SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs
At a recent retreat at Lake Tiak-O-Khata in Louisville, Mississippi, the MSU coaches -- along with some wives and girlfriends -- dressed up as famous summer movie characters. Mullen and his wife led the way, bringing back fond memories of the 1980 classic "Caddyshack."
Carl Spackler and Lacey Underall at the party. pic.twitter.com/OMF3x9RDjo— Dan Mullen" (@CoachDanMullen) July 29, 2014
Coach Court and his wife. Dazed and Confused pic.twitter.com/EoddNp2lmY— Dan Mullen" (@CoachDanMullen) July 29, 2014
Everyone dressed as a summer movie character pic.twitter.com/f8gsPncdKu— Dan Mullen" (@CoachDanMullen) July 29, 2014
The SEC has 77 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. The league continues to dominate on the recruiting front and there are no signs of the momentum slowing down. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.
Miles also realizes the Tigers could play nine SEC games in the very near future.
Miles just doesn't think it's fair that LSU has to play Florida every season, while other teams in the SEC West don't.
The league is expected to vote whether to change its current 6-1-1 format, in which teams play each opponent from their respective division, along with one rotating foe and one permanent opponent from the opposite division. SEC officials could vote this week to add a ninth conference game or at least eliminate permanent crossover opponents.
The SEC adopted its current scheduling format to ensure that longstanding rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn would survive expansion.
By drawing the Gators as a permanent crossover opponent, Miles believes the Tigers drew the short end of the stick.
Miles won't complain about the scheduling format publicly, but he knows LSU is at a disadvantage.
And Miles is probably right.
"When they give us our schedule, I'm looking forward to having a great competition," Miles said.
Since 2000, LSU has played Florida and Georgia -- two of the SEC East's best programs -- a total of 17 times. Auburn is the only SEC West team which has faced those teams more often, playing them 19 times. Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have faced them a total of 10 times each, while Alabama has played them only eight times.
While it's not fair that LSU has faced the Bulldogs and Gators nearly twice as often as Alabama has played them since 2000, Miles' argument might fall on deaf ears. Auburn and Georgia aren't going to surrender the longtime series -- the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has been played 116 times since 1892. Likewise, Alabama and Tennessee have played 95 times since 1901, a game so revered it's named for its traditional place on the calendar, the Third Saturday in October.
And Ole Miss would probably rather play Vanderbilt every season instead of Florida, Georgia or South Carolina, and Mississippi State isn't going pass up a chance to play Kentucky every year.
"There's never going to be a fair way," said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, whose Aggies drew Missouri as a permanent crossover opponent. "If you look back seven or eight years ago, you would have said the SEC East was the strongest division. You can't say what's fair, because things change in this league. You can't look at tradition. Ten years ago, you might have wanted to play South Carolina. Now you don't want anything to do with them. You don't know what Tennessee is going to do with a new coach. I know Butch Jones is going to do a great job."
Florida-LSU has become one of the league's most anticipated games every season. They've been two of the league's most dominant teams over the past decade. They've combined to appear in seven SEC championship games since 2003, and they've combined to play in nine BCS bowl games, including five BCS national championship games. In their past 10 meetings, LSU and Florida were both ranked in the top 25 of the coaches' poll nine times. Conversely, Alabama and Tennessee were both ranked only once in their past 10 meetings.
The loser of the Florida-LSU regular-season game has paid dearly over the past 10 seasons. LSU's 23-10 loss at Florida in 2006 knocked the Tigers out of the SEC championship game (the Gators defeated Arkansas 38-28 and then blasted Ohio State 41-14 to win the BCS title). Last year, LSU's 14-6 loss at Florida probably cost it a spot in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, if not another trip to a BCS bowl game.
Florida's losses to LSU in 2002, '05 and '07 kept them out of the SEC championship game and potentially BCS bowl games.
"It's right down the road," Conner said in an interview on ESPNU. "I feel more comfortable playing in my home state. I want to do something to put Mississippi on the map."
-- Mitch Sherman
What is the impact of Conner's decision?
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However, for most of this season, that hasn’t been the case. While in his first eight games, Mettenberger averaged slightly more yards per game (177.4), he also had more turnovers (7) than Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee had combined last season (6).
Despite those struggles, in the biggest game of his young career last Saturday against Alabama, Mettenberger rose to the occasion.
