Alabama Crimson Tide: Kentucky

If the SEC has plenty of one thing, it's athletes.

Every year we see running backs and wide receivers that can make one move and go the distance. They're explosive in every sense of the word. They're quick, fast and utterly elusive.

In 2013, Henry Josey and Tre Mason were home run hitters at running back. Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews routinely burned defenses deep at receiver. Heck, who can forget Johnny Manziel's big-play antics at quarterback?

But all of those playmakers have moved on. Now it's time for a new group of explosive athletes to emerge on offense in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of each team's most dangerous weapons:
  • Alabama: A talented return man, Christion Jones knows how to operate in space and break free from the defense. Amari Cooper, meanwhile, has the feet of a ballerina and can dance away from coverage just as well -- or run right by it. After experiencing a down sophomore year due to injury, he should return to his freshman form where he had 19 receptions for 20 yards or more. And don’t lose sight of Kenyan Drake while you’re at it. Even on limited carries last season he had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards.
  • Auburn: Speed is in ample supply at Auburn, from quarterback to receiver to running back. Nick Marshall’s agility and big-play ability under center speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Sammie Coates has some of the best straight-line speed you’ll find in the country. And, finally, running back Corey Grant is one of the league’s all-time burners, having reportedly clocked a sub-4.2 second 40-yard dash. He had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards last season and averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per carry.
  • Arkansas: Bret Bielema needs some help at receiver. Sure, Keon Hatcher (12.8 yards per catch) showed some promise late and the return of Demetrius Wilson from injury is reason for hope. But ultimately the real big-play ability on offense comes from the running backs. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined for 56 rushes for 10 or more yards last season -- a number that would have tied for third nationally behind Jordan Lynch (64) and Taysom Hill (60).
  • Florida: Andre Debose, when healthy, is an athlete with world-class speed. After all, he was a state track champion in high school, running the 100-meter dash in 10.68 seconds. It’s part of why he already holds the school record of four kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a record tied for tops in SEC history with Willie Gault, Felix Jones and Brandon Boykin. How's that for good company? With two major injuries hopefully now in his past, Debose is a threat to score at both receiver and in the return game.
  • Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell will be a welcome return at receiver after missing all but one game last season with a torn ACL. When he was healthy, he was able to run in the neighborhood of a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. He and Chris Conley, who led the team in receiving yards last year, can stress any secondary. That’s not to mention Justin Scott-Wesley, who was a state champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash in high school.
  • Kentucky: You should know Javess Blue's name, but chances are that many of you probably don’t. Unfortunately his work at receiver flew mostly under the radar at Kentucky in 2013. His five catches of 20-plus yards may not sound overwhelming, but you have to remember he did that without much help from his quarterbacks. Still, Blue is a burner to the tune of a 4.29 second 40-yard dash.
  • LSU: Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. will be missed. But coach Les Miles wasn’t left lacking for playmakers on offense when they went on to the NFL. Terrence Magee was quietly one of the most explosive backs in the league last season with 10 rushes for 20 or more yards. Even so, No. 1 overall recruit Leonard Fournette might overshadow him. Fournette is not just big and strong, he’s also fast. (Think of a young Adrian Peterson). And while we’re talking true freshmen, Malachi Dupre has the chance to make an immediate impact at receiver. The former five-star prospect runs in the 4.5-second 40-yard dash range, and has impressive size and a vertical to match.
  • Mississippi State: It’s a make or break year for Mississippi State’s offense. In the past coach Dan Mullen has struggled to find playmakers. Now he has three guys who can really spread out a defense. Jameon Lewis, who has the tools of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, is a great underneath receiver, and Brandon Holloway, who can play either running back or receiver, is lightning quick and deadly in space. With De’Runnya Wilson standing at 6-foot-5 with the leaping ability of a true basketball player (he's a forward for the Bulldogs, in case you didn't know), Mullen’s offense should be able to attack every level of the secondary.
  • Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel lost a lot of firepower on both sides of the ball this offseason. But even with Dorial Green-Beckham and LaDamian Washington no longer in Columbia, there are still plenty of dangerous weapons on offense. Russell Hansbrough is a talented back who had 20 rushes for 10 or more yards in 2013. Then factor in Bud Sasser (13.88 yards per play) and Marcus Murphy (17 career touchdowns four different ways: rushing, kickoff return, punt return and receiving), and the Tiger offense should be able to stretch the field just fine.
  • Ole Miss: By now you ought to know about Laquon Treadwell, who finished second only to Jordan Matthews in the SEC in total receptions last season (72). He became the first player in school history to be named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league coaches. Though he may lack elite top-end speed, he more than makes up for it with his elusiveness and ability to make yards after the catch. And don’t sleep on running back Jaylen Walton. In addition to being the team's primary kick returner, he also rushed for 523 yards last season. His 29 receptions were fourth on the team and he led all Rebs with eight total touchdowns.
  • South Carolina: Dylan Thompson may not have a lot of height at receiver, but he’s got plenty of speed. Shaq Roland is an All-SEC type of talent, if he can play with some consistency. His 18.2 yards per play last year ranked 15th nationally (minimum 25 touches). Opposite him at receiver is Damiere Byrd, who could be the fastest player in the league. His 17.3 yards per play ranked 20th nationally and an impressive 72.7 percent of his receptions went for either a first down or a touchdown.
  • Tennessee: Outside of a spectacular one-handed grab against South Carolina, Marquez North and his 13 yards per catch were somewhat lost in the shuffle last season. At 6-foot-4 and in the neighborhood of 220 pounds, he shouldn’t have the speed he does. With his size and athleticism (he won the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics 110-meter hurdles at the age of 12), he’s a threat to burn any defensive back in the SEC.
  • Texas A&M: All credit goes to Kevin Sumlin for pulling in some top-tier athletes on the recruiting trail the past two years. Trey Williams, who still has to adjust to the ins and outs of the running back position, has the speed and agility to be a breakout star this season. Meanwhile, there’s Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil to consider. They’ll wow you in different ways -- Noil is all moves and agility and speed, while Seals-Jones is pure height and jumping ability -- but both are threats to score from anywhere on the field.
  • Vanderbilt: The first sentence of Brian Kimbrow’s high school scouting report by ESPN says it all: “Kimbrow may be small but he's an electrifying running back prospect with excellent speed and quickness.” When you think of his running style, think of Warrick Dunn. Kimbrow came on strong as a freshman in 2012 with 413 yards on only 66 carries, but he saw his production taper off last year behind Jerron Seymour and Wesley Tate on the depth chart. Now he has a fresh start under new coach Derek Mason, who showed a major commitment to the running game while at Stanford.
Don’t worry Jurgen Klinsmann, Nick Saban feels your pain.

