Alabama Crimson Tide: Chris Davis

Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



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).
Auburn's miraculous, last-second "Kick Six" against Alabama was a sinfully sweet ending to the Tigers' 2013 regular season.

Well, Chris Davis' phenomenal play literally got even sweeter for one couple, as Auburn fan Billy Gilley received an amazing "Kick-Six" groom's cake for his wedding.

Alabama fans might want to avert their eyes, but this really is a thing of beauty by Cobalt Connections. The cake is complete with thousands of tiny orange-and-blue clad fans, an autograph area for Gus Malzahn and a scoreboard featuring the 28-28 score with one second remaining on the clock from last season's Iron Bowl.

I don't know what all the fillings were for this cake, but the inside looked delicious once everyone dug into it. (To my future wife: A miniature, chocolate-filled Godzilla cake is the way to my heart.)

The details are good enough that even Nick Saban would take a bite out of that bad boy!

When I was little, I had plenty of awesome cakes, thanks to my incredibly creative parents and the talented folks at Deanna's Confections in Oxford, Miss. My cakes featured, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, killer whales, and dinosaurs, but never had this detail.

But while Auburn had the Homer drooling effect on people, Alabama touched everyone's heart with cuteness explosion of the kitten variety.

Green Bay Packers fan Stephanie Van Groll might even get a hug from Malzahn with the new addition to her family: Ha Ha Kitten-Dix. Yes, this little bundle of fur is named after former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was drafted by the Packers in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

As a proud cat owner, I fully understand that cats are far superior to dogs, and a kitten will tug at everyone's heart.
The Iron Bowl rivalry never ends. Just listen to "The Paul Finebaum Show." Alabama and Auburn are never not at each other’s throats. They’re never not being compared to each other.

Here at the SEC Blog, we embrace the debate. Alabama and Auburn are forever intertwined for good reason. Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn go head to head on and off the football field 365 days a year, whether it’s during the season or on the recruiting trail.

Along that same vein, it’s time for a Take Two: Iron Bowl Edition. With spring football well in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to see who enters the offseason in better shape, Alabama or Auburn?

Alex Scarborough: I won’t even make this about Alabama at first. We’ll get to that later. What I’d like to hit on is how little we actually know about Auburn. I’ll concede that Malzahn is a good coach and maybe the best offensive playcaller in the country. But the program, top to bottom, is a mystery to me. The last time Auburn went to the BCS, the following two seasons didn’t end so well. I’m not going to call last season a fluke, but good luck capturing lightning in a bottle twice.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall have a tough challenge ahead in 2014 -- and they can't sneak up on anybody this time around.
Nick Marshall is undoubtedly one of the premier playmakers in the SEC, but can he take the next step? He can make a man miss in the open field, but can he make all the reads from the pocket? Defenses will go all in to stop the run next season. He’ll be forced to look for his second, third and fourth options. Is he ready? And how will his protection hold up without Greg Robinson at left tackle and Tre Mason shouldering the load at tailback?

All that goes without mentioning the defense, which was downright mediocre for most of last season. The secondary was porous and the linebackers weren't athletic enough to run Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme (ninth in scoring, 13th against the pass in the SEC). Carl Lawson looks like a budding star, but can he make up for the loss of veterans like Dee Ford?

Auburn’s roster is in better shape than Alabama’s at first blush, but a closer examination shows cracks. Yes, Saban’s missing a starting quarterback, but Jacob Coker is on the way. And besides, since when has Saban needed a star QB to win? Alabama’s secondary has holes, but is it worse than Auburn’s? One five-star cornerback is already on campus and another is coming soon. Landon Collins might be the best DB at the Iron Bowl this year. Based on pure talent (three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes) and a history of sustained success (two losses was a bad season), I feel more confident about the Tide’s chances.

Greg Ostendorf: Do we really not know about this Auburn team? They came out of nowhere last season; I won’t argue that. But the Tigers won 12 games and came 13 seconds from a national championship. Eight starters are back from that offense, including four O-linemen and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Remember how good Marshall was down the stretch? He was still learning the offense. This fall he’ll be more comfortable, and if he continues to improve as a passer, which SEC defense will stop him? An Alabama team that has shown time and time again that it has no answer for the spread?

I remember when Johnny Manziel shocked the Tide in 2012, and all offseason Saban & Co. were supposedly devising a game plan to stop him the following season. What happened in the rematch? Manziel threw for 464 yards, rushed for 98 and scored five touchdowns. Marshall is not Manziel, but I’m also not betting on Alabama to stop him.

The defense remains a question mark. I’ll give you that. And the injuries this spring did nothing to ease my concern. But Johnson has a proven track record, and despite losing key players such as Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Chris Davis, he’ll actually have a deeper, more talented group in Year 2. There might not be as many five-star recruits, but there’s still plenty of talent, with 10 former ESPN 300 prospects on the defense alone.

