SEC: Nick Saban

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a familiar storyline by now, Alabama attempting to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle.

You know, Nick Saban’s supposed Achilles' heel?

Texas A&M started the talk with Johnny Manziel running laps around the Tide. Then Auburn got on board, punctuated by its last-second miracle on the Plains. Finally, Oklahoma pushed the tempo and won last season's Sugar Bowl, racking up 429 yards of offense. And if you thought it would get better with another offseason to prepare, then the season-opener wasn’t for you. All West Virginia did was march up and down the field in Atlanta, barely missing out on 400 yards of offense thanks to a handful of untimely drops.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell presents a difficult matchup for the Alabama defense.
Saban has defended himself against the less-than-flattering narrative, albeit with mixed results. Because until we see Alabama’s defense actually stop an above-average offense that employs the HUNH (sorry, Florida), we can’t say with any certainty that the riddle has been solved.

That’s what makes this week so important. Against Ole Miss, Alabama will either put the talk to bed or add further fuel to the fire.

The No. 11-ranked Rebels are an up-tempo program, through and through. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn are buddies, former high school coaches who both believe time spent is time wasted. Bo Wallace, Freeze’s senior quarterback, is in his third year running the HUNH system. With so much familiarity, he can throttle the offense high and low at will. And with the talent surrounding him, there’s no question that Ole Miss’ offense is as dynamic as any Alabama will face this season.

Running back Jaylen Walton is tough to get a hand on, as evidenced by his 6.9 yards per carry coming into this weekend.

Tight end Evan Engram is a matchup nightmare with the size to overpower defensive backs and the speed to run past linebackers.

All wide receiver Cody Core seems to do is catch touchdowns.

Then there’s Laquon Treadwell, arguably one of the top-five receivers in the country. He alone can wreck a secondary.

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“He’s, obviously to me, an outstanding player,” Saban said of the much-heralded sophomore on Monday. “He’s got really good size. He’s a really good athlete. He’s got a big catch radius. He can get in and out of breaks. He plays with a lot of toughness, very physical blocker. So he’s the complete package.”

Said Alabama safety Landon Collins: “He's a very quick receiver, explosive. You get the ball in his hands and he can do basically anything with it. We have a lot of respect for him and we're definitely going to look to him and not turn our backs to him because he can be a game-changer.”

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But does Alabama have anyone who can actually cover him? That’s the real question.

Cyrus Jones might be up for the task, but he gives up four inches and 25 pounds. Eddie Jackson is the more physical option, but his health is a concern. Then there’s Tony Brown, who is a five-star talent but lacks experience as a true freshman.

To make matters worse, given the way Ole Miss goes without huddling, Alabama doesn’t have the option to put one man on him.

“We went through this last year in a couple of games when we tried to put a guy on a guy in a game of no-huddle and it really is difficult for the corners to get lined up, so you really can’t,” Saban explained. “I think whoever is on him is going to have to study him and play him and play him well and keep him cut off. ... He’s an outstanding player and that’s a difficult task.”

Whether it’s the unenviable job of stopping Treadwell or the much-talked-about issues with the hurry-up, no-huddle, Alabama is used to a challenge. After so many wins and so many national titles, doubters come with the territory.

According to Collins, it’s just motivation.

“Everybody is going to doubt how we play or how we come out or any aspect of our game,” he said. “We're always going to have that. That's Alabama. We just take that into consideration and use that to push us and motivate us moving forward.”
Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

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

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

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

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

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Blake Sims tried to keep his postgame interview low key. Drained after a hard-fought win, he entered the media room inside Bryant-Denny Stadium and propped himself up against the wall in front a few reporters. But before a single question was asked of him, he was told he’d have to move.

An Alabama media relations staffer beckoned him to the big stage.

