Alabama Crimson Tide: Cade Foster

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

December, 12, 2013
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We're a couple of weeks from an SEC team playing in an actual game, but there is still plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.

• Auburn's assistant coaches should join head coach Gus Malzahn in receiving raises in the near future. A USA Today salary database shows that Auburn's coaching salary pool is already the fifth biggest in the country.

• Speaking of that USA Today salary database, take a look. LSU and Alabama both rank ahead of Auburn on the list and eight of the top 12 are from the SEC.

• Former President George W. Bush sent a letter of support to Alabama kicker Cade Foster, whose missed kicks helped Auburn stay in the game and eventually upset the Crimson Tide.

• Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was announced as a regional coach of the year on Wednesday by the American Football Coaches Association.

• South Carolina is trying to strike the right balance in its bowl prep.

• The Advocate's Scott Rabalais writes that LSU's matchup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl is sexier than it's getting credit for.

• Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel thinks he's ready for the NFL, but says he hasn't made a decision yet about whether to enter the draft.

• Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell was named the conference's top freshman on Wednesday and will almost certainly make the SEC's All-Freshman team, which will be announced today.

• Ten SEC players were named to USA Today's All-America teams on Wednesday.

• Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell's season ended the way it started: with an injury.

• LSU coach Les Miles plans to watch his son (and some other prospects) at today's state championship games at the Louisiana Superdome.

• It has been a monster year for new Georgia recruiting prospect Nate Brown.

• Florida should have enviable backfield depth in 2014.

• Kentucky's big recruiting weekend is missing one who got away.

Alabama kicker Cade Foster missed three field goals in the Crimson Tide's dramatic 34-28 loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Two just missed, and another was blocked.

It wasn't a good night at all for Foster, who watched from the sideline as teammate Adam Griffith's 57-yard field goal try was returned 109 yards by Chris Davis for an Auburn win that created an avalanche of hate hurled his way.

[+] EnlargeCade Foster
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsCade Foster's rough Iron Bowl led to a letter of support from another No. 43.
No perfect season. No SEC championship. No national championship.

But while Foster had to wade through embarrassing garbage that social media cowards launched at him following Alabama's loss, he received a pretty neat letter of support from someone with much better credentials than any of those Internet tough guys.

On Wednesday, Foster tweeted a picture of a handwritten letter sent to him from former President George W. Bush that was dated Dec. 3.

Here's what the letter said:
"Dear Cade (#43), Life has its setbacks. I know! However, you will be a stronger human with time. I wish you all the best."

It was signed: "Sincerely -- another 43."

No matter your opinion of the former president, your political stance or your team affiliation, this is pretty cool. It's something Foster should treasure for the rest of his life. It should wipe away all of the crud dished out to him after his off night on the Plains.

It had to feel really good to get a message like that from someone who has dealt with far worse criticism under a much bigger microscope. It also showed him that there's more to life than three missed field goals. That night was a low point for Foster, but it wasn't the end for him. Foster has plenty of good days ahead, and this should be only a minor bump in his road.

"Like I said, football is just a game. It's not life," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Times like this people need to realize the sun is going to rise tomorrow."

It's true. Just wake up and look outside.

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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Whew, what a final week of the regular season in the SEC.

The heat is still rising from some of the things that happened around the league on Saturday.

So let’s dive right in to our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not.

GLOWING EMBERS

SEC lobbying: The SEC is going to need some serious help to keep alive its national championship streak. Auburn and Missouri still have a heartbeat, and they will meet Saturday in the SEC championship game. The best scenario for the winner of that game would be for either No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State to be upset in its respective conference championship game. Florida State faces Duke in the ACC title game and is a four-touchdown favorite, while Ohio State takes on Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and is a six-point favorite. In the meantime, you’re going to hear some pretty passionate lobbying from SEC folks about how there’s no way a one-loss SEC champion should be kept out of the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Already, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said it would be a “disservice to the nation” if the Tigers were left out of the big game similar to what happened to them in 2004 when they were unbeaten and didn’t get a chance to play for the national title. If Florida State or Ohio State win this weekend then the winner of the Auburn-Missouri game is going to have to hope several voters in the coaches’ poll and Harris poll have a change of heart on their final ballots and vote a one-loss SEC champion ahead of Ohio State. Auburn, which is No. 3 this week in the BCS standings, probably has the best shot, but would need to win impressively over Missouri to leapfrog an unbeaten Ohio State team and then have the Buckeyes struggle this weekend. Even then, it’s not likely enough voters would change their minds. Should Auburn beat Missouri, it would be difficult to dismiss the Tigers’ resume. They would own four wins over top 25 teams in this week’s BCS standings, including a win over the team that has won the past two national championships. That would compare to two wins over top 25 teams by the Buckeyes, assuming they beat the Spartans.