The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year and Saban is one of the best at exacting revenge. But what happens if Coker isn’t the answer at quarterback? What if the true freshman expected to start at left tackle plays like a true freshman? What if Marshall develops as a passer and torches a lackluster Tide secondary? Too many questions, if you ask me.

Scarborough: I’m glad you brought up the Iron Bowl being in Tuscaloosa this year, because that leads me to an even bigger point than the talent and potential of both Alabama and Auburn. In the words of Steve Spurrier, “You are your schedule.” And have you looked at Auburn’s schedule? Auburn could be better than Alabama and still lose more games.

If going on the road to Kansas State was easy, everyone in the SEC would do it. Survive that and October sets up brutally with LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Think last season’s “Prayer at Jordan Hare” and “Got a second?” finishes were a blast? Try recreating that with games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in November.

Alabama’s schedule, on the other hand, isn’t murderer’s row. A so-so West Virginia team starts things off, followed by cupcakes Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. Auburn gets South Carolina and Georgia from the East, while Alabama lucks out with Florida and Tennessee. On top of that, Alabama's two most difficult games aside from the Iron Bowl are at home and set up nicely with Arkansas before Texas A&M and a bye before LSU.

Ostendorf: There’s a brutal four-game stretch for Auburn with South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in consecutive weeks, but the first six games actually set up nicely for the Tigers. If they survive the trip to the Little Apple against Kansas State, there’s a strong possibility that they start the season 6-0, and we’ve seen how momentum can carry you through a season. This is also a veteran team with the confidence to win on the road.

Meanwhile, when you have a first-year starter at quarterback ... ahem, Alabama ... then every SEC road game becomes a potential pitfall. You might think the Tide lucked out with Tennessee, but don’t be surprised if a much-improved Vols team keeps it close at home. And I don’t care if LSU might be down this year. It’s never fun for a rookie signal caller to play in Death Valley.

Ultimately, it will once again come down to the Iron Bowl, and how can you bet against last year’s winner?

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

Season wrap: Alabama

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It wasn't the way the season was supposed to go. Alabama, with the best coach in college football and so many stars returning, was supposed to be the team to do the unthinkable, the team to win three straight national championships.

But that dream was crushed in the final second of the Iron Bowl, when Auburn cornerback Chris Davis took a missed field goal 109 yards for the game-winning score to vault the Tigers into the SEC championship game and then on to the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

Alabama was only further humiliated in the Allstate Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma as the Tide lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.

Tide coach Nick Saban then went out to the West Coast as a guest TV analyst to watch Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS crown, and in that time he surely had a chance to reflect on the season that was.

There were plenty of highs and lows in Alabama's 11-2 campaign, and the hope around Tuscaloosa is that with time, the pain of losing will subside and what will remain are the lessons to draw upon for next season and the seasons to come.

Offensive MVP: AJ McCarron was exposed by Oklahoma, no doubt. The line failed, McCarron couldn't escape and he threw two of the most uncharacteristic interceptions of his career. But like McCarron's legacy as a whole, his senior season shouldn't be defined by its ending. McCarron was the heartbeat of the offense, throwing for 3,063 yards with 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. His 82.7 adjusted QBR was good enough for 11th nationally, ahead of Braxton Miller, Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater.

Defensive MVP: Simply put, C.J. Mosley was AJ McCarron, only on defense. He was the unquestioned leader of the defense and its most consistent performer. Mosley returned for his senior season and became the first player in the Saban era at Alabama to post back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He led Alabama with 108 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries. The next-closest tackler on the team was Landon Collins, who was 38 stops behind Mosley.

Best moment: Was that Saban smiling? And jumping? And celebrating? No, it couldn't be. But it was. When the clock struck zero and Alabama beat LSU 38-17 at home, Saban showed a rare bit of joy when he leaped into the arms of his quarterback to celebrate the win. At the time, it looked like Saban was relieved. Alabama, then the No. 1 team in the country, had survived what looked to be its most difficult test of the season in LSU. Winning a championship, it seemed, was the only thing left to do.

Worst moment: One second. That's all it took for Alabama's season to circle the drain. Adam Griffith kicks, the ball is short and Davis does the unthinkable. Auburn fans flooded the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium and Alabama's players were stunned. If the Tide were to "Never Forget" Auburn's come-from-behind win in 2010, there's no way they will let go of what happened in the 2013 Iron Bowl.

SEC's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.
Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
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On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
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That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A dynasty toppled by destiny.

