SEC: Reggie Ragland
For Alabama, the baseline is New Year's. With everything already going right for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, there are no excuses not to make one of those top six games. Read more from this series here.
Even with a giant question mark at quarterback, the offense should be fine. Derrick Henry (6-3, 240 pounds) will be among the biggest and most intimidating feature backs in America, and he'll have the benefit of the lightning quick Kenyan Drake to spell him off the bench. Pick a couple blue-chip receivers from the cupboard, throw in a senior center (Ryan Kelly), a franchise left tackle (Cam Robinson) and the return of X's and O's aficionado Lane Kiffin, and you're looking at a solid recipe for success.
But the biggest help to the defense and its ever-important battle for field position could be punter J.K. Scott, who routinely booms the football with his pendulum-like leg.
Outside of personnel, though, maybe the most compelling case for Alabama making a New Year's Six bowl is its schedule. While we don't want to venture into the territory of counting wins in February, it's worth noting that the Tide get Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. And while opening against Wisconsin in Dallas, might appear like a tall task, don't forget the Badgers have a new coach and are now without their best player in Melvin Gordon.
So with so much going in its favor, it's really not as simple as reaching next year's Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or Chick-fil-A bowls for Alabama.
If anything, the mantra continues to be what it's always been: playoff or bust.
What could go wrong
Blake Sims was a nice story. The way the former running back came out of nowhere to win the starting job at quarterback as a fifth-year senior last season was an excellent story, in fact.
But you can't bank on a Blake Sims fairytale happening every year. And if we're looking at it with a critical eye, doesn't Sims winning the job reveal some flaws in the other QBs on the roster? It wasn't as if Sims had a particularly strong or accurate arm, remember?
So why did Jake Coker not beat him out? What about Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or David Cornwell, for that matter? If they weren't good enough then, what makes us believe they'll be good enough now? The only thing that's changed since then is time and the addition of early enrollee Blake Barnett.
If experience doesn't dramatically improve the quality of Alabama's QBs or Barnett doesn't prove to be a rare exception as a rookie, the offense could be in shaky hands.
But even if you set that aside and assume the QB position will be fine, how confident should you be in the defense's ability to make stops? Because while the line is in good shape and the linebacking corps should to be fine, there's not a lot to feel good about when it comes to the secondary.
While there's plenty of talent to draw upon at DB, the same was true last season and it didn't exactly work out. Outside of cornerback Cyrus Jones, good luck figuring out who starts in 2015. Do you put a shaky Eddie Jackson back at corner? Do you bank on Tony Brown's improvement as a sophomore? Or does Marlon Humphrey come in as a redshirt freshman and set the world on fire?
Another year in the system might give guys such as Hootie Jones, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith the experience to become impact players, but that's not a sure thing. We might drool over the signing of Kendall Sheffield, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson, but expecting contributions from true freshmen in Saban's complex system is a lot to ask.
If someone doesn't step up in the secondary and a quality QB doesn't emerge, Alabama could be in trouble.
The SEC, as usual, saw its fair share of early entrants. At last count, the conference led the nation in underclassmen turning pro.
While those who have declared for the draft have another 72 hours to go back on their decisions and return to school, for today's purposes we'll assume everything holds and declare three teams winners and three losers when it came to retaining talent.
- Alabama -- Yes, the losses of T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins and Amari Cooper are huge. But no one expected them to stay. Instead, Nick Saban welcoming three defenders back into the fold on defense was the big takeaway. Cyrus Jones is someone to build around in the secondary, Reggie Ragland provides continuity at linebacker, and Jarran Reed bolsters a defensive line that could be among the best in college football in 2015.
- Auburn -- QB Jeremy Johnson received a pleasant surprise when it was learned that star wideout Duke Williams would return for his senior year. But Johnson, the Tigers' expected starter, should be happy for the other side of the ball, too, as new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp gets Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy back at linebacker.
- Georgia -- Todd Gurley turning pro was a given, but for Mark Richt to keep John Theus, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd in school was a coup. Theus gives Georgia four returning starters on the offensive line, which will be a boon for whoever wins the starting job at QB. Floyd gives defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt one of the best pass-rushers in the country.
- Florida -- Jim McElwain's hands are full as he attempts to rebuild Florida's offense, and that job wasn't made any easier with the decisions of Matt Jones, D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore to enter the draft. That's two starting offensive linemen from a group that was already depth-challenged. Throw in the loss of pass-rush specialist Dante Fowler Jr. and you're looking at a depleted roster all the way around.
- LSU -- Les Miles needed Travin Dural and Jerald Hawkins back on offense, but his defense could have used help, too. Kevin Steele, who takes over as defensive coordinator after the departure of John Chavis, will be without three key starters: linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter.
- South Carolina -- With Mike Davis and Shaq Roland off to the NFL, the Gamecocks are without two of their most talented players on offense. Granted, consistency was a constant battle for Roland at receiver, but good luck replacing Davis' 2,000 rushing yards over the past two seasons.
2. While everyone huddled around their TV sets to watch a once third-string quarterback who started three games this season have a press conference to announce he's returning to school, there actually were others around the country decided to make their football decisions as well. Alabama got some good news with linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive Jarran Reed deciding to return to school instead of jumping to the NFL early.