After completing just 46.2 percent of his passes in his first four SEC games, Mettenberger completed 24 of 35 passes (68.6 percent) for a career-high 298 yards.
He was especially strong in the second half, going 14-of-17 for 206 yards. It had been 31 games since the last time a quarterback threw for 200 yards in a half against Alabama's defense.
The question going forward is whether Mettenberger’s play in the second half is a trend or a fluke. His play on third downs and against the blitz bodes well for future success.
On third downs, Mettenberger converted eight first downs through the air, tying the most allowed by Alabama in the Nick Saban era. Last season, in two meetings, LSU did not convert a single third down through the air against the Crimson Tide, throwing for more interceptions (1) than yards (0).
In Mettenberger’s first four SEC games, he converted just 34.3 percent of his third-down pass attempts into first downs with three turnovers. Against Alabama, he converted 57.1 percent of his passes into first downs, including 85.7 percent in the second half (6-for-7).
Mettenberger also showed marked improvement against the blitz, particularly in the fourth quarter. Mettenberger was 7-of-8 for 118 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Alabama when the Tide sent at least five pass-rushers. That’s more yards than either he had or Alabama had allowed in those situations in a full game until then. Mettenberger also completed three passes of at least 20 yards against the blitz, one more than he had in his previous four SEC games combined.
Downfield passing had been another area in which Mettenberger was expected to improve LSU’s offense. In non-conference games, Mettenberger completed 66.7 percent of his passes that travelled at least 15 yards in the air. However, in conference play, Mettenberger is just 6-of-30 on deep passes (20 percent). But in the fourth quarter against Alabama, Mettenberger was 2-of-3 for 58 yards on deep passes.
While Mettenberger comes in after the best half of his career, this week’s opponent has struggled defensively the last two weeks. Mississippi State has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 77.8 percent of passes the last two weeks without an interception (both losses). During its 7-0 start, Mississippi State intercepted 12 passes, so Saturday’s game is a good litmus test to see if Mettenberger truly has turned the corner.
SEC fans had only a pair of shutouts -- Ole Miss' 39-0 win against Tulane and Florida's 38-0 pasting of Kentucky -- to entertain them for the first three hours of the day. No. 7 South Carolina is carrying the banner for the league right now, as the Gamecocks' game against Missouri is the only mid-afternoon kickoff today. And No. 1 Alabama has an overmatched Florida Atlantic in the early evening.
Other than that, it looks like we'll be cramming our SEC action into the prime-time windows this week.
What's coming tonight:
No. 2 LSU at Auburn, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: LSU won this matchup in a 45-10 walk last year in Baton Rouge. Auburn's lopsided loss to No. 23 Mississippi State, along with its overtime escape last weekend against Louisiana-Monroe, indicate that might be the case again in 2012. Auburn has a few factors in its favor, though. The game is in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Auburn is 5-1 in its past six meetings with LSU. It's also the first road start for untested LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Rutgers at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Whatever hope remains for Arkansas' season hinges on the Hogs' ability to get a win tonight. The Razorbacks have back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn following this nonconference tilt, and a 1-3 start would be less than ideal for their SEC prospects. Rutgers is off to a surprising 3-0 start, highlighted by a conference road win at South Florida.
South Carolina State at Texas A&M, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Aggies get one more nonconference tuneup before the SEC slate begins anew next week. Assuming A&M makes easy work of the Bulldogs, this might be the last time the Aggie starters get a break this season. The postponement of the Louisiana Tech game by Hurricane Isaac means no bye week this season.
South Alabama at No. 23 Mississippi State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Bulldogs fought off a serious upset bid from Sun Belt heavyweight Troy last weekend -- the result of a possible letdown after the big win against Auburn. The schedule sets up nicely for a 7-0 start, so Mississippi State fans would undoubtedly love to see the Bulldogs flex some muscles against an overmatched opponent.
Akron at Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Gameplan: The Volunteers could use a confidence boost after last weekend's second half collapse against Florida. They'll need it, too. When Tennessee is done with the Zips, it faces four top-25 teams in a row -- three of them on the road.