In fact, a lot of SEC coaches can sympathize.

Whether it’s the World Cup or the Iron Bowl, last-minute failures happen. It’s part of the beauty of sports. It isn’t over until it’s over. The fat lady sings and suddenly you can’t hear the words. There’s a buzzing in your ears, the earth is spinning, and the scoreboard is playing tricks on your eyes.

But no, it’s true. The second you think you’ve won is the second it’s over.

At least the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team has a chance at redemption. College football usually doesn’t work that way.

With that in mind, here are a few last-second losses that come to mind (or wins, depending how you look at it) in the SEC since 2000:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe expression on Tre Mason (21) best captures the feeling of Chris Davis' TD return in last season's unforgettable Iron Bowl.
The Kick-6: You could’ve just knelt on it. You could have kept your rookie field goal kicker -- I repeat: a rookie! -- off the field and played for overtime. That’s what you do on the road, remember. Maybe you still lose in OT, but at least you don’t go down like that. You wouldn’t have to battle Chris Davis’ 109-yard path to the end zone in recruiting from now until eternity. I was outside of Alabama’s locker room after that game ended, and it’s the most deflated scene I’ve ever witnessed covering college football. On the other side, it was pure bliss.

Prayer at Jordan-Hare: These things just don’t happen. Looking back at Auburn’s two-week stretch against Georgia and Alabama, maybe you have to agree that it was a team of destiny. Because divine intervention would be the only way to describe Nick Marshall’s Hail Mary touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis. The game was over. Louis was triple-covered, and Marshall threw it anyway. Both Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons overplayed the ball, eventually tipping it to Louis for the game-winning score.

Rocky Block: See, it’s not all bad, Tide fans. Nick Saban’s first national championship at Alabama doesn’t happen without a miracle of your own. Remember the feeling when, up 12-10, Daniel Lincoln lined up a potential 44-yard game-winning field goal for Tennessee with 4 seconds left? The dream was almost over. The perfect season was nearly dashed. Terrence Cody couldn’t block two kicks in one game, could he? Well, yes he could. The 365-pound tackle had just enough burst to break through the line, get a hand up and keep the dream alive. The coach on the other sideline that day: Lane Kiffin. How’s that for things coming full circle?

Flynn to Byrd: It can’t all be gravy, Auburn. We had to remind you of the game that almost was. With under a minute remaining, Les Miles looked like he was going to have another Les Miles moment. Down 24-23, with a makable field goal in sight, Miles instead went for the jugular. Matt Flynn took the snap, took five steps back and let it rip to Demetrius Byrd in the end zone. Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers didn’t turn for the ball in time -- he would have easily knocked it down if he had -- and Byrd was able to snag it for the game-winning score with 1 second remaining. LSU would lose once more that year, but ultimately won the SEC title and the BCS national championship.

Florida-South Carolina, 2006: Jarvis Moss had no finer moment than when he timed his jump perfectly and blocked Ryan Succop’s would be 49-yard game-winning kick in 2006. Florida hung on to win 17-16 and former Gators coach Steve Spurrier was denied yet another win in The Swamp, his first as coach at South Carolina. From then on, Florida would roll all the way to the BCS national championship, beating Arkansas by double-digits in Atlanta before throttling Ohio State in Arizona.

