SEC: Nick Saban

SEC morning links

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
1. Despite some coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and rumors swirling about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin bolting back into the NFL, Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't exactly rushing to figure out his coaching staff. I'm sure Saban would love to immediately fill the coaching holes left by Kevin Steele (LSU) and Lance Thompson (Auburn), but with the final weeks of recruiting here, Saban just doesn't have the time to do the proper scouting or interviewing. I mean, when you're Nick Saban and Alabama, I think you can get by with not having a couple of coaching positions filled, even at this point in the year.

2. After losing linebackers coach Randy Shannon to Florida, Bret Bielema just plucked an accomplished coach from the Sunshine State to replace him. That man is Vernon Hargreaves II, who brings 30 years of coaching experience to Arkansas. The father of Florida standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has an exhaustive coaching resume, including a national championship with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, and should also keep that strong recruiting in south Florida that Shannon had. Like Shannon, Hargreaves' ties with the Hurricanes are strong, and he should be a good addition to Bielema's staff. Next up for Bielema? Find on offensive coordinator ...

3. For one of the SEC's most accomplished coaches in the regular season, Wednesday's announcement of a contract extension and a raise should have been considered a no-brainer. But when you haven't won the SEC championship at a school like Georgia since 2005, you can't blame fans for their uneasiness toward their head coach. Still, for all the negativity that Mark Richt has had to deal with from Georgia fans -- some of it is justified -- he's had a heck of a coaching career with the Bulldogs. His .739 winning percentage (136-48 record) ranks fourth among active FBS coaches who have coached at least 100 games in FBS conferences, and he's had nine seasons with 10 or more wins at Georgia in his 14 years in Athens. But with an extension going through 2019 and Richt now making $4 million a year, the time to win an SEC title is now. The Bulldogs are equipped with the talent to make a strong run through the SEC, and you know those same fans unhappy with the lack of championship swag in Georgia's trophy cases won't be pleased with anything less than a title run or two in 2015.

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Around the SEC
DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."

SEC morning links

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
1. Here's another kind of story that we occasionally see this time of year -- of the much more pleasant variety than those about transfers and dismissals. Florida tight end Jake McGee tweeted Tuesday that the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility after he broke his leg in the first game of the Gators' 2014 season. Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston received similar news about a month ago, less than two years removed from a years-long eligibility case that prevented him from playing during his first three seasons on campus. It's always nice to see the NCAA side with the athletes and give them the opportunity to make full use of their college experience when possible.

2. So maybe Nick Marshall is a defensive back, after all. Since it seemed likely that he would shift from quarterback -- where he starred at Auburn -- to cornerback during the run-up to the NFL draft, it seemed surprising when initial stories had Marshall coming to the Senior Bowl as a quarterback. Marshall cleared things up on Tuesday, however, saying he expects to be a defensive back in the pros after practicing at corner and as a gunner on special teams. When Southeastern Louisiana's Bryan Bennett joined the South team's roster Tuesday, it enabled Marshall to shift to cornerback full-time for this week's practices.

3. He's been rumored to be a front-runner for the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator opening, but Lane Kiffin continues to recruit for Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Tuesday at Senior Bowl practice that he couldn't say with certainty that Kiffin would return to his staff next season, but he's “hopeful that will continue.” Kiffin certainly provided a jolt for Alabama's offense last season, helping Blake Sims become one of the nation's most efficient passers and funneling the ball to receiver Amari Cooper enough to solidify his status one of the most coveted prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. Insider. Kiffin predicted during Sugar Bowl week that he would return to Alabama in 2015, but an NFL coordinator job would have to be tempting for the former NFL coach.

Around the SEC

Age is just a number to Steve Spurrier, 69, who said he feels “really good” physically and has dedicated himself to improving South Carolina's performance from its disappointing 2014 campaign.

Former Missouri football player Phil Pitts reportedly stepped down from his position as head coach at Helias High School in Jefferson City, Missouri, to accept a coaching position at Mizzou. Pitts played at Missouri under Gary Pinkel, who is still recruiting Helias' star tight end Hale Hentges, a 2015 Alabama commit.

Tennessee will play its annual Orange and White spring game on April 25.

Louisiana athlete Donte Jackson will announce his pick between LSU and Georgia on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. ET.

Alabama defensive end prospect Prince Tega Wanagho Jr., whose “Coming to America” story we mentioned in Monday's morning links, suffered a serious left leg injury during a basketball game Tuesday night. Wanagho recently emerged as one of the nation's hottest football prospects by flashing a rare combination of size and athleticism in his first year playing football after moving to the U.S. from Nigeria.

Tweet of the day

BATON ROUGE, La. -- For a player like Lamar Louis, LSU's defensive coordinator change might be helpful on multiple levels.

For starters, Louis should have the opportunity to play more on scrimmage downs -- potentially displaying new skills that might help the 5-foot-11 senior linebacker impress pro scouts enough to become an NFL draft pick. Louis also believes that defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's new defensive looks will help the Tigers become tougher to scheme against.

"If we can get [the new defensive scheme] down pat and be the multiple defense that we want, I think that it switches things up for other teams," Louis said. "It's not coming into Tiger Stadium going, ‘OK, they're going to be the same old 4-3 team, so this is how we're going to come at it.' They're actually going to have to think now.

