SEC: Lane Kiffin

Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

[+] EnlargeSaban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and the Crimson Tide will play at the No. 11-ranked Ole Miss Rebels in Week 6.
Through four games, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have done nothing to not deserve their spot atop the college football world.

Forget Jake Coker and forget being a game manager, Blake Sims has developed into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator hasn't signaled the end times, it's brought about a renaissance replete with screen passes, misdirection and even the use of the hurry-up, no-huddle.

After fumbling about against West Virginia in the season opener, Alabama's defense has returned to form. If it weren't for four turnovers, Florida wouldn't have scored a single point in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made the Gators look inept as Jeff Driskel struggled to complete 9 of his 28 pass attempts.

Alabama has developed into a complete football team these past few weeks. Even the punting and place kicking have been better than expected.

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

Whatever we think we know about Alabama will be challenged Saturday when the Crimson Tide have their first true road test against the No. 11-ranked team in the country. Oxford, Mississippi, may be a picturesque college town that prides itself on never losing the party, but what awaits Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium won't be so friendly. Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche want to knock off the No. 1 team in the land, not serve it sweet tea and barbecue.

How will Sims hold up under that type of pressure? He's played well so far, tossing eight touchdowns to two interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least two starts, he ranks third nationally with an adjusted QBR of 89.4. But he hasn't played in a raucous road environment yet, and he hasn't faced a defense that's as good top to bottom as Ole Miss'. The Nkemdiche brothers can get after you. So can C.J. Johnson and D.T. Shackelford. And if you try throwing into that secondary, don't expect the ball back. Senquez Golson leads the SEC with three interceptions this season and Cody Prewitt led the league with six picks last season.

Speaking of defense, what do we really know about Alabama's? The Crimson Tide barely survived West Virginia Week 1, and in subsequent games they haven't really been put to the test. Florida was supposed to be a measuring stick, but we saw how that played out.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, should give Alabama everything it can handle. Wallace may be up and down as a passer, but when he's hot, he can really sling it. He's elusive in the pocket and knows Hugh Freeze's offense like the back of his hand. Plus, he's protected by an offensive line that stars one of the best tackles in the SEC in Laremy Tunsil.

Alabama's secondary won't be able to sleepwalk by the Rebs. Treadwell is one of the most productive receivers in the country and Evan Engram is a constant mismatch at tight end. And that's not to mention Cody Core and Vince Sanders, who are difficult to account for in their own right. If you're Saban, you're worried because your top cornerback is generously listed at 5-foot-10, your second-best cornerback, Eddie Jackson, has health concerns, and your third-best cornerback, Tony Brown, is a true freshman.

And all that goes without saying how Alabama has continued to struggle against the hurry-up, no-huddle. Go back and look at Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia; it hasn't been pretty.

Meanwhile, Freeze just so happens to be one of the leading experts on uptempo offense. And unlike last season's game, he's probably going to make sure his signals aren't so obvious.

If Alabama wants to remain the No. 1 team in the country, it will have to prove it against Ole Miss.

From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.
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From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

Four weeks into the season, we're still trying to figure out who is the best player in the SEC. Is it the rumbling tank of a running back or the hotshot receiver who is making everyone on defense look silly with his moves, speed and intelligence?

Today’s Take Two topic: If you were starting a team from scratch, whom are you building around -- Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper or Georgia running back Todd Gurley?

Take 1: Alex Scarborough

We’re talking apples and oranges, people. Unlike running backs, most receivers are dependent on the quarterback, after all.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama receiver Amari Cooper caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns vs. Florida.
But Cooper isn’t most receivers.

Cooper may not be as physically impressive as Gurley. He may not run with the same ferocity. But Cooper is every bit the star. If I were starting a football team from scratch, I would take the junior receiver No. 1 overall.

I don’t care that he’s not 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. There simply isn’t a player in college football who takes over the game quite like him. Even at 6-1 and 210 pounds, he is unguardable. Using NFL-level footwork and an uncanny ability to read coverage, he can outsmart even the best DBs. Just ask Vernon Hargreaves III, a potential All-American and future high-round draft pick.

Cooper’s numbers this season are startling. He leads the country in receptions (43) and receiving yards (655) and is tied for third in receiving touchdowns (5). He’s on track for 150 catches, 2,292 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, based on a 14-game season. That’s just silly.

And he’s doing all that with a quarterback who played receiver and running back early in his career. Don't tell me he's not making Blake Sims look good. With a ridiculous 320 yards after the catch, Cooper is doing much of the work himself.