The Catch: The SEC as a whole was let down with this one. LSU had Iowa beat in the Capital One Bowl in 2005 before the Hawkeyes got a play off on their own 44-yard line, down 25-24. Drew Tate hurried the snap, dropped back, bounced around for a few seconds and hurled a pass down the right sideline. LSU’s safeties were caught napping, defending the middle of the field and not the three receivers racing down the right sideline, and Warren Halloway came down with the pass cleanly, sprinting to the end zone for the game-winning score with no time left on the clock. And for an added dash of history, that was Saban’s final game as LSU’s head coach.

The Bluegrass Miracle: How could we forget? Saban wasn’t going to get dumped on twice in this post without reliving one of the craziest (positive) finishes of his career. LSU, ranked in the top 15 at the time, should have gone to unranked Kentucky and rolled. Instead, the Wildcats racked up 30 points on the Tigers and stood 75 yards away from a monumental upset. Players even gave coach Guy Morriss a Gatorade bath sensing the imminent victory. There was no way Marcus Randall, a quarterback with average arm strength, could throw the ball that far. Except he did. He launched it from LSU’s 25-yard line to around Kentucky’s 25, the ball was tipped, and Devery Henderson came down with the pass for the game-winning touchdown. Fireworks shot off from Kentucky’s sideline, but it was LSU’s win for the ages.

SEC's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
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So after all that, Kevin Durant made this insane shot ... and lost? Ouch.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
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Hungry for football already? Remember that Ohio takes on Bowling Green and Buffalo goes toe-to-toe with Toledo tonight.

SEC Week 11: Did you know?

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
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Did you know it's already Week 11 of the college football season? Of course you did.

But were you aware that Saturday might be the last time Johnny Manziel plays in front of the home crowd in College Station, Texas? If you didn't, don't worry. That's what we're here for.

Here's a look at some notes from ESPN Stats & Info to get you ready for Week 11:
  • Since allowing 42 points and 628 yards to Texas A&M on Sept. 14, Alabama has allowed just 4.3 points per game and two offensive touchdowns in its last six games.
  • The SEC West race could become a lot more clear depending upon the winner of LSU-Alabama. The Tide has a one-game lead on Auburn in the standings and a win Saturday could set up a monumental Iron Bowl on November 30.
  • Don’t read too much into both teams having a bye entering this game. Alabama has lost three games under Saban when coming off regular season bye week -- all vs. LSU, though LSU also had bye weeks in those matchups.
  • Zach Mettenberger has gone one direction of late and AJ McCarron has gone another. Mettenberger has seen his completion percentage and QBR drop noticeably in his last two games. He threw for 15 touchdowns and two interceptions in his first two games, but four touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests. McCarron, meanwhile, has improved his completion percentage and QBR in his last four games. He threw six touchdowns and three interceptions in his first four games, but 10 touchdowns and no picks in his last four contests.
  • Something's got to give. Missouri leads the SEC in turnovers forced (24) and turnover margin plus-15. Missouri also has a streak of 39 straight games with a takeaway, the longest active streak in FBS. Kentucky, however, has turned the ball over just six times all season, fewest among AQ teams.
  • Missouri also leads the SEC in sacks with 27. Defensive end Michael Sam is tied for the FBS lead with 10 sacks and is second in tackles for loss (16).
  • Kentucky has lost 14 straight games against AP-ranked opponents, including all four matchups this season. Its last victory over an AP-ranked team came over No. 10 South Carolina in 2010.
  • Auburn hasn’t been good at avoiding turnovers, but they have been excellent at preventing opponents from scoring points off turnovers. Auburn has committed 13 turnovers this season and is plus-2 in turnover margin, both middle of the pack in the SEC. But Auburn has only allowed just 10 points off turnover all season, tied with Washington for fewest in the FBS.
  • Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game and yards per rush. They are tied for first in rushing touchdowns and, through nine games, they already have 20 more runs of 10 yards or more and 12 more rushing touchdowns than they had all of last season.
  • This is the fourth ranked opponent in four weeks for Tennessee and the seventh ranked opponent in an eight-game stretch. Tennessee snapped its 19-game losing streak against AP-ranked teams three weeks ago by beating then-No. 11 South Carolina. But the Vols are now 1-21 in their last 22 games against AP-ranked opponents.
  • Hard to believe, but this could be Johnny Manziel’s last home game. After this week, Texas A&M has an idle week before finishing with LSU and at Missouri. Manziel is only a sophomore but since he redshirted, he will be three years removed from high school and eligible for the NFL.
  • Texas A&M has reeled off eight straight games with 500 yards of total offense. It would be nine straight, but the Aggies finished with just 486 yards in a season-opening win against Rice. Among all FBS teams in the last 10 seasons, Texas A&M’s streak is tied for the fourth-longest and is the longest by an SEC team.
  • Dan Mullen is in his fifth season with Mississippi State and has a winning record overall (33-26) but has struggled in games against ranked opponents. Mississippi State is 2-19 vs. AP-ranked opponents under Mullen. The last ranked win came in 2010 against Florida and Mississippi State is 0-13 vs. ranked opponent since.
  • Florida has won the last 22 meetings against Vanderbilt. The Commodore's last win came in 1988.
  • With a loss Florida would be below .500 for the first time since it started 1-2 in 1992. Florida has not been below .500 this late in the season (as of Nov. 9) since 1979, when the Gators finished winless. A loss would also give Florida its first four-game losing streak since 2011.
  • Florida’s offense is last in the SEC in both yards per game (334.6) and yards per play (4.9). During Florida’s three-game losing streak, it has averaged just 236.7 yards per game and managed just three offensive touchdowns.
  • Vanderbilt is one of the slowest starting teams in FBS, being outscored 85-24 in the first quarter. That’s the second-worst point differential among BCS-AQ teams. Of the eight worst teams in first-quarter point differential, Vanderbilt is the only school with more than one win. In SEC games, Vanderbilt has been outscored 82-7 in the first quarter.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 15, 2013
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The artist renderings and graphics of what the "Battle at Bristol" between Virginia Tech and Tennessee will look like are spectacular. The idea of hosting the largest crowd in the history of college football is definitely something to get excited about.