Vanderbilt at No. 5 Georgia, 7:45 ET, ESPN2: Everyone is sure to keep an eye on this one because of the altercation between Georgia defensive coordinator and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin at the end of last year's Georgia win. That might steal some headlines, but the real story is that Vandy hasn't been an easy out for the Bulldogs recently. The Commodores defeated the Bulldogs in 2006, and they've come as close as three in 2007, 10 in 2008 and five last fall. Of course, tonight's game is in Athens, Ga., and the last time the Bulldogs hosted Vanderbilt they won 43-0.
That’s going to happen when you play in the same league as Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie, Casey Hayward, Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Boykin.
“I felt like I was right up there with those guys, and this year, I know I’m going to be up there,” said Banks, who decided to return for his senior season after weighing his NFL draft options. “But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is how I play and how much I help my team get back to being where we think we should be.”
He was the only cornerback in the SEC last season with at least 70 tackles and five interceptions.
“Maybe I can do more this year, if that’s what it takes,” said Banks, who was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2011. “But we have a defense coming back that I think can be even better than we were last year. We’ve got just about our whole secondary back, and it hurts to lose Fletcher (Cox). But I’m excited to see what some of these new guys are going to do on the field. From what I’ve seen, I think Quay Evans and Denico Autry are going to live up to the hype.”
Evans, a 6-3, 305-pound tackle, was an ESPNU 150 member and rated as the No. 13 tackle prospect in the country. He enrolled early and will go through spring practice, which was scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon but has been postponed due to weather concerns. The 6-5, 260-pound Autry was rated as one of the top junior college defensive ends in the country.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play football, and that’s one of the reasons I came back,” Banks said. “Some of the redshirt freshmen like (linebacker) Bernardrick McKinney and (cornerback) Taveze Calhoun are going to make an impact on this defense.”
Banks grew up in Maben, Miss., a tiny town about 20 miles west of Starkville. It’s where he learned to ride horses, one of his many interests. He also aspires to be a state highway patrolman once his football career is over, which is appropriate given the way he locks down on receivers.
“Football’s not going to be there forever,” Banks said.
Mississippi State was the only major school to offer him a scholarship. Ole Miss sent him several letters, but Banks is quick to note that the Rebels never offered him a scholarship.
“Mississippi State was the only one, and that means something,” Banks said. “It still does. I want to make sure I give as much back as possible before I leave this place.”
He jokes that the reason no other schools outside the state of Mississippi offered him a scholarship is because nobody could find him. The population of Maben isn’t even 1,000, and Banks played at Class A East Webster High School.
“If you put Maben on a GPS, you still wouldn’t find it,” Banks said. “I didn’t go to a lot of camps, either, so a lot of people just didn’t know about me.”
He was also rail-thin when he came out of high school and looked more like a basketball player than an SEC football player.
But having spent three years now in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, Banks has added weight and strength to his 6-2 frame. His height, not to mention his long arms, comes in handy when he’s shadowing receivers.
Banks also has excellent closing speed and knows what to do with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He’s returned three of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns. He’s also pretty crafty when it comes to baiting quarterbacks to throw his way.
“I’ve worked hard this offseason to get better at some of the things I wasn’t as good at,” said Banks, who needs five interceptions to pass Walt Harris as Mississippi State’s all-time leader in interceptions. “I still need to be more physical, and I still need to get better at studying tape. I’m going to be a better student of the game.”
Banks also plans on going out the right way.
Even though the Bulldogs won their second straight bowl game a year ago, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, he was far from satisfied with the 7-6 record. The Bulldogs were 9-4 the year before, sending expectations sky-high.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Banks said. “Last year was pretty much a disappointment for us and our fans. We just didn’t have that edge for every game.
“We’ve got that dog back in us now, and I think it’s going to show on the field.”
Dec. 30, 6:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: After the 2010 season, in which the Bulldogs had their first nine-win season since 1999, the expectations in Starkville skyrocketed.
Third-year coach Dan Mullen appeared to have enough returning on offense to continue riding that momentum. Losing a couple of key members to the front seven on defense was worrisome, but the offense was always supposed to lead the way.
After the first two weeks, the Bulldogs were averaging 588 yards and 46.5 points, but a goal-line stop of quarterback Chris Relf might have changed everything for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State came up less than a foot short of going to overtime against Auburn when Relf was stopped as time expired in a 41-34 heartbreaker.
The Bulldogs were never the same after that, as injuries hurt the offensive line and they lost three of their next five.
