SEC: Kliff Kingsbury

MEMPHIS, Tennessee -- The fun began with a phone call and a Twitter battle.

Laughs and jokes were exchanged upon the announcement that Texas A&M and West Virginia would meet in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Head coaches Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen and Aggies offensive coordinator Jake Spavital are among those involved who once shared time on the same coaching staff -- relationships that provide an intriguing backdrop for the reunion.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill, Jake Spavital
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTexas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital (right) learned under West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen at Houston.
"He taught me everything about this offense and he knows how I signal the game and I know how he signals the game," Spavital said of Holgorsen. "It'll keep the game interesting, and it'll keep us on our toes."

They're part of a group that shared time together five years ago, interestingly, while trying to get to a Liberty Bowl. During the 2009 season at Houston, Sumlin was head coach and Holgorsen was offensive coordinator. Clarence McKinney, Texas A&M's current running backs coach, held the same position with the Cougars at the time. Spavital was a graduate assistant and current Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the offensive quality control coach.

Making it more interesting was the fact that, at one time, Holgorsen, Kingsbury and Spavital all lived together in an apartment in Houston's Midtown district, a trendy neighborhood with a thriving business scene and nightlife. What could happen with three young, single coaches in close proximity to such an area?

"I'd better not say anything about that," Sumlin said, with laughter. "I didn't go over there at all. Anybody who knows Houston knows that Midtown has a lot of nice restaurants that stay open late at night, I'll just put it that way."

When he took over at Houston in 2008, Sumlin made Holgorsen -- who he describes as "brilliant" -- one of his first hires to install an innovative up-tempo offensive attack.

Holgorsen called Kingsbury, who was still pursuing a pro playing career, that summer. Sumlin agreed to add Kingsbury to the staff while also allowing him time to try out for the NFL.

"He spent more time out there throwing the football and practicing with guys than he did coaching," Sumlin joked. "Over time, thank God he got cut."

In 2009, Spavital's older brother, Houston defensive backs coach Zac Spavital, encouraged Jake to join the Cougars staff. Zac saw promise in Sumlin and Holgorsen and thought Jake could benefit from working with them. After interviewing with Holgorsen, Jake was hired on the spot.

"I loved him," Spavital said of Holgorsen. "He was great to me. He coaches his ass off. He's hard on the kids, he was hard on me. But he would separate work on and off the field. He was hard on me about things and he wanted me to grow as a coach, but then afterwards he was one of my buddies and he treated me that way."

Kingsbury was already living with Holgorsen in that two-bedroom apartment. Spavital would go from couch to couch, from his brother's to Holgorsen's.

"I wanted to be around Dana the whole time, so I'd sleep on his couch a lot," Spavital said. "I'd sleep at the offices, depending on whether Dana had his kids in or anything. I'd just move around because it's a two-bedroom apartment."

The bachelor pad was pretty bare in terms of furnishings.

"We were very minimalist in that household," Kingsbury said. "There wasn't anything to get in your way. ... You know, in Houston there's a lot to do. We would be there to sleep and that was about it."

Added Spavital: "There was no silverware and plates and stuff like that. It was two rooms, two bathrooms and a couch and a TV. We never were there."

McKinney, who joined the staff in 2008, recalls some of the late-night meetings the offensive staff had.

"We spent a lot of time together in meetings after practice," McKinney said. "We'd go from the office to somewhere down the street to grab something to eat, grab some drinks and the meetings would still be going until 2 in the morning."

Certainly it wasn't only football, though, right? When Holgorsen, Spavital and Kingsbury hit the town, there have to be some entertaining stories.

"You can't put that in the paper," Kingsbury said coyly. "It was fun."

Each of them have distinct traits. There's Holgorsen, the casual dresser ("I don't even think Dana owned a suit until he got to Oklahoma State," Spavital said. "He would always say, 'How many games has that suit won?'") and Red Bull devotee ("It's amazing that he's still functioning," Kingsbury said. "I guess his kidneys are pretty strong. He gets after those.").

There's well-dressed Kingsbury, who might still be holding on to NFL dreams. ("If Kliff could play right now, he'd play," Spavital said. "That's why Kliff works out all the time, because I know he believes that he can still do it.")

And there's Spavital, the youngest who deferred to his elders. ("He listens a lot," Kingsbury said. "He's not just going to talk a lot, he likes to listen and soak things up.")

It wasn't just tomfoolery; they had significant success. The 2009 Houston team ranked No. 1 nationally in offense (563.4 yards per game; 42.2 points per game), upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater and triumphed over Texas Tech. The 10-4 Cougars came within an incomplete pass of a Conference USA championship and a Liberty Bowl berth.

As each moved on, they kept in touch daily. They've traded game film, though that practice stopped between Holgorsen and Kingsbury once they became opposing Big 12 head coaches. They still talk, but the relationship dynamic is different now.

