SEC: Nick Saban

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban and Urban Meyer agree that players' families should get assistance to offset the cost of attending playoff games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the surface, there may not be all that much in common between the two rivals on top of the coaching game.

Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.

The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.

“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.

“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”

That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.

“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”

Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.

Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.

“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.

“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”

The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.

SEC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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New Florida coach Jim McElwain made his first staff hire on Tuesday when he tabbed Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins as the Gators' new man at that position. Nicknamed the "Minister of Mayhem," Collins will bring his "swag chalice" and aggressive style to Gainesville as the Gators begin a new era. It could provide some awkwardness leading up to the bowl game as some believed McElwain would retain interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who was Will Muschamp's defensive coordinator, while Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted that he wishes his coaches would leave for head coaching positions, not "lateral positions." Regardless, Collins guided Mississippi State to the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and No. 1 in red zone defense; now he'll have better access to high-level talent and the Florida recruiting base that could help him have even more success as he joins the Gators.

Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.

There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.

Around the SEC

Alabama season review

December, 15, 2014
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There were moments where it appeared as if the dynasty was dying. But Alabama wouldn't go down that easily. Thanks to an offensive coordinator no one wanted and a quarterback no one saw coming, the Crimson Tide steadied the ship in the second half of the season, won the SEC Championship and earned a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Best win: Though the game would wind up looking close with a final score of 25-20, which team would win never really felt in doubt. Instead, Alabama imposed its will on Mississippi State from the get-go and controlled the contest throughout. The then-No. 1 ranked Bulldogs couldn't do much of anything offensively. Their ground game, led by bowling ball running back Josh Robinson and Heisman Trophy contender QB Dak Prescott, had nowhere to go. And on the other side of the ball, the defense had no answer for QB Blake Sims, who led a 15-play drive that Saban would later call one of the best in school history.

Worst loss: The first half belonged to Alabama, but after intermission Ole Miss came on strong. Bo Wallace began knifing through the Tide defense, starting with a four-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to start the second half. And to make matters worse for Alabama, Sims and the offense went off the rails, starting with a drive that ended in a missed field goal. From then on, Alabama went field goal, punt, punt and interception. Ole Miss won and carried the goalposts out of the stadium to celebrate.

Player of the year: Only five receivers have ever earned a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Amari Cooper, who led the country in receptions and receiving yards, earned his spot as the sixth. The junior was everything to Alabama's offense this season as he accounted for more than half of Sims' 26 touchdown passes. Whatever the coverage, Cooper found a way to beat it, whether it was yards after the catch against the zone or long bombs over the top against man-to-man.

Breakout player: With all due respect to the superb improvement from cornerback Cyrus Jones, there is no bigger surprise this season than Sims. The former running back/receiver wasn't even supposed to be Alabama's quarterback. That job was supposed to belong to Jake Coker, remember? But Sims beat the Florida State transfer out of fall camp and never relinquished his spot. The redshirt senior made the most of his one opportunity, breaking AJ McCarron's record for passing yards in a single season while also ranking second nationally in Adjusted QBR, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Play of the year: Alabama's hopes of reaching the playoff might have gone up in flames if not for Landon Collins' game-saving interception in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. If he misjudges the ball and allows Jonathan Williams to come down with it, there would have been no one on the back end of the defense to prevent a touchdown.

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2015 outlook: Prepare for the entire offense to change. Say goodbye to Sims and Cooper. Say so long to T.J. Yeldon, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Even offensive linemen Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd are moving on. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin worked wonders with that group this season, but he's in for an even bigger challenge in 2015. He'll have to find out one and for all whether Coker can quarterback the Tide. He'll also have to find more weapons at receiver, whether that's Chris Black or Robert Foster. The good news is there's plenty of talent to draw from as Saban and his staff have hauled in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class Insider in each of the past three years.

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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SEC morning links

December, 12, 2014
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1. The postseason recognition keeps rolling in for Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Missouri’s Shane Ray. They were among five SEC players (along with Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio and J.K Scott and Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson) named to USA Today’s first-team All-America roster on Thursday. Three more SEC players (LSU’s La’el Collins, Alabama’s Landon Collins and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) made the second team. Cooper and Ray have already won multiple All-SEC and conference offensive and defensive player of the year awards, respectively. On Saturday, Cooper will learn whether he won the biggest award in the sport, the Heisman Trophy. He’s up against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Cooper and Ray are both considered to rank among the NFL’s top draft prospects, should they skip their final seasons of eligibility. Ray’s big season pushed him up draft boards, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin recently said he expects Cooper to enter the draft, where he would likely be the first receiver selected.

2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.

3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.

Around the SEC

" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.

" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.

" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.

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SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
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1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

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Ranking the SEC bowl games

December, 10, 2014
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1. Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

This game is the top one for obvious reasons, primarily, it’s the one bowl game involving the SEC that has real stakes -- the winner goes to the national championship game. If the College Football Playoff semifinal wasn’t strong enough for you, it matches two of the most well-known head coaches in the game right now, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Those two did battle before when Meyer was at Florida, so the reunion should be plenty compelling.

2. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU

This is the only other SEC bowl that matches up two top-10 teams. TCU was one of the teams left at the altar by the selection committee, so it’s probable that the Horned Frogs would like to stomp a highly-regarded SEC team to make a statement. Ole Miss has had an impressive season and can secure only its seventh 10-win campaign in school history and its third since 1971.

3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville

It’s the Grantham Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s current team (Louisville) takes on his previous team (Georgia). It’s a safe bet he’d like to have his unit excel en route to a Cardinal win. The Cardinal defense is sixth nationally in yards per game allowed (293.2) but it’ll get tested by the Georgia running game, led by freshman sensation Nick Chubb (1,281 yards), who leads Georgia’s 12th-ranked rushing attack (255 yards per game).

4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

You have two of the nation’s top rushing teams as well as two pretty good running backs in this one. There’s the nation’s top individual rusher, Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards) against Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482) who leads the SEC. Wisconsin averages a whopping 314 rushing yards per game, third in the nation while Auburn posts a hefty 258.5 (11th).

5. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia

If you like scoring, you’ll enjoy this one. Both teams average more than 33 points per game and they each throw it around a lot, averaging more than 300 passing yards per game. There are familiar faces on the coaching staffs as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked for Kevin Sumlin for two seasons at Houston and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked for Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and West Virginia before going to A&M. It’s Air Raid everywhere.

6. Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

He wasn’t a Heisman finalist but Dak Prescott was in the Heisman conversation for much of the season. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see Prescott and his partner-in-crime, running back Josh Robinson, who is aptly nicknamed “Bowling ball.” Georgia Tech is worth a watch for traditionalists, as the Yellow Jackets run the triple option well: just ask Georgia (who they beat in overtime) or Florida State (a team they stayed step-for-step with for much of the night).

7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas

Long live the Southwest Conference. This is a throwback battle if there ever was one. These teams are both in the top 30 nationally in defense, each allowing fewer than 350 yards per game. The job Bret Bielema has done to get the Razorbacks to a bowl this season is noteworthy, while Charlie Strong seems to be laying the foundation for future success at Texas. Also, Strong has history in Arkansas -- he was born in Batesville and played for Central Arkansas. He said Tuesday this will be the first time he’ll root against the Hogs.

8. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame

Considering the profile of these two programs, you wouldn’t expect this game to be this far down the list. While the two teams have strong histories, this season hasn’t been stellar for either. There’s plenty of intrigue, though, from getting to see LSU’s star freshmen (Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, etc.) to the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly has opened up competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. For what it’s worth, Les Miles said bowl prep will also be an important evaluation time for his quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

9. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota

This one may not have the sizzle on the surface but it matches two quality teams, both ranked in the Top 25. Missouri features two of the league’s best pass-rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Those two are worth watching alone, even if the Tigers’ offense isn’t always. Minnesota features one of the nation’s top rushers, running back David Cobb, who is ninth in rushing yards this season (1,548).

10. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina vs. Miami

This game could become a feeding frenzy for Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is 12th in the country in rushing yards (1,520). South Carolina allows 214.4 rushing yards per game, 107th nationally. But the Gamecocks can score plenty of points, they average 33.3. Keep an eye on Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic receiver and returner who can do it all, including pass, and has 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season.

11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa

Tennessee is thrilled to be in a bowl. You might even say they’re happy. It’s the first time in a bowl since 2010 for the Volunteers. There’s still a long way to go to get this proud program back to where it wants to be but they’re moving in the right direction. The Vols have a ton of talented freshmen on the roster who played key roles this season and sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who came on strong late in the season, seems to have a bright future in Knoxville.

12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina

Any time you go into a game with an interim coach, it’s not ideal. That’s what the Gators have to do after firing Will Muschamp. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach. For Florida fans, this is a chance to scout a future opponent -- the Gators and Pirates meet Sept. 12 next season. East Carolina brings a high-powered offense led by quarterback Shane Carden, who is second nationally in passing yards (4,309). That should be a good test for a talented Florida defense. The continued development of true freshman quarterback Treon Harris is also worth keeping an eye on.
ATLANTA -- In the waning moments of Alabama's 42-13 win against Missouri in the SEC championship game, quarterback Blake Sims beelined toward the man in white.