That's how it ended for the previously invincible Alabama Crimson Tide last Saturday, falling to those charmed Auburn Tigers who stayed alive in the SEC West thanks to not one, but two last-second miracles. Chris Davis' fateful sprint to the end zone led to AJ McCarron's unceremonious jog to the locker room, one vaulting his team to the conference title game while another was sent silently away to ponder a future absent another championship ring.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTo the surprise of many, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide won't be competing for the national title.
This weekend won't be easy for Nick Saban, his coaching staff and his players. Watching the SEC championship game on TV wasn't part of their plans when they began the season ranked No. 1 and stayed that way through 14 weeks. Alabama, instead, won't fulfill its reservations in Atlanta, McCarron won't make a last-ditch effort to win the Heisman Trophy and any hope of a return trip to the BCS national championship game seems all but lost.

It's still hard to fathom that Alabama's run to Pasadena, Calif., was thrown off course so quickly. One second a game-winning field goal was within reach, the next Davis was racing out of Alabama's grasp and toward history. A sea of Auburn fans flooded the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium and moments later Alabama's players exited the visitor's locker room stunned, shocked that their dreams were dashed in such an unlikely fashion.

The look in their eyes: How could it have been?

Alabama had everything lined up to make history of its own this season. The quarterback was in place, the defense was unstoppable, and the coach was pulling all the right strings.

Hurdling Texas A&M in College Station and LSU at home in Tuscaloosa wasn't easy, but the Tide found a way. McCarron, with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, led the offense back on both occasions. C.J. Mosley, who completed a second consecutive 100-tackle season, led the defense to stops when it needed them most. And Saban, despite being without some of the key parts from previous championship teams, guided the ship with a steady hand.

With some of the top talent in college football, would Alabama have beaten No. 1-ranked Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship? Saban might think so. He said after Saturday's loss that, "I still think we have one of the best teams in the country." Most Vegas oddsmakers agree, even today having the Tide as favorites over the Seminoles in a hypothetical matchup.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle penned a blog on the school's website this week that began, "It's hard to win 12 games!" He later wrote, "There was never a time during the game that I didn't feel confident Alabama would win -- until we lost!"

In most instances, you'd call Battle's use of exclamation marks over the top. But in this case, it was well deserved. Battle, like the rest of the program, is still reeling from the collapse, the hard fall from championship hopes to longing for a shot at redemption that's at best a year away. He had the coach. He had the team. He just didn't have fate on its side. It's unclear whether any of those components will be on his side come 2014.

As Battle would write toward the end of his essay, "We're all counting on you to show up 'loud and proud' for our next game" -- whatever that game may be. It could be the Discover Orange Bowl, the Allstate Sugar Bowl or some other well-slotted bowl game, but it won't be the BCS title game.

Auburn and Missouri are now the SEC's best hope at reaching Pasadena and the chance of an eighth straight national champion from the conference. And even so, their résumés may not be enough to unseat Florida State or Ohio State. Alabama, for its part, would have had no such problem had it survived the final seconds in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

So while Saban and the Tide may watch Saturday's title game thinking, "what if?" the rest of the SEC might be thinking the same thing on Sunday when the bowl pairings are revealed.

If only Auburn -- and seemingly destiny -- hadn't interfered.

SEC: Oh so close ...

December, 4, 2013
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Almost as soon as Chris Davis sprinted 100 yards for the game-winning touchdown on Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the debate began: Is a one-loss SEC team more deserving than, say, an undefeated Ohio State, to go to the VIZIO BCS National Championship?

Auburn, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top five of the BCS standings, all have one loss on their records and all are in danger of missing out on the title game in Pasadena, Calif. For a conference that has won seven straight national championships, it has to be an odd feeling being on the outside looking in.

One has to wonder what Gus Malzahn, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel think of the College Football Playoff coming next year and not this postseason. Would we even be having these debates?

Where it all started: Alabama was a given from the start. Before Auburn was a "team of destiny," the top-ranked Crimson Tide was a team eyeing a date with history. A third straight national championship seemed like a foregone conclusion as long as AJ McCarron was throwing passes and C.J. Mosley was leading the defense. Beating Texas A&M and LSU was the only hiccup, and beyond that it was smooth sailing for Alabama as it carved through a relatively easy schedule with a string of seven games that included Colorado State, Ole Miss, Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. Alabama emerged in November undefeated and the presumptive favorite to run the season start to finish No. 1.

For Auburn, it was understood that seven or eight wins would be a good season for Malzahn's first year as coach on The Plains. After what former coach Gene Chizik and his staff left behind -- dissent and an utter lack of confidence being the biggest of baggage -- it would be a miracle if Auburn was simply competitive. But when Nick Marshall transferred from Garden City Community College in August and won the starting quarterback job, everything changed. And the come-from-behind game-winning drive he led against Mississippi State would forever turn the course of the Tigers' season. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told me that if they won maybe "the seasons could have been reversed. We might have had the confidence they're having and the great run they're having right now." Fans and prognosticators didn't fully embrace Auburn's title hopes until wins over Texas A&M and Georgia, though. Both involved coming from behind and both showed the tenacity of a program with a chip on its shoulder. Saturday's win over Alabama further solidified their billing as a "team of destiny" and a serious contender to reach Pasadena.