HOT

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesChris Davis etched his name in Auburn lore with his touchdown return on the final play of the Iron Bowl.
Auburn cornerback Chris Davis: His 100-yard return for a touchdown on the missed field goal attempt by Alabama gets more improbable every time you watch it. Davis was an absolute blur up the left sideline, and Alabama’s players looked like they were running in slow motion. Before the season, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told me that it was critically important for Davis to stay healthy this season because he could be a difference-maker for the Tigers in several areas. How prophetic does that look now?

NOT

Alabama’s streak: The Crimson Tide had won 15 straight games and two straight national championships. Going back to the 2009 season, when they won their first of three national championships under Nick Saban, it’s the kind of run we probably won’t see again anytime soon in the SEC. When historic streaks die, they typically die hard. Losing the way Alabama did last week at Auburn will cut deeply for some time.

HOT

Tennessee defensive end Corey Miller: Entering his final college game at Kentucky, Miller had five career sacks in 48 games. He exploded for a school-record 4.5 sacks in the 27-14 win over the Wildcats. And whose record did he break? Hall of Famer Reggie White had four sacks in a game as a senior at Tennessee in 1983. That’s some pretty impressive company.

NOT

Cowardly fans: It’s always a select few who screw it up for everybody else. But enough with hitting up players who miss field goals and lose key fumbles with nasty emails and messages, almost always behind the cloak of anonymity. Good to see the Alabama players come to kicker Cade Foster’s defense. Too bad some of these so-called “grown” fans don’t have the same kind of perspective the 20- and 21-year-old kids who are actually playing the game do about losing a football game.

HOT

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw, Steve Spurrier, Ronald Patrick
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtA familiar sight in the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry: Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks celebrating another victory.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier: You have to seriously wonder if Clemson will ever beat South Carolina again as long as the Head Ball Coach is there. He’s renowned for getting inside teams’ heads. And right now, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers might need a psychiatrist to get Spurrier out of their heads. As Spurrier said himself (in his own way) following South Carolina’s fifth straight win in the series, Clemson seems to find a way to play just poorly enough and just uptight enough to lose this game every year.

NOT

Beating up on Vanderbilt in November: Once upon a time, Vanderbilt probably considered canceling the month of November. But not anymore. The Commodores have won nine straight games in the month of November, another telltale sign that this is a program that only gets better under James Franklin as the season goes on. Before Franklin arrived, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November in the previous 10 years. Defensively, Vanderbilt really turned it on down the stretch and played lights out in November. The Commodores suffered some key injuries and struggled early, but ended up 25th nationally in total defense -- their third straight season in the top 25 under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. And during this last month, Vanderbilt allowed just 11.8 points per game and 277 yards of total offense per game while forcing 12 turnovers. Opposing teams managed just one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions against the Commodores in November.

FREEZER BURN

Preseason predictions: If anybody -- coaches, media or fans -- had Auburn and Missouri in the SEC championship game in August, I want to see the ballot. Auburn was picked fifth in the West and Missouri sixth in the East at the SEC media days. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel thanked everybody Sunday for picking the Tigers so low because it only served as motivation for his players. And get this: Neither Auburn nor Missouri received a single vote at the SEC media days to win the league championship. Let’s face it, though. Given the media’s shoddy track record for getting the eventual SEC champion right, if you’re picked to win it in Hoover, Ala., during the summer, you might as well plan on not winning it. Only twice in the past 18 years has the media correctly predicted the SEC champion. Still, had anybody picked Auburn or Missouri this year, that would have been a story in itself at the time. Auburn didn’t win a single SEC game a year ago and lost 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama in its previous two SEC games. Missouri won two SEC games a year ago in its first season in the league, and with so many injuries along the offensive line, looked overwhelmed at times.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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The SEC saved the best for last. In the final week of the regular season, Alabama and Auburn played the game of the year in college football. The stakes were high. The rivalry is fierce. And the game was decided by a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown on the final play of the game. How do you write a better script than that?