Rocking that patented visor and his light, white Alabama jacket, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin embraced his signal-caller, swaying back and forth, as if they were the only people inside the Georgia Dome.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Lake Kiffin
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOffensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has helped to revolutionize an already powerful Alabama offense under coach Nick Saban -- in just one season.
It was a sign of victory and raw elation. It was also a sign of the times, something many familiar with Alabama's program didn't see coming the day Kiffin, essentially a runoff head coach, was hired by Nick Saban to guide his offense.

"He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do," Saban said of Kiffin the day before the SEC title game. "I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people.

"But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected."

Saban isn't one to make many mistakes, especially when it comes to who he puts around himself and within his program. He knew what he was doing with Kiffin, and now, No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) is weeks away from playing in the first round of the College Football Playoff (the Allstate Sugar Bowl vs. Ohio State, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m.) because of Saban's willingness to evolve and leap outside of his incredibly successful box.

The master of controlling, power football decided to speed things up and spread things out. He supported "fast ball" and "speed ball" after initially challenging the up-tempo philosophy. He has mixed in some of that previous burly ball, but for the most part, Saban has adapted to the more modern offensive approach. He is letting his passing game set up the run and has his most explosive Alabama offense ever.

This likely wasn't easy for Saban, but it was necessary.

"A couple of years ago, I don't know if we would have done that," senior center Ryan Kelly said of Alabama's new fast-paced offense. "That's just kind of the difference that [Kiffin] brings. Whenever you can do that, it throws the defense off track."

The man who famously -- or infamously -- left Knoxville under the cover of darkness and never excelled as a head coach on the West Coast has become a born-again genius inside the Church of Saban. When Kiffin is dialed in, as he was for most of Alabama's 504-yard offensive clinic in Atlanta at the SEC championship game, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better coordinator in the game.

He immediately befuddled Mizzou's impressive defense with a barrage of quick passes and a tiring pace on Alabama's opening drive that led to 10 plays, 68 yards of brilliance, and a touchdown by the Crimson Tide -- and 3½ minutes of pain for Mizzou.

During Alabama's 14-point second quarter, Kiffin threw more misdirection in with the short passes and tempo. He even called a third-down quarterback draw with an empty backfield on Alabama's side of the field. Kiffin had no fear. He trusted his players and knew exactly where and how to hurt his opponent.

"He's a great offensive coordinator for a reason," Kelly said.

And after a lull in the third quarter, Kiffin mixed bruising ball with speed to bury the Tigers with 134 rushing yards, 21 straight points and 9.5 yards per play in the fourth quarter.

"When we can do that in the fourth quarter," Kelly said, "that's when we finish people off."

The diversity of Kiffin's play calling has been the backbone of this offense. Sims, who is second in the SEC with a school-record 3,250 yards this season, has been the one coming up in the clutch and extending plays with moves and decisions that Saban's quarterbacks rarely ever contemplate. Sims, a former running back and safety at Alabama, has been molded into an SEC title-holding quarterback who set a record for completion percentage (85.2 percent) in the SEC championship game and has thrown an SEC-leading 26 touchdowns this season.

Kiffin's management has Alabama averaging 490.5 total yards and 281 passing yards per game, the highest ever during Saban's eight years in Tuscaloosa. This isn't Alabama's typical ground-and-pound approach; this is Kiffin's near-Air Raid philosophy that has Alabama cruising into the modern age of offensive football.

He has a Heisman Trophy finalist in receiver Amari Cooper (115 catches, 1,656 yards, 14 touchdowns) and an offense that has registered 500-plus yards eight times, including the past three games; the next highest during Saban's tenure came in Alabama's 2012 national title season (five).

There is so much movement, and there are so many signals and so many unique formations that Alabama can utilize now, thanks to Kiffin. Speed is killing at Alabama, and it isn't just because of foot speed anymore.

"You kinda never know what he's gonna draw up," offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "I think he's a genius at it -- offensive mastermind, as I'd say."

Kiffin has put the pedal to the metal with his offensive vision and has created a dangerous partnership with Saban that has Alabama's offense chugging into the playoff.

"When they get rolling, they get rolling," linebacker Trey DePriest said of his offensive counterparts.

"I wouldn't want to play against them."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The golf clap was comical.

Nick Saban, flanked by his football team, watched the selection show Sunday and already knew the result. So when Alabama was identified as the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, he slowly set down his Styrofoam cup, gave a slight smile and clapped in a manner befitting the opening tee shot at Augusta National Golf Club. His players, trained to be in constant lockstep with their coach, followed suit, showing little to no emotion.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBlake Sims said earning the No. 1 seed for the College Football Playoff won't lead to overconfidence for Alabama.
But in the back of their mind, there had to be some excitement. At least a sense of relief.