Since Nov. 30 (when he finally got healthy), Cooper ranks third nationally in total yards from scrimmage (1,011). That’s ahead of Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and, yes, Gurley.

If team success matters, you have to take Cooper over Gurley.

Cooper’s Crimson Tide are undefeated and well on their way to a berth in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Gurley’s Bulldogs have one loss and need to work their way back into the playoff picture.

If Georgia’s offensive coordinator had simply given Gurley the ball more against South Carolina, that argument may not exist. But it’s a reality nonetheless.

Lane Kiffin won't make the same mistake at Alabama. He'll give Cooper the ball again and again and again until someone proves they can stop him. So far this season, no one has shown they can.

Take 2: Edward Aschoff

I'd just like to state for the record that I think Cooper has been amazing this season (#shamelessplug). I respect his game like no other when it comes to the receiver position.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
David Goldman/AP ImagesTodd Gurley has been practically unstoppable this season, averaging 9.8 yards per carry.
But while he has been stellar and no other receiver should even be in the same conversation with him, without someone throwing him the ball, he's just another athlete standing on the field. With Gurley, you don't have to worry about that because all he needs is someone handing him the rock and getting out of his way.

Just get out of his way, man, and let him do his thang!

Like, you aren't hearing me. I said get out of his way!

See, Alex, when you use visual aids, it helps your argument.

Gurley is a machine who can create his own running lanes even if things are clogged in front of him. All he has to do is touch the ball and a play is more than likely going to be made. He doesn't need the assistance of someone else chucking it to him. If Georgia wanted to, it could line him up in the Wildcat all day and Gurley would just feast on opposing defenses even more. There's a reason everyone bashed Georgia's coaching staff for not giving him the rock on first-and-goal late against South Carolina. There's a reason coach Mark Richt regretted that decision after the Dawgs eventually lost that game.

In Gurley you should always trust when you need something magical to happen. How about you Google that nifty 17-yard cutback he had for a first down against South Carolina. Yeah, that's improv, sir. I don't see receivers having a lot of luck with stuff like that.

Through Gurley's first two games of the season, he was the only Power 5 player to have at least 100 yards after contact in both games, averaging 102 YAC against Clemson and South Carolina. Since the start of the 2012 season, Gurley has 95 rushes that have gained 10 yards or more and has 13 such runs this season.

Remember, he's played in only three games this year yet is third in the SEC with 402 rushing yards (134 yards per game), has four touchdowns and is averaging a league-high 9.8 yards per carry. On 428 career carries, he has just 50 yards for loss on runs and has just 2 yards for loss this season -- which came in Week 1 against Clemson.

This is the agile yet destructive player you want to start your team with. Gurley can pummel any defender foolish enough to get in his way, or he can glide and sprint past him. But honestly, Gurley likes the contact. It fuels him and makes him run harder.

My guy is thirsty for contact and is more independent with his majestic yet pernicious running style.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin weaved through a crowd of players and coaches at midfield after the game. That familiar visor atop his head, he smiled and shook hands with a few people, barely noticing the cameras that fixed on Nick Saban, Amari Cooper and Blake Sims.

Kiffin patted a couple of his offensive linemen on the butt, circled around the media frenzy and made a beeline toward the locker room.

No one noticed.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin has played his hand well at Alabama.
The man who orchestrated one of the most impressive offensive games in recent memory at Alabama exited the field to little applause. After being labeled a genius for the way he carved up Florida’s defense for the most yards it has ever allowed (645), no one asked him how he did it. No one could. The former media lightning rod wasn’t allowed to speak on the record as offensive coordinator, per Alabama policy.

In that silence, Kiffin shined.

Finally, his ability as a coach did the talking.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kiffin ordered an empty set with four receivers and running back Kenyan Drake split out wide to the right. Florida thought it had the situation handled -- until the snap. The defense slid left toward the tunnel screen set up for Cooper, Drake’s man cheated that way and got turned completely around. There was no safety help over the top. It was too easy.

One play. Eighty-seven yards. Six points.

When’s the last time anyone saw Alabama come out swinging like that?




Kiffin insisted he wouldn’t overhaul the offense.

In his only time speaking with the media at the start of preseason camp, he said, “The last thing we would want to do is come in here and change a bunch of stuff.”

Very small tweaks were in order, he said. He wanted to make sure “we’re putting our great players in the best position.”

