Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.
How is that possible?
This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.
It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.
That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.
What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.
Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.
It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.
South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.
Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.
Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).
The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.
His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.
Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.
The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.
One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.
It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.
Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.
But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.
The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.
As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.
Alabama, which has already signed three consecutive No. 1 classes, has occupied the top spot in the 2015 rankings since its release. Knocking the Crimson Tide's class, which features 17 ESPN 300 prospects, from the top spot might not be impossible, but it remains a tough task. Despite recently losing a commitment from ESPN 300 WR Daylon Charlot, Bama quickly rebounded, adding a verbal from No. 5 OLB Adonis Thomas. The four-star is reminiscent of 2014 Crimson Tide signee Christian Miller, and possesses excellent size and speed measurables in a hybrid OLB/DE skillset and the versatile defender should fit very well in their base 3-4 defense.
The team that could eventually push Alabama for the top class is Florida State after five-star Josh Sweat picked the Seminoles. FSU, which has had some success recruiting defensive linemen in Virginia with Derrick Nnadi in 2014 and Darvin Taylor II in this class, landed a big commitment in the one-time No. 1 overall prospect Sweat. The No. 2 defensive end is an outstanding athlete with a wonderful combination of speed and power and he can be a versatile and disruptive defender in the Seminoles defense. The current No. 5 player overall in the ESPN 300 was sidelined with a knee injury during his senior season and that could slow initial contributions, but the talented defender is an early enrollee and still possesses great upside with the potential to be an impact player while Tallahassee. The addition of the five-star helped the Seminoles to move into the No. 2 spot in the class rankings.
Inside the rankings
The most difficult thing to do in recruiting is project what a player will be three to five years down the line and perhaps no coach in America does it better than TCU's Gary Patterson. The value of having coached at the mid-major level prior to making the jump to the Big 12 has provided this staff with valuable insight and evaluation tools when it comes to developing players who predominantly will be graded in the 77-82 range for just about all their classes. This was particularly true in the 2012-2014 classes.
This includes players like former WR Josh Boyce (who was lightly recruited) as well as freshman Emmanuel Porter just to name a couple. For TCU, it is about getting the right player -- does he work hard, will he compete and does he have upside in his physical development? Those are the three key things to each TCU class. The other undervalued area that has set the Horned Frogs apart is the staff's ability to project a player at a different position than the one he played in high school. Former TCU great Jerry Hughes was a running back, current safety Sam Carter was a quarterback, OC Joey Hunt was a DT and current starting QB Trevone Boykin was a wide receiver/QB athlete that had to transition to playing QB fulltime.
To see the full rankings, click here.
Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.
At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.
These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.
Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.
Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.
The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.
At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.
Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
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
Offense: 8; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 0
QB Nick Marshall, RB Corey Grant, WR Sammie Coates, OL Reese Dismukes, DL Gabe Wright, DB Jonathon Mincy
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.
In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
- The SEC West has won the last five conference titles, and AL.com’s Kevin Scarbinsky says that’s not going to change this year.
- Five years after taking part in his one and only SEC media days, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was back in the conversation at this year’s event.
- Despite finishing 3-9 a year ago, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is sticking to his plan in his second year with the Razorbacks.
- Five questions with Jeff Driskel: The Florida quarterback talks about new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, the expectations for 2014 and more.
- Georgia picked up a pair of high-profile 2016 commitments this weekend, including the nation’s top-ranked pocket passer.
- As the spotlight shines brighter on Leonard Fournette, the LSU freshman keeps working.
- Mississippi State landed seven commitments at its Big Dawg Camp on Friday and it also left a lasting impression on several other top recruits.
- A new NCAA rule is allowing coaches to spend more time with players this summer, but that hasn’t changed South Carolina’s approach.
- With Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause both gone, Vanderbilt’s wide receiver competition is wide open.
But Saban wasn’t interested in doing that. As he has done with each off-field incident since last season ended, he insisted that issues will be handled internally. He argued, essentially, that to do otherwise would be akin to kicking your own child out of the family for disappointing you.
“We have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them,” he said.
“I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically, all right?” he said.
Saban did levy a little bit of discipline. Harkening back to “guys learning how to control their impulsive behavior,” he said, “those players are suspended, but they’re not kicked off the team.” But which players? It could be Jarran Reed, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny or Dillon Lee. It could be all four that are “suspended from activity” until “they prove ... they’re ready to come back.”
In Saban’s eyes, discipline isn’t punishment.
“That’s what you all think: What are you going to do to the guy? How many games is he getting suspended? Are you going to kick him off the team? This guy kicked this guy off the team because he did this, and that was a good thing,” he said. “Well, but what about the kid? What happens to him? Well, I’m telling you what happens to him: I’ve never seen one go anyplace else and do anything.”
While Saban did drop some occasionally strong remarks -- “There’s an end of the rope for everybody.” “Sometimes you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” -- he never really dropped the hammer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some coaches whose track records as disciplinarians is lacking, but Saban isn’t one of those men.
“Are there consequences?” he said. “Yeah, we don’t have to depend on the guy. They might get suspended for some games, because that’s the one thing that will change their behavior because they all want to play. I get that part, and we do that. But I don’t usually announce that. I don’t usually say we’re going to do that. I tell you before the game, ‘These three guys aren’t going to play.'"