I've decided to come back for my senior season! Roll Tide!!!— ReggieRagland(bama) (@reggieragland) January 15, 2015
You can read Alabama's full release on the two, here.
Of course, Arkansas wasn't as lucky with star defensive tackle Darius Philon deciding to make that early jump to the pros.
Around the SEC:
- New Florida defensive line coach Terrell Williams sounds eager to get started with the Gators and wants to make it very clear that he eats, sleeps and breathes the defensive line.
- Georgia is getting more than $1 million in increases for the football coaching staff.
- Former Ole Miss running back I'Tavius Mathers is transferring to Middle Tennessee State, where he'll be closer to his home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
I am officially an Blue Raider!!! It's great to come home and play ball for my community. I get to... http://t.co/8yzHCjImxF— I'Tavius Mathers (@I_Train5) January 15, 2015
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."
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."
Auburn has been trending in the wrong direction the past month, but the Tigers, though out of the playoff hunt, still have a chance to post back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1988-89 and only the second time in school history.
Both teams have plenty to play for Saturday. Here is a breakdown of the game:
Auburn's key to victory: Obviously, it's important for Auburn to establish the run and pick up yards outside the tackles. That's an area where the Tigers struggled in their loss to Georgia two weeks ago. But if Auburn wants to win Saturday, it's up to the defense. This is a unit that has regressed all season, but if there was ever a time to step up, this is it. Don't expect the Tigers to shut down Alabama. However, if they can get turnovers, stops in the red zone and get off the field on third down, they will have a chance. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have been solid all season. Auburn needs them to be great Saturday.
Alabama X-factor: T.J. Yeldon needs to be close to 100 percent against Auburn. The difference he makes is too important to sum up in things like yards and touchdowns. Though he may not be Alabama's flashiest tailback, he is, as Nick Saban said earlier this week, its "most effective guy all the way around." That means running, blocking and receiving. Sims said Yeldon even helps him with calling out the protections before the snap. With the pressure of the Iron Bowl and a potential spot in the playoff weighing heavily, having Yeldon's experience and ability on the field will be invaluable.
Auburn's X-factor: Similar to Yeldon, Auburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams isn't quite at 100 percent. But he's planning to play this Saturday regardless. Williams, who leads the team in receptions (38), yards (609) and touchdowns (five), missed the last two games after straining his MCL against Texas A&M earlier this month. The offense struggled as a result. Now he's back in what could be his one and only Iron Bowl. Alabama has done OK against similar wide receivers this season -- players like Laquon Treadwell, Marquez North and De'Runnya Wilson -- but when healthy, Williams is on a different level.
Playoff impact: Win and you're in. That's the situation facing Alabama, even if the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1. With one loss already, another would simply be too much to overcome. Mississippi State, if it beats Ole Miss, would jump into first place in the West and play for the SEC title. Meanwhile, Baylor, TCU and Ohio State would get their wish and bicker over the remaining fourth playoff spot.
Landon Collins would be an impact player at safety, Trey DePriest would be a stabilizing force at linebacker, and A'Shawn Robinson would lead a defensive line as deep and talented as any in recent memory.
We knew, given that he has been molding top defenses his entire coaching life, Nick Saban would be there to make everything fit into place.
But to what end?
It was what we didn't know that gave us pause. It was what we didn't know that made us wonder whether Alabama's defense could be not good but great.
After all, greatness was the standard we'd come to expect. Ever since 2008, Alabama finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.
But would this be the year that changed?
"In terms of where we are right now, we've got a long way to go," he said. "But where we can go, I'm really enthused about the group we've got."
For those who heard creaks in the defense's foundation, the season opener against West Virginia suggested there might be some trouble. Bama's smaller cornerbacks were picked on, and its safeties weren't much help over the top. Rushel Shell popped off a few good runs, and Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards on 64 percent passing. If it hadn't been for a handful of drops, the Mountaineers might have made Alabama's 10-point win considerably closer.
Ultimately, though, West Virginia proved to be the prelude to Alabama's return as a defensive power, rather than the beginning of some long, strange eulogy.
A group of four players who looked shaky the first week of the season grew solid and dependable. In doing so, they bucked a trend that under Saban's watch goes something like this: If you haven't produced in your first two years on campus, chances are you never will.
But Cyrus Jones and Nick Perry proved they weren't busts like John Fulton or Burton Scott. Meanwhile, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson showed they wouldn't wind up flops like LaMichael Fanning or Tana Patrick.
The four longtime reserves stepped out of the shadows to anchor a defense that now ranks sixth nationally in yards per game (290.5) and yards per play (4.35). It has allowed the second fewest touchdowns (12) and the third lowest red zone efficiency (38.5 percent) in the country.
Who would have thought we'd be asking where the secondary would be without Jones and Perry?
Jones, a receiver turned cornerback, was routinely picked on by larger targets last season. Perry, on the other hand, came off the bench in two games before he was lost for the year with an injury.
Today, Jones has developed into the team's most reliable corner. The junior is still on the small side, at 5-foot-10, but he's been locked up with bigger receivers and more than held his own. Thanks in large part to Jones, Mississippi State's 6-foot-5 De'Runnya Wilson was held without a touchdown and was unsuccessfully targeted six times Saturday.
Neither Marquez North, Laquon Treadwell, Travin Dural nor Demarcus Robinson had more than 60 receiving yards against Alabama. Among them, they found the end zone only once.