But the view? Maybe not so much. As a reporter, I've avoided buying binoculars for years. Those who know me would say "frugal" is too kind of a descriptor for my thriftiness. But if I covered that game, I might have to finally give in and purchase a pair to see the field.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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What a wild weekend of college football it was. Now that it's Monday, it's time to start the process all over again.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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We've reached the midway point of the season. And, well, some teams are hot while others are certainly not. Let's take a look.

GLOWING EMBERS

Missouri: Who knew? Prognosticators, both professional and amateur, are surely coming out of the woodwork by now, telling anyone who will listen how they had Missouri atop the SEC East before the start of the season. But tell those people to politely remove their tinfoil hats and drift slowly back to earth. No one had Missouri competing for a chance at the SEC championship. James Franklin hadn't even won the starting quarterback job entering fall camp. And the defense, without its best player in Sheldon Richardson, looked like a significant question mark. Sure, Gary Pinkel's bunch had to get better after all the injuries a year ago, but this? Pinkel's bunch is playing great football and we're only now starting to take notice after the way the Tigers throttled Georgia on the road 41-26. Missouri is in the top three in the SEC in scoring, passing and rushing offense, and most importantly the Tigers are leading the league in turnover margin.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMissouri is riding high after beating Georgia to remain unbeaten and climb to No. 14 in the AP poll.
HOT

SEC in the polls: The SEC set a record on Sunday for the most schools (eight) in The Associated Press college football poll. Though just Alabama remains in the top five, having so many teams scattered throughout the poll says something about the depth of the league. LSU and Texas A&M are both title contenders despite having one loss, and South Carolina isn't far behind at all. Florida, despite losing its starting quarterback, has maintained course, and Georgia, while seriously decimated by injuries, should remain in the top 25 this season. The surprises, though, are what make the league so special. No one had Missouri in the top 15 and very few thought Gus Malzahn could turn around Auburn so quickly, getting it back into the top 25 for the first time since November 2011.

NOT

Ole Miss: One team that would have made nine SEC schools in the AP Top 25, Ole Miss, dropped from the rankings two weeks ago when it lost to Auburn on the road. That defeat was bad enough. Losing at home to Texas A&M on a last-minute field Saturday night made it even worse. Sure, Ole Miss wasn't favored to win the game, but that didn't dull the sting of seeing another win slip away. Hugh Freeze told anyone who'd listen this offseason to expect some bumps in the road, that his team couldn't live up to the sky-high expectations being forced upon it. But Freeze couldn't help going 3-0 and beating Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Now his team has come down from its early-season high and the holes we all expected -- offensive line, depth on defense, etc. -- are once again glaring. And with No. 6 LSU up next, things aren't getting any easier for the Rebels.

HOT

The Mad Hatter: Was Florida's defense that good? Was LSU's offense that bad? Did any of that matter? Nitpick all you want at LSU's 17-6 win at home over Florida, but the fact remains Les Miles' bunch won the game, improved to 6-1 on the season and remains right in the thick of the championship race. Yes, we all expected Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to do more through the air, but like a pitcher on the mound without his best stuff, LSU found a way to survive the day with a W. Jeremy Hill proved once again why he's one of the best running backs in the country, and we may have seen LSU's embattled young defense take an important step forward.