“I was very happy,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I was happy for my teammates the most because they had put so much work and time and pain into this. So I felt like they deserved this award we’ve received, and hopefully we’ll take care of business.”

The scene during the selection show felt like all business. It was time to start the second season, as Sims would later say. Next up: Ohio State.

We didn’t get to watch Alabama’s reaction to the Buckeyes being seeded fourth and matched up with the Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, but to the older players on the team, there is a slight sense of familiarity. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer went up against Alabama a few times while at Florida.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “And we've done some things, the ESPN games and stuff, together, and I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.

“I know that we haven't had much of an opportunity to look at Ohio State yet, but we certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for what their team has accomplished this year and know that they'll be a very, very wellcoached team.”

Judging by the whooping Ohio State put on Wisconsin on Saturday, Saban is right. Not only did Meyer lead his team to the Big Ten title, he did so with his third-string quarterback after the backup, the one who replaced an injured Braxton Miller earlier in the year, was lost with a season-ending injury of his own.

In a sense, facing an unknown quarterback puts Alabama behind the eight ball. With only one game of tape to view Cardale Jones, it’s difficult for Saban to know what he’ll be going up against.

“Well, obviously he played very, very well when he played,” Saban said, “and I think that's the key thing that a guy has the capabilities to play.

“Blake started out this season where he hadn't played in any games, and he certainly did a good job of playing and improving, becoming a great leader for his team and making a lot of plays that got his team where they are.

“So I'm not sure that we're going to be able to see him, everything that he's capable of doing, but we certainly have a lot of respect for the way he's played when he's played.”

The onus will be on the defense to prepare for anything with Jones and the rest of the Ohio State offense.

But Sims and the Alabama offense will be on the clock too.

Sims, who said he didn’t know much about Ohio State, will be facing a defense that ranks in the top 25 nationally in points per game, yards per play and sacks. Defensive lineman Joey Bosa leads the Buckeyes with 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Vonn Bell, a former Alabama recruiting target, has 78 tackles and five interceptions.

“We’ve got to get back to the little things,” Sims said. “The weaknesses, we have to make them strengths, and just get treatment and get guys healthy.”

The less-than-enthusiastic response to their bowl selection might say otherwise, but Sims said being the top seed can’t mean a sense of entitlement. He knows the margin for error is thin.

“We have to remember what we have to do,” he said. “We have to stay focused and don’t let this get to our head because any team can be beat at any moment.”
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A pair of employees sat at the edge of a bar here at the intersection of University Boulevard and 20th Avenue on Saturday, just around the corner from an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was more than four hours until the SEC championship game in Atlanta, where No. 1 Alabama would face No. 16 Missouri, so they slumped in their chairs and relaxed before the pregame rush hit and coeds would fill every inch of this place, waving credit cards and cash for another round of drinks or a greasy batch of pub fries.

Four TV screens framed the bar. Three of them were tuned to Cincinnati-Houston. One, almost lost behind a corner, showed TCU-Iowa State. The then-No. 3-ranked Horned Frogs would win going away 55-3, but the potential playoff opponent for Alabama would go largely unnoticed. The audio was instead set on the Bearcats. Maybe it was that former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville could be heard in Tuscaloosa once again.

Or maybe it was that Alabama fans here simply didn’t care.

Spending the afternoon and night watching football in Tuscaloosa is an experience. It starts with the obligatory playing of the classic “Dixieland Delight” 20 minutes before kickoff, followed by -- you guessed it -- “Sweet Home Alabama.” Those opening chords play over the stench of bourbon, and everyone wearing crimson sings, many of them adding profane lyrics about their SEC brethren whenever the moment allows. There are more than a few shouts of “Roll Tide Roll!” And when the game does begin, they’re into every pass, whether it ends in a touchdown or an incompletion. They even cheer the punter, who earns every bit of praise.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAlabama fans have gotten used to celebrating in the SEC title game.
But when it comes to the other team, it doesn’t matter.

Something about being ranked No. 1 so often and winning three national championships in the past decade has made Alabama fans insulated from worry. In the hours before kickoff in Atlanta, there wasn’t an audible utterance concerning Missouri. Maty Mauk, the Tigers’ gunslinger of a quarterback, wasn’t mentioned once. Neither was Shane Ray or Markus Golden, Missouri’s two dominant defensive ends who had the potential to disrupt Alabama’s offense. Instead, a pair of frat brothers went back and forth about about their bowl plans.

“Are you going to the national championship?” one asked. He then added, “I’m trying to get that same suite from last year.”

