SEC: Ryan Baker

David Helman writes Insider: The home stretch for the NFL draft begins in earnest Thursday for LSU alums, as the Tigers prepare for their annual pro day.

SEC combine update

February, 27, 2012
The NFL combine is wrapping up over the next two days in Indianapolis.

Here are some of the top SEC performers to date:

40-yard dash
Bench press
  • Georgia TE Orson Charles – 35 repetitions of 225 pounds
  • Georgia OT Justin Anderson – 32 repetitions
  • Georgia OT Cordy Glenn – 31 repetitions
  • LSU LB Ryan Baker – 30 repetitions
  • Auburn OT Brandon Mosley – 30 repetitions
  • Georgia C Ben Jones – 29 repetitions
  • Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox – 30 repetitions
  • South Carolina DE Melvin Ingram – 28 repetitions
  • Tennessee RB Tauren Poole – 24 repetitions
  • Mississippi State RB Vick Ballard – 23 repetitions
  • Texas A&M RB Cyrus Gray – 21 repetitions
Vertical jump
  • Missouri WR Jerrell Jackson – 41 inches
  • Ole Miss RB Brandon Bolden – 38 inches
  • Arkansas WR Jarius Wright – 38 inches
  • Arkansas WR Greg Childs – 36.5 inches
  • Florida RB Chris Rainey – 36.5 inches
  • Arkansas WR Joe Adams – 36 inches
  • Tennessee RB Tauren Poole – 34 inches
Broad jump
  • Missouri TE Michael Egnew – 10 feet, 11 inches
  • Missouri WR Jerrell Jackson – 10 feet, 7 inches
  • Arkansas WR Greg Childs – 10 feet, 5 inches
  • Arkansas WR Joe Adams – 10 feet, 3 inches
20-yard shuttle
  • Florida RB Chris Rainey – 3.93
  • Arkansas WR Jarius Wright – 4.03
  • LSU QB Jordan Jefferson – 4.06
  • Missouri WR Jerrell Jackson – 4.11
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”
We move to linebackers today in our postseason position rankings.

Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.

You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.

And here are our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower had career highs in tackles (79), sacks (3.0) and interceptions (1) this season.
1. Alabama: This unit was at the top of our preseason rankings and didn't budge throughout the season. When you have two All-Americans in Courtney Upshaw, who was the defensive MVP in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and Dont'a Hightower it's pretty understandable to see why. Those two combined for 136 tackles, including 29 for loss. Nico Johnson was fourth on the team in tackles, while C.J. Mosley added 37 of his own. Alabama's defense was first nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, allowing 74.2 yards per game.

2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.

3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.

4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.

5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.

6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.

9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.

10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.

11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.

SEC players invited to NFL combine

February, 7, 2012
The NFL has released its list of invites to this years NFL combine. Of the more than 300 prospects taking part in the pre-draft shenanigans starting Feb. 22, 62 are from the SEC (for fun we are including Missouri and Texas A&M).

Here are the SEC representatives: School breakdown:
  • Alabama: 9
  • Arkansas: 4
  • Auburn: 3
  • Florida: 3
  • Georgia: 8
  • Kentucky: 2
  • LSU: 8
  • Missouri: 4
  • Mississippi State: 4
  • Ole Miss: 2
  • South Carolina: 5
  • Tennessee: 2
  • Texas A&M: 6
  • Vanderbilt: 2

SEC recruiting needs: Western Division

January, 25, 2012
With national signing day a week away, we’ll take a look today at the recruiting needs of each SEC team, starting with the Western Division. These needs are based on current rosters and voids that will be created with upperclassmen leaving in the next year or two. We realize that a lot of these needs have already been filled by players who’ve committed (or signed) in this class.

Here we go:


Defensive back: It’s not quite the exodus Alabama faced following the 2009 season in the secondary, but the Crimson Tide lose three starters back there, including both cornerbacks. And safety Mark Barron was the guy who got everybody in the right spots. Alabama signed two junior college cornerbacks, and they’re already on campus.

Receiver: The top four pass-catchers from the 2011 season, including tight end Brad Smelley, are gone. In particular, Alabama could use a big, physical receiver capable of creating mismatches and making big plays down the field.