It didn't change for Spavital and Holgorsen until this year's Liberty Bowl announcement. They still communicate daily, but they obviously weren't trading tape or exchanging ideas in preparation for Monday's game (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"He gave us all his offensive stuff and we didn't give him any of our offensive stuff; I pulled the wool over his eyes in the last couple of weeks," Holgorsen joked. "When it gets competitive and you've got to play a game, you're going to have a good time talking about anything than actual football."

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
9/13/14
8:00
AM ET
Noon ET

UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.

Most important game: Arkansas

July, 10, 2014
7/10/14
3:30
PM ET
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at Texas Tech

Key players: Arkansas should have a quality running game again with its two leading rushers from 2013, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, returning for 2014. Collins and Williams make up a quality rushing duo, with Collins compiling 1,026 rushing yards last season and Williams checking in with 900.

The Razorbacks also have a promising young tight end in Hunter Henry. He had a quality freshman season (28 catches, 409 yards, four touchdowns) and will be looking to build on that as he establishes himself as a premier SEC tight end and perhaps one of the better tight ends in the country.

On the defensive end, the Razorbacks return one of the SEC’s best defensive ends, Trey Flowers. The 6-foot-4, 267-pound Flowers had five sacks and three forced fumbles last season and bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season. Defensive tackle Darius Philon, a sophomore, returns after a 2013 campaign when he had 46 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Those two should combine to be a solid duo for the Razorbacks on the defensive front.

The secondary has a lot of upperclassmen, led by Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season.

Why it matters: Traditionally, the most important games involve a conference opponent and have an impact on the division race, but we’ll make an exception here for several reasons. When you’re coming off a tough season (Arkansas was 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in 2013), finding success early is important. Bret Bielema is entering his second season as head coach, and though the reclamation project is a marathon and not a sprint, positive results go a long way toward accelerating the growth process.

The Texas Tech game could be a springboard game if the Razorbacks are to win. Nobody outside of Fayetteville is going to expect the Razorbacks to open the season by beating Auburn on Aug. 30, but Texas Tech is a quality nonconference opponent that the Razorbacks should be competitive with. The game is on the road, it’s on national television (ABC) and is against a team that plays a style that Bielema isn’t enamored with: the hurry-up no-huddle offense, led by offensive guru Kliff Kingsbury. Arkansas will have already faced an up-tempo offense in Auburn and will be due to see another two weeks after the Red Raiders, when the Razorbacks meet Texas A&M.

The trip to Lubbock, Texas, kicks off a tough stretch of games for the Razorbacks. It is followed by games against Northern Illinois, Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia. A victory at Texas Tech could generate some much-needed positive momentum going into this schedule stretch, and who knows what could happen from there? The Razorbacks were pretty competitive with Texas A&M last year and perhaps a key victory in Lubbock could trigger some confidence for Bielema’s bunch that they can carry into the games against NIU and A&M. Four of the five games that follow the Texas Tech game are home games for the Razorbacks and the other (against A&M on Sept. 27) is a neutral-site game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

A loss would likely leave the Razorbacks at 1-2 at that point and staring down that mean schedule stretch, and it could start a snowball in the wrong direction.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
3/12/14
12:00
PM ET
Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.
Looking at ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner's recent piece on whether West Virginia's offense can stay elite got me to thinking: Can the SEC's top offenses from 2012 replicate last year's success?

The SEC is bringing back some real offensive firepower in 2013. Sure, this is still a defensive league, but as we've seen over the past couple of years, the offenses are really evolving and getting better.

So can the top five SEC offenses from last year duplicate what they did in 2012? Let's take a look:

1. Texas A&M
2012 total offense: 558.5 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 44.5 points per game

The Aggies bring back Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, but a lot of Johnny Football's supporting cast is gone. Gone are offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu. Joeckel was the best tackle in the SEC last year, Kingsbury and Manziel had a special on-field relationship, and those receivers are taking 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The Aggies have a stacked backfield that should be headlined by senior Ben Malena and Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams, and Mike Evans leads a younger but very talented receiving corps. But teams will have better game plans for Manziel and those youngsters at receiver will have to grow up quickly. Manziel is special, but that target on his back is enormous. The Aggies were great on offense last year, and they'll be good again, but I expect the Aggies' numbers to dip in 2013.

2. Tennessee
2012 total offense: 475.9
2012 scoring offense: 36.2

The Vols lost their starting quarterback and top four receiving targets. Tyler Bray accounted for 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. His top four targets, including Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, caught 187 passes for 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns. Tennessee returns one of the top lines around and has a solid trio at running back, but so much is different on offense.