"[Jones] has done a really good job all year long for us," Saban said. "I think he has certainly been our best cover corner."
Perry, whom Saban called a "very bright guy," has been a part of that success, too. The senior has not just been serviceable alongside Collins at safety -- he's been a perfect compliment.
With Jones and Perry playing well, the rest of the secondary has come together nicely.
"Early on, we had guys hurt, different combinations in the lineup that sort of affected us," Saban said, noting how true freshman Tony Brown was forced into action. He later added, "Our secondary has improved through the course of the year."
In fact, every phase of the defense has gotten better.
Who would have thought we'd be saying Ragland and Dickson are Alabama's most productive linebackers?
Neither started a game as sophomores in 2013, and together they combined for only one sack.
Now Ragland's a Butkus Award semifinalist who leads the team in tackles (79) and is third in tackles for loss (7.5). He's recovered a team-best two fumbles and has defended four passes, including one interception.
Dickson, on the other hand, ranks sixth in the SEC with seven sacks. His 9.5 tackles for loss are the most of any Alabama defender.
If anyone tells you they knew that kind of success was coming from Dickson, they're most likely lying. The same goes for any weighty predictions regarding Jones, Perry or Ragland.
At Alabama, it's more often the case that veterans are passed by recent blue-chip recruits than that they find their way and mature into impact players as upperclassmen.
But the opposite has happened this season, and without their contributions, it's difficult to imagine where the defense would be. It most certainly wouldn't be ranked first in the SEC.
They were good all along, said Perry, the elder statesman of the defense. All it took was a little confidence.
"Saban recruited all of us," he said. "We all knew that we're great players. When we're out there, you just have to play with confidence and basically play like you belong out there."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It doesn’t take a genius to look at Alabama’s losses the last few seasons and pick up on a common thread.
Every time, without fail, you’ll find an athletic quarterback running some version of a read-option.
Though each signal-caller didn’t always post ridiculous rushing numbers, their legs always had an impact on the game.
When Ole Miss dealt Alabama its only loss earlier this season, Bo Wallace had three runs that resulted in first downs.
Before Auburn’s famous Kick Six last November, Nick Marshall ran for 99 yards and a touchdown. Without the threat of him sprinting past the line of scrimmage, Sammie Coates wouldn’t have been left wide open for the game-tying score.
Less than two months later, Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight threw for a career-high 348 yards to pull off the Sugar Bowl upset. Of his four TD passes in that game, two were the result of him keeping it on a run-pass option, one came after a key first down he picked up running the football and another came on a rollout in which he scrambled so far to his right that he nearly ran out of real estate.
In 2012, Johnny Manziel ran circles around the Alabama defense, rushing for 92 yards in addition to his 253 yards passing.
In 2011, Jordan Jefferson had 43 yards rushing to help LSU win 9-6.
In 2010, Cam Newton ran for one touchdown and threw for three more to give Auburn an Iron Bowl victory. Of his three scoring passes, one came on a QB run-fake, one came on run-pass option, and one came on a fake handoff in which scrambled in the pocket and eventually found Philip Lutzenkirchen for the game-winning score.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the present day and this weekend’s impending matchup of No. 5 Alabama and No. 1 Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs have reached such a lofty ranking thanks to their own dual-threat quarterback, Dak Prescott, who embodies the same kind of run-pass ability that’s given the Crimson Tide defense fits in the past.
On Monday, Alabama coach Nick Saban compared Prescott to former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who was 1-1 against the Tide while at Florida. Saban noted how the two were similar before adding an important qualifier about Prescott: “But he’s also a very, very good passer.”
Through nine games this season, the redshirt junior has thrown for 2,231 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has also run for 779 yards and 11 more touchdowns.
“He’s one of the best passing quarterbacks that we’ve played against all year, probably one of the best in the country,” Saban said. “It’s a difficult combination when you have a guy that is big and physical and has the ability to run the ball on quarterback runs, which creates another gap, another responsibility, another key. It limits what you can do defensively to try and make sure you’re sound against him running the ball.
“And then he has the ability to really effectively and efficiently pass the football down the field, short, and really take advantage of the very things you’re doing to try and stop him as a runner.
“These are the most difficult guys to play against when you’re talking about quarterbacks who have this type of ability to be a dual-threat runner in quarterback run plays, as well as a scrambler, as well as a good passer.”
That all puts tremendous stress on a defense.
Reggie Ragland, Alabama’s leading tackler and starting inside linebacker, said, “You have to be on your P’s and Q’s the whole game.”
“He’s a good quarterback,” Ragland added. “He can run. He can throw. You have to be focused the whole game on him.”
You have to disguise and confuse Prescott or he’ll beat you, Ragland said. If you lose containment, you’ve already lost.
Of course, if it was just Prescott, that would be one thing. But it’s not.
What makes Mississippi State so dangerous is that Prescott can just as easily hand the ball off to Josh Robinson, his starting tailback.
Robinson, who possess a low center of gravity at 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, is as hard to tackle as any back in the country. The self-described “bowling ball” ranks second in the SEC in rushing yards (984) and is tied for first in rushing TDs (11). Of his 146 carries, 47.3 percent have gone for 5 yards or more.
When Prescott and Robinson are running the read-option, it’s pure power.
