SEC: Manny Diaz
Facing a life over the hill, he wasn’t sure what lay on the other side.
In secluded Ruston, Louisiana, he was starting over. Far from the bright lights of his former home at the University of Texas, he was getting used to being defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, a program that had gone 4-8 the previous season under new coach Skip Holtz.
It was a curious move, dropping down into Conference USA. According to reports, Diaz had bypassed several Power 5 programs who wanted him as a position coach. But Diaz wanted to remain a defensive coordinator. He needed to so he could figure out what had gone wrong.
“When you get knocked back like that, you have to look at yourself and say, ‘OK, who am I?’ and not, ‘What am I trying to be?’” Diaz told ESPN.com. “You had to find the ability to say who are you and what do you believe in. And if you ever get the opportunity again, you have to stay true to that.
It went back to fundamentals, he explained.
“One of the greatest things about college football is there’s a million ways to do it,” he said. “You watch every Saturday and there are so many stylistic ways that teams choose to win football games: power running, four-wide, the possibilities are endless. But you have to be one thing. You have to be committed to one thing. Teams that are committed to a plan generally play for shiny things at the end of the season.
“If you don’t have that, if you don’t have the trust, if you don’t have a staff that’s committed to each other, those teams always tend to scratch their head and wonder why they’re not winning more.
“Everyone would understand that intellectually, but when you’ve been through it, it changes you. It changes what you’re willing to compromise yourself on.”
Back to being part of what Diaz described as a staff of common ideals, he thrived. Louisiana Tech won nine games and led the country in turnovers gained (40).
Shortly after winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Diaz got a phone call. An old friend was on the line: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. In what had to conjure flashbacks of 2010, Mullen asked if he wanted to return to his former post as defensive coordinator. Diaz said yes.
“It’s not a fun lesson to learn,” Diaz said of his fall from Texas and subsequent revival at Louisiana Tech. “But it reinforces who you are and what you believe in.”
He added: “It’s always easy this time of year to write the article, Hey, here’s this coach who has this great scheme. There’s no great scheme. If there was a great scheme, we’d all do it. What it was [at Louisiana Tech] was we were all bought in and all committed. We all pointed the same direction.
“That’s what I wanted more than anything.”
When Diaz returned to Starkville, he was blown away. It had only been a few years since he left, but it was as if everything had changed.
“The first thing is walking in, there’s no building here the last time I was here,” he said. “The stadium isn’t the same as it was the last time. This program is not the same program it was in 2010, and there’s no doubt you sense a different expectation from the players.”
But at the same time, it was as if nothing was different. The principles Diaz holds so dear were still intact.
“The message has remained consistent as far as how we’re going to win, who we’re going to win with and what our plan is to get it done,” he said. “What’s further appealing to me is that it’s based on something sustainable and not a flash in the pan.
“We’re trying to build to a level that we’re a main contender in the SEC West.”
That will take some work given that a large chunk of the defense is gone from last season, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive linemen Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith. But even so, the cupboard isn’t bare.
Hoping that 2014’s “Pippens” become 2015’s “Jordans,” Diaz’s plan isn’t to overhaul the defense. As he said, “I’m just the conductor of the orchestra.”
But nonetheless, the expectations for both he and Mullen are ambitious. Because even after a record-breaking season in 2014, they want the bar set even higher.
“We’ve got to demand that we do better than we did,” Diaz said. “The reason is quite simple, because if you don’t then you’re really settling for being worse.
“Our players expect to show that our success here is expandable.”
It’s a tough task for a program that’s never won at a high level consistently, but at the same time there’s not a sense that success has changed Mullen’s beliefs. If it had, Diaz might not have come back.
He’s been through instability and he’s had enough of a lack of common direction. At 40 years old, he’s learned that you can’t waver on certain things.
“As you go through this, you get hardened,” Diaz said of his career. “You understand the things you can’t compromise on. You understand the importance of accountability. You understand the importance of toughness. But more than anything you have to understand the idea of trust. To me, a defense can’t be a defense without trust.”
Ahead of the SEC. Ranked No. 1 in the country. Poised to reach the playoff.
For those five long weeks atop the polls, Bulldogs players and fans got their first taste of truly competing for a national title. And even though it didn’t end where coach Dan Mullen or anyone at Mississippi State would have liked, it did show everyone that reaching those heights was possible.
If anything, last season cracked -- or possibly shattered -- whatever glass ceiling existed in Starkville.
Mullen didn’t take the next bus out of town. Neither did quarterback Dak Prescott. That tandem alone makes Mississippi State a threat.
If Prescott can clean up some of his mistakes and regain the confidence that made him a Heisman Trophy front-runner last season, then the offense should be fine. Sure, Josh Robinson is gone at tailback, but Ashton Shumpert, Brandon Holloway and Aeris Williams are capable of picking up the slack. And with De'Runnya Wilson coming into his own as one of the SEC’s most dangerous receivers, the weapons are there to move the football effectively.
The defense is a question mark with coordinator Geoff Collins gone and a number of veterans off to the NFL, but in spite of Benardrick McKinney's absence at middle linebacker there are plenty of players ready to step up. Chris Jones continues to be one of the most talented defensive linemen in the country, and he’ll have Ryan Brown back to help him rush the passer. You may even see blue-chip prospects Leo Lewis and Jamal Peters make an impact as freshmen.
What could go wrong
Mississippi State must get its edge back or die trying.
Really, it’s that simple.