Sims, a soft-spoken, often times deferential quarterback, couldn’t stand off to the side anymore. Not after his transformational performance earlier in the afternoon against Florida. Not after the way he orchestrated one of the most impressive offensive performances in school history. The podium and all its cameras and recorders were there for him. They’d waited after Nick Saban and all the other players had left just to hear him speak.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Jason Getz/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims shredded the Gators defense for 445 passing yards and four TDs.
After being asked about his bandaged shoulder, a reporter asked if he’d assess his play.

His response: “It was pretty fine.”

What?

“Pretty fine” is what you say after you threw a few touchdowns, tossed a few interceptions and generally didn’t throw the ball so well. “Pretty fine” is what you say when you feel like you didn’t do much to help your team win the game. “Pretty fine” is the last thing Sims has been.

But he didn’t see it that way.

“When you have great guys out there that want to protect you, want to play hard for you; when you have a great O-line that takes the time to learn the defense week by week; when you’ve got great wide receivers that want to go out there and want the ball and get open for you so you can get the ball out of your hands as fast as you can; also when you have three great running backs -- Kenyan Drake, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry -- that can keep their eyes off you by running the ball; you’re bound to have a good game,” he said, committing what was the athletic equivalent to an awards show acceptance speech.

It looked like things were getting easier for him, a reporter said, asking if that was the case.

“It’s not very easy,” Sims said. “Again, when you have great wide receivers that can get open, any quarterback can hit an open guy. I’m just blessed to have these guys beside me.”

But the truth -- the truth Sims won’t admit and that many fans couldn’t come to grips with until Saturday -- was that Alabama is just as blessed to have him.

The guy no one expected to be the starting quarterback is now the guy to whom Alabama’s playoff hopes are securely pinned.

There shouldn’t be any more questions about Sims’ ability, center Ryan Kelly said.

Not after how Sims manhandled Florida’s defense.

“Blake played great,” Kelly said. “Whoever is doubting Blake at this point, four games in, look at what we did today. He’s a great quarterback and we’re glad to have him.”

The Gators entered Saturday with one of the best cornerbacks in the country (Vernon Hargreaves III) and a front seven many thought would harass Sims into mistakes. But it turned out Sims was up for the challenge, throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns. His only interception came on a tipped pass, and on the very next possession he helped lead a 16-play drive that ended with another trip into the end zone. And that star cornerback? He didn’t matter. Sims connected with Amari Cooper time and time again, racking up 10 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

“He created a lot of things with his legs, and that was something we knew coming into the game,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “He did a nice job with some pocket movement. We had him pinned up at times, and he got away.”

If you didn’t believe in Sims’ first three starts, you had to be sold by No. 4.

If not, just look at the national QBR rankings. Sims is fifth on that list, ahead of Connor Cook, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott.

He’s been explosive, with an average yards per attempt of 11.25, which ranks third among all FBS QBs. He’s been evasive, with a sack percentage of 1.0 percent, which is tied for ninth. And he’s been as good as it gets on third down, coming in No. 1 overall with a third-down conversion percentage of 71.4 percent.

“People have to respect him as a passer,” Saban said. “He has made too many plays and too many good throws for people to not respect him as a passer.”

Sims may not say it himself, but he’s a big reason for Alabama’s success. If he keeps it up -- and his numbers have stayed consistent -- then the Crimson Tide should remain a favorite to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Don’t believe him yet? Then, according to offensive tackle Austin Shepherd, you’re missing the big picture.

“Obviously he proved he can do it.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before Saturday's Alabama-Florida game, Amari Cooper and Vernon Hargreaves III acted no different. Both players kept to themselves, showing no emotion despite the magnitude of the game. There was no trash talking when they lined up across from each other on that first play. There was a sense of respect.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Amari Cooper got the best of the personal matchup with Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III, but both played well.
It was no different after the game. Cooper finished with 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns, clearly winning the individual matchup, but there to congratulate him afterward was Hargreaves. It didn't matter that Hargreaves was banged up and missed the final eight minutes. He knew he was facing one of the nation's best.

"He just said, 'Good game. You played great," Cooper told reporters after the game. "He's a very humble player. You can tell he comes from a good family.”