Linebacker: The Crimson Tide have never been hurting for linebackers, but they lose three good ones in Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Jerrell Harris. Plus, Nico Johnson will be a senior next season and C.J. Mosley will be a junior. There are some young ones waiting in the wings, but Alabama needs to add to its stable.


Receiver: When you lose a pair of record-setting playmakers at receiver like Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, that’s always a good place to start. Greg Childs is also gone, so the Hogs are looking for people to fill their spots.

Offensive line: Finding some reinforcements up front on offense is also a big need for the Hogs. The most pressing need is at tackle. One starter in 2011, Grant Freeman, was a senior, and the other, Jason Peacock, will be a senior next season.

Defensive back: The Hogs like the young defensive backs on their roster, but losing Tramain Thomas at safety will be a blow. Eric Bennett also played well at the other safety, but he will be a junior next season. Another cornerback or two would also be nice.


Receiver: The Tigers need some game-breaking receivers. Emory Blake is back, but he’s going to be a senior, and Trovon Reed hasn’t been able to avoid injuries. The vertical passing game was non-existent this past season, and finding some guys who can get down the field and make some plays is a must for the Tigers.

Offensive line: More than anything else, Auburn needs guards and is very thin there. Christian Westerman is a talented, young guy who’s coming, but the Tigers are going to have to replenish the interior of their offensive line.

Defensive back: The truth is that the Tigers need help on defense, period. But the secondary has really taken it on the chin, especially this past season. Cornerback Chris Davis, a rising junior, has a chance to be special, but he needs some help around him.


Linebacker: The Tigers are still loaded on defense, but linebacker was the one area they wanted to address with both Ryan Baker and Karnell Hatcher departing, and they did with six commitments from players projected to play linebacker in college. All six are from the state of Louisiana, too.

Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger will step in as the starter next season, but he will be a junior. There’s nobody behind him who’s ever taken a snap in a college game. The Tigers thought they had highly rated Gunner Kiel in the fold, but lost him to Notre Dame. They need another quarterback.

Receiver: Rueben Randle emerged as one of the best big-play threats in the league this past season, but he’s turning pro early. Russell Shepard is set to return for his senior season, and Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry both have a ton of potential. Even so, LSU could use a few more playmakers at receiver.


Defensive line: Losing All-SEC tackle Fletcher Cox early to the pros hurt. The Bulldogs are suddenly behind in their depth. The numbers up front defensively aren’t where they need to be, which makes this a big class for the Bulldogs in the defensive line. Getting a dynamic pass-rusher is a must.

Offensive line: Finding a couple of guys who can help quickly was a priority, and that’s what the Bulldogs hope they’ve done with junior college additions Dylan Holley at center and Charles Siddoway at tackle.

Linebacker: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters following the 2010 season, and Brandon Wilson won’t return next season. What’s more, Cameron Lawrence will be a senior. The most pressing need is a middle linebacker, and preferably one who could step in and play early.


Running back: One of the first things new head coach Hugh Freeze will look to do is put some pop in the Rebels’ running game. That starts with bringing in some prototypical SEC running backs in terms of size and speed. Jeff Scott led Ole Miss in rushing last season with 529 yards, but at 5-7 and 175 pounds, he’s more of a speed guy or change-up in this league.

Defensive back: The Rebels will take all the help they can get in the secondary. Safety Damien Jackson is gone. Cornerback Wesley Pendleton will be a senior, while cornerback/safety Charles Sawyer will be a junior.

Quarterback: There are several guys on campus who have played, but the Rebels are still searching for somebody who can come in and give them some consistency at the quarterback position. And with Freeze’s new spread offense, finding the right fit will also be important.


Defensive back: The Aggies will jump into SEC play needing to replace three of four starters in their secondary. Both of their starting cornerbacks are gone, in addition to their best safety. So finding guys who can cover will be at the top of their list.

Defensive line: In keeping with the defensive theme, which is a must if you’re going to survive in the SEC, Texas A&M will be looking to replenish its defensive line. Gone are Ben Bass, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown. Building up a deeper defensive line rotation will be critical for the Aggies.

Running back: Depth at running back is another concern. Cyrus Gray, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, is gone. Christine Michael returns for his senior season, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. It typically takes three backs to make it through an SEC season.
Jordan JeffersonChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 53 yards passing and 15 yards rushing against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS -- The ride is over.