Can the Vols adapt to Butch Jones' new hurry-up offense before the season starts? Can either Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman play beyond their inexperience this fall? There isn't a lot of experience at quarterback or receiver, and that's a major problem when Tennessee's offense revolved around its passing game last year.

3. Georgia
2012 total offense: 467.6
2012 scoring offense: 37.8

Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is back along with his entire offensive line, arguably the top running back duo in the SEC (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a host of talented receivers. Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, ranked first and third on the team in receiving last year, are gone, but Malcolm Mitchell is back and Michael Bennett should be healthy for the start of the season. Bennett might have been the Dawgs' top receiver before he went down with an ACL injury early last season.

There are some young players to keep an eye on as well in Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley. Junior college transfer Jonathan Rumph and seasoned tight end Arthur Lynch should both be valuable options as well. This could be one of the most balanced offenses in the country this fall.

4. Alabama
2012 total offense: 445.5
2012 scoring offense: 38.7

Running back Eddie Lacy and three starters along Alabama's offensive line are gone. Two of those linemen were first-round picks and Lacy was a second-rounder. But quarterback AJ McCarron is back and he has a lot to work with. Amari Cooper is one of the top receivers in the league and Chris Black should be 100 percent this fall, giving McCarron another deep threat to complement Cooper and Kenny Bell. Kevin Norwood is also a reliable target for McCarron.

We know the offense goes through the running game first, and Alabama's backfield is once again stacked. T.J. Yeldon will battle to be one of the top rushers in the league and he'll have big boy Jalston Fowler and speedster Dee Hart to share time with. Youngsters Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who is returning from a spring injury, should both contribute as well. Henry can be used in both the rushing and passing game. Alabama's line seems fine, so there isn't much worry in Tuscaloosa.

5. Ole Miss
2012 total offense: 423.8
2012 scoring offense: 31.5

The Rebels return a lot of pieces on offense and you'd think they'd be even better in Year 2 of Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ole Miss managed to get through last season without any major injuries. Even Freeze doesn't know if that's likely to happen again. If it does, the Rebels should be fine, considering starters Bo Wallace (quarterback), Jeff Scott (running back) and Donte Moncrief (wide receiver) are all back. There are some talented younger players the Rebels can use as well, but the continuing theme in Oxford is that there are still depth issues along the offensive line and at receiver.

Any sort of injuries to those positions could rock the Rebels. Plus, Wallace is coming off of shoulder surgery and threw 17 interceptions last year. Wallace can't be as careless with the ball this fall. Vince Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan, along with true freshman Laquon Treadwell, should take some pressure off Moncrief, and the Rebels are also deep at running back, but the Rebels won't sneak up on people this fall.

1. Alabama: Nick Saban is equipped with yet another national championship contender. Yes, it would be his third straight at Alabama and fourth in five years. An all-star cast returns on offense, led by veteran quarterback AJ McCarron and topflight receiver Amari Cooper. The offensive line lost three draft picks but had a good spring, and the defense is still loaded.

2. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost some important offensive pieces, including offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and left tackle Luke Joeckel, but there are still a lot of weapons to use. Johnny Manziel is still in town, and he'll have a loaded running back stable to work with as well as a host of talented, young receivers led by Mike Evans. The real worry has to be on defense, where five starters are gone from the front seven.

3. Georgia: We all know that the Bulldogs will score a lot of points this fall. Aaron Murray has his entire offensive line back, the league's top running back duo (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a slew of receiving targets, led by Malcolm Mitchell. But the defense is very young. There is talent, but replacing 12 players who started or saw significant time will create early growing pains.

4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return good balance on offense, starting with two quality quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis. The defense also has the luxury of having Jadeveon Clowney anchor what should be a very solid defensive line. The two-deep at linebacker is gone and there are holes in the secondary, so youth could be an issue.

5. Florida: Nobody will question the talent Florida possesses on defense. The Gators lost two first-round draft picks there, but Will Muschamp & Co. should reload with solid younger talent. But how good will the offense be? Quarterback Jeff Driskel will be a year older in the offense, the line should be better and the Gators will be stout running the ball, but there are no consistently reliable receiving targets.

6. LSU: Gradation and the NFL draft ravaged LSU's defense. Questions loom at linebacker and in the secondary, but coach Les Miles left spring pretty pleased with the defensive line. The offense should be improved with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's development, a solid line and all the receiving targets returning. But if running back Jeremy Hill's legal trouble sidelines him (he was suspended indefinitely after being charged with battery last week), the Tigers could be in trouble.

7. Vanderbilt: Coach James Franklin has to be pretty excited with the personnel he has coming back. He has competition at quarterback and running back, but receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, along with a stout offensive line, will help this offense go. The defense got stronger up front this spring, and there are quality starters at linebacker and in the secondary.

8. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze wants to make sure expectations are tempered in Oxford after last season's success and a monster recruiting haul. He lost just three starters from last season's team, and guys are motivated to top last year's 7-6 season. But injuries hurt the team this spring, and depth issues still exist at receiver and along both lines.

9. Auburn: The return of Gus Malzahn as coach has people on the Plains very excited. The offensive personnel fits his spread offense, and Ellis Johnson has instilled a new attitude on defense. The Tigers have to figure out their quarterback situation, and there are no proven receiving threats. Auburn will be better, but this team still has a ways to go.

10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs had a Jekyll and Hyde 2012 but also lost some key parts to last season's squad. Quarterback Tyler Russell has to work with a new receiving corps, while the secondary has to replace three starters, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. It sounds as though the defensive line made major strides this spring, especially ends Denico Autry and Ryan Brown.

11. Missouri: The Tigers didn't lose a lot from last season's 5-7 squad, but the offense dealt with a quarterback battle and protection problems from its offensive line. That's not good for a team that stumbled offensively all last season. The defense seemed to impress up front, but Mizzou is replacing two starting linebackers with a gang of inexperienced players.

12. Arkansas: Under new coach Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks got tougher across the board this spring. Bielema also found his quarterback in redshirt sophomore Brandon Allen, and both lines seemed to progress. But there are still questions at receiver, running back and with the lack of depth at linebacker. Plus, that regular-season schedule is just ugly for any first-year coach.

13. Tennessee: Butch Jones did a good job of supplying some much-needed energy within this football team, but he sure does have his hands full. Gone are the starting quarterback and basically all of last season's receiving production. He has a strong offensive line, and the defense seemed to adjust to the 4-3 scheme, but these players have to be much more consistent going forward.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops has received a ton of support from Big Blue Nation, but he knows that his team has a long way to go. He has to find his quarterback and offensive playmakers. He has to replace three starters in the secondary and is thin at linebacker. The good news is that the defensive line will be the core of this team, which is huge for the first-year coach.


There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.

A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.

After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.

"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."

Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.

If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.

To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.

[+] EnlargeLuke Joeckel
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M has to replace a number of starters on offense, including left tackle Luke Joeckel.
Johnny Manziel and his Heisman award-winning slipperiness returns, but he’ll be without five offensive starters from 2012, including left tackle Luke Joeckel, who could be a top-five pick in April’s NFL draft, and veteran receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches, 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Offensive coordinator and major Manziel mentor Kliff Kingsbury also left to become the head coach at Texas Tech.

Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.

“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.

And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.

Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.

"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."

What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.

Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.

"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”

Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.

It sounds clichéd, but it's true.

To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.

"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.

"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
This marks the final year of the BCS, and you better believe the SEC would love to close the BCS era with eight straight titles. It would also ensure that the league has even more momentum going into the playoff, which starts during the 2014 season.

Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.

But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.

Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:

ALABAMA

Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?

TEXAS A&M

Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.

Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.

GEORGIA

Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.

Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.

FLORIDA

Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.

Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.

Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

LSU

Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.

Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.

Season report card: Texas A&M

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
10:00
AM ET
It's time to grade Texas A&M's first season in the SEC:

OFFENSE: Remember how the Aggies' offense was supposed to struggle without Ryan Tannehill running things and a redshirt freshman replacing him at quarterback? Yeah, that really worked out. Thanks to the minds of Kevin Sumlin, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, the Aggies ran over most of their new opponents in 2012 with the SEC's top offense. Texas A&M averaged a league-high 558.5 yards per game (third nationally). The Aggies also led the SEC in rushing (242.1), passing (316.5) and scoring offense (44.5). A&M registered more than 400 yards in 12 games and more than 600 yards in seven games. Johnny Football became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman and broke the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards (3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing). He also totaled 47 touchdowns and led the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns (21). Manziel had a special year, but he also got help from a dynamic receiving duo in freshman Mike Evans and senior Ryan Swope, who combined to catch 154 passes for 2,018 yards and 13 touchdowns. Uzoma Nwachukwu only caught 26 passes, but he added seven more receiving touchdowns. When Manziel wasn't darting past or slipping by defenders, A&M's running game mostly went through running back Ben Malena, who finished the year with 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Christine Michael added 12 more rushing touchdowns. A&M was also equipped with one of the top offensive lines in the country led by Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Grade: A+