NOT

Clowney the villain: I'm reminded of the Jay-Z song "Can I Live," and no, it's not because of the rumor that the rap mogul tried to sign Jadeveon Clowney before the start of the season. Instead, you have to look at South Carolina's embattled defensive end as a point of over-speculation. Let's just let the man live. No, he's not having the Heisman Trophy campaign many hoped for, but so what? How many defensive players win the trophy, anyway? Forget the missed snaps and missed practices and all of the talk that surrounds Clowney and just appreciate his talent. Remember, he'll be gone to the NFL soon. Maybe after weeks and weeks of harping on the negative with very little to show for it, we can just let him play the game and watch him like we would any other player.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
AP Photo/Garry JonesThe Alabama defense had a streak of 14 quarters without yielding a touchdown snapped at Kentucky.
HOT

Alabama's defense: It took two defenders literally running into each other for Alabama to finally surrender an offensive touchdown. Against Kentucky, cornerbacks John Fulton and Jarrick Williams collided in coverage and both fell to the turf. UK wideout Javess Blue gladly caught the wide-open pass and trotted untouched into the end zone. And thus ended Alabama's streak of 14 quarters without allowing a single offensive touchdown. Alabama's defense, which garnered its fair share of criticism after being lit up by Texas A&M -- what defense hasn't? -- has played lights out since.

NOT

Kentucky's offense: The Air Raid 2.0 didn't get an inch off the ground Saturday in Lexington. Kentucky's young offense was dominated by Alabama, held to under 200 yards. It took a fluke play for the Wildcats to even score (see above). Converting on 2 of 12 third downs is bad no matter how you slice it. And to make matters worse, UK starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow looks like he'll miss some time after injuring his ankle. The good news is nothing was broken, but for a player who relies heavily on his mobility, coming back early isn't an option. Give Mark Stoops credit for what he has done on defense, but he has some work to do on the other side of the ball. You're not going to score many points in this league when you're starting a walk-on at wide receiver as UK did on Saturday night.

FREEZER BURN

Homecoming disaster: Steve Spurrier's words after the game said it all. "I do feel badly for Arkansas," the South Carolina coach explained. "That's not fun getting your butt beat at home, homecoming and all." Why Arkansas scheduled the Gamecocks for its homecoming game is anyone's guess. But whoever did it should be second-guessing himself or herself today. In front of alumni and fans, the Hogs jumped out to a 7-0 lead, only to see South Carolina score 52 unanswered points and win going away. The Gamecocks threw for 260 yards to Arkansas' 30 and held the football 43:25 to Arkansas' 16:35. Watching, it felt like there was barely enough time to throw a parade, let alone name a homecoming queen.

Five things: Alabama-Kentucky

October, 12, 2013
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- No. 1-ranked Alabama takes its show on the road today when it faces upstart Kentucky. The Crimson Tide is heavily favored to beat the young Wildcats, but there's nothing for certain in the SEC, especially on the road. Here are five things to watch when the game begins.

1. Which quarterback will it be?: As I wrote Thursday, Alabama is preparing as if both Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith will play. But it looks increasingly like Whitlow, who took every snap last week against South Carolina, will get the nod as the Wildcats starting quarterback. The former Prattville High (Ala.) star gives an added dimension to the offense with his ability to get outside the pocket and make plays with his feet.

2. Replacing Ha Ha: Both Geno Smith and Landon Collins did a good job filling in for suspended starting free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix against Georgia State. But let's face it, it would have been a shock if they looked bad against the Panthers, who are in their first season at the FBS level. Against Kentucky, we'll get a better idea of where the two true sophomores stand. Collins, though, seems to be ahead in his development. Look for him to start and Smith to come on at safety in certain packages.

3. Efficient passing: It certainly helped that there was little to no pressure on them, but both AJ McCarron and Blake Sims were particularly efficient passing the ball last weekend. McCarron completed 15 of 16 passes for four touchdowns while Sims, who was asked to do less with his feet and more with his arms, connected on 14 of 18 attempts. Kentucky's secondary, as well as its ability to rush the passer, will provide a better challenge, though.

4. Drake's job?: UA head coach Nick Saban went off a bit when he was asked why Kenyan Drake was sent plummeting down the depth chart at the beginning of the season. " Look, Kenyan Drake didn't play in the first game because he didn't do what he was supposed to do," Saban said. "So he might have played more in the first game if he had done what he was supposed to do." Now that Drake is doing his job and appears to be out of Saban's doghouse, he looks to be close to claiming the job we all thought he'd have at the beginning of the season, backing up starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Drake has rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown in his past two games.

5. Developing depth: Should Alabama jump out to a big lead again, we could see the youngsters on defense that many people have been talking about this past week. Eddie Jackson, the true freshman who has developed into a starter at corner, is continuing to progress. A'Shawn Robinson, the mammoth rookie defensive tackle, is pushing for more and more playing time each week. And Reuben Foster, the center of one of the most heated recruiting battles in recent memories last year, has come along slowly at linebacker. The more playing time youngsters like Foster receive, the better off the defense will be as a whole when the real challenges like LSU come.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Trey DePriest was asked Monday whether he and the Alabama defense were preparing for two quarterbacks or just one when it faces Kentucky on Saturday. But UA's starting inside linebacker shrugged and said he hadn't even considered it. He hadn't even watched the film yet, he explained.

"The only thing I know about them is the teams they've played -- the bigger schools -- they've played tough: Louisville, Florida, South Carolina," he said.