Because something happened last year when the Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the polls, and it wasn’t good. It was as if they fell back on their heels and were playing not to lose. Prescott had his confidence shaken and suddenly Mississippi State was struggling to beat Kentucky and Arkansas after knocking off Auburn and LSU.
If Mullen can’t get his team to rediscover that chip on its shoulder and play an entire season with an underdog mentality yet again, then you can go ahead and kiss a New Year’s Six bowl goodbye.
There are enough concerns between the lines already.
On offense, it isn’t a matter of finding playmakers at receiver and running back. Instead, it’s who will protect Prescott so he can distribute the football now that starting linemen Dillon Day, Blaine Clausell and Ben Beckwith are all gone. Throw in the end of tight end Malcolm Johnson's eligibility and you’re looking at rebuilding the heart of your offense.
On the other side of the ball, there are even more unknowns, such as how the attitude of the unit will change with Collins out as coordinator and Manny Diaz in. The strength of last year’s defense -- its depth -- will be tested now that a dozen members of the two-deep depth chart have moved on, including standouts McKinney and defensive lineman Preston Smith.
As it was last year, the schedule will be manageable with Southern Miss, Northwester State, Troy and Louisiana Tech as MSU's nonconference opponents. But with LSU moved up to Sept. 12 and Auburn a few weeks later on the 26th, we’ll find out whether Mississippi State is a contender early on.
That last line of defense wasn't nearly as dependable as it needed to be, whether it was making key tackles that could have prevented big gains or preventing opposing receivers from getting behind the coverage.
Position to improve: Safety
Why it was a problem: The Bulldogs were 114th nationally in passing defense, giving up 272.8 yards per game. It's true that their pressure style put the defensive backs in some tough spots, but too many times big gains turned into backbreaking gains or even touchdowns. In losing three of their last four games, the Bulldogs allowed 13 plays of 30 yards or longer in those three losses. Nine of the 13 were passing plays. Even in the loss to run-heavy Georgia Tech in the bowl game, the Bulldogs gave up a 41-yard touchdown pass to go down 14-0 and were later burned on a 69-yard touchdown run. Losing junior safety Kendrick Market to a torn Achilles in the first quarter against Ole Miss didn't help matters, and Justin Cox never developed into the kind of difference-maker the Bulldogs thought he would be when he came over from junior college. What's more, senior safety Jay Hughes was coming back from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the final 12 games of the 2013 season.
How it can be fixed: The outlook overall in the secondary is better than some might think. In fact, the Bulldogs should be fairly strong at cornerback, which will only help as they sort out matters at safety. Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond both return for their senior seasons at cornerback, and Redmond was playing as well as any of the Mississippi State defensive backs when the season ended. The Bulldogs will also get back Cedric Jiles, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury. He's the kind of speedy athlete who will find his way onto the field somewhere in the secondary. Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman will both be juniors. They both played some this season, but will be counted on to move into bigger roles.
Early 2015 outlook: Manny Diaz is back as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. He headed up the Bulldogs' defense in 2010 and was renowned for the way he attacked offenses with an array of different blitzes. To play that way, you're obviously vulnerable in the secondary at times, which means solidifying the safety spots will be critical. Market, coming off his torn Achilles, probably won't be fully recovered for the start of the season. It's a big offseason for redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant. The Bulldogs almost pulled his redshirt this past season. He has a nose for the ball and anticipates well. Evans and Coman will also factor prominently into the rotation, and one of the biggest names on the recruiting board is Jamal Peters, the No. 2 safety prospect in the country and a Mississippi State commitment. Several other schools are still in hot pursuit. The 6-3, 200-pound Peters is a big-time tackler and could help the Bulldogs immediately.
2. It’s that time of year. Between bowl games and signing day, college headlines frequently involve players leaving their programs because of playing time or disciplinary or academic reasons. It happened at LSU on Sunday when the school confirmed that sophomores Rashard Robinson and Melvin Jones are no longer members of the team because of academic issues. It’s apparently happening at Alabama, where Altee Tenpenny and Malcolm Faciane are not expected to return. And similar stories will continue to pop up all over the country as classes resume for spring semester. Keep your eyes peeled, it will probably happen at your school, too.
3. This is a big week for 25 former SEC players who started arriving in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday for this weekend’s Senior Bowl. For instance, former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was invited to show that he can play the position in the pros – some draft analysts believe he should switch to defensive back to make it in the NFL – while plenty of other players from the conference hope to solidify their draft stock by performing well in this week’s all-important practices against other top-notch prospects. Here is a link to the rosters for the North and South squads for this week’s all-star game.
Around the SEC
Is it time to stop calling Kentucky’s offensive scheme the “Air Raid?” Maybe so.
Stephen Rivers, who transferred from LSU to Vanderbilt prior to the 2014 season, announced on Twitter that he will transfer from Vandy and use his final season of eligibility elsewhere.
Georgia early enrollees Michael Barnett and Natrez Patrick both underwent recent surgeries, but Patrick is still expected to participate in spring practice and Barnett should be available for the fall.
Multiple players who competed on NFL championship Sunday had ties to Mississippi State and 2010 defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Tweet of the day
Dearest Clara, I fear the battle may be lost. We appear quite outmatched by our patriotic opposition. Gen. A. Luck pic.twitter.com/1WTz8CEAF5— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 19, 2015
2. Did you know that LSU played one day game the entire season? What about the fact that an SEC team has lost four consecutive Sugar Bowls? Mark Inabinette of Al.com has your "SEC football by the numbers," including an interesting nugget about how it's been 71 years since a punter got off a longer kick in the Sugar Bowl than Alabama's JK Scott.
