SEC: Trey DePriest

Four consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes Insider. Arguably the best head coach in the country. And a schedule that's manageable by most any standard.

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.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDespite some questions at the quarterback position, Alabama's offense should still take off with the likes of Derrick Henry in the backfield.
Sure, the defense needs to pick up the slack after surrendering an average of 33 points and 493 yards in its final three games, but that porous finish should only serve as motivation through a long offseason. The defensive line, led by standouts A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, is poised be the best in the SEC. Losing Trey DePriest's experience at middle linebacker hurts, but getting Reggie Ragland back might actually to be an upgrade in terms of athleticism. And while the back end is shaky without Landon Collins, there are plenty of four- and five-star prospects at defensive back to fill the gaps.

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.

Notes from Allstate Sugar Bowl eve

December, 31, 2014
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NEW ORLEANS -- The time for yapping is done. Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer both met the media on Wednesday morning for the final news conferences before Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl. Clearing out the notebook ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Alabama at media day

December, 30, 2014
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NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama and Ohio State spent an hour apiece at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Tuesday's media day leading up to their meeting in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fullback Jalston Fowler on what it takes to play multiple positions (also including running back, tight end and receiver) like he does: "It's a whole bunch of knowledge I have to have. You have to look over that playbook a lot because you've got to know what you're doing at receiver, you've got to know what you're doing at H-back, you've got to know what you're doing at running back. So it's just a lot for me, but I appreciate it because it helps me show my versatility."
ATLANTA -- In the waning moments of Alabama's 42-13 win against Missouri in the SEC championship game, quarterback Blake Sims beelined toward the man in white.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I wouldn't want to play against them."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were never perfect or anything like that,” Kelly said. “Texas A&M was the most perfect we ever played, but there was always a bump in the road. This team continued to be resilient, and that’s what makes this so special.”

Alabama vs. Auburn primer

November, 28, 2014
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Throw out the records when Alabama and Auburn meet this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. It doesn't matter that the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 and playing for a spot in the SEC championship. This is the Iron Bowl. If we learned anything from last year's game, it's to expect the unexpected when these two in-state rivals clash.

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:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's key against Auburn is to keep Nick Marshall from turning the game into a shootout.
Alabama's key to victory: Blake Sims shouldn't have trouble moving the ball seeing as how Auburn ranks ninth in the SEC in yards per game (375.0). So the real concern is avoiding a shootout, and that means the front seven stuffing Auburn's vaunted rushing game. With Nick Marshall running point and Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Roc Thomas to hand the ball off to, defending the zone-read won't be easy. It will mean the linemen minding their gaps and middle linebackers Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest reading their keys precisely. If outside linebackers Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson lose containment, it could mean big gains.

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.

At first glance: SEC Week 14

November, 24, 2014
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It all comes down to this.

The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn

Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?

Lane
Prescott
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.

Lane
Muschamp
Coach under the microscope: Will Muschamp, Florida

This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?

Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?

There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.

Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read

Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
With No. 5 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) preparing to visit No. 16 LSU (7-2, 3-2), LSU writer David Ching and Alabama writer Alex Scarborough take a look at some key factors in Saturday’s game.

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

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsGetting production from players such as sophomore tight end O.J. Howard will prevent LSU from keying completely on star Alabama WR Amari Cooper.
Why LSU pulls the upset

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.
The stakes in the SEC and postseason races will be huge when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.

Today we’ll compare how the two teams stack up at each position group on offense and defense.

Defensive line

Alabama

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

[+] EnlargeDanielle Hunter
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonDanielle Hunter, No. 94, has proven to be an impact playmaker for LSU's defense.
LSU

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

Linebacker

Alabama

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

LSU

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

Defensive back

Alabama

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

LSU

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

At first glance: SEC Week 11

November, 3, 2014
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The SEC West began to shake itself out last week, but the East only got more convoluted with Georgia's loss to Florida. This Saturday, the only marquee game on the docket is down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; however, nothing can be assumed in this conference. If teams get caught looking ahead to next weekend, we could be in for another wild weekend.