Their hope, and the hope of all Alabama fans, is that their return trip to New Orleans will be better than this past January, when the Crimson Tide fell flat and lost to Oklahoma. This time the Allstate Sugar Bowl will be a College Football Playoff semifinal for a chance to reach the national championship game to be played in Arlington, Texas -- which also came up in discussion when another patron explained how AT&T Stadium, where Alabama opened the season two years ago, is so much more impressive in person than on TV.

But whom Alabama would play in the playoff was beside the point. So was the matter of seeding. Oregon didn’t scare one patron, who said, “[Marcus] Mariota can ball, but they’re not that impressive." No one, not even the student wearing a replica Nick Saban straw hat, cared about style points. You want to know about game control? At halftime at another bar around the corner, two men closed their tabs and left. Alabama was ahead 21-3 and they’d seen enough.

“Well, it’s not much of a game,” an older gentleman explained. “Maybe a movie is on.”

There was some interest in watching Florida State, another possible playoff pairing, but the entertainment value was less in the Seminoles matchup and more about their quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner who grew up an hour’s drive away in Hueytown and spurned Alabama on signing day. “I just want to see Jameis [Winston] lose, man,” someone said. A bartender, as the merits of Florida State’s undefeated record were being discussed on TV, said in response, “It’s how you post the W's. Tonight, I’m rolling with the Rambling Wreck of Georgia Tech!”

When Alabama finally did beat Missouri 42-13, there were no crowds pouring onto the streets to celebrate. The Strip was operating at a normal pace. There was someone holding an SEC championship banner on the corner, but the crowd around him was simply waiting for the crosswalk to grant them access to the next bar or restaurant.

Sorry, West Virginia, but there were no couches burned Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. There were no riots in anticipation of the playoff.

On Sunday, when the CFP semifinal pairings were announced and Alabama was officially set to play in the Sugar Bowl, there was very little in the way of excitement. Much like Saban’s golf clap on national television, you couldn’t coax much emotion from a fan base that’s so accustomed to winning that it has become numb to everything but the final hoisting of the trophy.

At Bob’s Victory Grille, where Saban’s weekly show, “Hey Coach,” is recorded, they didn’t switch the audio of Sunday's selection show on until five minutes in. After Alabama was named the No. 1 seed, a middle-aged server looked around in disbelief. “What?” he asked. “No reaction?” There were a few claps, but there were more audible gasps a few moments later when Ohio State was revealed as the No. 4 team and Alabama’s semifinal opponent. Even then it was more surprise than worry.

Again, no one left to pay tribute to Paul “Bear” Bryant’s statue on The Walk of Champions. No one posed with the bronzed 7-foot replica of Saban. There was only an older couple walking University Boulevard with their gray poodle.

Eventually they’ll get excited again. When Christmas rolls around and the Sugar Bowl comes closer into view, this town will grow nervous with anticipation. Tuscaloosa is a place that values football above most everything else, after all.

But in the meantime, it’s plain to see the playoff hasn’t changed much here. People are too confident atop the rankings. Whether it’s four teams moving on or two, fans knew the SEC title was Alabama’s ticket in. So why fret? They weren’t worried about Missouri. The idea of playing TCU hardly registered. In the hours before kickoff Saturday, you couldn’t hear a peep about Ohio State.

When you’ve won three titles in the BCS era, the idea of adding another game and calling it a playoff feels like a new tune with the same old dance.
ATLANTA -- Shortly after the blue and gold confetti drenched giddy Alabama players on the floor of the Georgia Dome, reality sunk in inside the Crimson Tide's locker room.

That just wasn't good enough.

Excuse me? A 42-13 beat down of No. 16 Missouri wasn't good enough?

Unfortunately for Alabama's next opponent -- No. 4 Ohio State -- it wasn't. You see, for as complete of a performance as that was for the Tide, you couldn't find anyone wearing crimson and white completely satisfied with what had just transpired on a day in which Alabama took yet another SEC title and clinched a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper and Alabama rolled up 504 yards and 21 fourth-quarter points against Missouri.
"Tonight, we probably left three touchdowns [on the field]. It’s not clicking every time, like we want to," said wide receiver Christion Jones, whose 6-yard touchdown catch to start the fourth quarter essentially put the game away. "Basically, you could say our standard is to always play a perfect game, and if we don’t do that, we feel like we cut ourselves short."

That's just the mindset of a Nick Saban-led football team. Sometimes, Alabama's "good" is another team's fantastic, so you can imagine what "great" feels like to the Tide, and sometimes, like Saturday, it isn't good enough.