And thus ended the pregame analysis from DePriest. But to be fair, it's hard for anyone to determine what type of team Kentucky is five games into the season. Mark Stoops is just beginning to make an impact on a program that's floundered for the better part of the past decade. It took until last week for the first-year head coach to settle on a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow is a threat both running and passing, but Alabama says it will be ready for the Kentucky QB.
Jalen Whitlow, who led Prattville High (Ala.) to a state title game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2011, has the job now after beating out Maxwell Smith. The dual-threat passer took every snap in last weekend's game against South Carolina, completing 14 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 69 yards and a score.

"He's a good runner," UA coach Nick Saban said, sizing up a player his staff once recruited. "He's really continued to improve as a passer and was effective last week in that regard."

Whitlow came on late last season, starting seven games. But he's one of only a few pieces on Kentucky's offense that isn't brand new. The Wildcats' top three receivers are first-year players: Javess Blue, who leads the team with 22 receptions for 275 yards, transferred from a junior college, and Ryan Timmons and Alec Montgomery are both true freshmen. Even Kentucky's leading rusher at tailback, Jojo Kemp, was playing high school football at this time last year.

Neal Brown was hired by Stoops to lead the offense in December. He helped orchestrate Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offense from 2010-12, helping the Red Raiders to top-10 finishes in passing offense each season. The high-powered air attack has translated to Kentucky with mixed results thus far. The Cats are 14th in the SEC in scoring offense despite averaging 388.8 yards per game. UK, though, already has more plays of 60 or more yards (6) than it did all of last season (4).

But the brightest spot on offense may have come this past weekend when Kentucky scored 21 fourth-quarter points against South Carolina.

"We need to come out and build," Brown told reporters in Lexington. "We had a good fourth quarter against South Carolina and we need to build off that."

Whitlow, who accounted for all three touchdowns in the failed comeback, is maturing every day, according to Brown. But Stoops recognizes that his young quarterback will face something of a brick wall on Saturday.

"They have no weakness in their defense," Stoops said. "They don't have any weakness on their team."

Saban, though, isn't taking Whitlow or any part of Kentucky lightly.

"We didn't play very well the last time we were on the road," he said, "so we certainly need to do a lot better job against a very different kind of offense in terms of what we've had to play against in the past, because it's such a good running quarterback and a good athlete at that position. It'll be a real challenge and test for us."

Alabama has faced its share of mobile quarterbacks already this season, first against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in Week 2 and then against Ole Miss and Bo Wallace a few weeks ago. Landon Collins, who will likely make his second career start at free safety this week in place of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, said the defense knows the drill.

"We played against a lot of dynamic quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel," Collins said. "Just playing sound and playing our defense, as a whole, we should be OK."

Said starting cornerback Deion Belue: "Well, you know, it’s just a scheme that we have to have for them. At the same time, the dual threat, Whitlow, you have to respect him because he can throw as well. He can throw as well as the dropback passer and then the other quarterback can also run, you really have to prepare for both of them the same. You can’t group the one as just passing and the other just running. You have to prepare for them the same."

Collins, who spoke with the media a day after DePriest, said he wasn't concerned with the idea of not knowing who Kentucky will put under center. Whether it's Whitlow or Smith, he feels the defense will be just fine.

"We just have to play sound defense," Collins said. "That’s what we’ve been playing the last few weeks. Once we do that, we’re playing against ourselves, really."

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
7:00
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The hits keep on coming. Alabama gets to take its show on the road this weekend as it travels to Lexington, Ky., to face the upstart Wildcats.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

Just do what you do. In fact, that last sentence could be the theme of the month of October for No. 1 Alabama. No one on this month's slate is capable of upsetting the Tide if they plays their game and don’t slip on the proverbial banana peel. Thumping Georgia State this past weekend was a good way to build momentum off a solid beat down of Ole Miss the week before. With the offensive line playing better, the passing game humming along and the defense continuing to improve thanks to young guns like Eddie Jackson, Alabama should be able to take care of business on the road and continue to mow through what will be an easy slate of October games.

The Wildcats will win if …

It will take another Bluegrass Miracle for Kentucky to pull off the upset at home over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Jalen Whitlow is showing signs of improvement as a passer, but he's still got a long ways to go. The best UK fans can hope for is an early turnover and a quick score to put Alabama on its heels. Kentucky's defense has held its own and features a pair of good pass-rushers. If it can force UA to pass and get come pressure on the pocket, the Wildcats could have a puncher's chance.

Kentucky players to watch

QB Jalen Whitlow: The staff waited until Week 7 of the season to finally play just one quarterback in a game, and it was Whitlow. The dual-threat athlete completed 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two scores, and he also led the team with 69 yards and a touchdown rushing.

DE Za'Darius Smith: The No. 2-rated defensive end in junior college a season ago has made the most of his opportunity at Kentucky, ranking 15th in the country with 4.5 sacks. He and junior Alvin Dupree have combined for nine sacks on the season.