No one thought Missouri could turn things around so quickly, either. Pinkel's foray into the SEC yielded a mountain of injuries and a smattering of wins -- two to be exact. Missouri looked years away and the preseason polls reflected that. The Tigers weren't in the top 25 and many predicted they'd finish near the bottom of the SEC West. But scheduling helped ease Missouri into contention. Pinkel was able to start the season off 3-0 with easy non-conference wins over Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State. And instead of backfiring, the diminutive competition early on paid off in confidence as the Tigers beat then SEC East powers Georgia and Florida back-to-back to start the conference slate. Wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, coupled with a drop off from the rest of their division, landed the Tigers atop the East and in line for a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

Where it went wrong: Missouri has to be kicking itself for losing at home to South Carolina on Oct. 26. It took an overtime period and starting quarterback James Franklin being out, but the Tigers fell. Connor Shaw came off the bench for the Gamecocks and led an improbable comeback, bringing his team back from 13 points down in the fourth quarter. If Missouri had held on, it would be undefeated and there would be a much different conversation going on today as a win over Auburn in the SEC title game would almost automatically mean a trip to the national championship game.

One-loss teams generally have their best shot of making it back into the championship picture when that one loss comes early. And luckily for Auburn, it followed that mold. After early wins against Arkansas State and Mississippi State, the Tigers went on the road to LSU and one of the most difficult visitor's environments in Death Valley. As Les Miles would say, "It was a very stiff, wind-driven dew." In other words, it rained cats and dogs, and Auburn's offense staggered early on. LSU jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and never looked back. Auburn tried to mount a comeback with 21 second-half points, but LSU running back Jeremy Hill & Co. were too much. The loss didn't seem like much at the time -- Auburn was still in the infancy of its title run -- but looking back, it meant everything. Had the game at LSU come later in the year when Auburn had more confidence and Marshall was more familiar with the offense, who knows if it would have turned out differently.

Conversely, Alabama had a loss at the exact moment when it couldn't afford one: the final game of the regular season. By falling to Auburn on the road and losing out on a shot at playing in the SEC Championship Game, Saban's squad has no second chance to impress voters before the bowl games are determined. There will be no opportunity to show the loss to the Tigers was a fluke. Even though it was No. 1 versus No. 4 and the game literally came down to the final second on the road, Alabama won't be forgiven. But such is life when you're the top team in college football.

Where it got back on track: As just noted, there hasn't been a bounce-back moment for Alabama yet. But if you're a fan of the Crimson Tide, you have to appreciate the way your quarterback handled the aftermath of the loss at Auburn. McCarron, as fierce a competitor as he is, provided context to the defeat when he told reporters that at the end of the day it's just a game. When fans came after kicker Cade Foster for missing three field goals, McCarron said, "Times like this people need to realize the sun's going to rise tomorrow." Where it sets, however, remains to be determined. There's a chance Alabama makes it to the Orange Bowl or even the Sugar Bowl, but until Missouri and Auburn play in the SEC Championship Game, it's anyone's guess how it plays out.

Auburn, meanwhile, got back on track almost immediately after losing on the road at LSU. How games against Ole Miss and Western Carolina provided the perfect remedy for defeat as Auburn went 2-0 before heading out to College Station, Texas, to take on the then-top 10 Aggies and Johnny Football. The defense rose up late and Marshall lead the Tigers on the come from behind win that solidified Auburn's standing and vaunted them into the top 15 of most rankings. Winning against Florida Atlantic, Arkansas and Tennessee was a breeze, and last-second wins over Georgia and Alabama were the final dominoes to propel Auburn to an 11-1 record and a berth in the SEC title game.

Give Missouri credit for weathering the storm like it did. Losing to South Carolina at home was bad enough, but it had to move on not knowing when Franklin would be back under center. Maty Mauk didn't let the offense miss a beat, however. Missouri's freshman quarterback came out the next week against Tennessee and threw for 163 yards and three touchdowns, running for 114 yards as well. The next week against Kentucky he passed for 203 yards and five touchdowns. Franklin would come back and lead the offense in wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M to close out the regular season, but without Mauk, who knows where Missouri would be today? Mauk may not play anymore this year, but he'll go down as an unsung hero in the Tigers' run to the SEC title game.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
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You have to feel bad for old Ed Orgeron. The former Ole Miss head coach had a good run as interim coach at USC, but last week's loss to UCLA seemed to seal his fate. How long before he ends up back in the South as a head coach?

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
12/02/13
11:15
AM ET
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.

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