3. Watching a series of tweets from Manny Diaz's introductory newsconference at Mississippi State last night got me thinking: Is more of the same right for the Bulldogs? Because essentially that's what coach Dan Mullen went for when he brought Diaz back five years after he left to become an assistant at Texas. And, honestly, I'm not sure of the answer because watching Mississippi State's defense last season was such a confounding experience. On the one hand, you had to respect their athleticism and aggressiveness flying to the football. But on the other hand, they allowed so many big plays and gave up a ton of yards between the 20s. So what should Diaz's goal be this offseason? In my mind, it's to embrace the idea of continuity while preaching better consistency and fundamentals. Keep the "Psycho Defense" philosophy, only limit the mistakes of the recklessness that such a mindset demands.
"10 wins is erased. Our standards must change. We must get better." - @Coach_MannyDiaz— MSU Football (@HailStateFB) January 8, 2015
"Our players have to play better than they did this past year. It's the only way it works. It's how you become great." - @Coach_MannyDiaz— MSU Football (@HailStateFB) January 8, 2015
2. Want to have a quality defense in the SEC? It'll cost you. While Diaz signed his new deal, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith got a new contract as well, one that pays him $750,000 per season and increases $50,000 each year, Bret Bielema sounds committed to keeping Smith there after the Razorbacks thrived defensively under his watch. In the Razorbacks' final five games, they allowed only 31 total points and recorded two shutouts. Their Advocare V100 Texas Bowl win over Texas was particularly impressive, as the Razorbacks held Texas to only 59 yards, the fewest an FBS team produced all season. But there's plenty of money being thrown around to SEC defensive coordinators, with $1.6 million going to Auburn's Will Muschamp and a similar figure rumored for John Chavis, who went to Texas A&M.
3. Not surprising, but Missouri defensive end Shane Ray has decided to enter the NFL draft, according to a report. Missouri called a press conference for Tuesday afternoon for Ray to make an announcement. Ray is one of the latest in a long line of productive Missouri defensive linemen and turned in a 14.5-sack season, setting a school record. He and Markus Golden made quite a pass-rush tandem for the Tigers, who won the SEC East for a second consecutive season.
Around the SEC
- A teammate congratulated LSU defensive lineman Danielle Hunter via Instagram for declaring for the NFL draft, but Hunter denied reports that he has made such a decision.
- Florida coach Jim McElwain officially announced six more assistant coach hires on Monday.
- Kentucky held on to tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow by giving him a new contract after Marrow was courted by new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
- Hugh Freeze hasn't made a final decision on whether to bring in junior college quarterback signee Chad Kelly, who agreed to a plea bargain after an arrest on seven charges near his hometown of Buffalo. Also, Ole Miss running backs Mark Dodson and David Kamara are expected to transfer out of the program.
- Vanderbilt officially announced the hire of Wisconsin offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig to the same position. Also, head coach Derek Mason will call defensive plays.
Doing a little math, and taking into account the recent raises, the average salary for D-coordinators in the SEC is just under $1 million.— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) January 6, 2015
2. Speaking of defensive coordinator searches, Mississippi State is still on the hunt for a replacement for departed defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. One name to watch is a quite familiar one to those in Starkville: Manny Diaz. The Clarion-Ledger reported Sunday that Diaz, a one-time MSU defensive coordinator who is now at Louisiana Tech, will interview for the job this week. If you'll recall, Diaz left Mississippi State after one season to join Mack Brown at Texas, where he was until he was fired in 2013. Louisiana Tech was 39th nationally in scoring defense and 16th in rushing defense this season.
3. What better way to introduce yourself to a fan base than to do it yourself. That's the approach new Florida head coach Jim McElwain took at the Birmingham Bowl, by taking in the scene and mingling with the fans. The new Gators coach made sure to make the rounds as fans tailgated outside Legion Field, stopping for pictures, shaking hands and greeting Gator Nation. UF documented the experience on video, which included many fired up and surprised fans. McElwain even made sure to fire off a tweet about it.
Around the SEC
- Candidates are emerging for Georgia's vacant offensive coordinator position.
- For the first time since 2008, the national title game won't have either Alabama or Auburn. It was a nice run while it lasted.
- Missouri's running game was key for the Tigers this season and is set up to do similar things in 2015.
- The start of the College Football Playoff era could signal the end of SEC dominance, if this year's results are any indication.
- Charlie Harbison, who served as Auburn's interim defensive coordinator for the Outback Bowl, will not be retained by Will Muschamp.
- LSU defensive lineman Danielle Hunter is reportedly struggling with his decision whether to declare early entry into the NFL draft or return to LSU for his senior season.
Coach Hugh Freeze had been waiting for that signature win to pin his program’s ascent upon. Saturday night, he got it, as Ole Miss repaid the Longhorns by hammering them on their home field, 44-23.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Freeze, who pointed to this game a measuring stick after losing to Texas by five touchdowns last season. “We didn’t take six steps tonight. We just took one.”
But what a step it was.
Until Saturday, Ole Miss’ biggest victory under Freeze had been a 17-point win over reeling Mississippi State in last year’s Egg Bowl.
Sure, the Longhorns are a team in turmoil. Texas coach Mack Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz earlier in the week and was forced to play backup quarterback Case McCoy with starter David Ash ailing with head and shoulder injuries.
But beating Texas in Austin still counts for something. And not only did the Rebels beat the Longhorns, they beat them up. In the second half, it was Ole Miss delivering the hits, and Texas taking them.