Looking back, both played well. Cooper is obviously on another level and showed why he's the better of the two, but Hargreaves didn't have a bad game despite what the stats might indicate.

Alabama found ways to move its top receiver around before the snap and match him up against somebody other than Hargreaves. On two separate plays in the first half, Cooper lined up in the slot with Hargreaves playing outside. The first play went for 37 yards, the second for 79 yards and a touchdown.

When the two were matched up in clear one-on-one situations, Cooper had five catches for 51 yards and one of his three touchdowns. His last score came with Florida's top cornerback on the sideline.

After the game, Alabama coach Nick Saban was complimentary of both.

“Coop did a great job in the game,” Saban said. “We have a lot of respect for their No. 1 guy [Hargreaves]. He is a very good player. But when you have matchups like that with two good players and you analyze the whole thing, both guys will end up making some plays.”

VH3 draws first blood: On its first play from scrimmage, Alabama used Cooper as a decoy and threw a long touchdown to Kenyan Drake on the other side. The next time the Tide got the ball, they ran to Hargreaves' side, and he was ready. Both he and safety Marcus Maye helped strip the ball from Drake, and Hargreaves was the one to recover it before going out of bounds. For the most part, Hargreaves played well against the run and finished with six tackles including one for a loss.

Cooper gets behind defense: How do you leave the SEC's best wide receiver wide open for a 79-yard touchdown pass? It came down to simple miscommunication. Cooper lined up in the slot with Hargreaves on the outside and Florida running zone coverage. The Alabama wide receiver took off on a go route, and because of a mix-up between defensive backs Brian Poole and Keanu Neal, the entire Gators defense had to watch as Cooper caught what might have been the easiest touchdown of his college career. It was simple pitch and catch.

The touchdown that wasn't: Cooper might have had four touchdowns Saturday if not for an offensive pass interference called against him in the third quarter. It was Cooper against Hargreaves, one-on-one, and the Alabama wide receiver gave a little shove before turning around and catching the ball. Once he caught it, he showed off his moves and maneuvered his way through traffic to find the end zone, but it all went for naught. Cooper caught another long pass with Hargreaves draped on him that was called back due to illegal formation.

Cooper shows why he's elite: If there was one play the NFL scouts will turn to when evaluating Cooper, it was his touchdown grab late in the third quarter. Backup quarterback Jake Coker had checked into the game, and it was once again one-on-one with Hargreaves, the matchup everybody wanted to see. Cooper ran a fade to the back of the end zone, and with the ball at its highest point, he went up and simply took it away from Hargreaves, who had good position on the play. It didn't matter who was throwing it. It didn't matter who was covering him. Cooper was catching that ball.

Advantage: Cooper

Video: Inside The Drive -- Florida-Alabama

September, 20, 2014
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Alabama coach Nick Saban discusses the key matchups as the Florida Gators visit the Crimson Tide.
Florida sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III's first collegiate interception felt easy from the start.

The Gators were in man coverage against Toledo last season and Hargreaves, in his first game no less, was playing press. Hargreaves was already close to receiver Alonzo Russell, so once his opponent started going into a post route, Hargreaves already had it in his mind that he was going to undercut his man and the route.

Quarterback Terrance Owens was finished before he even released the ball. Hargreaves jumped the route, making a controlled guess that sealed Owens' fate.

"As soon as I undercut it, the quarterback threw it to me," Hargreaves said.

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It was the first of a handful of outstanding plays he would make in his debut season. Hargreaves, who led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended, earned All-American honors and entered the 2014 season labeled by many as the nation's best cornerback.

Through two games, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound phenom already leads the SEC with five passes defended.

His speed, instincts, vision and natural playing ability make him a feared cover man and ball hawk. Equipped with more experience and skills, Hargreaves could be even better this season. After two solid performances, he will get his greatest test to date on Saturday in Tuscaloosa: Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.

"We knew this was coming," Hargreaves said of covering Cooper, who leads the nation with 33 receptions and is third overall with 454 yards. "He's excited. I'm excited. We both know the magnitude of the game and it's going to be a great matchup on Saturday.