“It’s tough,” Ragland said. “You’ve got to read your keys and make sure everyone up front does his job.
“If you do that, you’ll be successful.”
If the defense doesn’t, we know what’s possible.
"With those two in the backfield, it’s hard to focus too much on Dak because you’ll have to stop Josh," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "If you’re ready to stop Josh, well, there goes Dak running the ball on you. If you want to stop both of them, we have weapons on the outside you can get the ball to. That’s the balance you want to have."
Alabama is favored to beat Mississippi State by 8 points, according to the online betting site Bovada. But is that a safe wager?
Recent history shows us that if Alabama does lose, it will follow a trend we should have seen coming.
Here's a look at where all the SEC playoff contenders stand heading into Week 12.
Record: 9-0 (5-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Saturday at Alabama
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs are so close they can almost taste it. Having won the SEC West just once (1998), State can all but lock up the division title by beating Alabama on Saturday. They will go into Bryant-Denny Stadium as underdogs, but Dak Prescott & Co. have already played in a couple of big games this season and managed to remain unbeaten.
Cause for concern: Mississippi State has won just two of its past nine visits to Tuscaloosa, and prior to that had even less success there. The Bulldogs' 1997 win in T-Town was the first time the program had won there since 1957. In other words, history is decidedly in Alabama's favor on Saturday with the Crimson Tide enjoying a 24-2 series record at home since the 1957 loss.
Who they'll be rooting for this week: Georgia over Auburn
-- David Ching
Record: 8-1 (5-1)
Rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Saturday vs. Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: It doesn't have to be pretty so long as you survive, and that's exactly what Alabama did this past weekend when it came back to beat LSU in overtime. Though the win might have lacked style points, it proved that the Crimson Tide could win a tough game on the road.
Cause for concern: Those were four-plus quarters of pure SEC brutality in Baton Rouge. T.J. Yeldon isn't close to 100 percent after aggravating an ankle injury and Reggie Ragland played with a broken hand that's surely sore today. But there's no time to rest and recover as Alabama welcomes No. 1-ranked Mississippi State to town on Saturday.
Who they'll be rooting for: Kansas over TCU, Colorado over Oregon
-- Alex Scarborough
Record: 7-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Saturday at Georgia
Reason for optimism: Despite Saturday's stunning loss to Texas A&M, Auburn's chances of winning the SEC West and reaching the College Football Playoff are not dead yet. At No. 9, the Tigers are the top-ranked two-loss team, and they could still jump some of the one-loss teams in front of them with road wins at Georgia and Alabama to finish the season.
Cause for concern: Auburn isn't going to beat Georgia or Alabama if it doesn't start playing defense. The Tigers were solid through the first five games, but ever since a loss to Mississippi State last month, it has fallen apart. They have given up 31 or more points in four straight games, and it doesn't get any easier Saturday against Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs.
Who they'll be rooting for: Alabama over Mississippi State
-- Greg Ostendorf
Record: 8-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 10
Next big obstacle: Nov. 22 at Arkansas
Reason for optimism: There's still a decent chance that a two-loss SEC champ (from the West) could still make it into the playoff. Strength of schedule for those guys is just too good. The Rebels also enter their bye week ranked fourth in ESPN's Football Power Index and has a 40.6 percent chance to win out, the highest in the SEC.
Cause for concern: The Rebels got help with Texas A&M beating Auburn, but now needs Alabama to beat Mississippi State. That's certainly not out of the question, but a Mississippi State win would clinch the West for the Bulldogs. And will two losses be too many? The Rebels probably have zero chance if they don't win the SEC.
Who they'll be rooting for this week: Alabama over Mississippi State
-- Edward Aschoff
Record: 7-2 (5-2)
Rank: No. 15
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 vs Auburn
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs had little trouble with Kentucky last week and could clinch the SEC East this weekend. A win over Auburn and a Missouri loss would give the Bulldogs the division. Win out and take down an SEC West foe in Atlanta, and the Bulldogs could back right into the final playoff spot.
Cause for concern: Two losses hurt, especially for an SEC East team. That division just hasn't been very good at all, and the playoff committee will probably hold losses to South Carolina and Florida against the Dawgs. Missouri still has to lose a game, and then the Dawgs need Georgia Tech and Auburn to win every game but the ones in Athens.
Who they'll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Missouri
-- Edward Aschoff
Alabama's quarterback turned around during Saturday night's flight home from LSU and saw his teammates exhausted. He looked back on what they'd done and how they "gave it their all," and was proud.
"They played their hearts out," he said.
Games like Saturday's overtime battle with LSU don't stop having an effect as soon as the whistle blows, though. The collisions catch up with you. Soreness sets in and bruises rise to the surface.
"It was tough, but I got out of bed," said Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland. "I didn't really feel it until I started moving around. I came up here for treatment [Sunday] and my shoulder just started killing me, so I had to get in the hot tub and cold tub and calmed it down a little bit."
Austin Shepherd said he was "sore everywhere."
"Like you got hit by a Mack Truck," the senior offensive lineman explained.
"I've been in here getting treatment and getting my legs flushed and stuff, so I'm ready to go this week because it's going to be another war."
While Alabama slugged it out with LSU, Mississippi State sprinted past UT Martin.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs got to rest their starters. The No. 5-ranked Crimson Tide had no such luck.
