video

Upper Deck's Chris Carlin breaks down why his company decided to create its Conference Greats football product, which focuses on the best players and coaches in SEC history.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama’s offensive linemen heard it all week. From fans, from the media, from within. They’d struggled the past two games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. There were too many penalties, too many instances of miscommunication. Against the Razorbacks, the Crimson Tide managed just 66 yards rushing on 32 carries.

For a program long built on its play in the trenches, there were a few alarming statistics emerging during those two games in the month of October.
  • Yards per rush: 3.08
  • Longest rush: 22 yards
  • Percent of rushes for zero or negative yards: 22.4
  • Rushes for 10 or more yards: 4
  • Average yards per rush before contact: 1.74

Nick Saban may not have known those numbers off the top of his head, but he could see the offensive line’s struggles play out on the game film. It didn’t make any sense. Other than center Ryan Kelly being out, it was the same guys up who had done well earlier in the season. Saban thought to himself, “We can do it again.”

So Saban gathered the offensive line last week for what he called a “little gathering.”

It wasn’t heated, said senior guard Arie Kouandjio, just “straight forward” about “how he felt.”

“Look, guys, you guys are starting to feel pressure and you’re being criticized,” Saban said he told his linemen. “You’re not being the sergeant-at-arms that we need you to be in terms of how you control the line of scrimmage and how you dominate the line of scrimmage. Really, our guys aren’t going to make plays unless you do that. I believe in you and I trust in you.”

A few days later against Texas A&M, they delivered. Those same damning statistics were turned on their ear.
  • Yards per rush: 6.62
  • Longest rush: 43 yards
  • Percent of rushes for zero or negative yards: 6.7
  • Rushes for 10 or more yards: 8
  • Average yards per rush before contact: 3.33

“We used that as motivation,” Kouandjio said of the criticism the line faced, “and I feel like we’re back on track.”

Said Saban: “I’m really proud of the way they did that today.”

So was Blake Sims, Alabama’s starting quarterback.

Like the line in front of him, Sims had struggled the previous two games at Ole Miss and Arkansas. But against A&M, he found his rhythm and threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. He also scrambled and scored on a spectacular 43-yard run.

Following Saban’s lead, Sims encouraged his linemen heading into the game against A&M, telling them, “Stay hungry and stay wanting to work hard.”

“I think the guys were hungry and wanted to play hard and wanted to let everyone know, ‘Hey, talk about the skill guys but forget about the offensive line because we some dogs down there,’” Sims told reporters after the game.

If the line continues playing with that same kind of intensity, then Alabama’s offense will be fine.

But it remains to be seen whether that will happen. Because there’s a common thread between the line’s struggles against Ole Miss and Arkansas: both games were on the road.

After enjoying some home cooking against Texas A&M, how will the line respond against Tennessee with “Rocky Top” ringing in its ears?

Drawing Conclusions: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:38
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video

A look at the aftermath in the wake of all of the week 8 college football action.
video

The ESPNU Experts debate whether or not the SEC West can place two teams in the College Football Playoff.

ESPN 300 Near-Misses

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:32
PM ET


video

National recruiting director Tom Luginbill breaks down several recruits who narrowly missed the ESPN 300 in the latest 2015 player rankings update.

ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:45
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video
The SEC has an impressive 89 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. While the SEC West has been dominant on the field, 13 of the 14 SEC schools are ranked in the top 40 of the RecruitingNation class rankings. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 22

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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There were no major changes made to this week’s playoff tracker. Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia all proved why they are contenders with big wins this past Saturday while Mississippi State and Auburn enjoyed the week off.

Here’s a look at where the five remaining SEC contenders stand heading into Week 9.

Mississippi State
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Arkansas

Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape in coming off a bye week and facing Kentucky, which fell back to Earth with a 41-3 loss to LSU on Saturday. Mississippi State should cruise to a win that would help its remaining Western Division games against Arkansas, Alabama and Ole Miss grow increasingly important in the divisional and national title pictures.

Cause for concern: If their record remains spotless and their Western Division title hopes hinge on a win against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs will have to win that pivotal game on the road. Mississippi State has a 1-6 record in Oxford in the 2000s. The Bulldogs’ lone win came in 2010, when No. 25 MSU edged Ole Miss 31-23.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Ole Miss.

-- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 7-0 (4-0)
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at LSU

Reason for optimism: The Rebels are on an absolute role right now. They’re second in the SEC in total defense (290.6 yards allowed per game) and have held opponents under 200 yards three times this season. Quarterback Bo Wallace is averaging 271 yards per game and has thrown 17 touchdowns to six interceptions.