The emotional roller coaster that was LSU’s season ended tragically inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The team that had shaken off a plethora of distractions and back-to-back games with double-digit, first-half deficits never made its way out of the French Quarter as No. 1 LSU (13-1, 8-0) fell to second-ranked Alabama (12-1, 7-1) 21-0 in Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For once, there was no spark for the Bayou Bengals. The team that had rolled over each and every opponent it faced this season -- and seemed on its way to a historic finish -- fell flat when it mattered the most.

“You have to play through adversity,” LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “That’s what our coaches teach us.

“[Alabama] made all the big plays and made all the tough plays tonight, and [I] tip my hat off to them for making all the big plays and winning tonight.”

The defense had more bend on Monday than it had been accustomed to, allowing nearly 400 yards, five field goals and a late-game touchdown. Still, for staying on the field for 35 minutes that’s pretty good.

For everything the defense did for the offense, it got nothing in return. It got no adjustments, no originality. What it did get was five first downs, 92 total yards, 2.1 yards per play and zero points.

It got an offense that crossed into Alabama territory just once … and that came in the fourth quarter.

Followed by criticism throughout the season, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson couldn’t get his offense moving. He couldn’t run and his arm didn’t help. The vertical passing game LSU promised wasn’t there because Jefferson admitted to holding onto the ball too long on designed deep passes because he wasn’t confident in where Alabama’s defenders were.

Some of his passes ranged from erratic to short. He was sacked four times and heard boos late in the first half and throughout the second when he took snaps instead of demoted quarterback Jarrett Lee.

Jefferson threw for 53 yards and an interception, and was beautifully contained by Alabama’s defense, which allowed him to rush for only 15 yards on 14 carries.

“I was seeing things clearly,” Jefferson said. “Making decisions with the ball wasn’t an issue.”

Jefferson turned the ball over twice, but it was his ill-advised flip-pass to an unsuspecting Spencer Ware that was devastating. Jefferson thought Ware was ready for the pass, but Ware had turned up field to block before Jefferson released the ball, which was intercepted.

“Other than that, I made great decisions with the ball,” Jefferson said. “Offensively, we just fell short.”

Very short.

Though there was no sign of Lee. He just stood on the sidelines, tossing the ball occasionally to keep his arm warm.

“It’s disappointing,” Lee said. “I would have liked to have gotten some snaps, but it is what it is. Didn’t get any snaps, so you gotta move on past that.”

LSU coach Les Miles' only explanation for not playing Lee was that with Lee’s lack of mobility he didn’t feel as though he could sustain Alabama’s pass rush.

Even with as poorly as Jefferson played, the pounding, wear-‘em-down running game that moved this offense never arrived. The Tigers got 12 carries from their running backs. (Leading rusher Michael Ford got four carries but managed only 1 yard.)

Offensive lineman Will Blackwell said the plan was to run the ball up the middle, but that never materialized so the staff directed runs to outside. Even after those didn't work, adjustments weren't made.

“I feel like we got away from our game plan a little bit,” Blackwell said. “We planned on running it inside and pounding them to maybe get the edge.

“We fell away from that and I don’t know what the reason for that is. Our game plan just fell apart.

“We got away from the things we’ve been doing all season, and whenever you do that in a championship game it usually doesn’t work out for you very well.”

LSU finally succumbed to all the adversity. For a team that fed off the negativity, the Tigers weren’t ready for Alabama. There was no game-changing play from the Honey Badger, the defense didn’t force any turnovers, there was no emotion in the second half and the offense never showed up.

For the defense, Monday must have hurt the most. They hunkered down near their own end zone and played well enough to win.

In the end, LSU’s defense just couldn’t play both ways for the Tigers.

“It was very disappointing,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We were clawing and fighting out there and we were just sitting back watching them go three-and-out.”

Video: LSU's Ryan Baker

January, 10, 2012

Edward Aschoff talks with LSU's Ryan Baker following the Tigers' loss to Alabama in the title game.

Video: LSU's Ryan Baker

January, 9, 2012

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU's Ryan Baker about his stay in New Orleans, preparing for the Allstate BCS National Championship Game and more.
NEW ORLEANS -- There has been no shortage of complaining since the Allstate BCS National Championship Game teams were announced.