Against a Missouri team rocking a six-game winning streak and reinventing the art of grinding out wins with one of the SEC's best defenses, Alabama rolled up 504 yards and 21 fourth-quarter points. If not for some miracle throws under duress by Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk, Alabama's defense might have pitched a shutout. However, it did allow just 41 rushing yards (1.8 yards per carry) and three first-half points.

There were procedural errors on offense that slowed Alabama's terrifying tempo, and containment issues on defense that allowed Mauk to extend plays. There were a couple of drops, and lapses in discipline on defense at times. This wasn't a perfect performance, but man was it great when you look at the full body of work.

At first glance, especially with how dominant the first half was (Alabama outscored Mizzou 21-3 and outgained the Tigers 252-108), you could say it was Alabama's best overall game of the season. The 59-0 drubbing of Texas A&M was one thing, but this Mizzou team is better than the Aggies, and to dominate such a hot team in every facet of the game was a bit more impressive.

When Alabama upped the tempo, the Tigers' defense was flustered. Quick passes from quarterback Blake Sims, who was brilliant for the better part of Saturday's win, carved up Mizzou's defense. And when Alabama needed the running game to soften up the Tigers or push the chains, it did that and more, registering 242 yards, the most by anyone against the Tigers this season.

Alabama accumulated 28 first downs and 42 points on 76 total plays, and also recorded four rushing touchdowns, while completing 23 passes. All were singlegame highs for an Alabama team in the SEC title game.

But players remember the ticky-tack penalties and the blown assignments. They remember scoring 42 and not 60.

"We’re a great team. When we want to play, we play, but we lost some of it in the third quarter," offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "If we didn’t do that, it would have been a complete game."

The Tigers outscored Alabama 10-0 in a third quarter in which Mauk hit Jimmie Hunt on long, circus passes thanks to some magic, and some defensive breakdowns by the Tide. But after the miracle throws and just five Alabama first downs, the Tide totally imposed its will on the Tigers in the fourth quarter.

Mizzou's offense went cold, gaining just 71 yards to Alabama's 162 and managing just two first downs and two plays longer than 10 yards. Alabama went back to its original script on both sides, mashing the Tigers in the trenches and slicing them up with an explosive offense that averaged 9.5 yards per play.

"That’s one thing that we have to do," Jones said. "That’s our standard -- win the fourth quarter. Missouri did a great job on defense, but at the end, they got a little tired and we kept on going."

This wasn't perfection for Alabama -- which is scary because of how great a performance it was -- but it shows you just how menacing this team is and can be. Sometimes, perfectly imperfect games like this are more satisfying to players because they fought through some adversity to reach such an impressive outcome.

Still, the idea that this wasn't Alabama's best game is something that might keep the Buckeyes' up at night. There's no telling what this team will look like with momentum, and now weeks to prepare.

ATLANTA -- The hardest part for Alabama was just making it out of the SEC West.

It’s a division that will send all seven teams to bowl games this season, a division sporting five ranked teams in the College Football Playoff committee’s most recent poll, and a division that generally ate its own.

But after all of the different flavors of the week this season in college football’s most rugged division, turns out it’s business as usual. Alabama is on its way to play for yet another national championship as part of the playoff after pounding Missouri into submission Saturday in a 42-13 SEC championship victory that had a familiar ring to it.

This has become the West’s show. The last time the Eastern Division champion walked out of the Georgia Dome victorious was 2008 when Florida beat Alabama in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Only once in the West’s six-game winning streak has the East champ made it closer than a 17-point game.

If Alabama felt any pressure carrying the SEC’s banner on Saturday, the Crimson Tide never really showed it.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonBlake Sims threw two touchdown passes and had no interceptions as the Tide earned the SEC championship.
Had Alabama lost, the SEC almost certainly would have been shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, as unimaginable in these parts as iced tea being served only unsweetened and snow showers in the spring.

“The only thing on our minds was us,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said. “We knew ever since that loss to Ole Miss that every week was our season, and that’s the way we played -- relentless. It’s going to be the same way in the playoff. We don’t care who we play. We don’t care where they put us. We just want a chance to win a championship, and we got it.”

When Alabama lost at Ole Miss on Oct. 4, it might have been hard for some to see the Tide navigating their way back to a position where they would get a chance to play for their fourth national title in the last six years.

First-year starting quarterback Blake Sims, although a fifth-year senior, was still learning on the job. There were issues at cornerback. The offensive line was still finding its way, and the most treacherous part of the schedule was still ahead.

“Honestly, we didn’t care what a lot of people thought about us,” Alabama senior linebacker Trey DePriest said. “They can think what they want. All we cared about was us, and we knew we were good enough to get here.

“This team is close. We play for each other, and we see the bigger picture.”