The matchup is now set for next weekend’s SEC title game, but let’s look back at five things we learned from Saturday’s action.

The ride continues: Auburn trailed Alabama for most of Saturday’s game, but the Tigers found a way to win in the fourth quarter, as they always do. It’s been that way all season, and it was no different against the nation’s No. 1 team in the Iron Bowl. What coach Gus Malzahn has been able to do in his first season on the Plains has been nothing short of remarkable. He took over a team that was 3-9 and winless in the SEC in 2012, and he has them playing for a conference championship. It’s reminiscent of the 2010 season, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a BCS national championship, but this isn't over yet. Saturday was a monumental victory for Malzahn and this Auburn team, but now they must start preparing for Missouri.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonJames Franklin and Missouri have clinched the SEC East and will play Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
Missouri’s legitimate: Speaking of Missouri, the Tigers just keep on winning. Everybody kept waiting for the conference newcomer to slip up and hand the SEC East over to South Carolina, but it never happened. On Saturday, James Franklin and Henry Josey led Mizzou past Texas A&M, which helped it clinch the East and book a trip to Atlanta to play Auburn in the SEC championship game. Franklin, in his second game back, finished 18-of-28 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 80 yards. Josey was bottled up most of the night, but his 57-yard touchdown scamper late proved to be the game winner. Missouri’s defense deserves the most credit, though. It held Johnny Manziel to 195 yards passing and just 21 yards rushing.

No three-peat: Alabama’s quest for a third consecutive BCS title fell short on Saturday, and the Crimson Tide had only themselves to blame. They had been able to overcome turnovers, penalties and other mistakes all season long, but the miscues finally caught up to them against Auburn. It started with a missed field goal. AJ McCarron and his receivers didn’t look to be in sync early in the game. Then there was a blocked punt. With all of those errors, Alabama still jumped out to a 21-7 lead. But in the second half, the Tide missed three more field goals, and the last one proved to be the difference-maker as Auburn returned it 109 yards for the game-winning score. UA kicker Cade Foster drilled one of the attempts only to see the points taken away by a false start penalty. The stakes were high, and Alabama failed to play its best football. It cost the Crimson Tide.

QBs to the rescue: LSU and Mississippi State both won in dramatic fashion this weekend, and both have reserve quarterbacks to thank for it. In Mississippi State’s case, it was regular starter Dak Prescott who took over in the fourth quarter and led the Bulldogs past archrival Ole Miss in overtime. Prescott missed the two previous games with an injury and wasn’t expected to play Thursday. But Dan Mullen rolled the dice, and it worked. Mississippi State became bowl eligible with the win. LSU turned to freshman signal-caller Anthony Jennings out of necessity when Zach Mettenberger got hurt in the fourth quarter. Jennings led a 99-yard drive in the final minutes, throwing a 49-yard touchdown to push the Tigers past Arkansas.

No SEC in the BCS: It was a wild weekend in the SEC, but Saturday’s Iron Bowl could leave the conference out of the BCS title game for the first time since 2005. Alabama was the favorite to reach Pasadena and win a third straight national championship, but the Tide’s aspirations fell short against Auburn. Now it will likely be Florida State and Ohio State at the top with both Auburn and Missouri on the outside looking in. The SEC’s only hope is that either the Seminoles or the Buckeyes lose next weekend in their conference championship games or that the winner of the SEC title game will have a strong enough résumé to overcome one loss and jump an undefeated Ohio State team. If not, the league's seven-year reign might be over.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in Alabama's 49-0 win over Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon.