"Everybody knows what's coming. Obviously I'm going to be covering him. I'm excited for it."

How exactly will he go about covering his toughest opponent yet? For Hargreaves, it's more instinctual than anything. He said he doesn't like to think too much on the field.

BEFORE THE SNAP

Hargreaves zeros in on opponents, trying quickly to recognize the offensive personnel. He counts the number of receivers, then shifts his focus back to the defensive call.

He concentrates on what his defense is doing, what the play is and what the calls are. Once the assignment is clear, his eyes move back to the receivers.

"Most teams nowadays don't really huddle, so you can't really get a lot of indicators when they break out of the huddle," Hargreaves said. "Really for me, it's the receivers."

Once the offense lines up, Hargreaves figures out his leverage. A receiver lining up really wide forces him to play with inside leverage. An inside receiver means outside leverage.

He plants his feet, balls firm, yet light enough for him to explode out of his stance and glide along the field. His hips are loose, making turning smooth in case the receiver pulls a move.

AFTER THE SNAP

"I understand what [receivers] might do and what they like to do, but other than that, I'm not out there trying to guess routes," Hargreaves said. "It's just all instincts . . . You can't really play off what they might do. You react to what they do do."

His feet are as quick -- if not quicker -- than most of the receivers he covers. His hands snap into position and his arms push as fast as his legs churn, pulling him stride-for-stride with his opponent.

"He's very instinctive, he's fast, quick," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "But I think probably his greatest asset besides having great ability is he's a very instinctive player."

BALL IN FLIGHT

What's impressive -- and for opponents quite frustrating -- is how Hargreaves plays with his back turned. He relies on his technique and trusts his instincts. If a receiver gets behind him, Hargreaves stays patient. He doesn't panic because he knows he has time.

Hargreaves' eyes shift to the receiver's eyes, which are planted on the ball. Once their hands go up, the ball is close, meaning it's time for Hargreaves to pounce.

"It's something you can work on, you certainly can enhance, but the guy really has a lot of poise with his back to the football," Florida coach Will Muschamp said.

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Hargreaves is still young and learning. His brain is still dissecting new information about players and formations each time he sits down for his film sessions during the week.

"Most of my decisions are calculated," Hargreaves said. "I understand the situation, I understand what's going on in the game."

He'll have to be as calculated as ever against the nation's best Saturday.

At first glance: SEC Week 4

September, 15, 2014
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What do we know about the SEC right now? Not as much as we thought we did on Friday, before Kentucky put a triple-overtime scare into Florida, South Carolina toppled Georgia and other conference teams gave us reason to doubt previous assumptions about the SEC hierarchy.

The uncertainty is part of what makes following the league fun, though. With a couple more SEC teams jumping into conference play this week, we should soon gain a better understanding of where things actually stand within the conference. But for now -- with a couple of key SEC games and a huge nonconference matchup on Thursday ahead -- let’s celebrate how many SEC fan bases truly believe their teams have a legitimate chance to make it to Atlanta in December.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Florida at Alabama
Little did we know before the season that Florida’s first major challenge of the fall would come from Kentucky and not from Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Tuscaloosa. Will Muschamp’s team (2-0, 1-0 SEC) needed an all-star performance from receiver Demarcus Robinson (15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns) and an assist from the back judge who was minding the play clock on a key fourth-down play to beat the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) in overtime. The Gators need to make a lot of progress in a little time if they’re to have a chance against No. 3 Alabama (3-0), despite the Crimson Tide’s over reliance on dump-off passes to Amari Cooper and occasionally shoddy pass defense. Florida has the ability to make this a competitive game, but it must look a lot more like the team that destroyed Eastern Michigan, 65-0, two weeks ago than the one that easily could have lost to Kentucky.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Mississippi State’s quarterback has been great against three overmatched teams so far (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama). When they visit No. 8 LSU this weekend, Prescott and the Bulldogs will gain their first real opportunity to prove they’ll be more than a middle-of-the-pack program in the SEC West this season. LSU hasn’t allowed a single point in nine quarters and has outscored opponents 108-0 since falling behind Wisconsin, 24-7, early in the second half of the opener. The Tigers traditionally win comfortably in this series, so the pressure is on Prescott to keep the Bulldogs afloat against by far the best team they will have faced to date.