DEFENSE: The Aggies ranked seventh or lower in the SEC in the four major defensive categories, including ranking 12th in pass defense (250.7 yards per game). Teams scored 36 touchdowns on the Aggies and averaged 21.8 points per game. The Aggies surrendered 20-plus points in seven games, including allowing 57 points in a back-and-forth win over Louisiana Tech. A&M might have had some issues when it came to slowing down the yardage and points, but in its two losses, the Aggies allowed just 20 and 24 points. The Aggies gave up 390.2 yards per game and grabbed just 16 takeaways. Defensive end Damontre Moore became a real star. He was one of the top defenders in the country, tying for eighth nationally with 12.5 sacks and seventh with 21 tackles for loss. He also led the Aggies with 85 total tackles and nine quarterback hurries. The defense, which was relatively young in the back end, might have had a little more bend than the coaches would like, but it rarely broke down and held an Oklahoma offense to just 13 points in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Grade: B-

OVERALL: The Aggies were supposed to struggle in their first year in the SEC, but flourished instead. Johnny Football was a major reason why, but Sumlin instilled an extremely tough personality during spring ball that carried over to the season. Alabama might have been crowned college football's national champion, but after a 41-13 beat down of Oklahoma, the Aggies made a solid case for being the nation's top team -- and A&M was the only team to top the Crimson Tide with a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa. The defense needed to be bailed out by the offense at times, but even with no bye week during the regular season, the Aggies never seemed to slow down. If not for the opener against Louisiana Tech being postponed, the season might have been even better with a game under the Aggies' belt before taking on Florida. A&M wasn't as sharp against LSU, but was in serious contention for a BCS bowl game late in the year. Grade: A

Past grades:
As we say goodbye to a handful of SEC underclassmen, we thought we'd take a look at some of the coaching faces that have left us following the 2012 season and some of the new ones we'll have to get used to.

Here is the list of who's in and who's out in the SEC coaching world:

ALABAMA

OUT:
  • Secondary: Jeremy Pruitt
IN:

  • Secondary: Greg Brown

ARKANSAS

OUT:
  • Head coach: John L. Smith
  • Defensive coordinator/secondary: Paul Haynes
  • Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: Paul Petrino
  • Special teams coordinator/defensive ends: Steve Caldwell
  • Secondary: Bobby Allen
  • Wide receivers: Kris Cinkovich
  • Wide receivers: George McDonald
  • Running backs/Recruiting coordinator: Tim Horton
  • Offensive line: Chris Klenakis
  • Defensive tackles: Kevin Peoples
IN:
  • Head coach: Bret Bielema
  • Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: Jim Chaney
  • Cornerbacks: Taver Johnson
  • Defensive line: Charlie Partridge
  • Linebackers: Randy Shannon
  • Defensive coordinator: Chris Ash
  • Tight ends: Barry Lunney Jr.
  • Offensive line: Sam Pittman
  • Running backs: Joel Thomas
AUBURN

OUT:
  • Head coach: Gene Chizik
  • Special teams coordinator/Tight ends: Jay Boulware
  • Offensive line: Jeff Grimes
  • Offensive coordinator: Scot Loeffler
  • Running backs/Recruiting coordinator: Curtis Luper
  • Secondary: Willie Martinez
  • Defensive line: Mike Pelton
  • Wide receivers: Trooper Taylor
  • Linebackers: Tommy Thigpen
  • Defensive coordinator: Brian VanGorder
IN:
  • Head coach: Gus Malzahn
  • Offensive coordinator: Rhett Lashlee
  • Defensive line: Rodney Garner
  • Defensive coordinator: Ellis Johnson
  • Special teams/Running backs: Rich Bisaccia
  • Co-Offensive coordinator/Wide receivers: Dameyune Craig
  • Co-Defensive coordinator: Charlie Harbison
  • Offensive line: J.B. Grimes
  • Cornerbacks: Melvin Smith
  • Tight ends: Tim Horton
FLORIDA

OUT:
  • Wide receivers: Bush Hamdan
IN:
  • Wide receivers: Joker Phillips
GEORGIA

OUT:
  • Defensive line/Recruiting coordinator: Rodney Garner
IN:
  • Defensive line: Chris Wilson
KENTUCKY

OUT:
  • Head coach: Joker Phillips
  • Defensive backs: Mike Cassity
  • Defensive coordinator: Rick Minter
  • Tight ends/Special teams: Greg Nord
  • Running backs: Steve Pardue
  • Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: Randy Sanders
  • Linebackers/Recruiting coordinator: Chuck Smith
  • Offensive line: Mike Summers
  • Defensive line coach: David Turner
  • Wide receivers: Pat Washington
IN:
  • Head coach: Mark Stoops
  • Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: Neal Brown
  • Defensive coordinator/Linebackers: D.J. Eliot
  • Cornerbacks: Derrick Ansley
  • Defensive line: Jimmy Brumbaugh
  • Wide receivers: Tommy Mainord
  • Tight ends: Vince Marrow
  • Safeties/Special teams coordinator: Bradley Dale Peveto
  • Offensive line: John Schlarman
  • Running backs: Chad Scott
MISSISSIPPI STATE