Starting off slowly: There's something about the first quarter that Alabama's offense doesn't like. Even against inferior competition, the Tide struggle to score points early. We saw it against Mississippi State last week and we saw it again with Chattanooga on Saturday. All told, Alabama has scored 13 points in the first quarter of its last three games. Thankfully for AJ McCarron and the offense, their defense has come ready to play, shutting out opponents over the same period of time.

Future starter?: Cyrus Jones could have started. So could have Eddie Jackson. John Fulton would have been the sentimental pick to start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue on senior day. But in the end it was true freshman Maurice Smith trotting out to start at cornerback in the first series against Chattanooga. He played well, too, keeping the Mocs receivers in check and failing to draw a penalty. Whether he'll start moving forward this season is unknown, but Saturday's game may wind up being looked back on this offseason when fans and prognosticators analyze Alabama's cornerback situation in 2014.

Special teams: We've written at length about Alabama's offense and defense, so now seems like a good time to point out just how good the special teams have been. The forgotten unit has more than held its own this season. Cody Mandell has been one of the best punters in the nation, Cade Foster has been more than reliable kicking field goals and the coverage teams have kept the field position battle in Alabama's favor. But the big difference this year is the number of big plays out of the special teamers. Christion Jones returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Chattanooga, his third touchdown returning kicks this year, and A'Shawn Robinson later blocked a field goal attempt, setting up another score. All told, Alabama has seven non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since 2008.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a few days before the start of the season and AJ McCarron was asked whether he was still planning on being the holder on field goals and extra points. It seemed, after all, like a legitimate question to ask. As Alabama's starting quarterback, he had a higher calling than making sure the football was placed on the turf just so.

There surely was another less vital player who could perform what seemed to be a menial task, right?

"No, Coach knows I don't care," is all McCarron said. "That's what he asked me to do and I'm going to do it. I'm not bigger than anybody else."

McCarron, a fifth-year senior and a Heisman Trophy contender, has been a part of special teams for years now. But he's not the only All-SEC talent playing on a unit usually reserved for rookies and lifelong backups. C.J. Mosley, Alabama's All-American linebacker, covers punts, and T.J. Yeldon, UA's leading tailback, does the same. Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest, two starters on defense, made their bones on special teams.

They don't do it because they have to. They do it because there's pride involved. They do it because it's important.

"I used to look at it as one play," DePriest said. "It's one play, give it all you got for one play. You never know when you're going to be needed, and since special teams is a one play thing -- you run down there, do what you need to do and get off the field. And when the next special teams is up, you go out there and do it again."

Said Mosley: "We always treat special teams like a game-changing momentum changer."

Alabama's special teams play has been especially good this season, becoming arguably the most consistent part of the top-ranked Crimson Tide's game. Where the offense and defense have had their ups and downs, the third, lesser-known unit, has been steadily impressive, coming in eighth nationally in yards per punt (46.95) and yards per kickoff return (28.0). On kickoff coverage, Alabama is 20th nationally and second in the SEC, allowing an average of 17.73 yards per return.

Big plays have been a part of special teams, too. Sophomore linebacker Dillon Lee's blocked punt return for a touchdown against Colorado State marked the third special teams score and the fifth non-offensive touchdown of the year for Alabama, far outpacing any season in recent memory. Two interceptions have been taken to the house and return specialist Christion Jones already has a touchdown on a kickoff and a punt return.

"We practice every day, we focus on that," Sunseri said. "Coach Saban says to practice like you want to play and we hustle down field every day and want to make sure we don’t give up any plays in practice, because whatever you do in practice rolls over to the game. Doing those things right and getting full position is always huge."

There hasn't been a more overlooked part of Alabama's recent championship run than special teams. Year in and year out the play has been above average, thanks to rookies and veterans alike.

The way Alabama has recruited, hauling in top-three classes each year since 2008, there have been an abundance of four- and five-star talents ready to make a contribution right away. And rather than wait idly on the sidelines for a starting position to come open, they've turned to special teams. Derrick Henry, the No. 1 athlete in the 2013 class, is on kickoff coverage, along with four-star tailback Altee Tenpenny.