Coaches under the microscope: Georgia coordinators Mike Bobo and Jeremy Pruitt
A longtime Mark Richt assistant, Bobo has fielded some of the most productive offenses in school history in recent seasons, but he has taken plenty of heat for not handing the ball to Todd Gurley on Saturday with Georgia knocking at the South Carolina goal line with the chance to take a late lead. That decision blew up in Bobo’s face when the drive sputtered and normally solid kicker Marshall Morgan missed a chip-shot field goal. Meanwhile, newcomer Pruitt’s defense was atrocious, surrendering 447 yards of total offense following a solid debut two weeks ago against Clemson. This Saturday’s matchup against Troy shouldn’t provide a major challenge for the Bulldogs, but it will be their next opportunity to get bad tastes out of their mouths.

Storyline to watch: Auburn’s travel schedule
Playing a Thursday night game halfway across the country can’t help but be disruptive for Gus Malzahn’s No. 5 Auburn Tigers (2-0, 1-0). It might be a competitive challenge, too, as the 1,000-mile trip to Manhattan, Kansas, will culminate with Malzahn’s team facing No. 20 Kansas State (2-0). The sunny side of the unusual trip is that Auburn was off last weekend, so it will not play on short rest. Plus the Tigers will have nine days until they host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 27, so they have extra recovery time built into the back end of this trip and a relatively easy nonconference game between K-State and a huge SEC matchup with LSU on Oct. 4. Nonetheless, this odd piece of scheduling will probably create a couple of headaches for Malzahn and his staff.

Intriguing matchup: Arkansas running game against Northern Illinois defense
Fresh off a 438-yard outing in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech, Arkansas’ impressive rushing attack seems to rank among the nation’s best. Jonathan Williams (22 carries, 145 yards, four TDs against Texas Tech) and Alex Collins (27-212, 2 TDs) might be the best tandem in the SEC and the Razorbacks’ offensive line is doing fine work. Let’s see how they fare on Saturday against a Northern Illinois defense that ranks 13th nationally against the run, surrendering 81 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. The Huskies posted those numbers in wins against Presbyterian, Northwestern and UNLV, so they certainly haven’t seen the likes of Arkansas’ running game yet. It seems highly likely NIU’s opponent averages might rise a bit after Saturday’s game.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can see it in his body language; Blake Sims has settled down. His head isn’t on a swivel any more. His eyes aren’t feverishly bouncing from side to side. His feet have suddenly stopped dancing around inside the pocket. Everything he does on the football field he’s now doing more confidently, and it’s paying off.

Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.

Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Blake Sims has a higher QBR than Jameis Winston three games into the season.
But more importantly, the former running back/receiver has executed Lane Kiffin’s offense with near-perfect precision, while his chief competition, Jake Coker, has struggled to call the right play and make the right decisions. Too many times Nick Saban has had to pat the former Florida State transfer on the behind and walk him through what he did wrong.

Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?

Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.

But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.

In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.

“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.

Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.

“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”

Now Sims is a new man.

“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”

His teammates do, too.

Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.

“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.

“He’s really matured over these last three games.”

Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.

“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.

Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.

“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”

But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?

“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”

"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”

If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.

Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.

“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.

“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”

Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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September, 12, 2014
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Nothing like a little fun in the middle of football season. While Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was sitting in for head football coach Will Muschamp on a weekly radio spot, Muschamp called into the show under the name "Bill from Gainesville." Muschamp proceeded to talk about how much better Foley was than Muschamp on the air, suggesting he replace Muschamp for the rest of the season on the show and talked about the last-place Boston Red Sox. You can listen to the full audio here.