OUT:
  • Defensive coordinator/Defensive line: Chris Wilson
  • Cornerbacks/Nickels: Melvin Smith
IN:
  • Defensive line: David Turner
  • Cornerbacks: Deshea Townsend
MISSOURI

Out
  • Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: David Yost
IN:
  • Offensive coordinator: Josh Henson (promoted from co-offensive line coach)
  • Quarterbacks/Associate head coach: Andy Hill (promoted from wide receivers coach)
  • Wide receivers: Pat Washington
TENNESSEE

OUT:
  • Head coach: Derek Dooley
  • Offensive coordinator: Jim Chaney
  • Defensive coordinator: Sal Sunseri
  • Cornerbacks: Derrick Ansley
  • Tight ends/Special teams: Charlie Coiner
  • Safeties: Josh Conklin
  • Wide receivers: Darin Hinshaw
  • Defensive line: John Palermo
  • Offensive line: Sam Pittman
IN:
  • Head coach: Butch Jones
  • Offensive coordinators/Quarterbacks: Mike Bajakian
  • Defensive coordinator: John Jancek
  • Defensive line: Steve Stripling
  • Wide receivers/Recruiting coordinator: Zach Azzanni
  • Tight ends: Mark Elder
  • Offensive line: Don Mahoney
  • Defensive backs: Willie Martinez
  • Linebackers: Tommy Thigpen
TEXAS A&M

OUT:
  • Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: Kliff Kingsbury
  • Special teams/Tight ends: Brian Polian
  • Linebackers: Matt Wallerstedt
IN:
  • Special teams: Jeff Banks
  • Co-offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks: Jake Spavital
  • Co-offensive coordinator/running backs: Clarence McKinney (promoted from running backs coach)
After calling plays for Texas A&M in the Aggies' 41-13 win against Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, running backs coach Clarence McKinney was promoted to co-offensive coordinator for next season, a source told ESPN.com.

The source also said that McKinney will be the Aggies' primary play-caller. Former West Virginia quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital will serve as the other co-offensive coordinator and will coach quarterbacks, the source said. CBSSports.com earlier reported the hiring of Spavital.

With McKinney calling plays, the Aggies registered 633 yards of offense and 28 first downs against the Sooners. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel also set a bowl record for total offensive yards (516).

McKinney has been with first-year A&M coach Kevin Sumlin since 2008, and will help keep some familiarity within the offense after former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left to become the head coach at Texas Tech. There will likely be some tweaks, but nothing major.

The thing to watch is how McKinney and Spavital interact with Manziel during games. Kingsbury did a very good job guiding Manziel through games. He was extremely patient with Manziel, who had a thirst for improv during games. He's obviously growing, but I doubt any coach will be able to get rid of Manziel's off-the-cuff mentality. But being able to teach Manziel as he goes is something Kingsbury was really good at, and now Manziel will be learning from two other people.

What we learned in the SEC bowls

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
11:00
AM ET
Now that the bowl season is over, it's time to take a look back at what we learned in the SEC during the postseason:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will be among the favorites to win the national title again next season.
1. It really is Alabama's world: For the second straight year and for the third time in four years, Alabama took home college football's crystal hardware. After the first 15 minutes of the Discover BCS National Championship, it didn't even look like No. 1 Notre Dame deserved to be on the same field as the Crimson Tide. Alabama wore down the Irish defense in the first half, and its defense tormented Notre Dame's offense for about 90 percent of Monday night's game. Nick Saban didn't have his most talented team, but he had his squad way more prepared than Brian Kelly did. Saban's way of making sure his players approach every game the same way proved to be excellent again. Notre Dame was completely overmatched, and with the talent coming back in 2013, Alabama should again be the favorite to win it all. Three-peat?

2. The SEC's dominance is still being challenged: Even though Alabama brought home the SEC's seventh straight BCS title, the SEC's perception is still being challenged. Social media has been buzzing with chants of "overrated" directed toward the SEC because Mississippi State, LSU and Florida all fell flat in their bowl games. Mississippi State lost by 14 to Northwestern, LSU lost to Clemson on a last-second field goal and Florida was run ragged by Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heading into bowl season, Florida and LSU weren't expected to lose, but they got away from their ground games and paid for it dearly. Still, the SEC went 6-3 (.667) in bowl games, including Texas A&M's 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Georgia and South Carolina downing Big Ten teams. Only the WAC (2-0) and C-USA (4-1) had better winning percentages, and neither had nearly as many bowl teams. So is the SEC down? Well, while the SEC took a couple of bad losses in bowl season, seven teams finished the year in the Associated Press Top 25, including five in the top 10. The Big Ten and Big 12 had losing bowl records, the Pac-12 went 4-4 and the ACC was 4-2. So, if the SEC is overrated, what are the other conferences?