It’s understandable when you consider that No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) have already played. But most of the protests stemmed from the fact neither team scored a touchdown when they played in November.

Something called “defense” was played in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but apparently there was too much.

Monday, you won’t see PlayStation-like numbers that have been the norm during bowl season, but both teams promise things will be different when they have the ball.

“We’re going to have a better game plan this time and hopefully put some more points on the board,” LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to come out 9-6 and win this game.”

For Monday’s rematch to look different, some things need to change on both sides. Here’s a look at why things will be different inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMI"Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started," LSU receiver Rueben Randle said.
LSU’s passing game will be more vertical

In November, LSU’s passing game was ineffective. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee combined to throw under the century mark and just four passes for double-digit yardage.

Now, the talk from LSU’s side is how vertical the Tigers want to get against Alabama’s defense. LSU ran for 148 yards last time, so Alabama will be keying in on the run.

LSU will want to start on the ground but wants Jefferson to air it out a little more.

“Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started,” Randle said. “They’re going to fill that box to stop the run, so we need to be ready as receivers to make those plays down field.”

Alabama’s wide receivers want to prove themselves

Alabama might have had 100 more passing yards than LSU in November, but it never looked great. Quarterback AJ McCarron made some mistakes, but wide receiver Darius Hanks said the ones who catch the ball need to step up.

Alabama got two catches from tight ends and eight from receivers. Hanks, who caught two, said that should improve Monday.

“Our tight ends and our receivers will be the difference-makers in this game,” he said. “They think that if they stop our run game, then they’re going to win the game, but I feel differently.

“We can see a lot of their weaknesses, so we’re going to attack those areas, go strong and put the ball in the air this time.”

He also expects to spearhead Alabama’s passing game because he feels he can beat All-American cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.

“I definitely feel like those guys, they can’t cover me,” he said.

P.J. Lonergan is 100 percent

Last time, LSU’s starting center wasn’t at full speed. He was hobbled by an ankle injury and played sparingly against Alabama.

While LSU was able to run the ball well without Lonergan, he should bolster LSU’s pass blocking, which will give Jefferson more time to look downfield.

“It’s definitely good that he’s back healthy,” LSU offensive guard Will Blackwell said.

“A healthy P.J. now will definitely be better than the P.J. that played Nov. 5.”

Alabama is prepared for the option

The Tide’s defense wasn’t as ready for Jefferson and the option in November. The team was prepared to see more of Lee, so when Jefferson came in, holes opened up in Alabama’s rush defense.

Now, Alabama knows that Jefferson will be LSU’s guy and the defense knows that Jefferson likes the option. LSU might want to throw more, but the running game is the heart of the offense.

Tide defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key will be locking up the run gaps that were open too often when Jefferson ran the ball. Players were out of position because they weren’t ready.

“If we keep our running lanes right and affect him,” he said, “we’ll have a great ballgame.”

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rick Wilson"I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said.
McCarron will have more confidence and emotion

McCarron didn’t play his game last time. He toned down the emotion and that sucked away his confidence.

His teammates had nothing to feed off of, and that hurt Alabama. McCarron has been given the green light to ramp up those emotions, and that should keep his spirits up against LSU’s defense.

“I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do,” McCarron said. “Just play my game.”

If McCarron can get going, it will help Alabama in the red zone. The Tide moved the ball well between the 30s against LSU but reached the red zone just once.

Alabama’s secondary is nicked up

LSU could move the ball through the air better this time because Alabama’s secondary is banged up. Safety Mark Barron injured his ribs against Auburn, while cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have leg injuries.

Menzie has a hamstring injury that bothered him all season, while Milliner suffered a thigh injury against Auburn. They say they’re fine, but they’re called “nagging” for a reason.

Backup safety Will Lowery is also out with a season-ending knee injury he suffered against Georgia Southern.

On the flip side, LSU is healthier.

“The most important thing about this break is we’re fresh,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said. “Going into Nov. 5, guys were nicked up. … The game plan is pretty much the same, it’s just those guys [who weren’t healthy] will be making plays."

Most of the focus will be on points, but these teams are too old school for this to be a track meet. Defense will continue to be the constant for both teams.