LB Avery Williamson: The Butkus Award Watch List selection has picked up where he left off last season when he finished second in the SEC in tackles, tying for 15th nationally with 10.2 tackles per game.

Alabama players to watch

OLB Denzel Devall: The sophomore linebacker has battled a knee injury throughout the week and was spotted wearing a knee brace during practice. But he appears ready to go, and Alabama will need him to play well, pressuring Whitlow while keeping containment.

OT Grant Hill: Alabama coach Nick Saban put the pressure on the true freshman before last week's game when he called him one of the best five linemen on the roster even though he hadn't started a game. And against Georgia State, he delivered, playing well in relief and showing some of the traits that made him the No. 1 offensive guard in the country out of high school.

QB Blake Sims: That wasn't a typo you saw in last week's stat sheet. Sims did indeed lead the Tide in passing, completing 14 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown against Georgia State. Saban has praised his development time and time again. The more he plays, the more you have to figure he'll compete to become Alabama's next starting quarterback when AJ McCarron leaves.

Key stats

14: It's hard to judge Kentucky in Stoops' first season at the helm. Why? Because the Wildcats are one of the most inexperienced teams in the country with 14 newcomers and eight true freshmen having already played this season.

93.7: Granted it was Georgia State, but what McCarron did to the Panthers completing 15 of 16 passes for 166 yards and four touchdowns was something special.

2: In 39 tries, Kentucky has beat Alabama just twice with the last coming in 1997 when the Wildcats upset the Tide 40-34 in overtime.

SEC Friday mailbag

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
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From Zachary (@ZacharySMT): In the hierarchy of the SEC, where do you see the South Carolina program after the Ole Ball Coach retires?

Alex Scarborough: I'd tell you it all depends on who would be hired as his replacement, but you already know that. Steve Spurrier has built a solid program in his time at South Carolina, and I don't see it as one that would fall apart dramatically should he leave. There's plenty of talent on both sides of the football, especially in terms of skill players on offense and big front-seven guys on defense. Whoever the South Carolina administration hires will have an enormous task ahead of them, though, and I'd prepare for a slight dip in the early going as things are settled. People have to remember where that program was before Spurrier, with 12 sub-.500 finishes since 1980 and not a single division title. He basically built it from nothing. Competing against North Carolina and the rest of the SEC for recruits isn't easy, and the SEC East only continues to improve.


From Press Thornton (@thornton_press): Your prediction on Bama-Ole Miss?

Alex Scarborough: Ah, I knew someone would ask this. And here I'd gone the whole week without making an official prediction. Well, I guess that streak ends here. While I'd like to say with certainty either way, I can't get behind either team completely. That said, I expect that if Alabama sorts out some of the kinks and plays to its standard, the home team will win and remain undefeated. But Ole Miss has a real shot to knock off the Tide in Tuscaloosa. If Hugh Freeze can get the tempo going and pressure Alabama's lackluster, thin secondary, the Rebels could pull off the upset. And with the receivers he has at his disposal, I think they're entirely capable of doing it. I see it as a high-scoring game either way and I give Ole Miss a 33 percent chance of winning the shootout.


From Joe Piccoli (@joepic8049): Missouri's three-man running back rotation a little overlooked right now?

Alex Scarborough: I'm looking at Missouri's rushing statistics now, and I'd have to say so. The Tigers are 33rd nationally in rushing yards (810), 17th in rushing yards per game (270) and 17th in rushing touchdowns (17). Russell Hansborough, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy are doing an excellent job. But -- and here's where I'll counter those numbers -- I don't think I'm ready to say they're overlooked to a large extent. Frankly, Missouri hasn't faced anyone of consequence. The Tigers haven't played an SEC game and let's face it, Murray State, Toledo and Indiana aren't exactly stalwarts when it comes to stopping the run. Since I'm in a stats mood, Toledo and Indiana are ranked 67th and 117th nationally in rushing yards per game, and Murray State doesn't even show up on my readout. (Further inspection shows the Racers are allowing 173.5 yards per game on the ground.) While I like what I've seen from Missouri's running game so far, I want to see it continue past Arkansas State and on into Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in October.


From Fake Ned (@FakeNed): Is the SEC West stronger than last year with the improvement of Mississippi?

Alex Scarborough: That's a tough thing to say based on how good it was last year, when Alabama won the national championship, Texas A&M took the world by storm and LSU continued to do its thing. But I don't see any of those teams as being significantly better than a year ago. Alabama has shown it's flawed on defense and up front on the offensive line, Texas A&M's defense can leak like a sieve at times and LSU is so young that I don't know what to expect from them. LSU's offense is certainly improved, but the second half against Auburn gave me pause. That said, I see improvement at the back end of the West with Ole Miss continuing its surge, Auburn rebuilding in a hurry and Arkansas looking much improved. If the division is better or worse than a year ago, it's not by a wide margin.

SEC lunchtime links

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
12:00
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It's Hump Day, and, no, I'm not going to shout it like an overly eager camel in a crowded office. Instead, I'll just note that we're halfway to another exciting week of college football and only a day away from No. 3 Clemson going up against North Carolina State.