Cause for concern: The Rebels are still in the SEC West, and road trips to LSU and Arkansas loom. Oh, and Ole Miss ends the season at home with No. 1 Mississippi State. The running game hasn’t been very explosive at all this season, ranking 11th in the league (151.3 yards per game).

Who they’re rooting for this week: Kentucky over Mississippi State.

-- Edward Aschoff

Alabama
Record: 6-1 (3-1 SEC)
AP rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After hearing all week how they were slipping following a loss to Ole Miss and a narrow win at Arkansas, the Crimson Tide came out Saturday on fire, throttling Texas A&M 59-0. It was a complete performance that said Alabama is right in the thick of the playoff conversation.

Cause for concern: Consistency is going to be the biggest challenge for this young Alabama team. Playing well at home is good, but now it must prove it can take the show on the road. First up its a trip to Tennessee and two weeks later it's on to Death Valley and LSU.

Who they’ll be rooting for: It's a bit of a double-edged sword for Alabama seeing as you never want to face an LSU team with growing confidence, but it would do the Tide some good to see the Bayou Bengals upset Ole Miss this weekend.

-- Alex Scarborough

Auburn
Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina

Reason for optimism: Despite losing to Mississippi State its last time out, Auburn is still the No. 1 team in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). The Tigers will enter the second half refreshed after having this past weekend off, and they also get back safety Jermaine Whitehead who was reinstated to the team Tuesday.

Cause for concern: We won’t know if the bye week fixed all of Auburn’s problems until we see the Tigers in action this Saturday, but they need to play much better than they did against Mississippi State if they expect to win out. The other bad news is that winning out might be their only option for making the playoff.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Auburn would love to see LSU take Ole Miss down a notch before it travels to Oxford a week from Saturday.

-- Greg Ostendorf

Georgia
Record: 6-1 (4-1)
AP rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)

Reason for optimism: Well, there really doesn’t seem to be a true competitor in the East. The Dawgs embarrassed Missouri in Columbia and Kentucky got trounced in Baton Rouge. Nick Chubb has been an absolute star in place of Todd Gurley, rushing for 345 yards and three touchdowns as the starter in the last two games.

Cause for concern: Chubb has been great, but you still have to wonder how durable the freshman really can be if he keeps carrying the ball as much as he has (68 carries in two games) with Gurley still sidelined. Also, the East is just bad, so what happens when the Dawgs face a team from the West? Hello, Auburn on Nov. 15.

Who they’re rooting for this week: South Carolina over Auburn

-- Edward Aschoff

Top trap games remaining for contenders 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Oregon didn't see Arizona coming. Baylor was blindsided by West Virginia. Now those teams' playoff hopes are damaged, if not totaled.

It's often the surprising losses -- the trap games -- that derail promising seasons. Just ask Oklahoma State (Iowa State) in 2011 or USC (Oregon State) in 2008.

As for 2014, here are the most perilous traps remaining down the stretch for the top six in the AP poll. That includes Mississippi State, FSU and Ole Miss, the three remaining undefeated Power 5 teams.

1. Ole Miss
Trap game: at Arkansas (Nov. 22)
When they go to Fayetteville, the Rebels will essentially be coming off two open dates (they play Presbyterian on Nov. 8). But Arkansas still presents a classic look-ahead scenario, because Ole Miss has the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State the following week. The "biggest Egg Bowl ever" chatter is buzzing now; just imagine what it will be like a week before the game. If the Rebels' focus is waning, Arkansas is good enough to punish them for it. Mark it down: The Razorbacks are going to end their 16-game SEC losing streak this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in an impactful game. Mississippi State (Nov. 1) also should be on high alert. Arkansas will slow down the game. Even if Ole Miss isn't running as much up-tempo this season, pace is still something the Rebs want to dictate. The timing and matchup are as dangerous as it gets.


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SEC morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
8:00
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1. On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Ostendorf wrote about how Auburn freshman Roc Thomas is primed for a big second half to the season. Watching Thomas from afar, I'd have to agree. While he's not as fast as Corey Grant or as powerful as Cameron Artis-Payne, he's probably Gus Malzahn's most explosive running back when it comes to consistently picking up large chunks of yards. But Ostendorf's piece got me thinking: Who are some other potential second-half stars in the SEC? Here are four that come to mind:
  • Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama: A big body at linebacker who is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. He'll be an integral part of stopping the run against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Too obvious? The longer Todd Gurley is sidelined, the faster the freshman back's star rises.
  • AJ Derby, TE, Arkansas: Bret Bielema told me this spring that the former QB had NFL talent as a tight end. We're starting to see more and more of that lately.
  • Brandon Holloway, RB, Mississippi State: A shifty running back with blinding speed that can catch the ball out of the backfield, Holloway is the perfect change of pace to the bruising style of Josh Robinson.