"We can … when we play Auburn, play something different. When we play Arkansas, play something different. So we're going to not be as predictable as in the past if we can get everything down pat and be multiple like we would like."

Under Steele's predecessor John Chavis, LSU frequently lined up in defensive back-heavy packages like the nickel and Chavis' dime package, known as the "Mustang," which uses six defensive backs. As the starting strongside linebacker, Louis was often the odd man out when the Tigers brought extra defensive backs onto the field.

But if all goes according to play, the linebackers might play a bigger role under Steele even when the Tigers shift to a nickel defense.

"Being able to play in a 3-4 and a 4-3 and being able to have an opportunity to stay in in a nickel package, and just looking at different schemes, it's definitely going to help me at the next level," Louis said. "And I think it's going to help our team tremendously."

LSU's coaches have greater concerns at the moment than nailing down a defensive scheme or roles for specific players. First, they need to nail down the final spots in their recruiting class, with national signing day just two weeks away.

At last week's introductory news conference, new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said the Tigers will still be a 4-3 defensive club -- deploying four defensive linemen and three linebackers as its traditional defensive front -- but they will also add elements of the 3-4 that Steele coached with Nick Saban at Alabama.

"We're going to base out of a 4-3, but there's some times where you're going to get in a 3-4 front," Orgeron predicted. "But we have 4-3 personnel here and I believe that's what we're going to start off with."

Steele agreed with that premise, pointing out that having four linebackers on the field with 3-4 looks will make it easier to defend the spread offensive schemes in place at nearly every other SEC West school.

"You're going to have to use it all in this league," Steele said. "You're going to have to have some odd-front stuff, particularly against the spread offense that much of the West is running. And so to get those two edge guys [outside linebackers] out there. But there also is a place for the other, so we'll have to mix that in there."

Between signing day and spring practice, the Tigers' coaching staff will likely sit down and begin nailing down a scheme that best suits the available personnel. Steele said he has no intention of simply "taking a playbook out and dusting it off and throwing it on and saying, 'OK, this is what we're doing.' We have to adapt things to the talent on the field, because I'll promise you this, I cannot tackle."

That approach suits Tigers head coach Les Miles just fine. Miles clearly likes the idea of throwing multiple looks at opposing offenses, and it appears that the Tigers will do so under the new defensive regime.

"I want to do both. I want to make sure we have elements of the 4-3 package ingrained and I'd like the opportunity to be open in certain situations," Miles said. "So that being said, I just want to make sure that it goes that way. As Steele said, we'll sit down and talk techniques and all that stuff and then we'll be on the right page."

Overreacting in the SEC

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Our world is full of overreactions. The slightest flap of a butterfly's wings has us all in a tizzy.

That's why we were so quick to jump on Texas A&M as a title contender after Week 1. That's why the SEC was thrashed after going 7-5 in bowl season. It's a never-ending cycle of instant hyperbole, and it usually comes back to haunt us.

The 2014 SEC season certainly didn't lack overreaction during an exciting year, and here are some of the major ones we got wrong:

The Magnolia State takeover

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanA promising start for Bo Wallace and Ole Miss fell apart with consecutive losses to LSU and Auburn.
After Mississippi State and Ole Miss beat Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, at home on the same day, the state of college football resided in the 20th state admitted to the Union. The Bulldogs thrashed A&M 48-31, and Ole Miss topped Alabama 23-17 at home and watched the Grove overflow onto the field inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. The schools then tied for third in the Associated Press Poll, and Mississippi State would eventually rank No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

All was good in Mississippi until Ole Miss lost an ugly one at LSU and a heartbreaker at home to Auburn in consecutive weeks. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the season at Alabama. The regular season culminated with neither Mississippi team in the SEC title game after the Rebels were blown out at Arkansas 30-0, then eliminated Mississippi State from the race with a 31-17 win at home.

Bowl season erased any remnants of that magical Magnolia run, as Ole Miss was demolished 42-3 by TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and Mississippi State surrendered 452 rushing yards in a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Kenny Thrill for Heisman

After a record-setting 511-yard passing debut by Kenny Hill in Texas A&M's 52-28 drubbing of South Carolina in Columbia, we all thought we were seeing another College Station Heisman winner. And he just kept bringing us back in with more jaw-dropping performances. By the start of October, Hill had thrown for 1,745 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also had a QBR that didn't dip below 91.5 at any point during the Aggies' 5-0 start, which pushed them to No. 6 in the country -- another thing that caused us to overreact.

Then the meat of the SEC season arrived, and the Thrill was gone. During three straight blowout losses, Hill turned it over seven times with just six touchdowns. After a disastrous 59-0 loss at Alabama, Hill was benched for freshman Kyle Allen and would never see the field again. He dealt with a suspension and decided to transfer from A&M after the season.

South Carolina's East run

We in the media picked South Carolina and Steve Spurrier to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. After opening night, that prediction imploded. Despite sporting a record-setting offense, the defense was atrocious, ranking 13th in the SEC (432.7 yards allowed per game). South Carolina surrendered 36.8 points per game in SEC play; made choking in the fourth quarter with double-digit leads an art; and finished the season 7-6 (3-5, SEC). Not exactly title-worthy.