Now the two get to meet in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for what promises to be another struggle in the trenches.
"Massive," Shepherd said to describe State's defensive line. "I still remember playing them last year and walking on the field and saying, 'Wow.' They're all 6-5, 6-6, big, physical guys."
It won't be easy, but Shepherd said it's important to "get back on our feet."
"We have to put the past in the past," he said.
It's true, there's nothing to be done about the physical toll Alabama took this past weekend. Starting running back T.J. Yeldon has to rest a few days to help his sprained ankle, for example.
But while trainers can help with the pain and soreness, it will ultimately come down to who wants it more.
"My body was sore and I was kind of mentally drained," Ragland said. "But we're playing the No. 1 team in the country. They're a very good team. We have to come out and reestablish our focus on them and get our bodies back right."
Said coach Nick Saban: "I think it's the mindset that is the most important thing for guys to ... not give what I call relief syndrome -- like we just won a big game so we're supposed to get a week off, go to the golf resort. It's the wrong time of the year. We have another tough game coming up."
For both Alabama and Mississippi State, the stakes couldn't be higher. The Crimson Tide can't afford another loss. It would hand the Bulldogs the SEC West and simultaneously knock Alabama out of playoff contention.
So while the body has its limits, motivation shouldn't be a factor.
"Mentally, we just have to put this last game behind us and keep looking forward," Sims said, "and realize that this is the next step to get to the promised land."
"I'm actually a great prankster, so if I was going to pants him, it would have been a lot better job than that," Stokes said after Monday's practice. "Everybody saw the top half of his butt for two seconds and you would have thought I just pulled the biggest prank ever out there. It was not the case, it was not intentional and my apologies to him and all the Alabama fans that have just contacted me and just let me know how they feel."
Stokes said he frequently pulls players off the pile by the back of their pants. In this case, however, Ragland was not wearing a belt and that led to a wardrobe malfunction when Stokes gave his pants a strong tug after an Anthony Jennings run in the third quarter.
"If you watch the Florida game or the Kentucky game, there was a pile and I grabbed people the exact same way, but they were actually wearing a belt, so when I pulled them off, I just yanked them back," Stokes said. "He wasn't wearing a belt, so when I yanked, his pants came down. It wasn't intentional."
The LSU senior, a native Alabamian, said he initially tried to shrug off the response to the play as something funny that happened in the course of a game. But Stokes said the public reaction became a nuisance when it wouldn't die after a day or two -- with even Ragland continuing to have fun with the situation.
Reggie Ragland on his now infamous pantsing by LSU: "I believe people have seen my butt more than I have."— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) November 10, 2014
Asked if he had heard from many Alabama fans, Stokes responded, "Oh my, have I. I guess I should take my own life after that. Ooh. I get back to the locker room and I can't even open up my cell phone because people are just letting me know exactly what they think.
"Some woman messaged me and told me she's been an Alabama fan for 30 years and she'd never seen anything like that and she thinks I should be suspended for the remainder of the year" Stokes continued. "So if y'all want to take that to the NCAA, I guess I should be suspended and never play again."
That won't happen, but Stokes will probably have to suck it up for a few more days until Saturday's slate of games brings new oddities to distract fans. For now, his revealing Ragland's rear end to the world is the trendy source of viral amusement -- for everyone but Stokes.
"I'm not like real happy about it," he said. "I tried to play it off, but it seems like I take three steps forward and five steps backward."
For three weeks, Dak Prescott put on a clinic.
On the biggest stages, he flourished. In back-to-back-to-back games against top-10 opponents, he not only lifted Mississippi State to its first-ever No. 1 ranking, he became a star in the process.
The no-name Louisiana kid, whom LSU slow-played in the recruiting process, went into Death Valley on Sept. 20 and announced himself to the college football world. His 56-yard touchdown run that night was the stuff of legends -- the way he broke through the line, stiff-armed a defender, juked another and leaped into the end zone.
But it didn't stop there. How could it?
His five-TD performance the following game against Texas A&M was a stunner. The Tim Tebow and Cam Newton comparisons came flooding in. The early Heisman Trophy ballots were stuffed. And if anyone was still unsure, he put up three more scores in a win over Auburn a week later and erased whatever doubt remained.
Ladies and gentlemen, your first-half Heisman winner: Dak Prescott.
The big, strong-armed quarterback with a 1,000-watt smile was perfect for the role. His backstory was compelling, his off-field behavior was impeccable and he was guiding the best team in college football.
But it couldn't last. How could it?
It didn't matter that he set school records for most touchdowns and most total yards in a single season against UT Martin last weekend. No one was watching.
But that won't be the case Saturday.
If Prescott wants to reach the front of the Heisman Trophy race, he'll have the opportunity to do so when he leads No. 1 Mississippi State into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to face the No. 5-ranked Crimson Tide.
If he plays like he did during that monster three-game stretch earlier in the year, there will be no denying his candidacy. It'll be right there on national television to see.
Newton won his Heisman at Alabama in 2010. Johnny Manziel won his at Alabama two years later. What's to say Prescott can't do the same?
He's still got that strong arm. He's still got that powerful lower body. He still has all that charisma to match.
Now all he needs to do is remind everyone who stopped watching or turned away.