2. The Head Ball Coach took the Florida question in stride. Steve Spurrier says he's not leaving South Carolina for The Swamp to replace Will Muschamp. "No," Spurrier told reporters on Tuesday. "I tell everybody my next move is going to be to Crescent Beach, Fla." It was fun to imagine Spurrier roaming the Florida sideline again, but at 69 years old you knew it wasn't likely, if not altogether impossible. He's comfortable at South Carolina. Things might not be perfect there right now, but the work pales in comparison to what must be done at Florida. The Gators, should they choose to part ways with Muschamp, need a long-term solution, not a splashy stop-gap they'd have to replace sooner than later.

3. Texas A&M is going back to the drawing board. Even the QB position is up for grabs, said coordinator Jake Spavital. But that's not what caught my attention on Tuesday. What piqued my interest was coach Kevin Sumlin's comments about how Saturday's loss at Alabama was an "eye-opener." He said, "This program was founded on three things -- play hard, play smart, be physical." Texas A&M has done none of those things recently. It started with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but it ended with Alabama breaking its will. There was no aggressiveness from the Aggies' sideline, no fire to show in the second half they're better than the score indicated. They gave up. They wanted to go home. And if you're a coach, that's the worst possible thing you can see. What we're seeing from A&M is that you can't survive in this league on talent alone. You have to have those three things Sumlin discussed, but you have to have them in more than name only.

Tweet of the day

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Reggie Ragland was a four-star prospect. He was 6-foot-3, 245 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.7 seconds. SEC coaches fell over themselves chasing after him. He was the No. 2-rated inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN, and was invited to the Under Armour All-Star Game where he stood out just as much as future teammates T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and Landon Collins.

When Ragland set foot on Alabama’s practice field for the first time, he continued to impress. He didn’t look like a freshman, his legs as thick as tree trunks. Considering his background, his build and his athleticism, he was someone you circled on the roster to watch.

That was three years ago.

[+] EnlargeAlabama
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Reggie Ragland, top, is congratulated by teammates after his interception vs. Texas A&M.
When Ragland had "former blue-chip prospect" in front of his name, everything changed. Reality set in. The rigors of the college game caught up with him, as they have so many. Nick Saban’s defensive system wasn’t a quick study. He was buried on the depth chart by Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest. He looked the same physically, but he wasn’t noticeable any longer. Eleven of his 17 tackles as a sophomore came on special teams.

There were glimpses of Ragland’s potential during those first two years on campus, but concrete evidence was hard to come by. While Yeldon, Cooper and Collins emerged as stars, Ragland wondered whether he would ever regain the confidence he possessed as one of the most sought after high school athletes in the country.

Turning to Collins this season, he expressed doubt. Johnson and Mosley were gone and a starting job was all but guaranteed to him, but all he could feel was uncertainty.

"I’ve been out for years," he told Collins.

"Brother, just ball," the All-SEC safety responded. "You’ve been doing it for how many years? All you have to do is go out there, play your game and just ball."

It wasn’t a quick process, but Ragland eventually found his footing. The anxiety he felt dissipated, and he started playing in a way that lived up to his high billing as a freshman: fast, physical, aggressive.

Through seven games, he trails only Collins for the team lead in tackles. He has made five stops behind the line of scrimmage, defended three passes and recovered two fumbles. Against Texas A&M on Saturday, he made one of the plays of the game, leaping high into the air for his first career interception.

"The first game for me I overthought everything," Ragland said. "Because I hadn’t played in a couple of years, everything was fast. But as the weeks went on, everything started slowing down for me and I could see it."

He no longer needs the safeties to tell him what to do, he said. Reading the line of scrimmage and the quarterback’s eyes, he is seeing things before they happen.

Playing fast and confident again, he is a big reason Alabama’s defense ranks third in the nation, giving up 262.1 yards per game.

"Reggie has gotten better and better with every game," Saban said prior to Alabama’s 14-13 win against Arkansas two weeks ago. "I think he’s another one of those guys that didn't have a whole lot of experience before, so as you play and as you gain experience, you realize what it takes to play well.

"You've got to prepare what you've got to look at, how you've got to understand your game plan. You understand that every mental error you make has a consequence in the game. You really focus on paying attention to detail, doing the little things right. You become a lot better, more efficient player and Reggie has certainly done that."

Living by Saban’s words -- "Relax, let loose and have fun" -- Ragland has become a rising star in the SEC.

If the rest of Alabama’s former four- and five-star athletes learn to play the same way, watch out.

"If everybody can get together, the sky’s the limit for us," Ragland said.

He should know.