But the most impressive youngster has been Landon Collins, who came to Alabama as the No. 1 safety in the country a year ago. He has developed into a tackling machine on kickoff and punt coverage, earning praise from coaches and teammates alike.

"He was a monster," punter Cody Mandell said. "He was like a human cannonball, to be honest with you."

"You see him, he's crazy," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "He's a great player, great tackler. He gets down field and makes big plays."

Collins had a chance to start alongside Clinton-Dix at strong safety this season, but ultimately lost the job to the more veteran option in Sunseri. Instead of sulking, Collins has continued to give everything he has to special teams. As starting cornerback Deion Belue put it, "The only thing you can expect from him is 110 percent."

"A killer mindset," Collins said of how he approaches special teams. "It's a dog eat dog world, I say to myself. I want to make any play possible, regardless of the fact of what I'm doing."

And that, in a nutshell, explains why Alabama is so good on a unit that's so often overlooked. All-Americans and five-star talents don't view special teams as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. When Collins shoots downfield and blows up return men like a heat-seeking missile, it draws as big a celebration as any from the sidelines.

Even a veteran quarterback like McCarron understands the importance of special teams. He doesn't have to hold Cade Foster's kicks. No one would second guess a player of his stature staying on the sidelines for extra points and field goals. But McCarron doesn't shy away from the extra work and neither do his teammates.

"He's the best there is," said UA kicker Cade Foster. "For him to be able to drive us down there and get us in position and still be able to focus on a hold blows my mind. Really thankful that he can do it because I wouldn't want anyone else."

What we learned: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama remained undefeated by shutting out No. 21 Ole Miss at home on Saturday, 25-0, but what did we really learn about the Crimson Tide in the contest?

The defense is capable: The secondary is still thin. Beyond Deion Belue, there's not much experience at cornerback. John Fulton certainly isn't the answer, hence true freshman Eddie Jackson getting the start there ahead of him. But in spite of throwing a rookie to the flames, Alabama's secondary showed the ability to play well against Ole Miss thanks to Belue's emergence as an on-ball defender and a deep group of safeties that includes Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Landon Collins. Ole Miss had the players at receiver and tight end to make Alabama's secondary look bad. But instead, the back end of Alabama's defense shined against the Rebels.

Hope of a running game: Alabama's running game is still somewhat inconsistent, and the loss of center Ryan Kelly for the next few weeks certainly won't help in that respect. But against Ole Miss, the Tide running game finally got going. The offensive line, with Chad Lindsay in at center, was able to push the line of scrimmage and help open holes for T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, both of whom rushed for 100-plus yards and a touchdown each. The ability to run the football opened up the passing game in turn, allowing AJ McCarron to work effectively off of play action.

Finally, a complete game: OK, maybe it was just one complete half when you look at the struggle to put the ball in the end zone the first two quarters, but still, Alabama finally showed how good it can be at all three phases of the game simultaneously against Ole Miss. The offense moved the ball well, the defense was dominant and special teams was above average with Cade Foster kicking three field goals and Ole Miss never getting anything going in the return game. It was a game all coaches on Alabama's sidelines could be pleased with. And more than anything, head coach Nick Saban could look at his team's effort and be proud. "Our players did a really, really good job of being relentless out there with their effort, their toughness, the way they competed," Saban said, finally not having to throw in the caveat of some missing element in some phase of the game.

Helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama reasserted itself over No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday night, walking away with a defining 25-0 victory in the Crimson Tide's SEC home opener.

During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.

K Cade Foster: Give credit to Foster for giving Alabama the early lead with three field goals, two of which were beyond 40 yards. His nine points were the only points scored in the first half. The Tide offense moved the ball well but struggled to finish drives at the start of the game. Foster, though, was there to pick up the slack.

LB C.J. Mosley: Alabama's defense responded in a big way against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels scoreless with a slew of fourth-down stops. Much of the credit goes to Mosley, who quarterbacked the defense from his middle linebacker spot, organizing his teammates while making all the checks at the line of scrimmage. He wound up second on the team with seven tackles.