But in doing so, Kiffin has changed Alabama’s offense significantly.

Against Florida, he used every trick in the bag: screens, an unbalanced line, misdirection, even the Wildcat.

The most compelling change, however, was the tempo.

Saban, who famously asked of the no-huddle, “Is this what we want football to be?” has decided that, yes, up-tempo is the way to go.

But it’s paying off for reasons you might not expect.

By not huddling, Alabama isn’t necessarily wearing out the defense or even getting it out of position. Rather, it’s buying Kiffin time.

From the sideline, Kiffin has become an extension of the quarterback. Instead of asking Sims to make all the presnap reads, Kiffin stands behind the line of scrimmage and surveys the situation. With enough time on the clock, he can tell Sims to audible out of a bad play.

The result: Sims, who once played running back and wide receiver, is suddenly a playmaker at quarterback. The senior nearly broke Alabama’s single-game passing record with 445 yards and four touchdowns against Florida.

“Kiffin being on the sideline helps him put his hands directly on the offense,” said Ken Mastrole, Sims’ QB coach away from Alabama. “It makes sure the coordination and the tempo and fluidity is there from the playcalling to the execution. It’s a very good touch because Blake has someone to go to.”




It seemed like an abstract idea, getting the ball to players in a position to succeed, but that’s what Kiffin said he wanted to do.

Against Florida, we saw how.

Coming into the game, the matchup of Cooper and Vernon Hargreaves III was all anyone wanted to talk about. Cooper, arguably the best receiver in the game, would be going up against Hargreaves, possibly the best cornerback in the country. The prevailing thought was that the two would cancel each other out and Sims would have to throw more to his other receivers.

But Kiffin simply moved Cooper from the Z or X receiver position, furthest from the line of scrimmage, into the slot. Hargreaves, who plays the field or boundary corner, didn’t move along with him. Cooper was instead left against a nickelback or linebacker. The matchup went from a toss-up to a beatdown, as 150 of Cooper’s 201 yards and two of his three touchdowns came when he wasn’t in a clear one-on-one matchup with Hargreaves.

“He takes advantage of matchups,” Cooper said of Kiffin after the game. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”




Kiffin wasn’t the best head coach. He didn’t excel in dealing with the media or managing all the moving parts of a program.

But take away those responsibilities and put a chalkboard in front of him and Kiffin shines.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Chris Williams/Icon SMILane Kiffin never seems to have managed the task of head coach as well as he has offensive assistant.
As Saban has said, “All his issues come from something we’re not asking him to do.”

What Saban is asking of Kiffin is simple. He’s still on the field, a head coach of the offense in a sense, but after the final whistle blows, he’s almost nowhere to be seen. He’s recognizable, certainly, but when the cameras come on and the postgame chatter begins, it’s not Kiffin making headlines.

“He’s been huge,” said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. “I literally just told him, ‘You really can call plays.’ ... He just knows when to do it. He knows when to go fast and when to just get everyone to regroup. It’s awesome.”

It’s early, but the Kiffin-Saban marriage has been a happy one. By no longer being the center of attention, Kiffin is back to doing the things that made him such a hot coaching commodity in the first place.

Finally, we’re seeing the Kiffin who could coach X's and O's with anyone.

Finally, we’re seeing the Kiffin who’s best walking around the fray instead of engaging in it.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can keep calling it a competition if you want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, he was everything Coker was not.

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

“We’re a team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s best for Alabama now is Sims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget all the offseason talk and speculation, if you wish, but remember that we've got a long way to go before the whole story has played out.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks were what everyone wanted to see when Alabama took the field against West Virginia on Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s new offensive coordinator would be calling plays from the sideline, mere feet away from head coach Nick Saban. And on top of that, he’d be managing the quarterback situation, which promised to pit Blake Sims, the veteran who had paid his dues, versus Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

Video: Odd couple? Lane Kiffin, Nick Saban

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
12:53
PM ET
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"College GameDay" looks at the relationship between Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
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There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Best of luck to the defensive coordinators tasked with devising game plans for Alabama this season. Sure, there’s no more AJ McCarron to deal with under center. That has to be a relief. But there’s more to the offense than the quarterback, and they know that. The receivers, the running backs, the tight ends -- those are the ones they have to worry about. And at each level of the Crimson Tide's offense, there’s a mismatch waiting to keep those coordinatorss up at night.