The SEC West

The SEC West took a lot of heat for its embarrassing 2-5 bowl record. Arkansas and Texas A&M -- the only winners -- were ashamed of their division mates, and the 5-0 SEC East was left smiling after being lambasted for most of the season. Chants of "overrated" rained down around the SEC, especially after No. 1 Alabama was left out of the national title game after losing to Ohio State -- the eventual champion -- in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. All that talk of how great the West was during the season went out the window because of its bowl showing. Is the SEC still the deepest conference? Yes, but when your star attraction (the West) fails to show up against everyone else, it's hard to call it the best division ever. It's hard not to at least listen to some of those "overrated" chants. It puts a damper on such an exciting regular season from that side of the conference. And I don't buy the excuse that the division was beaten up from the regular season.

Save it. A few teams played better opponents, and others just fell flat at the worst time.

The conference certainly isn't in ruins now, but the gap between the SEC and the rest of the nation is closing.

Some early overreactions for 2015

Alabama's run of dominance is over

You never quite got the feeling that you were looking at a dominant Alabama team in 2014, and Ohio State's 42-35 College Football Playoff Semifinal win against the Crimson Tide supported those feelings. The Tide was the No. 1 team in the country, but couldn't make it to the final game. Now, Alabama loses a lot of what pushed the team to a No. 1 ranking. Only two starters -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- return on offense, and four very valuable defensive starters are gone, including safety Landon Collins and linebacker Trey DePriest. Plus, two defensive coaches left.

Are we seeing the demise of the Tide? Heck, no! Don't throw dirt on Nick Saban and his squad just yet. The Tide will rebuild on offense, still has some young talent to work with, and running back Derrick Henry might as well have been a starter last season. The defense has some work to do, yes, but if you think Saban is going to let his program leave the realm of relevance, you are greatly mistaken.

Steve Spurrier is done

From three straight 11-win seasons to a disappointing 7-6, the Head Ball Coach has seen better days. Rumors swirled about his possible retirement, but Spurrier will return in 2015, and like Saban, he is not one to just let his program fall apart. The defense will be older in 2015, and you better believe that Spurrier will be coaching with a chip on his shoulder this fall. Will the Gamecocks win the East? Not gonna put money on it, but Spurrier will make his squad much more competitive in 2015.

Will Muschamp will turn Auburn's defense around

Regardless of what you think of Will Muschamp's head-coaching job at Florida, he's an excellent defensive mind. And his hiring as Auburn's defensive coordinator has the Plains all abuzz with the thought of an SEC and playoff run with only three starters departing on the defensive side. But not so fast, Auburn fans. Can Muschamp have the same sort of success Lane Kiffin did in his first year at Alabama? Kiffin wasn't exactly working with an inept offense when he arrived. Muschamp must turn around one of the SEC's worst defensive units. I'm not saying Auburn won't challenge for the West, but let's be careful immediately crowning the Tigers this early.

Nick Chubb for Heisman

Yeah, he's the best running back returning in the SEC and should be one of the nation's best ... again ... but come on, this a quarterback award.

Teams to watch in the 2015 SEC race

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:


Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.


Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
For the second time in a span of 24 hours, Alabama learned that an assistant is on the move. Outside linebackers coach Lance Thompson is heading to Auburn, where he will hold the same position.

Along with the departure of inside linebackers coach Kevin Steele to another SEC West rival in LSU, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has work to do retooling his defensive staff.

But for Auburn and its new defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, the hiring of Thompson yields one of the SEC’s longest-tenured coaches and most successful recruiters.

There’s also a good level of familiarity as Muschamp and Thompson were assistants at LSU in 2002-03.

“I'm really excited and very appreciative to be joining the Auburn football family and work with Coach [Gus] Malzahn, Coach Muschamp and the entire staff," Thompson said in a statement. "I have a great amount of respect for Coach Malzahn and what he represents and what he has accomplished in a short period of time. I hope to bring my strengths to the program to help Auburn football achieve its goals of winning a national championship.”

Together with Muschamp and former Florida assistant Travaris Robinson, Auburn has hired three defensive assistant coaches since the end of the regular season.

Alabama, meanwhile, is left to pick up the pieces.

But with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart able to coach both the secondary and linebackers, Saban has options to pursue a coach at either position. There’s also the possibility of moving Tosh Lupoi on the field from his position as a “intern,” as Saban described his role after being brought on from Washington where he coached the defensive line and was defensive run coordinator.
Talent isn’t the question. For Alabama, it never is.

But the number of concerns coach Nick Saban and his staff face this offseason are aplenty. On both sides of the ball, there are major reconstructions to take place. And philosophically, it feels as if the program is at a crossroads -- to further embrace Lane Kiffin’s wide-open offense and try to win games by way of a shootout or go back to the basics and attempt to re-create the hard-nosed defense that typified Alabama’s first three national titles under Saban.
It’s why we at the SEC Blog went against the grain and did not rank the Crimson Tide among our projected top three teams in the conference. With so much up in the air, we felt better about the chances of Georgia and Auburn.