Let's take a quick glance at some of this week's top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 6 Alabama at No. 19 LSU

A month ago, after LSU was dominated on the road by Auburn, this didn't look like it would be much of a game. Sure, it's Alabama-LSU, one of the better rivalries in the SEC over the past decade, but Alabama looked like it might have its way in Death Valley. Not so fast. The Tigers have since won three straight games; they're playing their best football right now; and it goes up another notch when the sun sets over Tiger Stadium. Les Miles is 46-4 in home games played at night. But if anybody knows how to win in Louisiana, it's Nick Saban. He's won two of the three games he's coached at LSU since taking over at Alabama in 2007. If Saturday is anything like those two games, then get comfy. It's going to come down to the wire.

Player under pressure: Kyle Allen, Texas A&M

Nobody expects the Aggies to go into Auburn and win Saturday, nor do they expect Allen to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns. But it'd be nice to see him improve on his performance this past weekend against Louisiana-Monroe. The freshman, making his first ever start, went 13 of 28 for 106 yards with one touchdown and one interception. That's a far cry from the numbers Kenny Hill put up in his first start against South Carolina to open the season, but we all know that debut would've been tough to beat. Hill will miss his second straight game Saturday, serving a two-game suspension. That opens the door for Allen, who has an opportunity to make his case not only for this season, but for next year, too.

Coach under the microscope: Mark Richt, Georgia

It's not fair to put Richt on the hot seat, but you can't just give him a pass either, not after how Georgia played against Florida on Saturday. The Bulldogs had control of the SEC East and arguably the easiest road to Atlanta for the conference championship game. Now they don't even control their own destiny anymore. The defense, which had played so well in the month of October, gave up 418 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns to the Gators. That's not good, especially when the league's top rushing offense comes to town in two weeks. But Georgia can't look ahead to Auburn. It needs to focus on this Saturday's game at Kentucky. A loss to the Wildcats, and Richt's seat might start getting warm.

Storyline to watch: How does Ole Miss respond without Treadwell?

It was the worst possible scenario for Ole Miss on Saturday night. The cart was on the field for star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who lay there writhing in pain. He had just fumbled at the goal line, inches from giving the Rebels the lead against Auburn with less than two minutes left. It's a game, and a play, that will stay with the program for years. How do you move past that, especially when Treadwell is out for the remainder of the season with a broken leg? Ole Miss should get back on track this weekend against Presbyterian, but the Rebels don't have another player like Treadwell on the roster. That means it's up to fellow wide receivers Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core to step up in his absence.

Intriguing matchup: Leonard Fournette against Alabama's defense

It seems like it's been a long time since Fournette struck the Heisman pose after scoring his first career touchdown against Sam Houston State. Lately, the LSU freshman has been going about his business and playing like the player everybody thought he was going to be. He rushed for 113 yards his last time out against one of the better defenses in the SEC in Ole Miss. On Saturday, he'll face the top rushing defense in the conference. Alabama is only giving up 78 yards per game on the ground this season, and they'll be geared to stop LSU's rushing attack. Fournette, who nearly ended up in Tuscaloosa, will have his hands full with the likes of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Landon Collins. It's strength vs. strength.

Video: Alabama safety Landon Collins

September, 5, 2014
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Chris Low talks with Alabama safety Landon Collins about the Crimson Tide's secondary, Trey DePriest's return and the defensive standard at Alabama.
You shouldn’t have much trouble remembering the year 2011. It wasn’t that long ago. There was an NBA work stoppage, the NFL threatened a lockout and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State rocked the college football world. Jack Kevorkian passed away, Aaron Sorkin released the film “Moneyball” and Miley Cyrus was only beginning to embrace her inner crazy.

Oh, and somewhere in there the SEC landed two teams in the BCS title Game.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims is reminiscent of the "game manager" quarterback that Alabama had when it beat LSU for the 2011 national championship.
It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. The BCS system has since been retired and the perception of both Alabama and LSU have changed significantly since they met in New Orleans. AJ McCarron found a way to break free of the “game manager” label at Alabama, reaching within ear shot of a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger helped reshape the image of LSU’s offense, incorporating a more vertical, NFL-style passing game.