3. Florida's offensive issues are still a major problem: All season, we wondered what we'd see from Florida's offense. However, for 11 games, even if the offense came up short, the Gators found ways to win. Against Louisville, the Gators went in reverse and never got right again. Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six on the first possession, and the offense imploded from there. Mike Gillislee, who was easily Florida's best offensive weapon, carried the ball just nine times. The Gators panicked, but when they had to pass, they couldn't.

This has to be a major concern for the Gators going forward, because Gillislee is graduating and tight end Jordan Reed declared for the NFL draft. Driskel has to find some major help in the passing game this spring/summer, or Florida's offense will get pummeled again. Driskel's health is now a major concern because backup Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving the Gators with no experience behind Driskel.

4. More eyes will be on Ole Miss ... and Vanderbilt: Before the season, no one gave Ole Miss a chance at the postseason -- or even five wins -- but the Rebels went out and had a tremendous first year under Hugh Freeze. If not for a couple of horrendous second halves, the Rebels might have won eight games during the regular season. After a dominating performance in their BBVA Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, the Rebels could be looking at a spot in preseason Top 25 polls. Most of this team, including what could be a stellar recruiting class, will be in Oxford next fall, so expectations will be much higher.

The same can be said about James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. After a historic nine-win season that ended with a commanding bowl win over NC State, the Commodores will be expected to keep up this act after being even better in Year 2 of the Franklin era. Vandy will lose some talent up front defensively, and Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will be gone, but a host of playmakers will return, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.

5. Johnny Football's legend just keeps growing: After Texas A&M lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, Johnny Manziel's field maturity was really going to be judged in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against the Sooners. Well, all he did without one of his best mentors was set a bowl record for total yards (516) in the Aggies' rout inside Jerry's World. Manziel zigged and zagged as though Kingsbury was feeding him info through an earpiece. People don't understand how much Kingsbury helped Manziel with his composure during games, but Manziel did just fine without him. It shows how much he's grown during his Heisman year. Things will be different next season with some key players also missing on offense, but to see Manziel play like that without Kingsbury has to be very encouraging for Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Aggies' coaching staff.

Instant analysis: Texas A&M 41, OU 13

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
11:46
PM ET


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Another Cotton Bowl, another bad loss for the Big 12. Excluding current SEC member Missouri's win back in 2008, the Big 12 has lost the Cotton Bowl to an SEC opponent in eight consecutive seasons. Johnny Football put on a show after a month away and showed zero signs of rust and a zillion signs of being an endless source of frustration for Oklahoma's defense.

The Big 12 finished 4-5 in its nine bowl games, and the SEC improved to 4-3 in its bowl games. Let's take a look at some instant analysis for Texas A&M's 41-13 blowout win over the Sooners.

It was over when: Facing a fourth-and-5 late in the third quarter, Manziel hit Ryan Swope over the middle on a short slant. Swope shed a tackler and raced 33 yards to put the Aggies up, 34-13. That capped a run of three Oklahoma three-and-outs to begin the second half and spelled doom for the Sooners.

Game ball goes to: Johnny Manziel. I mean, who else? He broke the Cotton Bowl record for total yards with 516 and accounted for four touchdowns. It could have even been five, too, if not for Malcome Kennedy's bobbling a pass in the end zone that was eventually intercepted by Oklahoma's Javon Harris.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma averaged 4.8 yards per play. Texas A&M averaged 9.6 yards per play. It was really that simple in this one. Johnny Football made the Aggies dangerous on what seemed like every snap. Oklahoma's offense played well in the first half, but it rarely looked easy, and Texas A&M prevented the Sooners from breaking big plays. It also clamped down in the red zone.

Unsung hero of the game: Texas A&M's offensive line. Get a good, long look at Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews serving as bookends on this line. They might be gone soon, cashing big-time checks as NFL first-round picks. Mike Sherman had well-chronicled struggles, but the offensive line guru left some big beef for Manziel and the Aggies offense to operate behind. It showed tonight. Oklahoma rarely blitzed, for fear of Manziel running loose in the second level, but he had all day to throw and little pressure on most snaps.

What Texas A&M learned: Heisman jinx, December distractions, coaching changes, whatever. It all seemed pretty irrelevant in this game. Johnny Football looked like his usual self, if not better. He broke loose for 47 rushing yards on Texas A&M's opening drive and didn't slow down from there. Kliff Kingsbury checked out as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator, but Clarence McKinney had a solid performance in his debut as play-caller. Manziel insisted he wasn't distracted and that the whirlwind of awards and television appearances after winning the Heisman hadn't changed him. His performance validated those claims.