Now there are two sides to every debate, and here we’ll reveal the point-counterpoint behind our thinking.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsCan CB Cyrus Jones make a big leap in his play in the Tide secondary?
1. A shaky defense

Point: Saban built Alabama on defense. So to see the regression there this past season was troubling. While the line was strong and the linebackers were more than adequate, nothing seemed to save the secondary. It seems like so long ago now, but the season-opener against West Virginia when it gave up 365 yards passing was a harbinger of things to come. Outside of the now departed star safety Landon Collins, there wasn’t a lot of solid on-ball coverage. In the final three games against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, the once-dominant Crimson Tide defense surrendered an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game. Without Collins to lean on and no sure thing at safety ready to step into his shoes, can we honestly expect an improvement in Alabama’s pass defense? And even bigger than that, is there anything to suggest that Saban and his staff have learned to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle any better? Especially when there’s a mobile QB involved, Alabama has been found lacking.

Counterpoint: There’s always the chance that this was a transitional year at cornerback. Cyrus Jones came to his own, Eddie Jackson returned from a torn ACL quickly, and freshman Tony Brown was able to see the field with some regularity. So, if you’re looking on the bright side, all three could be better next season, whether it’s Jackson’s knee getting stronger or Brown’s knowledge of the defense increasing. Along with that, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Marlon Humphrey, a five-star corner in last year’s signing class, will shed his redshirt, and there’s the chance that a few stars from the 2015 class emerge, whether that’s early enrollee safety Deionte Thompson or one of the two top-five cornerbacks already committed to the Tide.

2. Too many questions on offense

Point: Blake Sims is gone after one spectacular year as a starter. And while Alabama lucked out with his out-of-nowhere development, can we expect lightning to strike twice? Maybe, but most programs aren’t so fortunate. At some point, you have to think Saban’s run of solid QBs will end. If it does, how will it affect Alabama? Do we know for sure that Derrick Henry is ready to become a feature back? After all, the way Kiffin subbed an ailing T.J. Yeldon into the game against Ohio State on most every third down indicated that Henry is a liability blocking. And beyond Henry’s ability and Kenyan Drake’s health, who will be the go-to receivers? Amari Cooper’s 124 receptions are gone, along with the next two leading pass-catchers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White.

Counterpoint: Who would have thought a year ago that Alabama would be bemoaning the loss of Sims? The former wideout was never supposed to become the starting QB, which is both a testament to his ability and that of Kiffin to coach the position. After all, if Sims can throw for 3,000 yards, maybe Jake Coker can too -- or Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett. Because in fact, we don’t know who will win the starting job. But there are plenty of options, and a number of them possess the traits to do well in Kiffin’s offense, as evidenced by Cornwell and Barnett’s high ratings as recruits or Coker’s much ballyhooed arm while at Florida State.

3. Increasing competition

Point: The bowl season said one thing, but the regular season said quite another. The West, contrary to popular opinion these days, might still be the best division in college football next season. If you don’t believe that to be true, come up with your predicted order of finish. Who do you have as the sixth and seventh teams? Mississippi State, which possesses a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB? Texas A&M, which should upgrade on defense thanks to the addition of John Chavis? How about Arkansas, which won four of its final six games and could begin the season ranked in the top 25? While Alabama might still be the most talented team in the SEC, the gap seems to be dwindling.

Counterpoint: It’s not so weak that it fails to merit playoff consideration, but Alabama’s schedule is not exactly a high-wire act. Outside of nonconference cupcakes Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern, the big draw, Wisconsin, will have a new coaching staff and will be without its star player, Melvin Gordon. Then consider that the home portion of the schedule is about as favorable as possible: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Going to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn won’t be easy, granted, but at least those games come in October and November, rather than when the team is still developing in September.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

This isn't about second chances.

Jonathan Taylor already got his mulligan in March when he was arrested on suspicion of theft while at Georgia. He then wasted Mark Richt's forgiveness four months later when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, prompting his dismissal from the program.

So, no, this isn't about second chances at all. It's not about third chances, either.

It's about gravity. When you fall you should actually fall down.

The defensive tackle enrolled in classes at Alabama on Wednesday after a quick stay at a community college in Mississippi. He was one of eight early enrollees announced by the team.

Falling up to Alabama after being booted from Georgia defies gravity. He not only rebounded to another FBS program, he boomeranged to the SEC's premier team, where he'll be part of a defensive line that could be among the best in college football in 2015.

Calling Taylor's signing a "second chance," as Alabama athletic director Bill Battle described it in a statement, is not only a mischaracterization, it's an overstatement. It's glossing over Taylor's missteps while ignoring the crimes of which he's been accused. Taylor is still facing two felony counts of aggravated assault, as well as an April trial on misdemeanor theft charges.

"Our coaches and I feel he is worthy of a second chance at completing his college football career at this level," Battle said, "and that he fully understands the position in which he has placed himself."

Why would Nick Saban and the school's administration feel the need to bring Taylor in given his history of bad decisions? With so many talented players already on campus, why take on such a risk?

While Battle and assistant to the president Deborah Lane have given statements about Taylor's enrollment at Alabama, Saban has said nothing publicly. Instead, we're left with his words from a month ago when he was asked about the way defensive lineman D.J. Pettway has responded since his return to the team last January after being dismissed for allegedly assaulting and robbing a student on campus.