"Dak Prescott is a very talented guy in a lot of ways," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He's a big, physical runner. He kind of reminds me of Tebow in a lot of ways, but he's also a very, very good passer."
Reggie Ragland compared him to Tebow, too.
"He's physical, he can run, he'll beat you with his arm a little bit, and he's very smart," Alabama's junior linebacker said. "If you're not doing the right things to disguise and confuse him, he'll beat you."
If Prescott does beat Alabama and plays well while doing so, he'll be right back in the rare air of Tebow, Newton and Manziel. He'll be right back atop of the list of Heisman contenders, too.
That's a big if, of course.
But three games don't make the man and three games certainly shouldn't erase him either. In college football, it's all about how you finish.
You remember Prescott's three weeks of greatness. You remember his three weeks of mediocrity that followed. But do you remember the three games he actually had to start the season?
Back on the big stage, how he plays against Alabama will be what every Heisman voter remembers most.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.
Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.
Around the SEC
- Leon Orr, who left Florida's team on Saturday before its game vs. Vanderbilt, tweeted remorse about his decision. Gators coach Will Muschamp says "nothing has changed."
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said star receiver D'haquille Williams is "week-to-week" after suffering a knee injury Saturday.
- An ongoing civil suit filed against Denzel Nkemdiche and Robert Nkemdiche could stretch into next year.
- The Twitterverse broke down the crucial Nick Marshall/Cameron Artis-Payne fumble that Texas A&M recovered in the fourth quarter of its upset win.
- Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said strangers have seen his rear end more than he has after he was pantsed vs. LSU.
- A unique map showing where college football means the most in the United States.
Evan Boehm says he took a campus trip with his younger brother, Tyler, to "that school on the other side of the line that I will not name."— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) November 11, 2014
Boehm: "I did not wear any of those God-awful colors." But he did want to help his younger brother through the recruiting process.— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) November 11, 2014
"Load 'em up," he told his wife the moment his postgame TV show had ended.
No. 1 Mississippi State had just throttled UT Martin, 45-16, and the Bulldogs’ head coach was eager to get his family home and unwind in front of the TV.
His job was done. Now he could relax and watch someone else struggle.
Because there on the screen waiting for him was Alabama-LSU. What Mullen saw during that four-hour slugfest had to make him smile. All the hits. All the collisions. All the wear and tear next week’s opponent, Alabama, took as it eked out a 7-point win in overtime.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Against UT Martin, Mullen was able to pull quarterback Dak Prescott in the third quarter and told Josh Robinson to take it easy after just six carries. He didn’t bother making Jameon Lewis or Justin Malone practice, because they were dinged up and he wanted them 100 percent for the following week, he said.
Against LSU, Nick Saban had no such luxury. Quarterback Blake Sims struggled to less than 50 percent passing and running back T.J. Yeldon aggravated an ankle injury. Reggie Ragland played through a broken hand and Cam Robinson worked on an ankle that was supposed to take a week or two longer to heal.
While Alabama laid it all on the line, Mississippi State was able to relax and lie in wait.
Prior to Saturday, Bulldogs defensive linemen Ryan Brown reached out to a friend who plays center for LSU. His message: "Bang them up so my boy Dak can get a couple extra yards."
Building toward Alabama game
For Mississippi State, everything has led to this.
"These are young kids, so you know in the back of their mind what they’re thinking," Mullen said, "and they’re thinking about next week’s game."
It wasn’t just the players, though. When you’re on top of the polls, everyone looks ahead.
After beating three straight ranked teams to climb to No. 1, Mississippi State took a step back and played unranked Kentucky, unranked Arkansas and FCS opponent UT Martin. So naturally it wasn’t about any of those games; it was about top-10 Alabama on the horizon.
In fact, the first question Mullen faced after beating UT Martin was about turning the page to the Crimson Tide.
He saw it coming. As the question was delivered, he pursed his lips and exhaled audibly.
"Absolutely," he said. "Bigtime game this week. This is what you play for. That’s what we want our program to be like, competing in these big games late in the season."
Ever a wet blanket of praise, Mullen insisted that, "So far, it’s pretty cool" being undefeated and ranked No. 1, but, "We still haven’t achieved all that much."
For the first time in school history, State is 9-0.
To get there, Mullen has had to clear a lot of hurdles. For one, he had to beat a ranked opponent, which he had done just twice in 23 opportunities coming into the season. So he took down three in a row, starting with LSU, which he had never beaten as a head coach.
Now he gets to try and beat Alabama, which would be another first during his tenure.
"I’d like to just make sure we do our job, win the game and go win the West, and not back into it or anything like that," Mullen said.
SEC West crown up for grabs
But can you put too much into playing Alabama?
After all, even if State loses the game it can still win the division.
The answer, Mullen said, is both yes and no.
"No, they’re going to be hyped for that game," he said before changing directions. "There’s about mathematically probably 50 different scenarios that can still happen in the SEC West. One game isn’t going to make or break or decide the season."
Though that’s technically true, the fact is that the team that wins Saturday controls its playoff destiny.
That thought has to be exciting for Mississippi State’s players, which might explain why some embraced the enormity of the matchup while others did their best to downplay the meaning.
Receivers Joe Morrow and Fred Brown weren’t exactly on the same page.
Morrow, for one, was nonchalant, saying it would "be a fun game" and "we just have to keep playing ball."