All told, the Rebels racked up 272 yards on the ground and shut down the Longhorns’ running game after halftime to pull away.
“At half, we just said, ‘Hey, I know we’re young, but let’s go out and play our base defense and see if our kids can compete,’” Freeze said. “Just line up and play base.”
Ole Miss didn’t do anything special offensively, either. Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace simply operated the zone reads to perfection, and tailback Jeff Scott dashed through Texas defenders around the edge.
Behind superb blocking from the Ole Miss offensive line and wideouts, Scott piled up 164 yards on 19 carries, then returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to send Texas fans scurrying through the exits for Sixth Street.
“I think we had a great game plan,” Wallace said. “Our coaches studied it and knew we had a great game plan. It was on us to execute it.”
Wallace executed the game plan with unyielding precision. He rushed for 57 yards and a touchdown out of the zone read, finishing off the TD with a nifty spin move. Wallace also completed 17 of 25 passes for 177 and two touchdowns without an interception.
Wallace’s trust with hotshot true freshman wideout Laquon Treadwell only grew as the game wore on, too. With Ole Miss clinging to a 24-23 lead in the third quarter, Wallace found Treadwell 11 yards downfield to convert a third-and-6. Two plays later, Wallace connected with Treadwell for an 18-yard completion on the other side of the field, setting up an Ole Miss touchdown to give the Rebels the momentum back for good.
“We never got it back,” Brown said.
While the Longhorns are having to lower their expectations by the week, the undefeated Rebels are raising theirs.
“No doubt,” Wallace said. “Seven, eight wins, I don’t think that’s good enough. We’re talented enough to win more games.”
Such talk underscores which direction this Ole Miss program is heading. Since 1971, the Rebels have reached double-digit wins just once, when Eli Manning quarterbacked them in ’03.
But even in the rugged SEC West, these Rebels have their sights set high. And during postgame interviews, the conversation quickly changed from beating Texas to challenging top-ranked Alabama on the road in two weeks.
“It’s huge,” Wallace said. “’Bama will be hostile and fun. But those are the kind of games we want to play in.”
First, Ole Miss and its fans will enjoy this one. Until Freeze arrived, wins like this had been few and far between. But the way the Rebels played in Austin, many more appear to be on the way.
“For some of the times that our fans have gone through,” Freeze said, “and now to be in these games and them leaving the stadium very happy – it’s a great satisfaction.”
In 2013, Ole Miss plays the likes of Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M -- three programs ranked in the top 10. But when Donte Moncrief was asked which game he had circled on the calendar, it was this Saturday’s game at Texas. It had nothing to do with rankings or rivalries. It was all about revenge.
“They came to our house and beat us pretty bad, so we’ve got to go back and return the favor,” the junior wide receiver said.
The Longhorns certainly had their way with Ole Miss last year. They jumped out to a three-touchdown lead at the half and cruised to a 66-31 victory. The offense put up 676 yards of total offense, 326 through the air and 350 on the ground. It was Hugh Freeze’s first loss as head coach, and one that he has not since forgotten.
The message at practice has been simple this week -- don’t dwell on last year’s game but use it as motivation instead.
“Everybody knows how we felt in the locker room after the game last year,” defensive back Cody Prewitt said. “We know the sickening feeling we had in our stomach from how we played. We don’t want to feel that again. It makes you just sick, sick at your stomach, the whole thing. We looked back at Texas film, and most of us here would say that we’re a different team right now. We hope to prove that Saturday.”
The Rebels are a different team this year. They’ve added talented freshmen from a top five recruiting class, and they rallied to beat Vanderbilt in the season opener, a win that put them on the map and kept the momentum going around the program. But they were 2-0 last year before the Longhorns had their way with them in Oxford.
“(Saturday’s game) will certainly be a measuring stick for us as to kind of where we are right now,” Freeze said.
It will also be a good measuring stick for Texas, a program trending in the opposite direction.
The Longhorns gave up over 500 yards rushing in a 40-21 loss to BYU last weekend. The embarrassing performance led to the reassignment of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and the hiring of Greg Robinson as his replacement. Rumors have now started to swirl around head coach Mack Brown and his future at Texas.
Still, despite all of the off-field distractions, Ole Miss knows not to underestimate the Longhorns. They remember what happened last year.
“We expect the same type of team from last year, if not better, to be there, and we’re expecting a really fun game for people to watch,” Prewitt said. “We want to go out there and we want to perform at the best of our ability. But we’re expecting the best team that they have.
“I think it's a great opportunity for our young kids to go into an environment outside of conference play that's a very exciting environment to play in, against a team that I know will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and extremely motivated to play,” Freeze said. “I know we'll get their best shot.”
But that's not the only game worth watching in the conference this season. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday around the conference.
2. Run the X factor for Alabama: How the Aggies' porous defense fares against Alabama's strong running game might be the determining factor Saturday. An A&M defense that was depleted by suspensions has been horrendous so far, ranking last in the SEC by allowing 273 rushing yards per game to Rice and Sam Houston State. Oddly enough, Alabama is last in the league in rushing after totaling only 96 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but that trend is sure to be short-lived with star-caliber talent on the offensive line and T.J. Yeldon among the standouts in the backfield. Alabama is sure to try to control the pace of this game by hammering the Aggies' defense with its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. It will require an infinitely more effective performance by A&M's defense than what we've seen thus far if the Aggies are to do an acceptable job against the Tide's ground game.