"There's always a lot of criticism out there when somebody does something wrong," Saban said. "Everybody wants to know ‘How are you going to punish the guy?' But there's not enough -- for 19- and 20-year-old kids -- people out there saying, ‘Why don't you give them another chance?'"

In what Saban himself described as a "speech," he rejected "all the criticism out there about every guy who is 19 years old and makes a mistake and you all kill them."

"It was really, really good for me, and I think some of our administrators ... who shake hands with all our players when they walk across the stage and graduate, when we give somebody a second chance and they do well and graduate from school," he said.

No one is denying Taylor that opportunity. But since when did Alabama become a center for reform? There are 127 other FBS programs and 124 FCS schools that play organized college football.

While Saban's eagerness to help troubled athletes is admirable, maybe there should be a limit to that generosity. A year after accepting Pettway back into the fold, we've already reached the point where Alabama is sitting on a potential PR nightmare. Because if you think no one will ever put two and two together and point out when Pettway and Taylor are on the field at the same time, you're fooling yourself. Separating the athletes from the alleged crimes is impossible.

Which is why you shouldn't call Taylor's signing at Alabama a second chance. This will be his third opportunity at reform, and we all know what happens after a third strike.

If Taylor doesn't make the most of this latest break in his life, it won't be just him who looks bad.
Four of the seven SEC West teams will have new defensive coordinators next season, which is fitting, given the carnage we saw in that division during the bowl season.

It's a carnage particularly glaring on the defensive side and yet another reminder that times are changing -- or, more precisely, have changed -- in college football.

Remember when the SEC was known for its defense?

Well, there is no defending how the five Western Division teams that lost in bowl games played, defensively, last week.

The numbers were abysmal, the kind of cataclysmic meltdown that only lends credence to the biggest criticism of SEC defenses over the past few years: They rack up most of their numbers against offenses within the league that aren't very explosive.

Now, before we go any further, not everybody in the West suddenly forgot how to play defense during the postseason.

Arkansas crushed Texas 31-7 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and made the Longhorns look even worse than they really were offensively, which took some doing. The Hogs held the Longhorns to 59 total yards on 43 offensive plays, which marks the fewest yards by any FBS team this season.

It wasn't just that Texas was that bad, either. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith did an amazing job of transforming the Hogs' defense all season. They held opponents to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 13 games, and six of the eight were against bowl teams.

With only the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T remaining, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and 12th in rushing defense. The only other SEC team in the top 12 in all three categories is Alabama.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama, which gave up 281 rushing yards to Ohio State, was just one of several SEC West teams with poor showings defensively in bowl games.
No wonder Arkansas coach Bret Bielema moved fast to make sure Smith had a new three-year deal that will pay him $750,000 annually. But the way Arkansas' defense played in the bowl game was the exception to the rule for the West this postseason.

Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all gave up more than 30 points each in their games. The Aggies were able to escape with a 45-37 win against West Virginia, though their biggest win might have been prying away defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU a few days later.

It wasn't a memorable final game for Chavis' LSU defense. The Tigers gave up 263 rushing yards to Notre Dame in a 31-28 loss and were especially vulnerable on third down. The Irish converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities and drove 71 yards in 14 plays for the winning field goal.

As it was, LSU's defensive performance might have been the best one of the bunch among the five West teams that lost bowl games, which underscores what a shoddy three days of defense it was for those five teams.

The final damage: Averages of 39.6 points allowed, 501.4 total yards allowed and 314.6 rushing yards allowed, not to mention a combined defensive third-down percentage of 55.4 percent.

The rushing totals were most incriminating. Mississippi State was gashed for 452 yards on the ground by Georgia Tech's option attack and gave up 49 points.

Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin did a number on Auburn, to the tune of 400 rushing yards, and Alabama allowed 281 rushing yards -- including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- in its 42-35 playoff loss to Ohio State.

That's two bowl games in a row in which Alabama has laid an egg defensively. The Tide gave up a combined 87 points and 966 yards in losses to Oklahoma a year ago in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State this year in the playoff.

Does that mean Alabama has lost it defensively? Of course not. The Tide are always going to be a force defensively as long as Nick Saban is around.

But it is fair to say they haven't been nearly as dominant defensively on some of the biggest stages as they were during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

In their 55-44 win against Auburn this season, they gave up a school-record 630 total yards. In the 34-28 loss to Auburn last season, they gave up 296 rushing yards, and earlier in that year, they allowed 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a wild 49-42 win over the Aggies.

Spotty play at cornerback has been a recurring problem for the Tide the past two seasons. They've had trouble covering people, which has been magnified by their inability to consistently get to the quarterback.

Nobody's writing off the Tide defensively. Teams all over the country would gladly take their numbers -- and certainly their talent. But mobile quarterbacks have tormented them, and the way they've finished seasons defensively each of the past two seasons has been a concern.

Last impressions are what they remember in college football, and that also goes for Alabama's brethren in the West.

Reputations are earned. Right now, the entire SEC -- specifically the West -- has some work to do in earning back its reputation on the defensive side of the ball.

NEW ORLEANS -- Never mind the score, Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal was an Alabama-style manhandling. Only this time, Alabama was on the receiving end of the beating.