I missed this earlier this week but couldn't resist posting it. Any time Nick Saban says something you don't necessarily expect to hear, it's interesting. This time, it was Saban using the words "beast mode" in a press conference. This isn't the first time Saban has used "beast" (he used it after motivational speaker Eric Thomas visited Alabama) but this is the first time I can recall he has used "beast mode" in this setting and he was referencing his players and Thomas' words, saying "everybody wants to be a beast."

And in case you missed it, the parents of Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill are working on trademarking the nickname "Kenny Trill" which blew up last week after the sophomore quarterback said he liked the nickname. I get the sense that this is as much about protecting Hill and keeping others from profiting off of it (someone else filed for it before Hill's parents did) than it is the Hills trying to profit off of their son's name down the road. Even so, I find it interesting, and maybe even puzzling, that fans, media and others in between feel it necessary that Hill has a nickname. Just because his predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had a cool nickname "Johnny Football," doesn't mean Hill needs one, especially after only two starts. For what it's worth, I like the nickname as a lifelong Houston resident (Houston rapper Bun B, who originally hails from Port Arthur, Texas, popularized the word "Trill," which is a hybrid of "true" and "real"), but if Bun B says Hill has to earn it first, then I'm on team Bun. To Hill's credit, he said he doesn't care too much about the nickname, but his teammates love it.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Eddie Jackson would tell anyone who'd listen that he was coming back. It didn’t matter that he tore up his knee late in spring practice. It didn’t matter that the five-month, post-surgery timeline he laid out seemed wholly improbable. The lanky cornerback from South Florida was determined to get back on the field early in his sophomore season. The thought of taking a redshirt year was almost out of the question.

According to veteran safety Nick Perry, “He made it his mission to be back for the season.”

Whether anyone involved knew it or not, Alabama needed Eddie Jackson back on the football field sooner rather than later.

What we saw Week 1 against West Virginia showed us as much. The 350 yards Alabama allowed through the air in that game could have been worse if not for so many dropped passes. Bradley Sylve struggled against the Mountaineers’ taller, more physical receivers. Cyrus Jones looked a little better but wasn’t the shutdown corner the Crimson Tide needed.

Watching frustrated on the sidelines was a possible answer.

“It was really tough,” Jackson said of missing the season opener. “I wanted to be out there so bad, but there was nothing I could do except cheer my teammates on.”

Jackson felt ready to go after weeks and weeks of rehabbing twice or even three times a day. Doctors had cleared him, coach Nick Saban said, but the staff erred on the side of caution.

But when Week 2 rolled around and the secondary was reeling, the timing was right. Saban increased Jackson’s reps in practice, liked what he saw and decided to let him start in the home opener against Florida Atlantic.

Reggie Ragland, a junior linebacker, said he expected Jackson to “come out slow” in his first start back from injury. But he said Jackson “came out thudding people up.”

“He caused a fumble I recovered,” Ragland said. “Eddie looked great [Saturday].”

Said Jones: “He’s definitely one of our more physical DBs. [He] definitely doesn’t shy away from contact.”

Jackson's mobility didn’t seem the least bit limited. He racked up four tackles, including one tackle for loss. He barely missed out on an interception, too. Coaches had him on a pitch count of roughly 40 snaps, and even though the game was shortened by lightning, he came close to reaching that benchmark.

The only thing that betrayed Jackson was the ice pack wrapped around his knee after the game. Even so, he said he felt fine.

“Pretty close,” Jackson said of being 100 percent healthy. “I felt great. My knee wasn’t bothering me at all.”

Saban said he didn’t see any kind of drop off from Jackson. In fact, the technology the team employs in practice confirmed as much.

Alabama test drove the Catapult GPS system last season and agreed to use the company full time this year. The technology uses GPS, gyroscopes and magnetometers to measure an athlete’s movement and exertion during competition. Tracking Jackson’s “explosive movement,” Saban said he was able to see Jackson was ready to go.

“All those things are the same standard as before he got hurt,” Saban said.

“He made some good plays out there. I’m sure the more he plays, the better he’ll get.”