3. Tough nonconference matchups: The SEC hasn't fared so well in its marquee nonconference games thus far, with Georgia and Florida falling to a pair of ACC opponents, Clemson and Miami, and Mississippi State laying an egg against Oklahoma State. Yes, LSU and Alabama held up their ends of the deal with wins against TCU and Virginia Tech, respectively, but this might be another weekend where SEC teams come up on the short end of high-profile nonconference matchups. As of Tuesday night, Tennessee was a 27.5-point underdog for Saturday's game at Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon, and Kentucky was also a double-digit underdog (plus-13.5) for its in-state rivalry game with Louisville. One of the more intriguing games of the weekend is Ole Miss' visit to a Texas program in turmoil, but the Longhorns are the favorite in that game, as well.
4. Measuring stick for Vols: New Tennessee coach Butch Jones' club has been impressive in its first two games, routing overmatched Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, but its next two games are a completely different animal. The Vols have the pleasure of facing No. 2 Oregon on national TV Saturday, followed by another tough road trip, to No. 18 Florida, the following week. Tennessee ranks 13th nationally with an average of 48.5 points per game and it leads the SEC with a plus-seven turnover margin, but slowing down Oregon's offensive juggernaut in Eugene is no simple task. The Ducks are 27-2 at Autzen Stadium dating back to the start of the 2009 season and at 62.5 points per game in wins against Virginia and Nicholls State, this year's club looks to be just as good as its recent predecessors.
5. Odell Beckham show: LSU's multi-talented return man and receiver punctuated an outstanding night by returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown last weekend against UAB. He also caught 136 yards worth of passes for three touchdowns against the Blazers. Kent State should provide ample opportunity for Beckham to add to his impressive stats -- he already has 10 catches for 254 yards and three TDs -- before the Tigers jump into conference play next week against Auburn.
6. Rebels primed for upset?: What do we make of Saturday night's Ole Miss-Texas game in Austin? The Longhorns won last year's game in Oxford by five touchdowns, but they hadn't just performed so poorly that coach Mack Brown felt compelled to fire a coordinator two games into the season. Texas' defense was horrendous last week, allowing 550 rushing yards -- the most by an opponent in school history -- in a 40-21 loss at BYU. That prompted Brown to reassign defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and bring back Greg Robinson to take his job. Flash forward to this weekend. At No. 25, Ole Miss is ranked for the first time since 2009, and the Rebels aren't too shabby on offense with an average of 510.5 yards per game. That matchup between Hugh Freeze's up-and-coming team and a Texas club on the verge of imploding makes for one of the weekend's most compelling storylines.
7. Arkansas' running game: Those around the conference are starting to take notice of the new-look ground game that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville. Once a pass-heavy offense under Bobby Petrino, Arkansas is 11th nationally with an average of 312.5 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have both the No. 6 (Alex Collins at 151.5 yards per game) and No. 12 (Jonathan Williams, 138.5 ypg) rushers in the country, and they'll face a Southern Miss defense this weekend that has been vulnerable against the run so far, ranking 81st with an average of 179.0 yards against.
8. Gamecocks, Commodores with something to prove: Steve Spurrier was livid after the way his defense performed in last week's loss to Georgia, vowing that the Gamecocks would change things up to force more turnovers. The Gamecocks risk falling out of the SEC East race if they suffer another division loss, so games like Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt are essentially must-wins. Although there have been a few near-misses, the Commodores are still in search of their first win against the East's power trio of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. With an SEC-high eight sacks and an overall productive defense, the Commodores might be able to give themselves a chance in Columbia if they contain South Carolina's offense and hit a big play or two against a Gamecocks defense in transition.
9. Enormous test for Kentucky secondary: Saturday's matchup against Louisville is a minor nightmare for a Kentucky team that lists three freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep at its five secondary positions. Led by Heisman contender Teddy Bridgewater (376.0 ypg, 9 TDs, 1 INT) at quarterback, Louisville possesses one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Kentucky has actually defended the pass fairly well so far, ranking fourth in the SEC with 147.0 yards allowed per game and limiting opponents to an 11.5-percent conversion rate on third down, but the Wildcats posted those numbers against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio). Defensive end Za'Darius Smith (an SEC-high four sacks) and company must get after Bridgewater for the Wildcats to have a chance on Saturday.
10. Bowl implications for Auburn, Mississippi State: For a pair of teams harboring mid-level bowl hopes, Saturday's matchup is a big one. Already 2-0, Auburn is a win away from matching its win total for all of last season. But with games remaining against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, bowl eligibility likely hinges on beating the Mississippi States of the world. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, meanwhile, are desperate to right the ship after dropping six of their last games since starting the 2012 season 7-0. They flat-out stunk in a 21-3 loss to open the season against Oklahoma State and still have all of the West's heavyweights left on the schedule, plus South Carolina. The loser of this one might very well be home for Christmas.
As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.
“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.
The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.
As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”
The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.
“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.
Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.
The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.
In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.
“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”
Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.
The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.
Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.
“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.
“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
Another week means more movement in our power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers (2-0) have shown that you don't need a powerful offense to succeed. It's all about defense for LSU and that defense has been very good for the Bayou Bengals. After shutting down Oregon in Cowboys Stadium, LSU sported the purple jerseys in its home opener and totally dismantled an over-matched Northwestern State team, allowing just 95 total yards of offense. Moving the ball against this group looks like it will be a tall order for any team this fall.
2. Alabama: The Tide (2-0) isn't flashy on offense by any means, but this team manages the game well and is efficient. AJ McCarron seems to have cemented himself as the starter in Tuscaloosa after an impressive day in Happy Valley over the weekend. Help will eventually be on the way on offense, once receiver Duron Carter is cleared to play. He should provide a much-needed deep threat to the offense. Like LSU, consistently moving the ball on this defense is beyond hard.