There were scares along the way, a shaky one-point win at Arkansas and an overtime win at LSU. But Alabama continued to grow on offense, and the offseason acquisition Nick Saban made to his staff, the one that had everybody chuckling and wondering how in the world Saban and Lane Kiffin would co-exist, has turned out to be a stroke of genius.

Kiffin has turned out to be exactly what this offense needed, and more precisely, what Sims needed. Against Missouri, Sims completed his first 10 passes as Alabama came out throwing quick and playing even quicker. He finished 23-of-27 for 262 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and was named the game’s MVP.

This is the same guy who’d spent more time on the scout team prior to this season than he had in any meaningful game action. His progress and the way he has grown as a playmaker and leader have mirrored that of the team’s progress, which is no coincidence.

Saban joked that he threw out a “Cool Hand Luke” reference when talking to Sims prior to Saturday’s game.

“Can we get somebody out there to do a redo of ‘Cool Hand Luke?’ ” Saban asked. “I told Blake I wanted him to play this game like Cool Hand Luke. He looks at me and says, ‘Who the hell is that?’ We’ve got to get that on Netflix or something.”

Sims, even when he hasn’t started well this season, has had the wherewithal to remain cool. He said a big part of that has been his trust in Kiffin and Kiffin fitting this offense to what Sims does best.

“It’s just doing everything Coach Saban has taught me and Coach Kiffin has taught me and trusting my players that they’re going to play their hearts out and leave no regrets on the field,” said Sims, who passed AJ McCarron as Alabama’s single-season record holder for passing yards (3,250).

Alabama (12-1) jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter on Saturday, but Missouri climbed back into the game with a gritty third quarter despite its best player, defensive end Shane Ray, being ejected in the first half for targeting. The momentum had clearly swung in the Tigers’ favor. But just like they’ve done ever since that loss at Ole Miss, the Tide steadied themselves and figured out a way to win.

[+] EnlargeJarran Reed
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJarran Reed and the Tide held Missouri to just 41 yards on the ground.
The blueprint Saturday was going back to their old standby, power football, in a dominant fourth quarter that saw Derrick Henry rush for 88 of his career-high 141 yards.

“It’s the balance factor we have, speed ball versus getting to the line and smashing people in the mouth.” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “Coach Kiffin has been able to put them both together.”

At Alabama, at least in the past, speed ball was a dirty word. But not anymore. The up-tempo approach has been an integral part of this offense’s repertoire under Kiffin.

Kelly snickered when asked if he ever thought he would hear speed ball and Saban in the same sentence. Saban has long been an opponent of fast-paced offenses and teams running too many offensive plays.

“Those are probably two words you’ve never heard [Saban] say before unless he was bashing it,” Kelly joked. “Nah, he has the utmost trust in Coach Kiffin and Coach Kiffin has done a great job with this offense. We’ve bought into his principle of thinking. The faster we can get up there, the less time they have to get set.

“And with the versatility that Blake has, it’s been a great fit for this offense and this team.”

So while this team might look a little different and play a little different, particularly on offense, these are familiar waters for the Crimson Tide. They’re right back in that championship pool.

“We were never perfect or anything like that,” Kelly said. “Texas A&M was the most perfect we ever played, but there was always a bump in the road. This team continued to be resilient, and that’s what makes this so special.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama coach Nick Saban are two of the 10 active winningest coaches in college football.

Saban’s team is No. 1 in the country, recruits five-star prospects with regularity and has a habit of winning championships. Pinkel’s squad is searching for its first conference title since 1969, doesn’t have high-ranked recruiting classes and rarely is met with championship expectations from outsiders. But, each has made his mark on multiple programs while compiling a combined 361 victories (185 for Pinkel, 176 for Saban).

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
AP Photo/Butch DillGary Pinkel got his start in coaching under Don James and spent 12 years with him at Washington.
There is one common thread between Pinkel and Saban, though, that dates to their playing days and early coaching days. Both played for and got their coaching starts from the late Don James.

James, a longtime Washington coach who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title, died at the age of 80 last year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was during James’ time at Kent State, from 1971-74 that he coached Pinkel and Saban. When James earned his first college head-coaching job in 1971 at Kent State, Pinkel and Saban were on that team, which won the school’s first and only MAC championship.

“He's had a huge effect on me personally,” Pinkel said of James. “I mean, I'm indebted to him forever.”

Pinkel got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Kent State under James in 1974. He later joined James, a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, as a GA for a year in 1976 at Washington then again in 1979 as a Huskies full-time assistant, where he remained with James for a dozen years before landing his first head coaching job, at Toledo in 1991.