That’s good news for Alabama’s still-unproven secondary. If Jackson can become an anchor at corner, it will make fitting the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together easier, especially given safety Jarrick Williams’ injury that has him out three more weeks.

Saturday’s shutout was a move in the right direction, even if it came against Florida Atlantic, which was blown out Week 1 by a Nebraska team that barely escaped McNeese State 31-24 in Week 2.

No matter, said Alabama All-SEC safety Landon Collins. With him leading the charge in the secondary, Trey DePriest back handling the front seven at inside linebacker and Jackson’s return to the fold, Collins liked the way the entire defense came together.

“As a group, we were all focused on our keys and our concepts, and we were all one defense,” Collins said. “As a whole, we had a lot of talking going on and keeping each other on the right page, and that’s the type of defense that we want. Once we do that, we are going to make unbelievable stops.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can keep calling it a competition if you want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, he was everything Coker was not.

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

“We’re a team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s best for Alabama now is Sims.

If Coker wants to change that, he better start gaining ground in a hurry.
Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The game was never about the final score, which happened to be a perfectly lopsided 41-0 in favor of No. 2-ranked Alabama. It wasn’t about the opponent, either. Florida Atlantic just happened to be there for the second phase of the Crimson Tide’s quarterback competition between Blake Sims and Jake Coker.

Sims' hot start

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Alabama’s opening drive was Sims at his very best. He was decisive, accurate and made smart decisions with the football. Lane Kiffin drew up one quick pass after another, and Sims put the ball right where it needed to be. Amari Cooper and Chris Black took it from there, picking up good yards after the catch and moving the chains. But on 3rd-and-5, Sims had to take the game into his own hands, and rather than force a pass to a covered receiver, he tucked the ball and scrambled 7 yards, diving into the end zone for the game’s first score.

"Going fast helps me out a lot," Sims said of running Alabama's new-look up-tempo offense. "It gives us a chance to get the defense off-balance, because they’re not very used to us doing that. When you think of Alabama, you don’t think of a fast-paced team.

"It gives you the chance for the players to get open quick. ... When you have playmakers like Amari Cooper and Chris Black, they do the job for you."

Coker gains confidence

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How would he respond? That was the question facing Coker after a terrible end to the first half in which he took a sack with time expiring, prompting Nick Saban to throw his headset in disgust. But Coker showed some moxie in his first series of the second half. On his first pass attempt, he found Cooper for 20 yards. After another pass to Cooper for 6 yards, Coker decided to take a shot downfield. With a defender bearing down on him, Coker zeroed in on ArDarius Stewart, letting go of the ball right as he was hit in the back. Still, the pass was on target and Stewart picked up 40 yards, moving the ball inside the red zone. Kenyan Drake would do the rest, carrying the ball twice before scoring a touchdown.

"Jake played just as well in the second half as he did the first," Saban said. "He played a little better as time went on.

"Missing the guy in the flat down in the red zone wide open, nobody feels worse about that than him. He’ll definitely get better because of it."

What it means

Coker has some work to do if he wants to stay in this race. Sims was just too sharp, completing 11 of 13 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Barring an epic meltdown next week, there hasn’t been anything he has done to surrender the starting quarterback job heading into Alabama’s SEC opener against Florida. Sims been accurate with the football and managed the offense well.

Coker, meanwhile, has struggled in both areas. Against FAU, he was 15-of-24 for 202 yards and one touchdown. But it was his mental mistakes that set him back most, failing to get the offense in the right alignment and struggling to manage the play clock.

A lot was made during the offseason about the talent disparity between Sims and Coker, and maybe some of that is true. But the ability to execute is the most important thing to Saban and his coaching staff. And, frankly, with the skill players Alabama has at receiver and running back, it doesn’t need a herculean effort from its quarterback.

Just look at what Cooper can do. All you have to do is get him the ball in space, and he will handle the rest.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget all the offseason talk and speculation, if you wish, but remember that we've got a long way to go before the whole story has played out.

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