3. Arkansas: This team has quietly put up a ton of points in its first two games. The Razorbacks (2-0) have outscored their opponents 103-10. Granted, Arkansas isn't playing top-level talent, but we can see that this offense can still move the ball, despite losing Ryan Mallett to the NFL draft and Knile Davis to a knee injury. It will be interesting to watch how injuries in Week 2 affect the Hogs. Quarterback Tyler Wilson left the game with concussion-like symptoms, receiver Jarius Wright suffered a strained knee, and defensive end Jake Bequette injured his hamstring. Arkansas won't need them against Troy this weekend, but they'll need to be healthy for the trip to Alabama to close the month.
4. South Carolina: The defense hasn't been pretty, but it made the necessary plays to squeak by Georgia in Athens on Saturday. South Carolina (2-0) has really been pushed in the first two weeks, but the Gamecocks have showed resiliency. They aren't winning the way they'd like to, but the Gamecocks are undefeated and have the early lead in the SEC East. Teams know Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are going to be heavily targeted and both are still making plays.
5. Florida: We still don't really know what to expect from the Gators (2-0). Florida's defense has looked faster and much more aggressive under new head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, but Florida hasn't faced SEC-quality opponents. This week, the Gators will as Tennessee comes to town with its high-flying offense. Chris Rainey has been the star on offense and John Brantley isn't making a lot of mistakes, but the playbook will have to open up as the Gators get ready for the conference season.
6. Auburn: This team just doesn't know how to lose. Auburn (2-0) has won a nation-leading 17 straight games -- 10 by eight points or fewer. The Tigers kept that winning streak intact after a back-and-forth slugfest with Mississippi State Saturday. The defense still has a lot of question marks, but when a play had to be made, the Tigers did it. The offense isn't too exciting, but plays were made at critical times and Michael Dyer looked like his running legs were back as he made the Bulldogs' defense look silly. Will taking it down to the wire eventually catch up with these cats?
7. Tennessee: Well, we know the Volunteers (2-0) will keep the scoreboard lights on. Quarterback Tyler Bray has looked like the league's best quarterback through the first two weeks, passing for 678 yards and seven touchdowns. Receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter have made things easy for Bray, combining for 31 catches for 502 yards and five touchdowns. The Vols' offense will get a major test in Gainesville this weekend, where the winner will become top contender to challenge South Carolina for the division.
8. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (1-1) came into the season as a trendy dark horse pick in the West, but left the weekend with yet another loss to the West under Dan Mullen. Mississippi State's defense showed it misses defense coordinator Manny Diaz and its three starting linebackers from last year as Auburn carved up the defense for 235 rushing yards. Chris Relf was most of the offense for the Bulldogs Saturday, until running back Vick Ballard finally got things going late, but Mississippi State needs much more from its receiving corps.
9. Georgia: This group of Bulldogs (0-2) has had a rough start to the season, but things get a little lighter from here on out. After losing a tough one in the Georgia Dome to Boise State, Georgia dropped a heart-breaker to South Carolina at home. Fans are no doubt growing more impatient, but the Bulldogs aren't out of the East race by any means. It will be a fight to get ahead now, but the season is far from over. It's all about staying together and making sure the Bulldogs are mentally ready for the rest of the season.
10. Vanderbilt: Getting that win over Connecticut Saturday was huge. The confidence is through the roof in Nashville and the Commodores (2-0) have a two-game winning streak for the first time since 2008. New coach James Franklin injected some swagger into this Commodores team and it showed when Vandy was down 21-14 in the fourth and scored 10 unanswered points. This defense is flying around and has been much more aggressive under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
11. Ole Miss: The Rebels (1-1) got into the win column over the weekend, but the offense still has a ton of question marks around it. Jeff Scott showed that he is a solid option at running back with Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis out with injuries, but he looked like the only consistent weapon Ole Miss has on offense. The defense, which played very well against BYU in the first week, made things interesting against Southern Illinois by giving up 21 points in the second half.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats (2-0) might be undefeated, but the offense is still struggling, especially in the passing game. Morgan Newton has been a starter before, but he hasn't looked very comfortable out there on the field yet. He has just 211 yards passing, two touchdowns and four interceptions in two games this year. Someone needs to step up alongside La'Rod King in the receiving game to give Newton some help. Two bright spots have been a faster, more effective defense and the play of freshman running back Josh Clemons, who has 165 rushing yards and two scores this year.
Also gone are Mississippi State’s top two tacklers from a season ago, linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright, as well as the top pass-rusher, end Pernell McPhee.
Senior strong safety Charles Mitchell understands fully what the Bulldogs lost last season in the way of Diaz’s defensive smarts and the production on the field that White, Wright and McPhee provided.
But Mitchell also thinks the Bulldogs will have even more speed on defense in 2011 and maintain that same attacking style under Chris Wilson, who takes over as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator after serving as co-coordinator alongside Diaz last season.
“You’re going to see a lot of speed on defense,” Mitchell said. “We lost a lot of good players at linebacker, but we’ve got some guys coming who run 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash). That’s going to be our identity, a fast defense that makes plays and creates turnovers, and we’re going to be that way all across the defense.”
The Bulldogs return one of the best inside tandems in the SEC in junior tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. What’s more, Mitchell is part of a secondary that returns intact, and it’s a secondary that possesses both depth and experience.