“I'd expect it to be big-boy football,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And I'd expect it to be very, very physical and that it would be a game that would be representative of two quality football teams.”

OXFORD, Miss. — LSU linebacker Ryan Baker promises there was no Arkansas talk on the sidelines or in the locker room Saturday.

He smiled that boyish smile while relaying the message that Ole Miss was the only topic of discussion during and after the 52-3 drubbing of the Rebels, so who knows if he was fibbing?

But would anyone have blamed the Tigers for casting aside such an overmatched opponent so quickly?

It took 28 seconds for LSU to get its game-winning score and less than a quarter before Ole Miss’ student section began to shrink and file out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and into the Grove.

Saturday night was an imposing display of total dominance that began with a Ron Brooks’ interception returned 46 yards for a touchdown on a poorly thrown pass from Zack Stoudt.

This “contest” was over before Jordan Jefferson even took the first snap of his second start of the year and it could have been worse if not for four kneel-downs ordered by LSU coach Les Miles inside Ole Miss’ 5-yard line with five minutes remaining.

“We felt like if we came with it fast and physical we could jump on top of them,” LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “We felt like if it gets pretty bad, they would let it down, shut it down a little bit.”

LSU imposed its will, and there was nothing Ole Miss could do.

LSU’s rout wasn’t surprising and the speed with which it occured probably didn’t shock anyone, either. It says a lot about the shape of an Ole Miss program that will say goodbye to head coach Houston Nutt after next week’s game at Mississippi State, but it also says a lot about where this LSU program is.

There is no question that this is the best team in the country and during a game in which LSU could have easily played down to its competition, the Tigers never lagged or got sloppy.

“This team realizes the path that it’s on,” Miles said.

“Our football team recognizes that for our destiny and the things that we need to do.”

Miles said he didn’t bring up Oklahoma State’s Friday night loss to Iowa State. He didn’t mention the SEC’s Saturday struggles. He didn’t because it wouldn’t have added any motivation.

LSU doesn’t need it.

Les Miles
Spruce Derden/US Presswire"You don't have to sugarcoat it," coach Les Miles said of LSU's approach. "All you need to say is simply, 'This is what we do.'"
“Our plan was good. I felt like our guys came in with an edge and a want for victory,” Miles said.

“Really, we felt like this is what we do. You don’t have to sugarcoat it. You don’t have to bring up other teams having difficulties. All you need to say is simply, ‘This is what we do.’”

LSU doesn’t have time to get sluggish or walk into a game. LSU sprints at and over its opponents each week. It would have been natural for LSU to spend all of its energy and emotion on the Alabama game, but somehow there is more fuel to push through to the finish.

“This team has a lot of drive. Our goals at the end of the year are to play for something significant,” Baker said. “You can really see it in this team’s demeanor that we really want this championship at the end of the year.”

To accomplish that goal, getting past Arkansas is the next step. If LSU is the best team in the country, Arkansas might as well be the hottest one after dismantling Mississippi State 44-17 Saturday.

Since slipping by Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Arkansas has outscored its last three opponents 137-52. What started off as just a high-powered passing game has evolved into a much more balanced offense in the past three weeks, giving the Hogs legitimate BCS aspirations.

They would love nothing more than to put a big, fat blemish on LSU’s sparkling resume. An Arkansas victory would create a three-team tie in the West if Alabama beats Auburn, so there is a semifinal feel to next Friday.

A loss for the Tigers could crush their national championship hopes.

If the Alabama game was “The Game,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo labeled this one “The Game: Part 2.”

Film sessions start Sunday. It’s offense vs. defense. It’s glamor verses grit.

“They love to pass the ball and we love to give pressure,” Mingo said. “We’ll see how that works out.”

The rest of the country is anxiously waiting.

Clash of the titanic defenses

November, 4, 2011

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU linebacker Ryan Baker wasn’t holding back when he was asked about more being on the line Saturday than just a win over Alabama.

No, it didn’t have to do with the national championship or the SEC championship.

It had to do with bragging rights. More importantly, defensive bragging rights.

For most of the season, Baker and the rest of the country have heard about the comparisons between both units and the question of whose unit is better had been asked ad nauseum.