"I’m not really worried about it," he said. "I just want to keep winning."
Brown, meanwhile, said the trip to Alabama was "everything."
"We have Bama coming up," he said, "so we’re all-in this week."
Ryan Brown, the defensive lineman who asked for LSU’s help wearing down Alabama, said, "I have jitters even thinking about it."
Even so, he was careful not to get too excited.
"There is a point of being too high for a game and too amped up," he said. "But we try to stay focused and level-headed."
Taking their cue from Prescott, their quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful, the team seems to be keeping its cool for the most part.
Maybe they are not used to it yet.
For three weeks State has been ranked No. 1, but as Prescott said, "I don’t think we actually get to wear it."
Maybe a win against perennial powerhouse Alabama would change that.
"It means everything," Prescott said of the game. "Playing big time games in November, that means you’re playing for championships.
"To go into [Tuscaloosa] and being the hunted going in there, that’s a challenge we’re willing to take."
LSU stats to watch
506 rushing yards by QBs: Only five FBS teams have surrendered more rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks than LSU. That is not a particularly encouraging sign against Alabama and Blake Sims.
The converted running back has performed well in his first season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, but he still possesses the ability to break long runs. Sims accelerated for a 28-yard touchdown run in Alabama’s last game against Tennessee and broke a 43-yard touchdown run the previous week against Texas A&M.
LSU has done a better job defending the quarterback run since Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, New Mexico State’s Andrew Allen and Auburn’s Nick Marshall all broke the 100-yard mark in consecutive weeks against the Tigers. If the Tigers can limit Sims’ running opportunities, they will likely give themselves a much better chance of slowing down Alabama’s offense.
50 rushing attempts: Les Miles insists the Tigers want to be balanced on offense, but the numbers prove otherwise. LSU is unquestionably a run-first offense, having kept the ball on the ground 69.4 percent of the time this season.
LSU’s rushing totals will almost certainly indicate whether the Tigers are competitive in this game. During their three-game winning streak, the Tigers ran at least 50 times for at least 195 yards in each game. They’re coming off a win over Ole Miss where they ran 55 times for 264 yards -- and that’s the blueprint for success for LSU.
If they eclipse the 50-carry, 200-yard mark on the ground, things will be going according to plan for the Tigers. If they fall behind like they did against Mississippi State and Auburn -- when they ran 35 and 36 times, respectively -- they’ll have to pass more often. The next time they win by leaning heavily on the pass will be the first time they’ve done so in 2014.
Alabama stats to watch
49 percent: Can Sims spread the ball around? That’s the chief question facing Alabama.
So far, Amari Cooper has been responsible for a whopping 49 percent of the Crimson Tide’s total receiving yards this season, which happens to be the highest percentage in all of college football.
While he’s explosive, leading the country in receptions of 20-plus yards, there has to be more to the passing game than him. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will do everything he can to make sure Cooper doesn’t beat him. That means Sims getting guys such as Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard involved. If he can’t make the offense more dynamic, LSU will make him pay.
2.71 yards per carry: With space eaters A'Shawn Robinson and Brandon Ivory on the defensive line and big-bodied Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland at linebacker, Alabama is built to stop the run. In fact, the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards per rush allowed (2.71).
To take it one step further, Alabama has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (two) in the country. Against an Arkansas rushing offense that’s similar to LSU’s, the Crimson Tide held Jonathan Williams to less than 100 yards and Alex Collins to a grand total of 13 yards on six carries.
While LSU’s offensive line is arguably better than Arkansas’, that’s a sign Alabama’s defense will be able to handle Leonard Fournette and Tiger rushing attack
David Ching: The Tigers’ 10-7 win over Ole Miss essentially provided the blueprint for how LSU can win this game: Keep the chains moving with a power running game, play tough defense, avoid major mistakes. That last part was nearly the Tigers’ undoing -- they turned it over four times and missed a short field goal, which was the only reason the score was so close -- and they probably can’t beat Alabama with a minus-three turnover margin. But if that trademark Les Miles game plan is working on Saturday night, this is a game that the Tigers can win.
Alex Scarborough: There’s something about Death Valley at night. Since 2010, LSU is 21-2 in home games that start at 4 p.m. or later. The crowd starts rocking. Sometimes the fog rolls in. The environment plays tricks on you, and I think Alabama will succumb to the pressure. The offensive line will commit a few ill-timed penalties and Sims, who was avoided a number of interceptions thanks to some stone-handed DBs, will finally face a secondary that can take advantage of his mistakes. LSU gets a few key turnovers, controls the tempo on offense with its running game and pulls off the second straight upset at home.
Why LSU’s upset falls short
David Ching: If the Tigers fall behind early or struggle to move the ball on the ground, they are not efficient enough in the passing game to hang with Alabama. Anthony Jennings and Travin Dural have combined for some huge pass plays, but Dural’s position mates haven’t accounted for much production this season.
Alex Scarborough: Unfortunately for pundits, there’s no near-INT statistic. The fact of the matter is Sims has thrown only three picks all season, so while he may have been lucky with some poorly thrown passes in previous games, you can’t assume his luck will change. Actually, the numbers indicate that LSU is more likely to throw an interception than Alabama. The Tide rank eighth nationally in interceptions per pass attempt (1.2 percent) compared to LSU’s standing of 99th (3.6 percent). But to make your head totally spin, consider this: Despite a relatively high percentage of interceptions thrown, LSU is plus-4 in turnover margin while Alabama is minus-2.
