Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama

Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 12-2
2013 SEC record: 7-1, first in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 35-42-1
Last meeting: Won 34-28 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Nick Marshall, RB Corey Grant, WR Sammie Coates, OL Reese Dismukes, DL Gabe Wright, DB Jonathon Mincy

Key losses
RB Tre Mason, OL Greg Robinson, DB Chris Davis, DL Dee Ford

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tre Mason (1,816 yards)
Passing: Nick Marshall* (1,976, 14 TD, 6 INT)
Receiving: Sammie Coates* (902 yards)
Tackles: Cassanova McKinzy* (75)
Sacks: Dee Ford (10.5)
Interceptions: Robenson Therezie (4)

What they're saying:
“Up until last Friday, Nick [Marshall] has been a model student, teammate, and citizen. Nick made a mistake and he'll have to deal with the consequences. I'm not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he's regretful and he feels very bad about it,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

Three things to watch:

1. Marshall isn’t the only story: Lost in the aftermath of Nick Marshall’s arrest and absence from SEC media days was the fact that his ordeal wasn’t the biggest news to come out of Hoover, Alabama, last week. Instead, it was Gus Malzahn telling reporters that defensive end Carl Lawson had ACL surgery and is working to come back "toward the end of this year." Lawson is a huge loss. With a so-so secondary, the pass rush was going to be vital for Auburn. Losing Dee Ford hurt, but Lawson was a worthy replacement. Now it’s up to LaDarius Owens and Elijah Daniel. If those two can’t get to the quarterback, the back end of the defense could be exposed.

2. But Marshall’s improvement is key: Marshall took off like a rocket last season, improving his passing numbers each week. But for Auburn’s offense to take the next step and become more balanced, he’ll have to take his game to the next level, specifically his work in the pocket. There’s no doubt Marshall can run the football and execute the read option. The real question is what happens when all the running lanes are clogged and he has to go through his second, third or fourth read in the passing game. Can he sit in the pocket and diagnose a defense? Can he improve his accuracy and get the ball to the open receiver? His Hail Mary pass against Georgia was spectacular, but it was a mistake throwing to Ricardo Louis. He was triple-covered while Sammie Coates was wide open in the middle of the field. Sure, it worked out, but is it really better to be lucky than good? For Marshall to be great, he’ll need to make better decisions in 2014.

3. A tougher road: Auburn didn’t breeze through the regular season to reach the SEC Championship Game last season. Going on the road at LSU and Texas A&M was a lot to handle. But if you think 2013 was hard, wait for what’s ahead. If you’re comparing Auburn’s schedule to Alabama’s (and of course you are), there’s really no comparison. Where Alabama has a flaky nonconference slate (West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss, Western Carolina) and a pair of so-so crossover games (Florida, Tennessee), Auburn has a much tougher road to hoe with a Georgia and South Carolina from the East and a primetime matchup at Kansas State in mid-September. If the Iron Bowl is going to be another battle of top-5 teams, it’s going to be much more difficult for Auburn to reach the game unscathed than it is for Alabama.
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular-season opponents. Each Friday we'll go through a different week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn. Up this week: Nov. 15 vs. Mississippi State.

The rundown: Mississippi State
2013 overall record: 7-6
2013 SEC record: 3-5, fifth in the West Division
Record all time against Alabama: 17-78-3
Last meeting vs. Alabama: Lost 20-7 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 8; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Dak Prescott, WR Jameon Lewis, C Dillon Day, TE Malcolm Johnson, DL Chris Jones, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love

Key losses
QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, P Baker Swedenburg, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Dak Prescott* (829 yards)
Passing: Dak Prescott* (1,940 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT)
Receiving: Jameon Lewis* (923 yards)
Tackles: Benardrick McKinney* (71)
Sacks: Benardrick McKinney* (3.5)
Interceptions: Nickoe Whitley (5)

What they're saying:
“We ask, who can score? Dak [Prescott] can’t score. He can score inside the 5, but that means we have to get the ball all the way down inside the 5. But in the SEC, who can score? ... Who in the field can make you miss, take a 5-yard play and turn it into a 50-yard play? That’s important to us,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

Three things to watch:

1. Targeting playmakers: Go back and re-read the aforementioned quote from Mullen. Because, in a sense, it’s what’s been nagging his program for quite some time. Mullen has produced efficient offenses and good running games, but never has he truly featured playmakers on the outside. With all due respect to Chad Bumphis, he didn’t scare a defense. That’s what Mississippi State needs -- now. Prescott has the skills at quarterback, but he’ll need help. Lewis needs to make his senior year count and realize his big-play potential; De'Runnya Wilson has to take a step forward as a sophomore and be the over-the-top threat he can be at 6-foot-5; and a wild card like Brandon Holloway must be someone defenses have to keep track of, whether it’s at running back or receiver.