Well, talking time is over, it’s time for someone to take the moniker of “the best” home.

“I’m not gonna lie and mention that I don’t want to be the best defense on the field at any time,” Baker said. “Really, it’s proving ourselves. We’ve heard a lot about their defense and we want to come out and show them that we can play defense as well.”

Both teams have been playing defense all year. Both rank fifth or better in the country in five defensive categories, and fifth or better in the SEC in nine defensive categories. Alabama and LSU are one and two in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

“Everybody’s competing for the best defense,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Everybody’s claiming we got it. They’re claiming they got it, so it’s going to be good competition.”

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Dont'a Hightower
AP Photo/Rick WilsonDont'a Hightower (30) and Alabama might have nation's best linebacking unit. But is Alabama's defense better than LSU's?
It’s going to be great competition and there could be at least 10 high defensive draft picks taking the field Saturday. Alabama might have the best linebacker corps, especially with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw flying around the field and off the edge, but LSU might have the top trio of cornerbacks around, with the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) zeroing in on the ball and Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon sticking to their men like glue.

Here are some numbers to munch on:

  • Alabama enters this game holding opponents to six points or less in six of its eight games. Alabama has also allowed seven points or less in 12 of its past 13 first halves.
  • LSU has given up 41 points in its first five conference games, the fewest since 1985 when LSU equaled that feat.
  • Alabama’s opponents have run 458 plays this season and only managed 119 -- both running and passing -- that went for more than 5 yards.
  • The Tigers have held opponents without a touchdown in 24 of 32 quarters this season and have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown.
  • Offenses have crossed the 50-yard line during a drive against the Tide 24 times and have moved past Alabama’s 40 just 16 times.
  • The longest rush against LSU this year is 29 yards, and on 96 possessions, LSU has either forced a three-and-out or a turnover 48 times.

The bottom line is that these two units are darn good and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more complete defenses out there.

Both possess that rare combination of strength and speed across the board. While Alabama has more girth -- especially within the linebackers that Mingo referred to as “monsters” -- it doesn’t lack in speed. LSU is much slimmer, but just ask Mathieu about the toughness of he and his mates.

LSU coach Les Miles passed on the discussion of which unit was better, but he didn’t shy away from complimenting his players.

“I think there’s a great deal of speed and want in our defense -- all 11 guys,” Miles said. “An advantage, at times, is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are advantages in strength and quickness, not necessarily size.”

LSU players said this week that they hadn’t paid much attention to Alabama’s defense this season, but there were peaks here and there. Baker said he watched the Florida and Penn State games, while Mingo said he’s caught glimpses along the way.

Tigers safety Brandon Taylor said he has never seen so much hype surrounding two defenses before. The only thing he could compare this matchup to was a ferocious NFL rivalry.

“The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are the only teams I’ve ever heard [receive this much defensive hype],” Taylor said.

“We want to outplay their defense. That’s going to be our motive. If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

When asked if he had seen a game with two defenses of this caliber taking the field, Miles started into a classic Miles response before failing to find the right words. It seemed like The Hat had been stumped.

He paused for a few seconds, flashed an approving smirk and returned to form to deliver his final answer.

“There have been some teams that have lined up and had quality defenses as well,” he said. “I just think both of these defense might match the best that I’ve seen.”

Us too.

Video: LSU LB Ryan Baker

November, 3, 2011

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU linebacker Ryan Baker about Saturday's matchup with Alabama.

Quiet excitment around LSU's campus

November, 1, 2011
BATON ROUGE, La. -- For now, everything is peaceful on campus.

Students were trudging around after what was surely a fun Halloween in Baton Rouge. The number of Honey Badger costumes had to be staggering.

There are "Beat Bama" signs sitting in a few yards outside of campus and the students seem more eager than the players and coaches.

Linebacker Ryan Baker said that his phone has been inundated with text messages and phone calls all about Alabama. It can get a little overwhelming, but Baker said it adds even more excitement to the game.

Defensive end Barkevious Mingo said one thing that helps him is the fact that head coach Les Miles is as loose as ever. It might sound weird for a head coach, even for a coach as unorthodox as Miles, to keep the same demenor he's had all season for a game of this magnitude, but his players certainly don't mind.

"If he's calm," Mingo said, "we're calm."