SEC Heisman Watch: Week 8

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
1:00
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There's no denying that with his team's No. 1 ranking, undefeated record, wins against Top 25 teams and his own performance, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott is still the top contender for the Heisman Trophy from the SEC and, so it seems, he is the national favorite at the moment, depending on where you look (Oregon's Marcus Mariota is getting some love as well, lately).

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper caught eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Texas A&M.
But when it comes to SEC candidates, Prescott, the league's best quarterback on what is currently the league's best team, is the front-runner. Perhaps we should be paying some attention, however, to the league's best receiver: Alabama's Amari Cooper.

We've had this conversation before. Earlier this season, particularly after his 10-catch, 201-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida, Cooper's name began to emerge as one deserving of Heisman Trophy candidacy.

Well, in case you forgot about Cooper after two less productive weeks (one in which he was hampered by an injury), he reminded us all on Saturday why he is the standard in the league at his position.

Cooper was dominant in Alabama's 59-0 win against Texas A&M: eight catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns. The Aggies had no answers for Cooper, whom quarterback Blake Sims looked toward early and often in the game. He's big, fast, physical and extremely productive. He has been outstanding this season, with five games of at least 130 receiving yards and 908 receiving yards total, which ranks fourth in the country.

So while Prescott (whose team was off last weekend) remains the league's premier option currently and we continue to await word on what will happen with suspended Georgia running back Todd Gurley, perhaps we should keep a closer eye on Cooper moving forward.

Here are three other players to keep an eye on:

  • Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss: Wallace wasn't pristine this week (13-of-28, 199 yards), but he was still turnover-free and threw two touchdowns to guide the Rebels to a win over Tennessee. He is averaging 290.7 offensive yards per game in SEC play, while throwing nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in Ole Miss' four conference wins. He is third in the league in passer rating (163.0) and second in passing yards (1,899) and touchdown passes (17).

  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were off this week but Robinson has no doubt been an excellent weapon to pair with Prescott this season. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and yards per carry (7.0) and tied for second with eight rushing touchdowns.

  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: We don't know when Gurley will come back as he has missed the last two games, suspended by Georgia while it investigates allegation whether he profited from signing autographs. Even though he sat the last two games, he still leads the SEC in rushing yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (eight). The longer he's out, the more his chances are hindered, but for now, we'll keep him in the watch.
In case you hadn't heard, Lane Kiffin is not a very popular man in state of Tennessee.

Even five years later, his one-and-done tenure with the Vols still irks UT fans, who have suffered through a horrific 7-28 SEC stretch since Kiffin's bravado and high hopes left for Los Angeles. And does it help that their hated former coach is now the offensive coordinator at UT's most ancient rival, Alabama? No. No, it doesn't.

So with Kiffin's Crimson Tide coming to Knoxville this weekend in his first appearance back at Neyland Stadium, you knew things were going to get a little zany. And so far, we have not been disappointed.

Let's start with the Tennessee State House race pitting incumbent Gloria Johnson against challenger Eddie Smith. Kiffin is so unpopular in this East Tennessee district that he's being used in a direct mail ad that compares him to Johnson.

Lane Kiffin AdTennessee Federation for Children PAC
Lane Kiffin AdTennessee Federation for Children PAC

Surely you didn't expect Rep. Johnson, a UT grad, to let such treachery go by without a response. So she did what any self-respecting politician in this Vol-crazy area would do -- got a much more popular former Tennessee coach to give her an endorsement. Enter Vols legend Johnny Majors, who finished runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy and was head coach of his alma mater from 1977-92.


Oh, but that's not all. As Kiffin gets set to return to Knoxville, he's also facing an accusation that he skipped town in January 2010 before paying a $14 haircut debt.

That's according to the owner of the Western Plaza Barber Shop, Rusty Manis, who isn't seriously seeking payment from Alabama's offensive coordinator -- but is nevertheless having some fun with it with this week. Check out this dramatized report from the local NBC affiliate.

SEC Weekend Wrap: Oct. 21

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:38
PM ET


video

Recruiting reporter Derek Tyson breaks down the top weekend storylines from the SEC.

Playoff Field: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:27
PM ET


video

Cary Chow, Heather Dinich, and Adam Rittenberg take a look at where things stand after week 8 of the college football season, and what the playoff selection committee will have to do when sorting out all of the one-loss teams.

Playoff Top 4: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:21
PM ET


video

Heather Dinich gives her weekly look at the College Football Playoff picture and picks the four teams she would put in the playoff if the season ended today.

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Bold predictions: Alabama at Tennessee
Lane Kiffin makes his return to Knoxville Saturday night (7:30 ET/ESPN) to face Tennessee.
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SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 10/25