2. An underrated defense: If you don’t know the names of McKinney, Jones and Taveze Calhoun by now, you really should. The three get lost in the shuffle in Starkville, but they’re as talented a linebacker, defensive end and cornerback as you’ll find in this league. Coordinator Geoff Collins has quietly assembled an impressive defense that features depth at every position. McKinney is arguably the best linebacker in the SEC, and he has a solid sidekick in Beniquez Brown. The same goes for Calhoun, who along with Love gives Collins a solid one-two punch at corner. And Jones, who is one of the most promising defensive linemen in all of college football, doesn’t have to do it on his own either with veterans Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith slated to start.

3. Schedule conundrum: Last year’s schedule really did Mississippi State in. The Bulldogs were young to start with, and then they had to face Oklahoma State and Auburn in the first three weeks of the season. Drawing South Carolina from the East was an even bigger helping of bad luck. But this season will be much different with nonconference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT-Martin. And those dreaded East Division swing games? Lowly Kentucky and Vanderbilt. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far the other direction it’s fair to ask whether Mississippi State will have seen enough quality competition by the time it reaches the home stretch when it faces Alabama and Ole Miss in the final three weeks of the season.
Editor's note: We're taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 10-3
2013 SEC record: 5-3, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 25-48-5
Last meeting: Lost 38-17 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 5; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Terrence McGee, OT La'el Collins, WR Travin Dural, S Ronald Martin, OL Vadal Alexander, S Jalen Mills, DL Jamauria Rasco

Key losses
QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham Jr., OL Trai Turner, S Craig Loston, RB Jeremy Hill, LB Lamin Barrow, DL Anthony Johnson, FB J.C. Copeland, DL Ego Ferguson

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards)
Passing: Zach Mettenberger (3,082 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT)
Receiving: Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards)
Tackles: Lamin Barrow (91)
Sacks: Jamauria Rasco* (4)
Interceptions: Jalen Mills*, Craig Loston (3)

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings is expected to compete for LSU's starting quarterback job.
What they're saying:
“We're going to let competition play out. We think we'll have a guy — or two — who can compete at a very high level. I think we'll be fine. Anthony Jennings will continue to improve, and Brandon Harris is coming in, and in a position to compete for the job,” said LSU coach Les Miles.

Three things to watch:

1. Another QB battle: The good news for LSU fans is that Les Miles has been through plenty of quarterback competitions before in his nine seasons in Baton Rouge. Another source of comfort is that Miles has a couple of options to choose from. Anthony Jennings, who got his feet wet as a freshman last year against Arkansas before starting against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, should have a good handle on the offense by now. If he falters, Brandon Harris, a true freshman who enrolled in January, could put himself in position to steal the starting job. Harris, the No. 2 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country, according to ESPN, could bring an added dimension to the offense scrambling and picking up yards with his feet.

2. Early impact expectations: There's no grace period for LSU's 2014 signing class. With so many impact players gone from a season ago, expectations are that a bunch of true freshmen will play right away. The two most obvious rookies likely to get the nod are Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupree. Fournette, the unanimous No. 1 overall recruit in the country, is as talented a running back as we've seen coming out of high school since Adrian Peterson in 2004. If he can grasp the playbook, he could take significant reps from Day 1. The same could be said of Dupree, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 receiver in his class. With Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. both gone, it's a wide open race at the top of the depth chart, one the 6-foot-3, 187-pound rookie could win.

3. A return to form: Last season, LSU's defense ranked 15th in the country in yards per game. But don't let that seemingly solid finish fool you. That wasn't the kind of defense we've become accustomed to under coordinator John Chavis. The defensive line wasn't as dominant and harassing as we've come to expect, and the secondary lacked the playmakers of years past. Some of that was a result of inexperience, and some of that was the result of a league packed with talented, veteran quarterbacks. This year will be different. AJ McCarron & Co. are gone from under center, and LSU has some pieces at cornerback (Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson) that have coaches excited. If Jalen Mills can stay on the field, the secondary could be a real strength. Meanwhile, the defensive line looks to be in good shape with Jamauria Rasco anchoring a promising group of pass-rushers that includes Danielle Hunter and Tashawn Bower.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 25, 2014
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Is anyone else out there as consumed by the Luis Suarez coverage as I am? He bit someone ... during a World Cup match ... on national television ... and then tried to say it was no big deal. Some stories just write themselves.