“I coached with him for 12 years at the University of Washington, the last five years as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach,” Pinkel said. “The program that we put in at Toledo where I was coach for 10 years, then we brought it here to Missouri, the infrastructure is [based] on James' program.”

It has worked well for Pinkel, who is 185-102-3 in 24 years as a head coach and is taking Missouri to its fourth conference championship game since 2007.

Saban, who was a year ahead of Pinkel at Kent State, said coaching wasn’t a desired career path for him until James offered him his first job.

“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn't want to go to graduate school.”

Turns out that Saban enjoyed the job and it began the journey that put him to where he is now, with an impressive .751 winning percentage in 18 years as a head coach (176-58-1).

“I really liked it,” Saban said of his first job under James. “I have thanked Coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it. Also a lot of the lessons that I learned from him starting out as a young coach.”

Saban said there are several aspects of his program that are rooted in things he learned from James, who was 178-76-3 in his head coaching career.

Rodriguez

Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time. He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

-- Nick Saban
“It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude, how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program,” Saban said. “That was a big thing that Don always emphasized. He was really, really well organized. That's something that we've always tried to be and do. Some of the things we did in the offseason program we still do. Some of the conditioning things we do during the season we still do.”

Pinkel also said his recruiting philosophy is based on the teachings of his longtime mentor.

“We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country,” Pinkel said. “We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that, professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better.”

Like Saban, Pinkel also praised James’ organizational skills.

“He was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. ... I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I've done, I've learned from him.”

Pinkel and Saban may have traveled different journeys to get to this point, but James’ influence on both is clear as they prepare to square off in Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

“A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”

SEC morning links

December, 5, 2014
Dec 5
8:00
AM ET
1. In case you missed the discussion on Wednesday's SEC Show, it's worth bringing up again: Missouri, even if it upsets Alabama and wins the SEC Championship, is a long shot to make the College Football Playoff. As Tod Palmer writes, the Tigers are the lowest-ranked team with a chance at winning a Power 5 conference title. While I know that everyone will bring up their inexplicable loss to Indiana and the blowout they suffered at home against Georgia, to me it's less about the two losses than it is their 10 wins. Based on its ranking of Florida State, we know the committee puts an emphasis on the eye test. With that in mind, find me a win in which Missouri looked like one of the best four teams in the country? Can't find it? I'll wait. ... Outside of beating up on a bad Florida team, there isn't one. While it's admirable that the Tigers have found ways to win, I can't get behind a 1-point win over South Carolina or a 10-point win over Vanderbilt. There's no semblance of game control to be found in their last three games in which they beat Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas by one touchdown each.

[+] EnlargeJim McElwain
Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsNew Florida coach Jim McElwain took plenty of notes as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator.
2. In light of the news that Jim McElwain will become Florida's next head coach, how about a word from his former boss? Nick Saban, who won two national championships with McElwain as his offensive coordinator, said he'll do a "great job" of leading the Gators. "He's certainly done a fantastic job at Colorado State," Saban said. And much of that success is due to his time with Saban. McElwain, whom I spoke with shortly after he took the job in Fort Collins, said he took stacks of notes while at Alabama. Whether it was themes, routines or coaching habits, he soaked in everything Saban had to offer. Now the understudy must go head-to-head with the master, and it's going to be awfully fun to watch. While Alabama and Florida won't play one another during the regular season until 2021, the two programs are sure to battle over the same recruits regularly. The Crimson Tide currently have eight players from the Sunshine State on their roster and three more on the way in the current recruiting class, including four-stars Clavin Ridley and Shaun Burgess-Becker. The Gators, on the other hand, have just one player from the state of Alabama on their roster and none committed for 2015.

3. In case you missed it during this week's swirl of coaching transactions, Bret Bielema said he isn't going anywhere. Arkansas, which won three of five games to close out the regular season, should breathe a heavy sigh of relief. While it felt unlikely that Bielema would bolt Arkansas for Nebraska after just two years, you never really know. An Iowa native with Big Ten roots, he isn't of the SEC and the West isn't exactly a forgiving division to be a part of. But nonetheless, the SEC is a better place with him in it, and not just because of his chest-out attitude and clever jabs. No, he brings a style of football to the conference that it desperately needs. His hard-nosed, between-the-tackles brand brings balance to a growing sea of spread, uptempo offenses. And more importantly, its starting to yield wins. After going two years without a conference win and knocking at the door against Alabama and Texas A&M, Bielema's Razorbacks have broken through. Already stacked with a strong running game, a big offensive line and a defense that prides itself on physicality, all that's missing is a polished passing game. If Brandon Allen can make strides or another quarterback can come in and lift the offense, Arkansas could be a dangerous team in 2015.

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