SEC lunchtime links

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
12:00
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What a wild weekend of football it was. But now, we turn the page to Week 4 of the college football season and look forward to a new slate of games in the SEC.

SEC Week 2: Did you know?

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
10:00
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We're in the swing of things now. With Week 1 in the books, it’s time to take a look at some notes from the SEC and ESPN Stats & Info to get you prepared for the second full week of college football:
  • A total of 10 players from the SEC rushed for 100 yards or more in their opening games, including both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins of Arkansas.
  • Since 2006, the SEC has posted the highest nonconference winning percentage (regular season & bowls) of any conference. The league has a 333-74 record (81.8 winning percentage).
  • With the start of the NFL season upon us, a quick look around the league reveals that the SEC has had more of its former players on NFL rosters in the last five seasons than any other conference. Since 2006, the SEC has averaged 266.1 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters. The league had a high of 257 players on NFL rosters last year, compared to the second highest ACC with 226.
  • Florida is now 13-0 under coach Will Muschamp when rushing for 150 or more yards.
  • The Gators have allowed two rushes of 50 yards or longer in the last 10 seasons combined, three fewer than any other FBS team. Last week, the Gators allowed a total of 50 yards on the ground and just one rush of 10 yards or longer.
  • Jadeveon Clowney recorded only three tackles in South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina, but he still had an impact on the game. He had three total pressures, which brings his total number to 31 over the last two seasons, tying him with former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones for tops in the SEC.
  • Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is going to miss his top target, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who's out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Murray completed 72 percent of his passes thrown to Mitchell, compared to 59 percent when targeting his other receivers.
  • It's been pointed out time and again, and we're going to continue bringing it up until it changes: Murray is 3-11 against ranked opponents in his career. He's 0-3 all-time against South Carolina. Murray's 46.0 QBR against the Gamecocks is the lowest of any team in the SEC East.
  • Your SEC leaders in Raw QBR aren't what you might expect as Arkansas’ Brandon Allen led the charge with a 91.6 rating, followed by Missouri’s James Franklin, Texas A&M’s Matt Joeckel and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Last season Mettenberger ranked 12th out of 13 SEC quarterbacks in QBR.
  • Mettenberger's numbers could improve again versus UAB, which allowed 319 yards passing from Troy quarterback Corey Robinson, who set a NCAA record completing 93.8 percent of his passes (30-for-32).
  • Auburn is now 194-1 all-time when scoring 30 points or more against non-SEC opponents. The Tigers defeated Arkansas State in both previous matchups, with each victory coming by at least 26 points.
  • Ole Miss is 149-82-7 (.641 winning pct.) all-time during the month of September, including a 3-2 record last year.
  • Arkansas hosts Samford in its home away from home, War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, where the Razorbacks are 166-67-4 (.709) all-time.
  • Hogs coach Bret Bielema wanted to cut down on penalties during his first offseason, and the Razorbacks’ did just that on Saturday, accounting for all of four penalties vs. Louisiana -- the fewest in a season opener since 2008.
  • UK had 11 first-time starters in its season-opening loss to the Hilltoppers, which is a school record for first-time starters in a game according to records kept back to the 1993 season. A total of 10 newcomers (six true freshmen) saw action.
  • Tennessee is 7-0 all-time vs. current Sun Belt schools, including two wins last season (51-13 over Georgia State, 55-48 over Troy).
  • The Vols offensive line has a total of 129 career starts, led by Ja’Wuan James with 38 and Zach Fulton with 29.
  • Tennessee's 45-0 win in Week 1 marked the first shutout for UT since a 27-0 win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 5, 2011.
  • The Aggies gained 486 total yards against Rice last week, which marked the 13th straight game that the offense has surpassed the 400-yard plateau, which is easily the longest streak in school history. Only Baylor has a longer streak of 400-yard offensive game among FBS teams. Since head coach Kevin Sumlin’s arrival in College Station, the Aggies have surpassed 400 in 13-of-14 games, including 500-plus yards eight times.
  • Missouri's Gary Pinkel coached Toledo’s through the 2000 season, and left for Columbia as the Rockets’ winningest coach in school history, with a 73-37-3 record in 10 seasons. Pinkel, who was inducted into Toledo's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009, led the Rockets to a MAC title and claimed three other MAC West Division championships.
  • It took 659 days, but Missouri junior running back Henry Josey, returning from a knee injury, picked up where he left off at Faurot Field this past weekend, rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Mizzou’s 58-14 victory over Murray State.
  • Vanderbilt saw Austin Carta-Samuels become just the second quarterback in Vanderbilt history to pass for 300 yards or more in a season opener on Saturday. The last time a Commordores quarterback hit that mark was when Greg Zolman threw for 300 yards in the 2001 opener against Middle Tennessee.
  • Jordan Matthews' 178-yard effort versus Ole Miss was the most by a Vanderbilt receiver since Earl Bennett amassed 223 receiving yards against Richmond in 2007.

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