Let’s start with O.J. Howard. How do you cover that guy? His numbers as a true freshmen weren’t overwhelming -- 14 receptions, 269 yards, two touchdowns -- but that belies his athleticism and potential as a pass-catcher. For instance, his average of 19.2 yards per catch led Alabama last season. He’s 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and moves like a receiver. You can’t put a linebacker on him. He’ll make one move and leave them in the dust. You can’t put an undersized DB on him, either. He’ll push them around and create the space he needs to get open.

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard's combination of size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) and speed make him particularly difficult to defend.
"Having a guy like that," coach Nick Saban said, "really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense.”

Said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: “O.J. is really extremely talented .... We’re working more with him about speed and his ability to do everything.”

Don’t focus too much on Howard, though. If you chip him at the line of scrimmage with an extra linebacker, you might miss on whoever pops out of the backfield behind him.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are mismatches in their own right. Yeldon, on the one hand, is a one-cut back who will chip away until he’s hit 100 yards and a couple touchdowns. Henry, meanwhile, is simply no fun to tackle. Running backs aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and run like that. Oklahoma’s defense had trouble getting a hand on him, and when they did they couldn’t bring him down.

But it’s not Yeldon or Henry who poses the biggest schematic challenge. The third back, Kenyan Drake, is the one you’ll have trouble accounting for. He’s Alabama’s change-up, except he throws you off with acceleration. His speed is uncanny, as evidenced by his 7.54 yards per carry average (fifth nationally among qualifying backs). Once he hits the hole and gets to the second level of the defense, he’s gone. And when you look at him in the context of Kiffin’s offense -- a shifty back with speed and the ability to catch the football -- there’s one obvious comparison to make: Reggie Bush. In each of Alabama’s last two scrimmages, Drake has taken to the role of receiver, leading the team in receptions with a combined seven catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.

“Drake is like a cat to me, very slippery runner,” said wideout Amari Cooper at SEC media days. “You can’t turn your head when he’s running the ball because he can make the big play at any time.”

Cooper should know. He’s the team’s most consistently explosive offensive weapon. The junior from South Florida isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he has that certain knack for getting open. As a freshman, he became the first rookie receiver in Alabama history to reach 1,000 yards. In spite of dealing with an assortment of nagging injuries last season, he caught 45 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns. In his final two games against Auburn and Oklahoma, he accounted for 327 total yards of offense.

As Saban put it: “He’s pretty hard to stop unless you put two guys on him.”

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Saban said this spring. "He’s got great speed. He’s got really good hands. He’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.”

On paper, Alabama’s skill players have the potential to be among the best in the SEC. When you have to account for the tight end, running back and receiver, it puts defensive coordinators in a bind. But even so, there’s still the question of how it all comes together. Without a strong offensive line, they won’t matter. Without a serviceable quarterback, there won’t be anyone to get them the football.

The good news for Alabama is that whether it’s Blake Sims or Jake Coker who ends up under center, he’ll have plenty of firepower to work with.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You don’t hire Lane Kiffin without igniting certain expectations. There’s his baggage, of course, but there’s also the enduring sense that the former USC and Tennessee head coach still has a trick up his sleeve, that somewhere beyond the headlines there’s the former coordinator who helped the Trojans to a 23-3 record and the most productive offense in college football from 2005-06.

Nick Saban remembered that Lane Kiffin when he offered him the job of Alabama’s next offensive coordinator. He remembered the Lane Kiffin who brought a depleted Tennessee Vols team into Tuscaloosa in 2009 and nearly beat the eventual national champions. He remembered the Lane Kiffin he tried to hire away from USC three years earlier.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin knows he doesn't need to overhaul Alabama's offense.
So what will this reincarnation of Lane Kiffin bring? The coordinator with a gift for coaxing the best out of his players or the head coach who was fired after three-and-a-half underwhelming years of guiding USC?

Everything is set up for him to succeed at Alabama. There’s the matter of finding two new starters on the offensive line and picking a quarterback, of course, but there’s also a wealth of talent across the board. Amari Cooper may be the best receiver in the country, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry could be the scariest duo of tailbacks in the SEC and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators to game plan for.

Kiffin, for his part, seems to understand what he’s walked into. And rather than trying to rebuild his reputation by putting his stamp on Alabama, he’s doing the wise thing and trying not to do too much.

“As far as the offense, the last thing we'd want to do is come in and change a bunch of stuff,” he said. “As I mentioned before, it's a great offensive staff that's been together here. Had a great run here last year on offense, the number of players had great success last year. Really just coming in and looking at some things, very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games.”