“We’re versatile back there, too,” said Mitchell, who was third on the team last season with 93 total tackles. “We’ve got corners who can move over and play safety and safeties who can cover like a corner. We also have some athletes back there who can move down and play like a linebacker when we need to on third-down situations.
“The main thing is that we have a lot of guys who’ve played back there. We won’t be making a lot of mental mistakes, and it’s a mature group.
“We want to be the best secondary in the SEC, the best one in the country. That’s what we expect out of ourselves.”
Mitchell said one of the Bulldogs’ goals this season on defense was to lead the SEC in turnovers. They had 28 a year ago, which tied for third in the league with Tennessee behind LSU (32) and Florida (29).
The other thing Mississippi State did last season was keep teams out of the end zone. The Bulldogs were third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 19.8 points per game, and gave up just 30 touchdowns in 13 games. The only team in the league giving up fewer was Alabama, which held opponents to 19 touchdowns in 13 games.
“We’re going to have some new plays under coach Wilson, but it’s still going to be the same approach,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to go after the quarterback and make him do things he doesn’t want to do.
“One way or the other, we’re going to find the offense’s weakness.”
Coach: Chris Wilson
Position: Defensive coordinator and defensive line.
Experience: He's entering his second season on the Mississippi State staff and was co-defensive coordinator last season, assisting Manny Diaz. A 16-year coaching veteran, Wilson was the defensive ends coach for five seasons at Oklahoma before coming to Starkville prior to the 2010 season. He also served as the Sooners' special teams coordinator his final three seasons in Norman. Wilson got his start in coaching at Indiana State as a graduate assistant in 1993 and has also worked on the staffs at Northern Illinois, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Illinois State, Army and Colorado. Wilson was promoted to defensive coordinator in January, a day after Diaz left Mississippi State to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.
Of note: Earlier in his career, Wilson also coached linebackers. ... In his final season on the Oklahoma staff, the Sooners finished sixth in the country in sacks and were also in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. ... He played his college football at Oklahoma and was a four-year letterman at linebacker from 1988-91. He finished his career with 311 tackles, which at the time placed him 11th all-time among Oklahoma linebackers.
His challenge: Obviously, this won't be completely new ground for Wilson. He was a co-defensive coordinator working under Diaz last season, but it was still Diaz's defense and he was the one game-planning each week and making all of the calls. That duty now falls on Wilson, who will have help from co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins in his first year on the Mississippi State staff after coming over from Florida International. Diaz had the Mississippi State defense playing at a high level last season. The Bulldogs finished 21st nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 19.8 points per game. There will be considerable pressure on Wilson and the Bulldogs to pick up where they left off a year ago. He doesn't plan on changing up a whole lot in terms of scheme, but the Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers. K.J. Wright and Chris White made a ton of plays, too. This figures to be Mississippi State's best secondary under Dan Mullen, and there's a lot of experience back there. Moreover, the defensive tackle tandem of Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd should be one of the best in the league. The Bulldogs still need to find a finisher off the edge, but Wilson's track record of producing top pass-rushing ends speaks for itself. The potential is there for this to be a very good defense. The Bulldogs have gotten better each season under Mullen, and now it's up to Wilson to navigate that next step of making this a championship-caliber defense.
Football is back, and here’s a snapshot of what to watch this spring in the Western Division:
Start of spring practice: March 21
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- McCarron or Sims? If you’re looking for one of the more intriguing position battles of the spring, it doesn’t get much better than A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims battling it out for the Alabama starting quarterback job. Both players are extremely talented and were highly rated coming out of high school, and they’re vying to replace a guy who was the essence of precision, smarts and productivity all wrapped into one -- Greg McElroy. McCarron played a little bit last season as a redshirt freshman, while Sims redshirted. We’ll see if one separates himself enough this spring for Nick Saban to name a starter.
- Back in the SEC: In addition to settling on a starting quarterback, the other thing the Crimson Tide would like to determine this spring is who will be protecting that quarterback from the left tackle position. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas is probably the guy to beat. He’s already on campus after attending Arizona Western College last year and drawing a wide array of interest from schools. He started his career at Tennessee, where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 2009 while playing right tackle for the Vols.
- Rushing the passer: The Crimson Tide would like to amp up their pass rush next season, which means getting there without having to blitz all the time. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished last season on fire and lived in the opposing backfield his last two games. This is an important spring for middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s also been used outside in pass-rushing situations. Hightower was coming off reconstructive knee surgery last season and didn’t appear to be all the way back. He’s eager to show this spring that he is all the way back and poised to be an All-SEC player again.
Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Mr. Wilson: A year ago, Tyler Wilson got a chance to show what he could do with the first unit because Ryan Mallett broke a bone in his foot and missed the spring after undergoing surgery. This spring, it’s Wilson’s show again, although Mallett won’t be coming back this time. Wilson, a sophomore, is the odds-on favorite to win Arkansas’ starting quarterback job. He passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn last season on the road after Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he thinks Wilson can be a terrific quarterback, but wants to see him beat out Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker for the job before handing him the keys to the Hogs’ offense.
- Getting defensive: The Hogs’ defense took the kind of step last season that was required to get them to 10 wins. They went from 89th in the country in total defense in 2009 to 36th in the country a year ago. The key figures from that defense return next season, and Petrino has said he thinks Arkansas will be even better on defense in 2011 than it was last season. Finding a replacement for Anthony Leon at one of the linebacker spots will be important this spring, and the Hogs could still use some more speed in the secondary.