Mullen entered the season with only two wins against Western Division opponents, with both coming against Ole Miss. Nothing changed in 2011, as the Bulldogs’ only SEC wins came against Kentucky and the Rebels.
While the offense struggled throughout the season, Mississippi’s defense kept the Bulldogs in games for most of the year. By sweeping the nonconference schedule and blowing out Ole Miss at the end of the year, Mississippi State became bowl eligible for the second straight year under Mullen and will look to win its fifth straight bowl game.
Wake Forest take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: The Deacs had a disappointing finish to the season, losing four of their final five games. Considering they made it to the postseason following last season's 3-9 campaign, 2011 was a success.
Wake Forest was a much-improved team, and put itself in position to win the Atlantic Division title. Even more surprising was the fact that it came down to a last-second, game-winning field goal against Clemson, which clinched the division with the 31-28 win over the Deacs on Nov. 12. Wake Forest beat Maryland the following week to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2008, and will be making the program’s fifth bowl appearance in 11 years under coach Jim Grobe.
Much of Wake’s success this year can be attributed to the maturation of quarterback Tanner Price, and the development of several key players around him like receiver Chris Givens. Cornerback Merrill Noel was named the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year and he has 20 passes defended.
The Deacons have compiled a 6-3 (.667) record in their nine previous bowl appearances and are 3-1 in bowl games under Grobe. The Deacs have won five of their last six bowl games. Wake Forest and Mississippi State will be meeting for the first time.
Our topic: No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Auburn. Who's better and why?
Both are unbeaten, and if the season ended today, they'd play for the national title.
We've got lots of football left, and probably many more plot twists in the hunt for the national title, but there's no reason we can't engage in a hypothetical, is there?
So the Pac-10 blog -- Ted Miller -- and the SEC blog -- Chris Low -- have decided to meet for some civilized debate on Auburn versus Oregon.
Ted Miller: Chris, since things are so quiet in the sleepy SEC, I think we should spice things up with a Pac-10-SEC blogger debate! It seems like a long time since we last had a debate between our two conferences. How’d that one go? Let’s see I championed Taylor Mays and you celebrated Eric Berry. Wait. Why did I bring that up?
Anyway, our topic is Oregon and Auburn: Who’s better and why.
You get first blood. Tell me about Auburn. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that Jay Jacobs was getting hounded for hiring Gene Chizik. Guessing that’s died down a wee-bit.
Chris Low: No doubt, Ted. I wonder where that obnoxious guy is now, the one yelling at Jacobs as he was leaving the airport after finalizing the deal with Chizik? Maybe Jacobs knew what he was doing after all. The guy with the 5-19 record at Iowa State has done all right by himself on the Plains. He has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback and the SEC's leading rusher in Cam Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freak of nature who runs like Bo Jackson and also has an NFL arm. Keep your eyes, too, on freshman running back Mike Dyer, who they haven't had to lean on much this season, but is oozing with talent and has fresh legs for this stretch run. The Tigers' defensive numbers are nothing to write home about, but they do have the kind of dominant interior defensive lineman, Nick Fairley, who can take over games. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Fairley's the closest thing he's seen to Warren Sapp. Auburn's calling card defensively has been making plays at key times in the fourth quarter. The Tigers have been a serviceable defense through three quarters this season, but they've been a championship-caliber defense in the fourth quarter -- which is why they're 10-0.
So tell me about Oregon?
Obviously, we're talking about two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn.
Chris Low: Ted, I think what separates Auburn is Newton. Nobody has been able to stop him. If you commit to taking away the run, he's proved he can beat people throwing the ball. And if you come after him and/or don't have enough people in the box, he's been magic running the ball. Keep in mind, too, that we're not talking about a 220-pound guy running the ball. We're talking about a 250-pound guy who's physical, tough and doesn't run out of bounds. In the red zone, he's the great equalizer, because he gains 3 yards when he falls forward and has the size and the strength to push the pile. On top of it all, he's always a threat to throw the ball. Similar to Oregon, Auburn doesn't flinch if somebody puts 30-plus points on the board, because the Tigers' mentality is that they're going to score 50. Their offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, will make you defend everything -- reverses, throwback passes, passes to the backs, even passes to Newton. He caught a touchdown pass two weeks ago against Ole Miss. The Tigers also play at a tempo on offense that has opposing defenses gasping for air in the fourth quarter. But when they have to, they can put teams away and finish games by running the ball. They're fourth nationally (one spot ahead of Oregon) this week in rushing offense with an average of 307.2 yards per game. Auburn's top four rushers -- Newton, Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin -- are all averaging at least 6.4 yards per carry. Do the Ducks have any answers for that running game?