Now things have changed again. And in so many ways it feels like 2011.

At Alabama, the phrase “game manager” is back to being embraced. If Blake Sims can only manage the game and take care of the football, then the Crimson Tide might be capable of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Like McCarron’s first season starting, he won’t be asked to do it all. Despite hopes to the contrary, he probably won’t throw the ball deep very much. We’ll all do well to remember that 43 quarterbacks had more passes of 20-plus yards than McCarron in 2011.

With two stellar running backs to lean on, the offense should be fine either way. You think the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry isn’t comparable to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Like Richardson, Yeldon is a junior with an established resume. Like Lacy, Henry is an emerging sophomore with talent to burn.

Granted, Alabama’s defense isn’t as experienced as it was in 2011, but there’s certainly more than enough talent to draw upon with the current roster. Landon Collins looks an awful lot like a leaner Mark Barron, and Trey DePriest is the same kind of physical inside linebacker Nico Johnson was. The veteran cornerbacks might not be there, but the defensive line has the potential to be better than its ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

LSU, on the other hand, is in an eerily similar boat.

In one offseason, Les Miles saw his entire passing game head for the NFL as Mettenberger graduated and both his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, declared for the draft. Now it’s a new cast of characters, starting with quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. And judging by their play against Wisconsin, we might be looking at a return to the 2011 days of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Harris clearly wasn’t ready for the big stage on Saturday, and Jennings had trouble reading the defense and seemed limited with throws outside the standard go-route.

There’s hope at receiver, though, with Travin Dural and John Diarse, coupled with young guns Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre. Sound familiar? It should. In 2011, LSU’s leading receivers were Rueben Randle, Beckham, Deangelo Peterson and Russell Shepard, with Landry coming off the bench.

But the real heart of LSU’s offense is still at running back with a three-headed monster of Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette. In 2011, it was much of the same with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue shouldering the load.

Will the Tigers defense be as good now as it was then? Only time will tell, but there are certainly the parts in the secondary to harken back to the days of old. Jalen Mills played lights out at safety against Wisconsin, as did Ronald Martin. Between Jalen Collins, Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, we might be able to call it DBU once again.

This is all to say that while Alabama and LSU looked quite different this past weekend than we’ve become accustomed to, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their respective passing games might have taken significant steps back, but it’s not the end of the world.

It might feel like forever ago now, but in 2011 these two programs didn’t rely on quarterbacks to win football games. McCarron wasn’t a star when he took his first trip to New Orleans. Neither were Jefferson or Lee. Strong defenses and solid running games got them there.

Given the tendency toward overreaction and overanalysis this early in the season, it felt like a good time to remind everyone that three years isn’t that long ago. The SEC probably won't land two teams in a national title game again, but there's nothing to say that Alabama and LSU are out of the playoff hunt altogether.

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day

Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty ImagesKirby Smart knows his Alabama defense must improve against uptempo offenses.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin is beginning to understand. He referenced the word “process” -- Nick Saban’s beloved “process” -- twice during a 15-minute news conference on Sunday. And maybe more importantly, he seemed to understand the role of assistants under Saban, which is to be seen and not heard.

Kirby Smart has been familiar with “the process” for quite some time now. He practically grew up in it, cutting his teeth under Saban for the past nine seasons at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. In that time he has never ruffled feathers, never said much of anything to make headlines. Every year he has quietly gone about the business of molding one of the best defenses in college football.

This season, however, could be his most challenging.

Alabama lost its leader at middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley; three-quarters of the secondary is gone, including first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and veterans Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will be missed on the defensive line. With such little experience and the question of solving uptempo offenses still perplexing the Alabama brain trust, there’s a lot to watch for.

“In terms of the defense this year, really excited about the group that we’ve got to work with,” Smart said at the outset of media day Sunday. “They’re full of energy, a lot of young guys out there competing. Obviously we’ve got to show some improvement, especially after the last two games last year.”

