defensive facelift.

It’s the reason former Florida coach Will Muschamp could break the bank when it comes to a defensive coordinator’s salary.

Only two days have passed since Muschamp coached his final game with the Gators, and already he’s being tied to defensive coordinator jobs that are open and some that aren’t open.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Stephen B. MortonWill Muschamp will be in high demand as a defensive coordinator and could very well stay in the SEC.
As Muschamp said himself, he didn’t win enough games at Florida to survive as head coach. But as a defensive coach, he’s on a short list of the most respected minds in the game.

That’s why Auburn is in hot pursuit after firing Ellis Johnson, and the Tigers are one of many. Texas A&M is also looking for somebody to come in and pick up the pieces of a defense that has been shredded the last two seasons.

There’s not an opening at South Carolina -- yet. But Steve Spurrier will almost certainly make some changes after seeing the Gamecocks fall off the table defensively this season on the heels of three straight top-5 finishes in the SEC in total defense from 2011-13.

Going into this season, there were already two SEC defensive coordinators making more than $1 million per year. Alabama’s Kirby Smart was at $1.35 million and LSU’s John Chavis at $1.3 million. It was money well spent. Chavis’ Tigers finished first in the SEC in total defense, and Smart’s Crimson Tide were third. They both ranked in the top 10 nationally as well in scoring defense. LSU was third (16.4 points per game) and the Tide sixth (16.9 points per game).

Muschamp is in a position where he can afford to wait and see what is out there, if he so chooses. Wherever he lands, don’t be surprised if he gets a deal that pays him in excess of $1.5 million annually.

The college game has changed dramatically with no-huddle offenses and seemingly everybody spreading it out and playing fast-break basketball on a football field.

Even Alabama is spreading it out under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin and running some no-huddle, which is saying something. Kiffin’s boss, if you hadn’t noticed, isn’t a big fan of the fastball offenses, but Nick Saban is very much a fan of winning. He also is smart enough to know that you at least better have the capability to play that way with the climate we’re in right now in college football.

The tricky part is finding the right fit at defensive coordinator on those teams that do want to play offense at the speed of light. As a rule, defensive numbers are going to suffer (and it's difficult to sustain quality defenses over a number of years) when its offense is playing that way because it’s hard to practice the way most defenses want to practice in that system.

It’s not impossible, though. Look at what Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack did with that defense this season. The Rebels were first nationally in scoring defense and 14th in total defense.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, though, understood what he had in that defense this season and played to it. At times, the Rebels played slower than normal.

How would Muschamp fare as a defensive coordinator in a true no-huddle system?

We might find out -- if either Auburn or Texas A&M wins the Muschamp sweepstakes. At the end of the day, good defensive coaches adapt and can coach in any system.

We’re seeing more of the fast-paced, spread offenses in the SEC than ever before. Arkansas, Georgia and LSU are still running the traditional, pro-style sets, and that’s still the base for Alabama, but those teams are in the minority now in the SEC.

Muschamp won’t be the only hot commodity out there this offseason as teams look to shore up their defenses in this video-game era of offensive football.

Somebody’s sure to grab up former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who was the defensive coordinator on LSU’s 2007 national championship team.

There are others, too, with SEC ties that could be in play. Look at what former Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop did at Penn State this season. The Nittany Lions are ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. They’re No. 1 in rushing defense. In his three seasons at Vanderbilt, the Commodores were ranked in the top 25 nationally in total defense all three years.

In short, everybody loves offense. It’s what sells, but there’s a reason only one team in the last decade has won a national championship with a defense ranked outside the top 10 nationally in total defense.

That one team, by the way, was Auburn in 2010. The Tigers finished 60th nationally that year in total defense.
Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty ImagesKirby Smart knows his Alabama defense must improve against uptempo offenses.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin is beginning to understand. He referenced the word “process” -- Nick Saban’s beloved “process” -- twice during a 15-minute news conference on Sunday. And maybe more importantly, he seemed to understand the role of assistants under Saban, which is to be seen and not heard.

Kirby Smart has been familiar with “the process” for quite some time now. He practically grew up in it, cutting his teeth under Saban for the past nine seasons at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. In that time he has never ruffled feathers, never said much of anything to make headlines. Every year he has quietly gone about the business of molding one of the best defenses in college football.

This season, however, could be his most challenging.

Alabama lost its leader at middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley; three-quarters of the secondary is gone, including first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and veterans Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will be missed on the defensive line. With such little experience and the question of solving uptempo offenses still perplexing the Alabama brain trust, there’s a lot to watch for.

“In terms of the defense this year, really excited about the group that we’ve got to work with,” Smart said at the outset of media day Sunday. “They’re full of energy, a lot of young guys out there competing. Obviously we’ve got to show some improvement, especially after the last two games last year.”

Those last two games against Auburn and Oklahoma were the tipping point. There were holes to be found before then, but you had to look long and hard to find them. Auburn, however, put the Tide’s defensive blemishes under a microscope, pushing the pace and outflanking the defense to the tune of 296 yards rushing. And to prove that was no fluke, Oklahoma went uptempo and exploited the secondary for 429 yards through the air, handing Alabama back-to-back losses to end the season for the first time since 2008.

To spin that into a positive, Smart said there “seems to be a little bit of a chip-on-their-shoulder type attitude,” and despite being a young defense, he sees “more depth at a lot of positions we didn’t have last year.”

“That’s key in college football these days -- having depth, playing more players, keeping guys fresh,” he said.

It’s also key to defending uptempo offenses, where shuffling in fresh legs is vital to keep up with the pace of play. Alabama looked a step slow against Auburn in the fourth quarter, and it meant the end to a perfect season and a shot at a third straight national championship.