That, in a nutshell, is Kiffin’s job description. He’s the caretaker of Alabama’s offense now.

Because, make no mistake, this is not his offense. It wasn’t Doug Nussmeier’s or Jim McElwain’s either. Saban is the architect of the run-oriented, pro-style attack Alabama won three national championships with. He may not call the plays himself, but, as Nussmeier put it when he was hired in 2012, “This is Alabama’s offense.”

Kiffin is instead tasked with making the most of it: more explosive plays, more of a vertical passing game, a more even and consistent run-pass balance. He must get the most out of Cooper, pull the right strings with a deep group of running backs and make Howard a more complete player.

“The last thing I want to do here is focus on what they do really well,” Kiffin explained. “That’s our challenge here this fall: Let’s focus on what you haven’t done so well and not what you’ve done. We know what you can do, let’s bring your game up.”

If Kiffin can do that -- if he can do that even a little bit -- Alabama will be in good shape. There’s plenty of talent in Tuscaloosa. There’s a proven system in place as well. Kiffin doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Saban did that for him. He simply needs to get the wheel to spin a little faster.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
12:00
PM ET
Traditions, position changes, underrated players, suspension news and even anonymous scouting reports on SEC teams. It's all here for you in today's lunch links:

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban had a word of advice for Lane Kiffin as he prepared to address the media for the first time since taking over as Alabama's offensive coordinator: Don’t make any headlines.

“He made sure I didn’t say anything that would be on the ticker,” Kiffin said with a smile.

Kiffin smiled a lot Sunday. He joked about how when Saban called him in December to visit Alabama, “He knew I didn’t have much going on.” Asked about Alabama’s trip to Tennessee this year, Kiffin grinned and said, “It took a long time for the Knoxville question.” He was relaxed and, at times, even self-deprecating.

In his 15 minutes with the media, Kiffin didn’t put his foot in his mouth once. Saban would have been proud.

After so long butting heads with reporters, Kiffin was at ease Sunday. Maybe it was the knowledge that this would be the only time he would have to speak with the press during the regular season. More likely, it was because he’s a man unburdened by the duties of being a head coach. It was the look of a man who is aware of his unconventional career arc and believes that, despite all the turmoil, he’s on the right track.

After all, he’s only 39 years old. How many coaches would kill to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator at that age?

“To be able to go what I’ve gone through and still be fortunate before the age of 40 to be here and be an offensive coordinator with Coach Saban at Alabama, you take some time to reflect on that,” he said.

Kiffin didn’t bring up the Oakland Raiders. He said only the best of Tennessee. He mentioned being fired by USC but didn’t attempt to throw his former school under the bus. Rather, Kiffin said how proud he is now to have worked under two coaches he considers among the best in football: Pete Carroll and Nick Saban.

The adjustment from head coach to coordinator will be gradual for Kiffin, who hasn’t been in this position since 2007. But being more hands on with players and focusing solely on the offense could be a good thing for him. Taking a step back from everything that goes into being a head coach -- discipline, the media, etc. -- might remind everyone why he was once one of the hottest names in coaching, someone who was thought of as an offensive genius.

His list of priorities at Alabama isn't long. As he said, “The last thing we would want to do is come in here and change a bunch of stuff.” With Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and the other skill players on offense, he doesn’t have to. But he does have to find a way to generate more big plays, and there is the small matter of developing a starting quarterback.

Day 1 of practice saw Blake Sims ahead of Jake Coker, who sailed a number of passes high and wide of his target. Day 2 saw a big improvement from Coker, who Saban said had his best day of camp.

“Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here, providing good leadership for the whole offense,” Saban said. “The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have and emphasizing some of the intangible things -- the fundamentals -- we needed to improve on.”

As Saban put it, “It’s not just about knowledge.” What he sees in Kiffin is an ability to communicate.

“Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it,” Saban said. “Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”

Whether it’s fair or not, Kiffin is one of the biggest storylines in college football. If Alabama’s offense does well, he will get the credit. If it fails and Alabama doesn’t live up to its No. 2 ranking, he will receive a disproportionate share of the blame.

But for at least one day -- the only day he had to speak himself -- Kiffin did well. He didn’t make any headlines. He didn’t ruffle any feathers. He played the part of assistant and smiled all the way through it.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
12:00
PM ET
Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
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You want controversy? You want regional bias? You BCS-raised, college football young'uns don't know squat. Consider Exhibit A: USC and Alabama in 1978.