Those last two games against Auburn and Oklahoma were the tipping point. There were holes to be found before then, but you had to look long and hard to find them. Auburn, however, put the Tide’s defensive blemishes under a microscope, pushing the pace and outflanking the defense to the tune of 296 yards rushing. And to prove that was no fluke, Oklahoma went uptempo and exploited the secondary for 429 yards through the air, handing Alabama back-to-back losses to end the season for the first time since 2008.

To spin that into a positive, Smart said there “seems to be a little bit of a chip-on-their-shoulder type attitude,” and despite being a young defense, he sees “more depth at a lot of positions we didn’t have last year.”

“That’s key in college football these days -- having depth, playing more players, keeping guys fresh,” he said.

It’s also key to defending uptempo offenses, where shuffling in fresh legs is vital to keep up with the pace of play. Alabama looked a step slow against Auburn in the fourth quarter, and it meant the end to a perfect season and a shot at a third straight national championship.

“It’s definitely challenging because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well.”

We won’t know whether Smart and Saban have the answers against uptempo offenses until we see how the season unfolds. But even this early into fall camp, we can glimpse where the strengths of Alabama’s defenses lie. And despite Saban’s best efforts to tamp down the hype machine this spring, it’s up front where 320-pound sophomore A’Shawn Robinson anchors the line.

“You’re sitting there with [Dalvin Tomlinson] back, [D.J. Pettway] back ... then this group of freshmen that just got here," Smart said, referencing a rookie class that includes Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith. "So if those guys grow and continue to get better, that can be the strength of the team.

“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year.”

Inside linebacker is one spot where Alabama could use more depth. Outside of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, there aren’t many true inside linebackers with experience on the roster. That means playing more rookies and cross-training outside linebackers to shift inside, Smart said.

But the real concern for Alabama isn’t the front seven. The back end of the defense is still a lingering question mark. Both starting corners must be replaced, and there’s no word yet on who will settle in at safety opposite Landon Collins.

Smart called it a “unique situation” at safety in that he lost two players to the draft, yet he has some experience returning in Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, his two “older statesmen.” Then there’s Geno Smith, who transitioned from corner to safety last season and is “just starting to feel comfortable there.”

“At corner, we’ve got some of the same guys back from last year,” Smart said. “We’ve also got some big, young, new guys. So it’s hard to tell right now. They’ve got good athletic ability, and we hope to be better at that position.”

Is Smart happy with his depth at corner?

“You talk about depth, you’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, making reference to Bradley Sylve starting against Kentucky and Cyrus Jones’ time in relief of the oft-injured Deion Belue. “I can’t say I’m happy or disappointed."

If Eddie Jackson can come back from injury, he could be a big boost. Despite tearing his ACL this spring, he has been able to participate in fall camp, albeit while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Then there’s Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, Alabama’s pair of five-star prospects from the 2014 class. Both are on campus and expected to contribute right away.

“As far as Tony, he’s done a great job so far; you know he enrolled mid-year,” Smart said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s very conscientious. He’s always up here watching football. He’s a little bit of a football junkie. That makes him a better player because he really competes.”

If you were looking for Smart to tip his hand and say Brown would start, you were left somewhat disappointed. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything Alabama’s veteran defensive coordinator would commit to, other than the usual enthusiasm about his group moving forward.

Smart's defense may be better this season. It may answer all those questions at linebacker and cornerback and safety, and return Alabama to its status as the best in college football. But it’s not for Smart to say. He just works the process and sees what happens.
The opening of SEC media days isn't the only news of the day. Two more college football award watch lists debuted Monday, and the SEC is a major player on both.

Thirteen of the 123 watch list honorees for the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the top lineman or linebacker, are from the conference. Likewise, nine of the 51 nominees for the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker, are SEC players.

Here are the full lists of SEC nominees:

Lombardi
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OT La'el Collins, LSU
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn
DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
OG Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Butkus
Trey DePriest, Alabama
Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Kris Frost
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Braylon Mitchell, Arkansas
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ramik Wilson, Georgia

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