LSU offensive X-factor: Anthony Jennings. LSU’s quarterback hasn’t completed better than 50 percent of his passes against any Power 5 defense. If the Tigers run the ball better than anyone else has against Alabama’s defense, maybe they won’t need much from Jennings. But our bet is they’ll need him to make a few big throws -- and avoid any crippling mistakes.
LSU defensive X-factor: Kendell Beckwith. It’s no coincidence that LSU’s defensive turnaround started with Beckwith’s introduction to the starting lineup. The sophomore middle linebacker seems to be getting more comfortable in his new role and will be a central figure in the Tigers’ efforts to slow down Alabama’s running game.
Alabama offensive X-factor: O.J. Howard. No defensive coordinator wants to look over and see Cooper on the other side of the field. But there’s another player on Alabama’s roster who can give opposing coaches fits: Howard. An athletic tight end who can run after the catch, Howard’s a matchup nightmare. He has only six receptions, but he made the play of the game last year against LSU with a 52-yard touchdown catch.
Alabama defensive X-factor: Brandon Ivory. What Ivory does best doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. In fact, he has only three tackles and has started just two games this season. But that’s because he’s a throwback in today’s game: A true nose guard who sits in the middle of the defensive line and eats up blockers. If he can help take away LSU’s power rushing game between the tackles, Alabama’s defense will be in great shape.
Today we’ll compare how the two teams stack up at each position group on offense and defense.
For the first half of the season, the numbers just weren’t there. Despite having arguably the best collection of talent during Nick Saban’s tenure, the D-line wasn’t getting into the backfield any more than in years past.
Then came Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee. In those games, the defense racked up 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.
The key against LSU likely won’t be getting to the quarterback, though. Big bodies like A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Brandon Ivory will have to fill the gaps against the Tigers’ vaunted rushing attack.
Against Arkansas, which employs a similar run-heavy offense, Alabama’s D-line helped limit the Razorbacks to 89 yards rushing and 2.3 yards per carry.
Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson
As on the offensive side of the ball, LSU had major problems along the line of scrimmage earlier in the season. The Tigers were getting production from ends Danielle Hunter (who is second on the team with 55 tackles and has a team-high 10 tackles for loss) and Jermauria Rasco (42 tackles, team-high three sacks), but now seem to have found a solid combination in the middle with Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, too.
There are entirely different levels of difficulty involved in shutting down Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss and attacking Alabama’s power running game, however. Saturday will be the biggest test of the progress LSU has made up front.
Player to watch: Danielle Hunter
The emergence of Reggie Ragland has meant everything to a group that had to replace All-American C.J. Mosley this season.
Finally using his strength and athleticism to his benefit, Ragland has become the team’s leading tackler with 56 total stops, and ranks third with 6.5 tackles for loss.
With he and big Trey DePriest in the middle, Alabama has the bodies to stop the run.
Throw in the likely return of Denzel Devall at Sam linebacker and Xzavier Dickson’s continual improvement at the Jack linebacker position, and the Tide are in good shape.
Player to watch: Denzel Devall
The two main names to know here are Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith, both players who opted to sign with LSU over offers from Alabama.
Weakside linebacker Alexander, a native of Oxford, Alabama, leads LSU with 57 tackles and ranks second with six tackles for loss. Beckwith has been a force since entering the starting lineup at middle linebacker three games ago. He’s third on the team with 52 stops and will be one of the key players to watch as the Tigers attempt to defend Alabama’s runs between the tackles.
Since Alabama is a bit more traditional on offense than some of the Tigers’ recent opponents, we may see more of strongside linebacker Lamar Louis than we’ve seen in recent games. Louis made three tackles against Ole Miss’ spread offense and didn’t make a stop against Kentucky.
Player to watch: Kendell Beckwith
Landon Collins isn’t letting the whole LSU thing go.
“Personally, this game means a lot,” the junior said. “Just want to show them I picked the right team.”
An All-America-caliber safety, Collins has done well for himself at Alabama ever since his infamous public decision to spurn in-state LSU.
But Alabama’s secondary is more than Collins. Cyrus Jones has stepped up in his first full year starting at cornerback and the battle of Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown has produced good results at the other cornerback position. Big-bodied Jarrick Williams is a weapon at the nickel corner position and Nick Perry has held down the second safety spot better than many expected.
Player to watch: Landon Collins
Thanks largely to Amari Cooper (71 catches, 1,132 yards, nine touchdowns), Alabama has much more than a run-only offense. Keeping Cooper under wraps will be a major test for an LSU secondary that enters as the SEC’s top pass defense (158.4 ypg).
For the most part, LSU cornerbacks Tre’Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins have been impressive this season. Opponents have beaten them deep a time or two, but they have mostly supplied tight coverage to this point. They will all get their shots covering Cooper on Saturday.
Safety has been a bit more of an adventure at times. Veterans Ronald Martin (48 tackles, two interceptions, team-high seven pass breakups) and Jalen Mills (36 tackles, three tackles for loss) are the starters, but youngsters Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams have made some big plays lately.
Keep an eye on Adams in particular, as he is quickly developing into a star in the LSU secondary.
Player to watch: Jamal Adams