“It’s definitely challenging because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well.”

We won’t know whether Smart and Saban have the answers against uptempo offenses until we see how the season unfolds. But even this early into fall camp, we can glimpse where the strengths of Alabama’s defenses lie. And despite Saban’s best efforts to tamp down the hype machine this spring, it’s up front where 320-pound sophomore A’Shawn Robinson anchors the line.

“You’re sitting there with [Dalvin Tomlinson] back, [D.J. Pettway] back ... then this group of freshmen that just got here," Smart said, referencing a rookie class that includes Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith. "So if those guys grow and continue to get better, that can be the strength of the team.

“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year.”

Inside linebacker is one spot where Alabama could use more depth. Outside of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, there aren’t many true inside linebackers with experience on the roster. That means playing more rookies and cross-training outside linebackers to shift inside, Smart said.

But the real concern for Alabama isn’t the front seven. The back end of the defense is still a lingering question mark. Both starting corners must be replaced, and there’s no word yet on who will settle in at safety opposite Landon Collins.

Smart called it a “unique situation” at safety in that he lost two players to the draft, yet he has some experience returning in Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, his two “older statesmen.” Then there’s Geno Smith, who transitioned from corner to safety last season and is “just starting to feel comfortable there.”

“At corner, we’ve got some of the same guys back from last year,” Smart said. “We’ve also got some big, young, new guys. So it’s hard to tell right now. They’ve got good athletic ability, and we hope to be better at that position.”

Is Smart happy with his depth at corner?

“You talk about depth, you’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, making reference to Bradley Sylve starting against Kentucky and Cyrus Jones’ time in relief of the oft-injured Deion Belue. “I can’t say I’m happy or disappointed."

If Eddie Jackson can come back from injury, he could be a big boost. Despite tearing his ACL this spring, he has been able to participate in fall camp, albeit while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Then there’s Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, Alabama’s pair of five-star prospects from the 2014 class. Both are on campus and expected to contribute right away.

“As far as Tony, he’s done a great job so far; you know he enrolled mid-year,” Smart said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s very conscientious. He’s always up here watching football. He’s a little bit of a football junkie. That makes him a better player because he really competes.”

If you were looking for Smart to tip his hand and say Brown would start, you were left somewhat disappointed. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything Alabama’s veteran defensive coordinator would commit to, other than the usual enthusiasm about his group moving forward.

Smart's defense may be better this season. It may answer all those questions at linebacker and cornerback and safety, and return Alabama to its status as the best in college football. But it’s not for Smart to say. He just works the process and sees what happens.

SEC's lunch links

July, 2, 2014
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The World Cup run by the USMNT is over, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. His 16 saves were a World Cup record, and there’s now talk that he could be the greatest goalie in history. Personally, I think he would’ve made a great safety, but clearly he made the right choice with soccer.



No, thank you Tim Howard. Now on to Wednesday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 1, 2014
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The USMNT is back in action on Tuesday against Belgium. Winner moves on to the quarterfinals. Loser goes home. Are you ready? Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is ready.

Watch the game here: United States vs Belgium, 4 p.m. ET

In the meantime, get your American football fix in with Tuesday’s SEC lunch links.

Top SEC recruiters 

June, 9, 2014
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It’s next to impossible to limit the list of top recruiters in the SEC to just five, but that was the assignment here. It’s no surprise to see an Alabama assistant at the top of the list with the recent run the Crimson Tide have been on, but those who follow it closely enough also know there’s some tremendous recruiters across the state at Auburn.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
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Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.

Offseason spotlight: Alabama

February, 28, 2014
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He didn't begin last season as a starter, and injuries ultimately made him flip between positions in the Alabama secondary. But this player will be a fixture for the Crimson Tide in 2014 from Day 1 and will be a key reason whether the defense as a whole will be successful again:

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
AP Photo/Skip MartinLandon Collins will need to be a leader this season for Alabama.
Spotlight: Safety Landon Collins, 6-foot, 215 pounds, junior

2013 summary: It took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's suspension for Collins to start his first career game at Alabama, and it wasn't even at his natural position. Still, he helped hold up the back end of the defense at free safety until Clinton-Dix's return two games later. And when Vinnie Sunseri was lost for the season against Arkansas, Collins moved comfortably back into his natural spot at strong safety, where he was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and play with more assertiveness. Despite the moving back and forth, he was a standout on defense with the second-most tackles on the team (70). He also had the most pass breakups (6) and tied for the most interceptions (2).

The skinny: The back end of Alabama's defense had its fair share of troubles in 2013, highlighted by the slew of points and big plays it allowed against Auburn and Oklahoma to end the season. But even before those two deflating losses, Mississippi State's offense had success through the air, as did LSU and Texas A&M. And while the safety position wasn't the most to blame for the Tide's woes on defense -- cornerback was, as Deion Belue battled injuries and the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door -- it will be a focal point in the coming season as both Sunseri and Clinton-Dix have moved on to the NFL. Combined with what could be another shaky set of inexperienced corners in 2014, and the onus falls to a player like Collins to hold up the secondary as a whole. He's never had to be a leader, but this season he'll have to be. Being a talented playmaker won't be enough to make Alabama's defense better. A former five-star recruit, Collins must become an anchor in the mode of Mark Barron, calling out all the plays and making all the necessary checks to get his teammates in the right position to succeed. Luckily for Collins, he'll be attached at the hip with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who will make the transition from coaching inside linebackers to coaching the secondary. And if Smart's tutelage isn't enough, he'll have the head coach, Nick Saban, constantly looking over the secondary as the de facto cornerbacks coach.

Past spotlights:

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