It was interesting, however, to note the tonal change at media days between what Saban said and what Mark Richt said a few hours earlier.
Richt has long been a lightning rod on the subject of discipline. Type “Mark Richt lost control” into Google and you will get roughly 29,000 results. But this offseason Richt developed an image of being tough on crime. Rather than offering starters Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons a route back to school, he dismissed them from Georgia. Rather than worrying about the program’s strong drug policy creating a competitive disadvantage, he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”
“We don't want our guys to do drugs, OK? I don't want my son to do drugs,” he said. “We've got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it. That's kind of what everybody talks about. Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I've got no problems with.”
“It's a lot more than just the punitive part,” he said later. “There's a punitive part, there's an educational part, then we love 'em. You made a mistake. You have these consequences. Now let's turn in the right direction and become a better man for it.”
Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson said it’s simple: “Do the right thing is all they ask.”
“You’re either going to do it Coach Richt’s way or you’re going to go home,” he added.
Strong words, wouldn’t you say?
Saban and Richt want the same thing when it comes to keeping players on the right track and on the right side of the law. But for at least one day and one offseason, the coach we expected to play the role of disciplinarian was not the one who showed up to take the stage.
After last season's loss to Auburn and the blowout defeat to Oklahoma that followed, Alabama and its star receiver are looking at the start of the 2014 season in a different way: two games in the hole.
Cooper remembered the 99-yard touchdown he scored against Auburn last November. The pass from AJ McCarron to Cooper in the fourth quarter silenced the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium that night. McCarron had his "Heisman moment" and Cooper showed the world just how dangerous he can be. Auburn rocked on its heels, and Alabama had a trip to the SEC championship game all but reserved.
"I remember it ... but I really wish we would have won that game," Cooper said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't spend much time talking about 2013 on Thursday. This year's trip to SEC media days was all about hitting the reset button.
No more AJ McCarron. No more C.J. Mosley. No more aura of invincibility for the Tide.
Alabama was picked by the media to win the SEC again this season -- garnering more points than all other teams combined -- but the cloud of inevitability was more transparent than in years past.
"Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple years, when we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons," Saban said in his opening comments to the media inside the Hyatt's packed ballroom. "The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency.
"Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players."
Half an hour earlier, in a more private setting, Saban acknowledged the amount of hurdles facing his team. With the opening of fall camp only weeks away, there are more than a handful of starting jobs still up for grabs.
"We're basically an unproven team in some areas," he said, "and in some cases it's at critical positions."
"We're a team that has a ton of questions," he continued later.
The question du jour (Will the Tide settle on transfer QB Jacob Coker?) will linger into the foreseeable future, as Saban insisted that no decision, no matter the outside perception, has been made about who will start under center.
"We really can't make that decision or prediction as to what's going to happen at that position," Saban said, "but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team."
The good news for Saban is that he's not devoid of talent. With Cooper, tight end O.J. Howard and the two-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at tailback, there's plenty of firepower on offense. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier in the week, "They've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team."
The bad news, though, is that the talent coming in is unproven at several other key spots. There's the potential for a true freshman to play at left tackle, and three-quarters of the starters in the secondary are gone.
Landon Collins was a preseason first-team All-SEC choice for a reason, but he can't do it alone at strong safety.
"The young guys are looking at me to show them the ropes," Collins said.
Two of those youngsters are true freshmen: Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, both five-star prospects, have the potential to take significant reps at cornerback.
"They have impressed me," Collins said. "They're going to be phenomenal when it's their time. When it's time to showboat and do their thing, they're going to show you what they've been doing since high school."
The question is when their time will come.
Last season, Alabama relied heavily on a slew of inexperienced corners (Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve) and the defense paid the price. Auburn was able to get a few big plays through the air, and then Oklahoma took it a step further when Trevor Knight transformed from an enigma into Peyton Manning in New Orleans, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
Alabama wasn't Alabama those final two games last season. The offense became inconsistent, the defense struggled and special teams came up just short.
Until the 2014 season kicks off, there's a big 0-2 record hanging around the team's collective neck.
Until Alabama gets back to playing Alabama football, players feel as if they're in the hole.
"I think it's a little bit of a different mindset with our players," Saban said.
For Cooper, it's almost a welcomed change. Winning championships inevitably breeds complacency. Losing back-to-back games and then having to answer all the questions that follow is simply fuel for the fire.
"When you have people doubting you, you're automatically hungry," he said. "You want to work hard just to prove them wrong."
It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.
But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.
It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:
1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.
3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?
4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.
5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.
7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.
8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?
9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?
10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
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.
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
Offense: 8; Defense: 8; Kicker/punter: 0
QB Dak Prescott, WR Jameon Lewis, C Dillon Day, TE Malcolm Johnson, DL Chris Jones, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love
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.
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
Offense: 5; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 2
RB Terrence McGee, OT La'el Collins, WR Travin Dural, S Ronald Martin, OL Vadal Alexander, S Jalen Mills, DL Jamauria Rasco
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)
“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.
Freshman Quarterbacks A Growing Trend?
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