SEC: Manny Diaz

Rebels notch signature win for Freeze

September, 15, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas – Before the final seconds ticked off, the chants came raining down.

“S-E-C! S-E-C!”

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss diced up the Texas defense to give Rebels coach Hugh Freeze a signature victory.
When the game did end, the Ole Miss players sprinted to the southeast corner of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium where their fans waited. Together, they bellowed out "Hotty Toddy" so loud they nearly drowned out Smokey’s nearby cannon fire.

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.

Jackson Jeffcoat
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisOle Miss QB Bo Wallace threw three interceptions against Texas last season.
“I know our defense spent a lot of time (watching the game) because they really had their way with us running the football last year,” Freeze said.

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.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
We've arrived at Week 3 of the season in the SEC, bringing us to one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season: Alabama's trip to Texas A&M in a rematch of last season's thriller in Tuscaloosa, when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Aggies upset the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide 29-24.

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.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMaybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but Nick Saban is 7-1 at Bama in rematch games following a loss, with an average win margin of 20.9 points.
1. Revenge factor in College Station: At No. 6 in this week's AP Top 25, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone this year. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and his troops have stewed over that loss throughout the offseason -- and that has typically been a bad sign for opponents. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Tide is 7-1 in rematch games following a loss, with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Of course, the Aggies have no intention of simply rolling over before its home crowd. Kevin Sumlin's club leads the SEC in scoring (58.5 ppg), total offense (600.0 ypg) and passing offense (392.0 ypg), so the Aggies should provide an enormous test for a formidable Alabama defense that allowed just 212 yards to Virginia Tech in its first game.

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.

Shoop, Vanderbilt D turn the page

August, 30, 2012
Vanderbilt finished 18th nationally last season in total defense.

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.

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIVanderbilt's defense was aggressive last season -- and could be more so this season, coordinator Bob Shoop said.
Chase Garnham moves over from his outside linebacker spot to fill in for Marve in the middle. The Commodores think fellow junior Walker May can be that finisher off the edge that Fugger was last season, and senior Trey Wilson moves into Hayward’s stopper role at cornerback.

“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.”

SEC power rankings: Week 3

September, 12, 2011
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

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.

Mitchell thinks Bulldogs' 'D' will be faster

August, 2, 2011
A huge part of Mississippi State’s nine-win season a year ago was a defense that kept teams out of the end zone and created timely turnovers.

[+] EnlargeCharles Mitchell
Chuck Cook/US PresswireMississippi State defensive back Charles Mitchell expects the Bulldogs to field the best secondary in the country.
The architect of that defense, Manny Diaz, has departed and is now heading up Texas’ defense.

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.”

Coaching 'em up: Mississippi State

July, 1, 2011
On the docket today is Mississippi State.

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.

SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
Mississippi State hits the practice field next Friday to kick off spring practice in the SEC, and several other teams will follow the next week.

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.

Five SEC heartbreakers

February, 14, 2011
For every tale of love on Valentine’s Day, there are also hearts breaking.

The SEC has spawned its share of heartbreakers:

1. Cyrus Kouandjio: The country’s No. 1 offensive tackle prospect announced live on ESPNU on national signing day that he would sign with Auburn. The only problem was that he never sent in his signed scholarship papers and began to have second thoughts. So after spending a few days sorting things out, Kouandjio reversed course and signed with Alabama. Auburn not only lost him, but lost him to its archrival.

2. LSU’s passing game: Not that one part of the game is ever the sole reason a team fails to win a national championship, but LSU was a passing game away from being right in the middle of that equation last season. The Tigers finished 107th nationally in passing offense. They managed just 10 touchdown passes all season to go along with 11 interceptions.

3. Derek Dooley: In his first season as Tennessee’s coach, Dooley and his players had to endure the pain of losing two games they thought they’d actually won. In both cases -- against LSU in Baton Rouge and against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl -- the Vols were out on the field celebrating because they thought they’d won. But having 13 defenders on the field cost them against LSU, while a controversial officiating decision cost them against North Carolina.

4. Manny Diaz: Not only did he leave Mississippi State and take his many talents as a defensive coordinator to Texas, but several key in-state prospects that had committed to the Bulldogs backed out and went elsewhere after Diaz vacated Starkville.

5. Urban Meyer: The truth is that Meyer got it right the first time, but simply couldn’t bring himself to walk away when he stepped down prior to the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2009 season. Meyer either talked himself out of it or was talked out of it and returned for what was an unfulfilling 2010 season for everyone associated with the Florida program. The edge was gone, the same edge that steered the Gators to two national championships in six seasons under Meyer, and there were also lingering health concerns. So this time, he walked away for good.

Texas' new staff will have an SEC flavor

January, 20, 2011
By now, we get it.

Mack Brown likes what he sees in terms of the quality of coaching in the SEC.