If you want some context on Suarez the habitual biter, take a few minutes and read Wright Thompson's superb profile: Portrait of a Serial Winner.
An early signing period can’t get here soon enough.

In fact, a number of SEC teams are recruiting as if it already exists.

On Tuesday, Auburn played catch-up with its league brethren by gaining its 16th and 17th total commitments of the 2015 class in four-star offensive lineman Tyler Carr and three-star tight end Jalen Harris. Still, Gus Malzahn’s group trails Alabama (19), South Carolina (19), Mississippi State (18), Tennessee (18) and Texas A&M (18) in terms of its total verbal pledges.

And to think, SEC rules permit only 25 signees per class, per year.

So what’s the rush then? It’s hard to say. In recent years we’ve seen the recruiting calendar steadily accelerated by both the coaches and the players. More and more prospects are committing early, in part to get the process over with but also to secure a spot at their desired school. If you’re a middle-of-the-pack recruit, Alabama offers you a scholarship and you see there are only six spots left in the class, you better act fast.

It’s important to note, however, that without an early signing period in effect, we’re still talking tentative numbers. A verbal commitment is still nonbinding -- on both ends. Players will continue to look elsewhere and other programs will keep trying to poach other schools’ recruits. Coaches will make the scholarship numbers fit, one way or another.

South Carolina’s 19 current commitments may not be the same 19 recruits in a few months time. Ole Miss, on the other hand, has only eight commitments to date and could see that number double by the start of the season. Just look at Auburn, which has gone on a tear since mid-April by nagging 11 total commitments.

Compared to the other big five conferences, the SEC is wasting no time recruiting. The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 each have only one school in their respective conferences with 16 or more commitments. The Pac-12, meanwhile, has none and is led by Arizona’s 14 commitments.

Other conferences might be clinging to a recruiting era gone by, one where prospects waited until signing day to put pen to paper and decide. An early signing period might change that in the future, but for now the SEC is living in the present, getting while the getting is good.

By last count, 152 of ESPN’s top 300 prospects have already committed. There’s no time to waste.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 24, 2014
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So much Miguel Herrera joy here. So much awesome, unabashed celebration.

But, sadly, if this happened in college football someone would have something negative to say about it. They'd call it "poor sportsmanship" or "upstaging the competition." They'd be wrong.

It's sports, people. Maybe this will serve as a reminder that the games should be fun.
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.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
PM ET
Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular-season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 8-5
2013 SEC record: 3-5, sixth in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 9-2-48
Last meeting: Lost 25-0 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Bo Wallace, WR Laquon Treadwell, LB Serderius Bryant, S Tony Conner, S Cody Prewitt

Key losses
WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, C Evan Swindall, OL Jared Duke, K Andrew Ritter

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: I’Tavius Mathers* (563 yards)
Passing: Bo Wallace* (3,346 yards, 18 TD, 10 INT)
Receiving: Laquon Treadwell* (608 yards)
Tackles: Serderius Bryant* (78)
Sacks: Isaac Gross* (3.5)
Interceptions: Cody Prewitt* (6)

What they're saying:
“They weren’t five-star players anymore; they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them, and they loved it,” said quarterback Bo Wallace of the Rebels' talented crop of freshmen who got their feet wet last season.

Three things to watch:

1. Signal change on offense: No, the offense isn’t changing. Head coach Hugh Freeze will still employ the same up-tempo, spread attack he’s used his entire career. But this fall he’s committed to changing the way he calls plays following the departure of Ryan Aplin to Auburn. Why is this so important? Well, if you recall the 25-0 shutout Alabama handed Ole Miss last season, you should also recall the allegations after the game that another former Rebels aid, Tyler Siskey, was spying calls on the sidelines. Tide coach Nick Saban denied the allegations, of course, but the video of Siskey, an off-the-field staffer, with a pair of binoculars trained at the Ole Miss coaching staff was pretty telling. This year, expect greater security from Freeze and his staff when they host Alabama in Oxford.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesLaquon Treadwell is one of the many young Ole Miss players looking to build on big first seasons.
2. Time to prove it: Potential is a tricky thing. Last season, Ole Miss had tons of it as its freshman class garnered many of the headlines. Every broadcast you watched of the Rebels included a mandatory rundown of all the young talent on Freeze’s squad: Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laquon Treadwell, Evan Engram and Laremy Tunsil. Every player was promising and productive, especially when judged by a rookie standard. “Just wait until they get experience,” was the usual refrain as Ole Miss lost three games by a touchdown or less. Well, now they have experience and the freshmen are no longer freshmen. Now Ole Miss must prove that it can translate talent into championships. With a senior at quarterback, a productive defense returning all but one starter and a roster loaded with big-time talent, there aren’t any more excuses.