Under Nick Saban, the top-ranked Crimson Tide simply doesn't lose games of this magnitude. But not only did No. 1 Alabama fall 42-35 to No. 4 Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it surrendered an enormous yardage total (537 yards) and completely got away from the staples of Saban's best seasons in Tuscaloosa.

"It's not really about what you do most of the time, it's really more about how you do it," Saban said. "And they did a better job of executing what they do than what we did."

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry against Ohio State, but Alabama insisted on putting the ball in the air Thursday.
From an execution standpoint, this was nothing like what we've come to expect from Alabama, which won three BCS championships in Saban's first six seasons. And yet it is incorrect to attempt to apply previous templates to this Alabama team.

Under Lane Kiffin, Alabama's offense no longer runs to set up the pass. Quite the opposite. Although the run worked well at times Thursday -- for instance, Derrick Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry but ran just 13 times -- Kiffin kept putting the ball in the air.

And yet out of all those Blake Sims passes, Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper -- who already held the SEC single-season receptions record with 115 entering the game -- didn't get his customary frequent touches. With Ohio State understandably shading its pass coverage his way, Cooper made only three receptions in the second half.

"Every time Blake looked at me, a safety would run full speed over there and got a little bit of double coverage," said Cooper, who finished with nine receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns.

"It was frustrating, but at the same time, I expected it."

Although Alabama led 21-6 at one point in the first half, Ohio State's offense moved the ball effectively throughout. The Buckeyes settled for early field goals and turned the ball over in their own territory, paving the way for Alabama to claim the big lead.

Eventually, the Buckeyes' trips into Alabama territory yielded touchdowns, and they sprinkled in a couple of big-play scores, as well. Meanwhile, Alabama's offense bogged down, allowing Ohio State to mount a 28-0 run between the second and third quarters.

Alabama led 21-20 at halftime, but the yardage total told a completely different story. Ohio State outgained Alabama 348 yards to 139 in the first half, with that 209-yard differential representing the greatest disparity the Tide have ever faced in a first half under Saban.

Oddly enough, Auburn outgained Alabama by 200-plus yards in the first half just two games ago, but the Tide were able to rally and win that game 55-44. There would be no such comeback against Ohio State with the Buckeyes shutting down the staples of the Alabama offense.

"Their front did a really good job," Saban said. "We didn't handle them well in running the football like we thought we might be able to when we spread them out, and they did a good job on our perimeter screens and smokes. And we made the blocks, but they made the plays, and you've got to give their players a lot of credit for the way they executed."

Conversely, Sims was unable to bounce back the way he did against Auburn, when after tossing three interceptions he led the Tide's comeback bid. With Ohio State largely taking away Cooper, he struggled to keep drives alive. The Tide converted just twice in 13 attempts on third down -- and Sims even tossed a third-down interception that Steve Miler returned 41 yards for a touchdown that put Ohio State up 34-21 late in the third quarter.

He also threw an ugly pick on the first play after a horrendous Ohio State punt gave Alabama possession at the Buckeyes' 23-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Alabama's senior quarterback pointed the finger at himself after the game.

"We weren't having no problems. It was all on me," said Sims, who finished 22-for-36 for 237 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. "I take full responsibility for everything that happened tonight. It was no other person's fault but mine."

There was more than enough blame to go around, however.

Philosophically, this was not the ruthless Alabama machine Saban has built in his eight seasons in Tuscaloosa. Certainly, Ohio State deserves credit for taking away what Alabama has done well this season -- and in the recent past -- but Saban's staff will also face reasonable scrutiny over their decision-making when a victory was within grasp.

"I think that we're certainly capable of playing a little better than we played tonight," Saban said, "and I think everybody would say the same if you asked them that, from player to coach."

Viewer's guide: Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 31, 2014

NEW ORLEANS -- For the winning team in Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal, Alabama-Ohio State will be only the biggest game of the season until the final seconds tick off the clock. Then it’s time to think about how to win a national title.

Here are five items to watch as No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) square off on New Year’s Day (8:30 p.m., ESPN), with a spot in the Jan. 12 CFP national championship game at stake.

Saban-Meyer, the return: Two of the giants in modern-day college coaching will reunite on New Year’s night following a four-year hiatus in their head-to-head rivalry. The popular narrative in Alabama is that Nick Saban chased Urban Meyer out of the SEC once the Crimson Tide surpassed Meyer’s Florida program as the SEC’s top dog in 2009. Meyer left the business for a season after 2010 -- a year when Saban won their most recent meeting 31-6. Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012 and has restored the Buckeyes as one of the nation’s powerhouse programs. Thursday’s outcome won’t change that, but he can strike a blow for the Big Ten -- and snap a two-game losing streak against Saban -- with a win in New Orleans.

Cardale Jones and the deep ball: Jones couldn’t have made a happier debut, leading Ohio State to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game by going 12-for-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns. But can Ohio State’s former third-string quarterback repeat that impressive feat on New Year’s Day? He might have to if the Buckeyes are to pull the upset. If Alabama’s defense has a weakness, it’s that it has occasionally been susceptible to the deep ball. Jones connected with Devin Smith on touchdown passes of 39, 44 and 42 yards against Wisconsin. More of that would greatly improve the Buckeyes’ chances of advancing to the national championship game.