Who in the SEC hasn’t the Texas head coach reached out to, talked to or tried to woo to Austin to be a part of the Longhorns’ staff?

Texas might play in the Big 12, but the Longhorns’ staff will have a distinct SEC flavor next season.

And they’re paying some serious cash.

Georgia’s Stacy Searels is reportedly getting more than $400,000 to coach Texas’ offensive line. As recently as two years ago, that would have been considered a handsome salary for an offensive or defensive coordinator.

Of course, nobody in the SEC can say anything about paying outrageous salaries to assistants. Five of the 12 defensive coordinators in the league are poised to make $700,000 or more next season, and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will rake in a cool $1.3 million.

Still, think about all the coaches in the SEC that Brown has come after since the end of the Longhorns’ disappointing 2010 season.

He hired Manny Diaz away from Mississippi State to be his defensive coordinator. That’s after LSU’s John Chavis said thanks, but no thanks. Tennessee’s Justin Wilcox was also in play for the Texas defensive coordinator’s job before withdrawing his name from consideration, and there were reports that Florida’s Teryl Austin was part of that whole process, too.

Unless there’s some late snag, it looks like Searels will leave Georgia to coach the offensive line at Texas. That’s after Auburn’s Jeff Grimes interviewed for that same job last week, but elected to stay on the Plains.

Brown also hired Bennie Wylie away from Tennessee to be his strength and conditioning coach and hired Bo Davis away from Alabama to be his defensive tackles coach.

If you throw in Major Applewhite, who went from Alabama to Texas following the 2007 season, that means five of the Longhorns’ assistants next season will have come from the SEC.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em away.
Mississippi State stepped up to the plate financially with the hopes of keeping Dan Mullen around as head coach.

But it looks like the Bulldogs are going to lose defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas.'s Bruce Feldman is reporting that Diaz has accepted Texas' offer to become defensive coordinator.

That's a tough blow for the Bulldogs, who are coming off the high of routing Michigan in the Progressive Gator Bowl and finishing with a nine-win season.

Diaz, 36, did a terrific job with the Bulldogs' defense this season and was one of the top young defensive coordinators in the country.

The most frustrating part for Mississippi State is that he'd only been there for one season, and the defense figured to only get better under his direction going forward. The Bulldogs were third in the SEC this season in scoring defense.

But with Texas' deep pockets, the Longhorns were able to pry him away with a much more lucrative deal. Diaz's salary at Mississippi State was $260,000, which was a deal when you consider all the $700,000-plus salaries other defensive coordinators are making in this league.

Defensive line coach Chris Wilson could be in line to replace Diaz as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. Wilson already had the title of co-defensive coordinator and came over from Oklahoma a year ago.

Video: Top SEC assistant coaching jobs

December, 7, 2010

SEC blogger Chris Low looks at some of the top assistant coaching jobs in the SEC this season.

SEC lunch links

November, 18, 2010
Checking in on what's making headlines around the SEC:

SEC lunch links

November, 9, 2010
Cruising around the SEC on a Tuesday:

SEC helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 31, 2010
Now that we’ve put the ninth week of the season in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to pass out the SEC helmet stickers:

Auburn cornerback Demond Washington: The Tigers’ pass defense has taken its lumps this season, but Washington had a key interception at the Auburn 2-yard line in the second quarter after Ole Miss had recovered a fumble deep in the Tigers’ territory. Washington, a 5-9, 182-pound senior, tied for second on the team with six tackles and broke the game open just before halftime with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Washington now has 806 yards in kickoff returns on the season, which is a new Auburn record.

Florida place-kicker Chas Henry: If anybody deserved something good to happen to him, it was the hard-luck Henry. After missing both of his field-goal attempts two weeks ago in a 10-7 loss to Mississippi State, Henry drilled the game-winner Saturday in overtime, a 37-yarder that lifted Florida to a 34-31 win over Georgia and kept the Gators alive in the Eastern Division race.

Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: Two weeks removed from suffering a concussion against Auburn, Mallett broke his own school record with 409 passing yards in the Hogs’ 49-14 victory over Vanderbilt. Mallett finished 27-of-44 and threw three touchdown passes. The Hogs scored 43 unanswered points after trailing 14-6 early.

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz: His defense didn’t play up to his expectations, or anybody’s expectations, last week in a 29-24 win over UAB. But the Bulldogs came back Saturday and held Kentucky’s explosive offense to two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory, extending Mississippi State’s winning streak to six games. The Bulldogs forced four turnovers and have held four of their five SEC opponents this season to 17 points or less. Diaz has done a terrific job with this defense.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore: Returning to full speed from a sprained ankle, Lattimore rushed for a career-high 184 yards in South Carolina’s 38-24 win over Tennessee. He also scored his 13th touchdown, which is tied for the fifth most by a freshman in SEC history. He’s three shy of the South Carolina single-season record.