3. Experience except where it counts: Go look at the “2013 statistical leaders” section of this post again. See all the asterisks denoting a returning starter? A lot of teams around the SEC would love to have that many stars returning. But there’s a problem. If you’re trying to compete in this league, you need experience in the trenches, and Ole Miss is currently trying to replace three such starters on its offensive line. Losing Austin Golson, who was expected to start at right tackle, only further exacerbates the problem. As offensive coordinator Dan Werner told ESPN, “We’re still shuffling guys around.” When you’re a program with hopes of making it to Atlanta, that’s not what you want to hear. Go look at the teams that have won the SEC title lately: They all had experience across the offensive line. With Laremy Tunsil a year wiser, Aaron Morris back from injury and Robert Conyers impressing the coaching staff, Ole Miss has the parts to build a solid line. The question, however, is how and when it will all come together.
Revenge is the name of the game for Alabama in 2014, and the Crimson Tide has a schedule that should allow for it to jump right back into the championship hunt after a disappointing end to last season.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)
Aug. 30: West Virginia (4-8)
Sept. 6: Florida Atlantic (6-6)
Sept. 13: Southern Miss (1-11)
Nov. 22: Western Carolina (2-10)

SEC home games
Sept. 20: Florida
Oct. 18: Texas A&M
Nov. 15: Mississippi State
Nov. 29: Auburn

SEC road games
Oct. 10: Ole Miss
Oct. 11: Arkansas
Oct. 25: Tennessee
Nov. 8: LSU

Gut-check time: Before Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, there will be Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze’s Rebels might not be the best team on Alabama’s schedule this coming season, but it will be the first real challenge the Crimson Tide faces. The season-opener against West Virginia shouldn’t be much of a struggle. Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss in back-to-back weeks should be a breeze. And even if Florida is on the rebound, chances are the Gators will be heavy underdogs in Tuscaloosa. That leaves Ole Miss which serves as Alabama’s first real road test of the season. The fact that the Rebels run an up-tempo offense that features a veteran quarterback and playmakers at receiver makes the matchup all the more intriguing.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMISandwiched between games with LSU and Auburn, Mississippi State, led by QB Dak Prescott, could be trouble for the Tide.
Trap game: We’ll find out on Nov. 15 if Alabama learned its lesson. Before the Tide lost in the last second to Auburn and fell flat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, it nearly slipped up against Mississippi State in Starkville. The offense was flat, the defense uninspired and the mood as a whole was lacking. Looking back it was a telltale sign of Alabama’s demise. This year the Bulldogs could represent a similar pothole, albeit one wrought with deeper consequences as coach Dan Mullen’s squad should be improved on both sides of the football. After traveling to Baton Rouge, La., the week before to take on LSU, will Alabama be up for another fight? Will it be ready to handle Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State offense? Or, with the Iron Bowl on the horizon, will it fall asleep at the wheel and overlook a team that’s capable of pulling off the upset in Bryant-Denny Stadium?

Snoozers: To be fair, West Virginia looked like a great nonconference game a few years ago. Then the Mountaineers dropped to 4-8 under coach Dana Holgorsen. Now Alabama’s nonconference schedule looks like a series of snoozers as no team finished last season above .500. Southern Miss’ one win last year -- yes, one -- came against UAB. Western Carolina beat only Mars Hill and Elon -- the Lions and the Phoenix, if you’re playing the “Name that mascot” game. Florida Atlantic, which finished a cool 6-6, fired its head coach, so don’t expect too much out of the Owls either.

Telltale stretch: The first half of the season should be a breeze for Alabama. The second half, on the other hand, will not. Texas A&M will come to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 18, and we all know what happened the last time the Aggies came to town. Granted Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans won’t be around, but receivers like Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are ones to watch. Then there are road trips to Tennessee and LSU. The Vols will be having a hard time of it since no starter returns on either the offensive or defensive line, but the Bayou Bengals are perennially Alabama’s biggest challenge. Throw in home games against a dangerous Mississippi State team and an Auburn squad looking to prove last year was no fluke, and you’re looking at a stretch of games in which the Tide will be forced to dig deep to survive.