- Fourth-quarter blues: Special emphasis was placed on winning the close games last season and getting it done in the fourth quarter. That will be a familiar cry on the practice field again this spring. All three of Arkansas' losses last season came on the heels of fourth-quarter breakdowns. The Hogs couldn’t hold a lead at home against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. At Auburn, the Hogs were snowed under by a 28-point Auburn avalanche in the fourth quarter. And in the Sugar Bowl, the Hogs couldn’t capitalize in the final minutes despite blocking a punt and recovering inside the Ohio State 20.
Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Playing with a target: Auburn emerged from the shadows last season to go 14-0 and win its first national championship since 1957. Nobody really saw the Tigers coming. Now, even though they lost great players the caliber of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, everybody will be circling the Auburn game on their calendars. With so many new faces in key positions, this team will have to establish its own identity and be prepared to get everybody’s best shot every weekend.
- Rebuilding the O-line: It’s hard to imagine Auburn playing a game without departed senior offensive line starters Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Ryan Pugh. They were together so long and made so many career starts alongside each other. This spring, the Tigers start the process of replacing their four rocks up front. The lone holdover from the BCS National Championship Game is right tackle Brandon Mosley, although A.J. Greene was also a starter last season until he injured his ankle. Redshirt freshman Ed Christian is definitely somebody to watch at one of the guard spots, and don’t forget about junior John Sullen, who can play guard or tackle.
- Trotter in the race: Even as great as Newton turned out to be, coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn were careful to make sure Newton was clearly the guy before naming him the starter at the conclusion of spring practice and heading into the summer. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley were two of the guys battling with Newton last spring. But this spring, they will be battling each other for the starting quarterback job, a battle that’s likely to continue into preseason practice once heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives on campus this summer.
Start of spring practice: March 11
Spring game: April 9
What to watch:
- Quarterback derby: Perhaps the most closely watched quarterback battle this spring will occur at LSU, where seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will try and hold off talented junior college signee Zach Mettenberger. Jefferson played better toward the end of last season, but the Tigers’ passing game was nonexistent for much of the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mettenberger put up huge numbers in junior college last season after starting his career at Georgia. He obviously didn't sign with LSU to sit and watch.
- Kragthorpe to the rescue: Former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe takes over as LSU’s offensive coordinator and does so after the Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total offense and last in the SEC in 2009. Kragthorpe wants to make sure LSU is getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers, but he also wants to make sure the Tigers are balanced. Their running game improved dramatically last season. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Spencer Ware is next in line after rushing for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
- Special-teams makeover: The Tigers were gutted on special teams. Even special teams coordinator Joe Robinson left to take a job on North Carolina’s staff. Also gone are All-SEC place-kicker Josh Jasper, All-SEC return specialist Patrick Peterson and punter Derek Helton, who was second in the SEC with a punting average of 45.7 yards per game. LSU will be looking to fill voids across the board this spring in its kicking game, which was a big reason the Tigers won 11 games last season.
Start of spring practice: March 4
Spring game: April 9
End of spring practice: April 11
What to watch:
- New defensive chief: Manny Diaz was hired away by Texas to be the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, meaning co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is now the guy running things in Starkville. Diaz and Wilson worked together closely last season, so it’s doubtful much will change. Dan Mullen did bring in Geoff Collins to serve as co-defensive coordinator to Wilson and also coach the Bulldogs' linebackers.
- Lining up linebackers: The Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers from last season, including their top two tacklers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. Emmanuel Gatling was the other starter, although he shared time with Cameron Lawrence at one of the outside spots. So while Lawrence might have first dibs on one of those three starting jobs this spring, the competition will be fierce. Redshirt freshmen Felando Bohanna and Christian Holmes are two to watch in the middle. Chris Hughes played some last season as a true freshman on the outside, and third-year sophomore Michael Hunt will also be in the mix for a starting job.
- Relf’s supporting cast: Chris Relf enters his senior season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he’s also one of the league’s most improved players. The Bulldogs’ top threats in the running game return, but Relf will have several new guys he’ll be hooking up with in the passing game. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis has been working out and is expected back this spring after missing the Gator Bowl with a broken collarbone. The Bulldogs also redshirted several receivers last season they have high hopes for, including Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. Getting a healthy Marcus Green back at tight end will also make Relf's life easier.
Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Lee to call plays: The last time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t call his own plays was 2007 when David Lee called them during Nutt’s final season at Arkansas. Well, Lee has reunited with Nutt at Ole Miss for the 2011 season after coming over from the Miami Dolphins, and Nutt has again turned over the offensive play-calling duties to Lee in order to spend more time focusing on other areas of the team. Lee will build what the Rebels do offensively around an underrated stable of running backs, led by Brandon Bolden.
- Quarterback questions: Jeremiah Masoli popped in at the last minute a year ago. But this time, it appears that the guy who separates himself this spring will be the Rebels’ quarterback for the season. Junior Nathan Stanley has the edge in experience. Randall Mackey is probably the most athletic, but will be limited this spring after undergoing knee surgery. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already enrolled and also eyeing the starting job, while West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti will be in the middle of the race as well if he receives a waiver from the NCAA and is allowed to play this coming season.
- Building back the defense: After back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 when Ole Miss’ defense was outstanding, Tyrone Nix’s unit came crashing down last season. More than anything, it’s a group that needs to regain its confidence this spring and play with that same attacking mentality that made the Rebels so effective on defense the previous two seasons. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is a leader and the kind of guy you win with in this league, but Nix & Co. need to find a few more like him this spring, especially in the secondary.