Chavis returns to Neyland ... as a Tiger

October, 13, 2011
John Chavis isn’t talking this week.

Really, that’s not all that unusual for the man known as “Chief” around the SEC football world. He’s never been a big talker, especially when it comes to mugging for the cameras.

He’s as old school as old school can get and would rather be on the practice field or in the film room than he would talking to the media.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chavis
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJohn Chavis returns to his alma mater on Saturday, but this time as LSU's defensive coordinator.
And getting him to talk this week? You’d have a better chance of scoring against his LSU defense.

Yes, it’s Tennessee. Yes, it’s his first trip back to Neyland Stadium since being unceremoniously pushed out along with Phillip Fulmer and the rest of the Vols’ coaches following the 2008 season.

And, yes, Chavis’ blood still boils when he thinks about all that he invested at his alma mater and all that the Vols accomplished on his watch as defensive coordinator … and then how it all came crashing down.

But Chavis doesn’t want Saturday’s game to be about him. That’s not his style, and that’s why the only thing you’re going to get from him this week concerning what this game means to him is one of his customary grunts.

Still, it means plenty, especially with it being in Knoxville.

Chavis, who walked on at Tennessee as a middle guard and later earned a scholarship, also worked his way up through the coaching ranks to become the Vols’ defensive coordinator in 1995. He held that position for 14 years and refused to go anywhere else despite several lucrative NFL offers coming his way. Former South Carolina coach Lou Holtz also tried to hire him away.

But Chavis’ roots were too deeply dug in at Tennessee, and those who know him best will tell you that he’s as loyal as he is stubborn.

So when Fulmer and his longtime staff were sent packing after a national championship, two SEC championships and five trips to the SEC championship game in their 16 full seasons together, nobody took it harder than Chavis.

To this day, he has a hard time talking about how it all ended, but he’s also grounded enough and secure enough in his new career at LSU that he’s moved on.

“I’m sure there will be some emotion for John. That is only natural,” Fulmer said of Chavis’ return to Neyland Stadium. “But John is the ultimate professional and has always attempted to prepare his defensive teams to play at a high level … regardless of who they play.”

Chavis not only has this LSU defense playing at a high level. He has the No. 1-ranked Tigers playing at a championship level, and it’s reminiscent of the way his 1998 national championship defense at Tennessee played.

LSU is ranked fifth nationally in total defense, allowing 254 yards per game. The Tigers lead the SEC with 48 tackles for loss and have given up just eight touchdowns in six games.

It’s also an LSU defense that’s still young. Of the 22 on the defensive two-deep, 13 are sophomores or younger.

And with this being the third year in Chavis’ system, the players are playing faster, more instinctively and with fewer errors than they did a year ago when the Tigers finished 11th nationally in scoring defense and 12th nationally in total defense.

“This might not be the most talented defense I’ve been on,” LSU senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. “But as far as communication, playing together and everybody being on the same page, this has to be one of the best defenses I’ve ever been on, and a lot of that has to do with coach Chavis.”

LSU coach Les Miles didn’t waste much time going after Chavis when Chavis was cut loose following that 2008 season. Clemson was also hot on Chavis’ trail, but Miles was able to lure him to Baton Rouge.

Georgia’s Mark Richt made a run at Chavis two years ago, but LSU answered with a raise, taking Chavis to $700,000 annually. Texas also showed some interest in Chavis this past offseason.

Miles says Chavis has been “really what we needed” and isn’t about to let him get away.

Miles also has a feeling what will be going through Chavis’ mind when he walks into Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s hard for me to talk for John, but anybody that knows him knows that he has such a grand heart, and he’s so loyal,” Miles said. “I can remember playing against his defenses when I was at LSU, and you felt his presence across the field. … John will want that defense to play well.”

Baker said Chavis hasn’t said a word this week to the defense about this game carrying any special meaning for him.

“He’s too much of a field general for that,” Baker said. “He’s about playing hard and playing with passion every time you go out.”

That said, Baker said the LSU players have taken it on themselves to make sure Chavis’ return is one he’ll remember for all the right reasons.

“We actually talked about it as a team,” Baker said. “We know coach Chavis spent the majority of his coaching life at Tennessee, and we want to get this one for him. He deserves it.”