Final analysis: Lopsided might be the best word to describe Alabama’s schedule. Back-loaded might be another. But for coach Nick Saban, he should be thankful. His players will have the benefit of a soft first half of the season to learn. Quarterback Jacob Coker, should he win the job, won’t be thrown directly into the fire. The secondary, with three new starters, will get a taste of competition against West Virginia, but nothing life-threatening. By the time Alabama reaches Texas A&M, it should have worked out the kinks. From there it gets interesting. But still, the schedule is favorable. Arkansas comes before Texas A&M, LSU is preceded by a bye week and Mississippi State and Auburn both travel to Tuscaloosa. Oh, and a lot of teams in the West would be quite happy to have Tennessee as its crossover rival. None of this is to say Alabama has it easy. It doesn’t. It just has it easier than a lot of other SEC programs.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
12:00
PM ET
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution, right? Well, with the debate over an early signing period in full swing, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has an altogether different idea on the subject: eliminate national signing day completely and let players sign the same day they receive a scholarship offer.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular-season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 4-8
2013 SEC record: 3-5, fifth in the Eastern Division
Record all time against Alabama: 14-23
Last meeting: Lost 38-10 in 2011

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 9; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jeff Driskel, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, WR Quinton Dunbar, RB Kelvin Taylor, DE Dante Fowler

Key losses
WR Solomon Patton, TE/H Trey Burton, OL Jon Halapio, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, DL Dominique Easley, LB Ronald Powell, S Cody Riggs, CB Marcus Roberson

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mack Brown (543 yards)
Passing: Tyler Murphy (1,216 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT)
Receiving: Soloman Patton (556 yards)
Tackles: Michael Taylor* (62)
Sacks: Ronald Powell (4)
Interceptions: Vernon Hargreaves III* (3)

What they're saying:
“We lost confidence and belief in what we were doing offensively, and it affected our whole football team. That's something we've gotten back,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp.

Three things to watch:

1. Muschamp on the hot seat: Just this week Muschamp conceded again that he’s on the hot seat in Gainesville. “I was 29 years old at LSU calling defenses in the SEC,” he told reporters. “If you want to coach at Florida, it's the championship expectation. Criticism comes with the job.” Hiring former Duke play-caller Kurt Roper to run the offense was a move in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than a new face and a new scheme to turn around last year’s 4-8 disaster. The psyche of the program seemed broken to the point where even the Gators’s stout defense lost its vigor. Getting that edge back won’t be easy, but Muschamp has never been accused of lacking fire. And Florida has never been confused with lacking talent. With so many question marks, though, it’s probably a good thing that UF starts next season with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. Getting the Wildcats at home won’t be easy, but the ultimate test of how far Florida’s come will be Sept. 20 at Alabama. If he can steal a win against the likes of Alabama, LSU or Florida State this year, he could cool his position on the hot seat.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel has the talent, but has been inconsistent and hasn't had many playmakers around him in the past. That could change this fall.
2. Help for Driskel: A pass-catching tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, so count the addition of former Virginia tight end Jake McGee in the win column for Florida. Driskel, who has been up and down throughout his career under center, could use a safety blanket with McGee’s résumé. There have been times where Driskel has flashed pro potential; good mobility, a strong arm, even good accuracy. But there have been times where all that’s come unraveled. To be fair, though, he hasn’t had much help around him. That could change this season with the addition of McGee, who led the Cavs in receptions last season, and the development of receivers Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. If the O-line can hold together and a playmaker or two emerges, Driskel could see his production skyrocket.

3. The Roper effect: There are no silver bullets in college football, but Florida fans are pinning their hopes to Roper having the Midas touch. The Gator offense was miserable last season, lacking any semblance of an identity. The passing game never got off the ground, yet an on again, off again relationship with the running game persisted, leading to UF placing dead last in the SEC in scoring. It was hard to watch, especially the 7-point output against rival Florida State to end the season. Roper, in other words, has his hands full. He must restore confidence in his quarterback, establish playmakers and find the right balance between the running and passing game. The good news: there’s nowhere to go but up. After watching him succeed with lesser talent at Duke, there’s reason for optimism. I was in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and saw first-hand his touch as a play-caller. The question for him is how long it will take for Florida’s players to buy in and understand what he’s asking of them. The aforementioned early portion of the schedule will help in that respect, and Alabama shouldn’t expect to see a full playbook from Florida until it travels to Tuscaloosa.

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