RB T.J. Yeldon: Really, this spot could go to Kenyan Drake as well. But since Yeldon was the starter, we'll give the nod to him as he helped get Alabama's running game back on track with 121 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. When Yeldon was out with a bruised butt, according to UA coach Nick Saban, Drake filled in admirably, rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2013
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Now that he has fully recovered from a knee injury that wiped out most of last season, Alabama running back Jalston Fowler is ready to pick up where he left off last season.

Crimson Tide kicker Cade Foster talks about spending some time in the offseason with former NFL kicker Morten Andersen, the league's all-time leading scorer.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says the next four to five days are critical in the Tigers' quarterback battle.

Mammoth Mississippi State defensive tackle Nick James is learning how important technique is to having success in the SEC.

In the wake of Johnny Manziel's latest controversy, Ole Miss players and coach Hugh Freeze have mixed views on whether players should receive stipends.

Robert Nkemdiche is already practicing with the Rebels' first-team defense.

Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson has little patience for players who aren't getting the job done correctly.

LSU players voted to allow running back Jeremy Hill to re-join the team shortly after a judge decided not to send Hill to jail for violating his probation.

Texas A&M's hiring of the law firm that helped defend Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010 speaks volumes about the Aggies' game plan in dealing with the Manziel autograph situation.

Here's an Aggies season preview from GigEmNation.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making sure his players don't get bored or comfortable at practice.

Members of the Vols' secondary are tired of the critics and are ready to prove them wrong.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators' tight ends, who struggled in the spring, are making progress.

The Gators are also trying to develop depth at safety, which is why Muschamp isn't taking the easy way out and sticking Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins into the starting lineup.

South Carolina's former defensive coordinator first saw the potential in linebacker Cedrick Cooper. The Gamecocks' current defensive coordinator is just as enamored with him.

Arkansas began camp on Monday. The Razorbacks will have a new quarterback, and Brandon Allen says he's ready to take over for Tyler Wilson.

The stars of the Alabama-LSU rivalry 

July, 17, 2013
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There have been dozens of All-Americans and first-round picks to come out Alabama and LSU in recent years, talented guys like Courtney Upshaw, Barkevious Mingo, Trent Richardson and Tyrann Mathieu. All told, there have been more than 30 NFL draft picks from both programs since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

But with so many players to choose from, how do you determine the best athletes to compete in the rivalry, the ones who have shown up and played their best when the two schools met on the football field each year?

TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney did their best to answer that difficult question.
During the summer, TideNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Alabama roster -- excluding the Tide's 2013 recruiting class -- in our Crimson Countdown series. Starting with No. 1 Dee Hart, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Brandon Ivory.

No. 43 Cade Foster
Senior place kicker

Expectations for 2013: Foster turned the corner in a big way as a junior, rebounding from a shaky sophomore season in which he was largely blamed for a key loss to LSU in which he missed three of four field-goal attempts. He used that setback to fuel a 2012 campaign in which he made four field goals of 40 yards or more and put a whopping 46 kickoffs back for a touchback. With Jeremy Shelley now gone, the question is whether Foster can go from the Tide's long-range kicker to the starting place kicker in every way.


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Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the specialists.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the special teams.

Cade Foster
Patrick Green/Icon SMICade Foster has been more accruate on his long field-goal attempts this season, but Notre Dame seems to have the placekicking advantage.
Alabama: If there's an area Alabama improved the most dramatically from a season ago, it was on special teams in the kicking game. Cade Foster, who was maligned for much of last season for missing three field goals against LSU, showed off a much stronger leg his junior year. He made four of nine field goal attempts, including three of five from 50 or more yards. That confidence bled over to kickoffs, where he had 37 more touchbacks than a season ago. He and short-range specialist Jeremy Shelley, who made all 11 of his field goal attempts, gave Alabama a piece it had previously been missing -- a safety net when the offense couldn't punch the ball in from scoring range.

Punter Cody Mandell experienced a renaissance as well. The junior from Texas increased his yards per punt and went from two punts of 50 or more yards in 2011 to 12 this season. More importantly, he landed six more punts inside the 20-yard line.

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