Obviously, two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn if it played Oregon in the national title game. How do you see it going?
Chris Low: Well, if that happens, the first thing we all better make sure we have is a calculator. That and make sure there's no danger of a power surge to the scoreboard. You're right about Oregon. Nobody in the country has been better in the second half. The Ducks' ability to score points in bunches is amazing, but the Tigers are equally adept at going on head-spinning scoring sprees. Just ask Arkansas, which saw Auburn roll up 28 points in the fourth quarter in Xbox-like fashion. I have no doubt that an Auburn-Oregon matchup would be played in the 40s. I think the difference, though, would be Auburn's ability to put the breaks on the track meet and run the football in the fourth quarter, especially with Newton being so good at converting on third down. So I'm going Auburn 45, Oregon 41 in a game that rates up there with the Texas-USC classic to decide the 2005 national title.
Ted Miller: That's clearly something we can all agree on: This likely would be a highly entertaining, offensively driven national title game if these two teams manage to get themselves there. Further, I think, after never getting a USC-SEC title game, folks on both coasts would enjoy an SEC-Pac-10 matchup. No trash-talking there, right? And I do see a clear advantage for Auburn: It has been tested. It's played five games decided by eight points or fewer, and three decided by a field goal. The Ducks closest game? An 11-point win at Arizona State. But that's also why I'd pick Oregon in this one. Oregon beat the No. 6 team in the nation, Stanford, by 21 points. It shut Andrew Luck out in the second half. And I look at all of Auburn's close games: Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky and LSU, and think: None of them would be within 10 points of the Ducks. Maybe LSU, because any game Les Miles touches is surprising. And I think Vegas would agree with me. So if we ended up with an Oregon-Auburn national title game, my guess is the Tigers would go TD for TD with the Ducks in the first half, then the Ducks would pour it on late for a 50-35 win. But I reserve the right to change my mind, particularly because I think the Tigers' toughest test -- Alabama -- is ahead.
Moreover, both teams should be advised: You probably should get to the Jan. 10 date in Glendale before you start trash-talking each other. At least before you use your best stuff.
- Alabama and Florida have separated themselves at the top of the SEC, Ron Higgins writes in The Commercial Appeal. Marcell Dareus stepped up as Alabama's star D-lineman this spring, Dave Curtis and Matt Hayes write in The Sporting News.
- Tennessee's quarterbacks are easier to separate following spring practice, Austin Ward writes in the Knoxville News Sentinel. New Vols coach Derek Dooley is a big hit in Atlanta, Glenn LaFollette writes in the News Sentinel.
- Steve Spurrier is challenging South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia every chance he gets, Joseph Person writes in The State.
- Some Florida superlatives entering the summer, including a heated battle at cornerback, from the Orlando Sentinel's Jeremy Fowler.
- Mississippi State is getting closer to naming a new athletics director, Kyle Veazey writes in The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger.
- Jevan Sneed and Andre Woodson are among the quarterbacks who didn't live up to their hype in the NFL, colleague Bruce Feldman writes.
- Alabama is looking at some neutral site scheduling options, though a game with Georgia Tech has been postponed. Nick Saban chats with the Birmingham News during the Crimson Caravan.
- Auburn, like many of us, is seeking long-term success.
- Is anyone going to bust up -- to steal a phrase from Chris Low -- the Florida-Alabama duopoly?
- Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger might return to Athens -- only in another uniform to stand on the opposite sideline. This is an odd -- and perhaps ill-timed -- mixture of politics and college football.
- Undrafted Kentucky players are picking their NFL teams.
- LSU has suspended center T-Bob Hebert after his arrest for drunken driving early Saturday morning. Redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Montgomery is already winning awards.
- Life is good for this former Ole Miss Rebel.
- South Carolina hands out raises for assistant coaches.
- My old buddy Ron Higgins writes that Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has some concerns, a lack of playmakers and a lack of experience being chief among them. Maybe this commitment will help.
- A media hero! Photographer saves a former Vanderbilt coach (this is two-days old, but it's hard to pass up anything positive about the media).