War in the trenches: One key to Alabama’s success in the Saban era has been its dominance along the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide likes to bludgeon its opponent into submission, and it has done that this season -- particularly along the defensive line. Ohio State defensive coordinator Tom Herman marveled at the size and depth of Alabama’s defensive front, which nearly runs 10 players deep. Ohio State’s offensive line struggled in its early loss to Virginia Tech, but the reconstructed group has made massive progress since then. If Ezekiel Elliott is able to run successfully against Alabama, that will take some of the pressure off of Jones and the passing attack.

SEC speed? Some Ohio State players seem to have chips on their shoulders over the perception that the SEC has the market cornered on speed. The Buckeyes have some speedburners on their roster as well, and even those from Alabama acknowledge that their quickness -- particularly from someone like big-play receiver Smith -- would fit in well down south.

“I definitely see more speed in this Ohio State team,” Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “Every single one of their skill positions can fly and I feel that’s something that’s really helped them out throughout the year.”

The Cooper effect: Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell admitted Monday that shutting down Alabama receiver Amari Cooper “is not something you truly could do.” Cooper was a Heisman Trophy finalist with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, after all. The key for the Buckeyes, Fickell said, is to prevent Lane Kiffin’s offense from killing them with big plays. That’s what Alabama did in rallying past Auburn in the Iron Bowl -- and it’s what Clemson did in posting 40 points and 576 yards (including 227 receiving yards by Sammy Watkins) in the Tigers’ bowl win over the Buckeyes last season.

Notes from Allstate Sugar Bowl eve

December, 31, 2014

NEW ORLEANS -- The time for yapping is done. Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer both met the media on Wednesday morning for the final news conferences before Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl. Clearing out the notebook ...

The availability of Alabama's leading rusher, T.J. Yeldon, will be a game-time decision on Thursday, Saban said. Yeldon has been dealing with a hamstring injury, but Saban said he has practiced every day this week in New Orleans and has "looked better and better each day. ... We're very hopeful that he'll be able to make a contribution in this game."

If Yeldon, who has rushed for 925 yards, can't go or is limited, the Crimson Tide have plenty of other options. Derrick Henry, who had 141 yards in the SEC title game win over Missouri "has played some of his best football at the end of the season," Saban said. Tyren Jones and Jalston Fowler could also fill in.

"We've always played more than one back," Saban said.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State's Dontre Wilson, who has been out with a broken foot since early November, will be in uniform Thursday.
Still perhaps a week away from being full speed, Ohio State H-back Dontre Wilson will still be in uniform for the first time since breaking his foot on Nov. 8 at Michigan State. And while the sophomore could potentially come off the bench if needed despite some limitations cutting on that recovering foot, he’s eyeing a bigger role if the Buckeyes can survive without him against the Crimson Tide.

“I’m definitely going to suit up,” Wilson said. “If they need me, I’ll definitely come out and do what I can, and if not, I’ll cheer my team on to victory. I feel like they’re going to come out and handle their business, so hopefully we win this game and at Cowboy Stadium, I’ll definitely be in there.”

Meyer was asked if Ohio State's "branding" helped the Buckeyes get into the College Football Playoff over TCU and Baylor. One word of his response -- "probably" -- will likely be blown out of proportion. For context, here is his full answer to that question.

"I don't know that," he said. "That's certainly out of my ... probably. I never really thought about it. But I think Ohio State traditionally has got a great brand name."

The first-ever playoff begins on Thursday, but Saban said that since the loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 4 that Alabama has "sort of been in a playoff of our own kind. We were always one negative experience away from being out of the mix."

That Ole Miss loss also ignited a wave of negativity that the Tide players had to battle.

"When we lost to Ole Miss, not only did everyone sort of discount this team totally and completely ... it was that the whole era of what we've been able to do at Alabama was done, gone, didn't work anymore and all that," Saban said. "So our players really responded to the loss and did the things that they needed to do to develop into a pretty good football team."

Meyer, who's very involved with the Ohio State offense, said he sat down and really studied Alabama's offense for one of the few times on Wednesday morning with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. He came away impressed with quarterback Blake Sims and especially wide receiver Amari Cooper.

"He could be the first pick in the draft," Meyer said. "He's that good."

Big Ten teams often try to pluck recruits out of the South. But in an unusual twist, Alabama has two starters -- linebacker Trey DePriest and center Ryan Kelly -- from the state of Ohio.

DePriest is from Springfield, Ohio, in the the same region as injured Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, and the two have been friends since childhood. DePriest said he caught up with Miller earlier this week in New Orleans and wishes he were playing in the game.

"Some people back at home, they aren't really too much of a fan of me at this particular time," DePriest said. "But that's OK."

Kelly, a two-year starter from West Chester, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, said he wasn't recruited by the Buckeyes. But he said that was "just business, not personal" and he has no hard feelings.

"There are a lot of friends from my hometown that this means a lot to," he says. "It's been a pretty cool experience so far with the lead-up to the game. Little bit of trash talk, but not much."

By the way, DePriest said he was a Michigan fan growing up; Miller mostly rooted for Notre Dame.