USC went to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 23, 1978, and whipped the top-ranked Crimson Tide 24-14 in front of 77,313 fans who didn't appreciate West Coast cool rolling over their southern-fried team like an army of deranged surfers.

The technical term for that in college football parlance is a "head-to-head victory." That the win was accomplished on the road provided it even more gravity as an objective and seemingly insurmountable measure of two teams. Ergo, when the season ended with both USC and Alabama winning New Year's Day bowl games following one-loss seasons, it was obvious who should be ranked No. 1. That would be the Trojans, of course.

[+] EnlargeSam Cunningham
University of Southern California/Getty ImagesUSC fullback Sam Cunningham turned in a big performance in the Trojans' 1970 victory over the Crimson Tide.
Au contraire. The Associated Press poll voted the Crimson Tide No. 1 after they nipped regular-season No. 1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. USC had to settle for the UPI -- coaches' poll -- national title after beating No. 5 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Even today, if you throw this Apple of Discord onto a bar table between Tide and Trojans adherents over 50, spittle will fly, veins will bulge, and the unique righteous indignation of college football fans will thunder forth like water over Niagara Falls.

That just begins the story of USC-Alabama, which might have the most storied seven-game all-time series in college football history. Or is that Alabama-USC?

So if we are overbrimming with joy at the prospect of the Crimson Tide and Trojans opening the 2016 season in the eighth annual Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a Labor Day weekend, neutral-site game, please forgive us.

This, my friends, is what we've all been craving. If this is the luscious fruit brought forth by the new College Football Playoff demanding more challenging scheduling, then let's give the sport's powers-that-be a collective fist bump. They have, rightfully, been taking a lot of grief lately, most notably in the courts. If we can, for a moment at least, block off consideration of the monstrosity of the cash flow certain to gush from this one. Let's instead awash ourselves in the anticipation of the game itself.

Alabama and USC are without question two of college football's preeminent powers. They might be college football's two preeminent powers. They have combined for 26 national championships (11 by USC, 15 by Alabama), 66 bowl victories (32 USC, 34 Alabama), seven Heisman Trophy winners (6 USC, one Alabama), 272 first-team All-Americans (161 USC, 111 Alabama), 797 NFL draftees (483 USC, 314 Alabama), 52 College Football Hall of Fame players (31 USC, 21 Alabama) and such legendary coaches as USC's Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll and Alabama's Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and current head coach Nick Saban.

Whew. While Notre Dame and Michigan fans are jumping up and down, waving their arms, this matchup is about as special as it gets, particularly when you project forward that both are likely to be top-10 teams to start 2016.

As for the series itself, Alabama leads 5-2. The Tide's biggest wins came in the 1946 Rose Bowl and in the Coliseum in 1971 and 1977, a decade in which both teams were dominating their respective regions. USC's other victory, a 42-21 blowout in 1970 in Birmingham, is often credited with pushing forward the integration of college football in the South, as the Trojans' African-American players, particularly fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis and quarterback Jimmy Jones, turned in big performances. That game has been the subject of many stories and documentary films.

When those iconic helmets are standing opposite each other, there might be a few goose bumps from the old-timers that prove contagious to those who don't recall much from the pre-BCS age.

As for the present, the plot is also pretty thick. For one, the SEC and Pac-12 are the top two conferences in college football, and there's little reason to believe that will change much over the next three seasons. This game, therefore, could operate as a season-long measuring stick for both leagues. CFP committee members might be willing to apply the transitive property if they should be forced to make distinctions between Pac-12 and SEC teams that didn't play -- as in, "Well, UCLA beat USC and USC beat Alabama and LSU lost to Alabama, so UCLA should eclipse LSU."

Finally, there's the Lane Kiffin angle. Kiffin, you might have heard, was fired five games into the 2013 season as USC's head coach. He is now Alabama's offensive coordinator, a pairing with Saban that seems, well, interesting. Kiffin might be somewhere else in 2016, but it certainly would be a notable sidebar to the game if he is not.

By the way, Saban will be 65 in 2016. He might not be atop the Crimson Tide when this game rolls around.

Hmm. Lane Kiffin, Lane Kiffin. Hmm.

Ah, there is a lot to ponder with this one. Plenty of topics that will percolate. And ferment. Perhaps it's good we have two full seasons between now and this showdown to hone our hyperbole.

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
10:00
AM ET
It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.

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