What Oklahoma learned: Just like Kansas State and Notre Dame, the Sooners were incapable of beating the elite teams in college football this year. A 10-3 season isn't bad, but it's not good enough at Oklahoma. The Sooners might not have even been happy going 1-2 in those losses, but 0-3 will leave a very bitter taste in their mouths thinking back on a season that was very average by the Sooners' sky-high standards. Any notion that it had a formula for stopping or even slowing down the Johnny Football train went out the window. He had his way with the Sooner defense, which tackled poorly, too.

Texas A&M keys for the Cotton Bowl

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
10:30
AM ET
Here's a look at three keys for No. 9 Texas A&M's matchup with No. 11 Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl:

1. Don't change the script: Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury might be gone, but all those athletes who made the Aggies' offense so potent in 2012 will still be lining up inside Jerry's World. And that includes Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made just about every defense he faced look silly. Kingsbury and Manziel had a special in-game relationship, but Kingsbury is now at Texas Tech, so Manziel won't have the luxury of Kingsbury's guidance on the sideline. But the Aggies can't divert from the plan that got them to 10 wins in their first year in the SEC. Trying anything new or restricting parts of the offense probably isn't the way to go at this point in the season. The athletes are there to stay the course, and with Oklahoma's high-powered offense, the Aggies can't afford to get too far behind the Sooners. Keeping the run game going will be key as well, as Oklahoma ranks 79th nationally in rush defense and gave up 200-plus rushing yards six times during the regular season.

2. Force Landry out of the pocket: Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,989 yards and 29 touchdowns this season and had two 500-yard passing games during the regular season. The man can throw the pigskin around, and it helps that he has four players to throw to who have more than 40 receptions on the year. That means the Aggies have to make him as uncomfortable as possible tonight. While Jones has done well against the blitz this season, he struggles when he's forced out of the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones has attempted 12.2 percent of his passes from outside the pocket in his career and has thrown 25.5 percent of his career interceptions from outside the pocket. Defensive end Damontre Moore was a terror in opposing backfields this season and if he can consistently get into Landry's face, he should make it tough for Landry to make a lot of plays on the Aggies' defense.

3. Contain Oklahoma's returners: The Sooners rank fourth nationally in kickoff return average, registering 26.5 yards per return. The Sooners have returned 32 kicks for 849 yards and a touchdown. Roy Finch recorded the Sooners' lone touchdown, but Brennan Clay has done the most damage on kickoffs, averaging 26 yards on 18 returns. The Aggies will also have to deal with punt returner Justin Brown, who averages 13.6 yards per return and has a touchdown. Texas A&M allowed just 18.7 yards per kickoff return during the regular season and 5.9 yards per punt return. The Aggies didn't allow any return touchdowns in 2012.

Poll: What's the top SEC bowl game?

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
4:30
PM ET
Now that the SEC is about to kick off its portion of the bowl season, we thought we'd reach out to our faithful readers and find out which of the major bowl games interest you.

We won't be using the Discover BCS National Championship between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama because it really is the game of games and everything is riding on that one. Instead, we're looking at four other intriguing bowl games involving SEC teams outside of the national championship.

SportsNation

Which is the best bowl game featuring a SEC team?

  •  
    51%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,357)

Texas A&M's matchup with Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl has points written all over it. Both teams are averaging more than 500 yards a game and more than 40 points an outing. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play in his first bowl game, and he'll do so against an old Big 12 foe. Kliff Kingsbury might be gone, but the playmakers who made A&M's offense go will still be on the field inside Jerry's World.

What about LSU's matchup with Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? Two sets of Tigers. Both claim Death Valley as home. LSU comes equipped with one of the nation's best defenses, while Clemson has one of the nation's best and most explosive offenses. However, Clemson now has to make sure its defense is on its game inside the Georgia Dome because LSU found a pretty balanced offense in the last month of the season.

Does Florida-Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl strike your fancy? It's the other BCS bowl game involving an SEC team, and this one has some pretty interesting storylines. Will Muschamp is looking to take the Gators to 12-1 in his second season in Gainesville, while the Cardinals are equipped with former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. There were some around the program who thought he might have a legitimate shot at the Florida job before Muschamp got it.

Then, you have the Outback Bowl between South Carolina and Michigan. Jadeveon Clowney chasing around Denard Robinson? Yes, please! The Gamecocks are equipped with one of the SEC's top defenses and own one of the most aggressive front sevens around. Remember the last time Michigan tangled with a top defense from the SEC? Yeah, not so much fun for the Wolverines.

But is there another SEC bowl that is more exciting? Is Georgia's matchup with Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl more exciting? What about the TaxSlayer.com Bowl between Mississippi State and Northwestern? There's Vanderbilt's matchup with NC State in the Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl, which will make back-to-back bowls for the Commodores for the first time in school history. And Ole Miss' game with Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl is the first bowl for the Rebels since 2009.

There are plenty of bowls to choose from, so have at it.

SPONSORED HEADLINES