Safety Vonn Bell already represents an Ohio State win over Alabama. The Georgia native picked the Buckeyes over Alabama and Tennessee in a signing-day decision in 2013. Bell said Meyer's personality and the family atmosphere in Columbus won him over, though it was hard telling Saban no.

Bell said he smiled when he found out Ohio State would be playing the Crimson Tide.

"It's very ironic," he said, "but what a blessing."

Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington hasn’t been closely following the growing conversation about his professional stock, but he does have teammates telling him it’s on the rise. The junior has certainly been made aware that he could potentially be an early-round draft pick if he chooses to skip his final season. For now, Washington remains committed to coming back in 2015.

“I can’t really give up too much thought to the NFL right now,” Washington said. “Michael Bennett actually came and told me that Mel Kiper was talking about me, and I kind of snuck away to see what he said. Obviously I was very excited, but I really can’t speak on it right now. More than likely I’m going to come back, but I feel like if I go out there and have a pretty good game against Alabama, that would definitely help my stock.”

Best of Alabama at media day

December, 30, 2014

NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama and Ohio State spent an hour apiece at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Tuesday's media day leading up to their meeting in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day.

Here are some of the highlights from Alabama's morning interview session:

Alabama coach Nick Saban on Jim Harbaugh's return to college coaching at Michigan: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Harbaugh family. I knew his dad when he was a secondary coach at Michigan and I was a secondary coach and we used to spend time together. So to see both of the Harbaughs do really, really well as NFL coaches in Baltimore and San Francisco, tremendous amount of respect for the entire family, and Tom Crean, who is the head basketball coach in Indiana, is married to another Harbaugh coach, which I'm sure she does a good job of supporting him just like my wife does me. And they were at Michigan State when we were there. He was an assistant for Tom Izzo, and we were really good friends. So I've had a good relationship with the entire Harbaugh family for probably 30 years. So I'm happy and excited that someone of Jim Harbaugh's character and quality is going to come back and be a part of college football."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Images/Gerald HerbertAlabama coach Nick Saban answers reporters' questions on everything from the matchup against Ohio State to Jim Harbaugh's hiring at Michigan.
Receiver Amari Cooper on what he has learned from Saban: "I've learned many things from him. He has a lot of parables he likes to tell. He once told the team something about this, I don't know, a rock hitter or something like that, I don't know what the guy was hitting a rock for. But he said the guy hit the rock 100 times and the rock didn't do anything. The 101st time he hit it and the rock split. He used that to try to give an example to the team that even though you may be working hard or might not be seeing the results so quick, we have to keep working hard because at the end of the day all the results will come from your hard work."

Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest on growing up in Ohio and the difference between Alabama and Ohio State fans: "It's similar. Ohio State, they've got some diehard fans, too, regardless of the situation, whether it's up or down, just like the fans in Tuscaloosa. They do a good job regardless of the situation with us. If we're down, they're still going to scream for us."

Quarterback Jake Coker on the importance of winning to protect SEC bragging rights: "We always talk, I guess trash-talk, because we are in the SEC. If we didn't say the SEC was the best, then there'd be something wrong with us because we came to play in the SEC for a reason. So heck, we've just got to make the SEC look good."

Coker on whether he felt that way last season as a Florida State player before transferring to Alabama prior to this season: "I don't know. There were some really good ACC teams, and hey, the ACC's a really good conference, especially this year now that they've acquired all those other teams. But my stance on it this year is the SEC's the best, I'll tell you that."

Alabama safety Landon Collins on whether it's difficult for an opposing offense to function because of the way the Crimson Tide defense disguises its coverages: "That would be a question to ask Blake [Sims, Alabama's quarterback] because he plays against us all the time. I mean it would be one of the hardest because we sometimes will sit there. Then I know me and Nick [Perry], we'll try to mess with the quarterback. We'll look at the quarterback and just sit there and just stare at him the whole time while he's looking at us to see whether we're going to move or anything like that. But by the time he thinks it's going to be something, we've totally changed the whole front."

Collins on how Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones might have difficulty against those disguised coverages since this will be only his second career start: "When you mess with a quarterback that just got in the game and has to play a defense like ours, definitely it's going to be a competition for him because they don't know what we're going to throw at them and what we're coming with."

Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland on how his family and his roommate Collins' family typically hang out together at their apartment after games -- for a little while, anyway: "After the game and stuff, we'll crack up and have jokes, and then it's time for them to get up out of our house."

Cornerback Eddie Jackson on the key to defending Ohio State's speedy receivers: "Basically just keeping the receivers cut off, not letting them stretch the field vertically because they are pretty fast, nice route-running receivers so they can get down the field. And also going to get the ball at its highest point when it's in the air. A lot of times quarterbacks just throw the ball up and receivers go up to make plays, so we're going to try our best to keep them cut off."

Fullback Jalston Fowler on what it takes to play multiple positions (also including running back, tight end and receiver) like he does: "It's a whole bunch of knowledge I have to have. You have to look over that playbook a lot because you've got to know what you're doing at receiver, you've got to know what you're doing at H-back, you've got to know what you're doing at running back. So it's just a lot for me, but I appreciate it because it helps me show my versatility."