Alabama Crimson Tide: Jonathan Williams

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One by one, teammates stopped and patted Vinnie Sunseri on the shoulder. Alabama's starting safety was in street clothes, limping gingerly with a bum knee. "How bad is it?" they wanted to know. And from high up in the stands, it was obvious. Their body language in response said it all: A quick shake of the head, a long hug and a slow walk away.

Not Sunseri. Not this season.

The destiny of a championship hopeful is precarious at best. Ask Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel fell awkwardly on his arm, hurt his elbow and was forced to the sidelines late against Auburn. His backup came on and the offense went three and out. Auburn took the ball and marched the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. A valiant return by Manziel proved too little, too late. With two losses, the Aggies have to hope for chaos to reenter the SEC West race.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri holds his knee after being injured on a kickoff in the first half.
Top-ranked Alabama didn't suffer the same fate against Arkansas. With Sunseri watching from the sideline, the Crimson Tide took care of business and dominated the Razorbacks, 52-0, to remain comfortably in the driver's seat to reach Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship. But with its most experienced safety's season suddenly in doubt, the ride will be shakier than expected.

"It could be serious," UA coach Nick Saban said of Sunseri's injury, listlessly noting that an MRI would deliver the final verdict on Sunday.

"We need some guys to get some experience because we're going to need some depth. Obviously as you lose players, other guys have to step up and play. We had to do a lot of shuffling in the secondary tonight."

If there was a list of the top three defenders Alabama couldn't afford to lose, Sunseri's name would have been on it. Mark Barron and Robert Lester are gone to the NFL. Dee Milliner is gone, too. Alabama has tried John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve out to fill his shoes, and none has panned out. Nick Perry, a veteran safety, had season-ending surgery on his shoulder last month. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, regarded as one of the best safeties in the country, was suspended for the past two weeks.

Sunseri, an impact player from the day he signed with Alabama in 2011, had brought stability to the carousel known as Alabama's secondary. His leadership and big-play ability have been huge. When the Tide needed something to happen against Texas A&M early in the season, he intercepted a pass, shook Manziel out of his shoes and scampered the length of the field for a touchdown.

Without Sunseri, who knows what Alabama's fate will be? Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins and Geno Smith are all talented replacements, but there's a reason none of the three was starting in his spot coming into the weekend. Sunseri was supposed to be the one they'd follow. He was supposed to be the anchor.

"There's not a guy on our team that does a better job of setting an example when it comes to trying to be everything he can be," Saban said of Sunseri. "He's just a phenomenal guy to have on your team all the way around.

"He's going to be a part of our team whether he can play or not."

Sunseri put on his best happy face in the second half, smacking teammates on the behind after delivering the bad news during the game. He sat by Collins, smiled and told him it would be OK. When Jones came off the field after a late interception, Sunseri was the first one to greet him, delivering a bear hug to the true sophomore who was playing wide receiver only a year ago.

"Great leader, great leader," Collins said. "I looked up to him. He's helped me out at free safety with the calls and getting me to settle down. He's going to be missed."

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "Whether he's playing or not, he's going to be on the sideline helping the young players out."

Against Arkansas, the defense looked fine. Sunseri's absence wasn't felt in the box score. Alabama forced three turnovers while limiting Brandon Allen to 7 completions on 25 attempts. The Razorbacks' two talented tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- rushed for just 125 yards on 31 carries. The two came into the weekend ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing.

Alabama's offense, meanwhile, continued humming along. Quarterback AJ McCarron toyed with the defense, picking apart Arkansas for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Kenyan Drake ran for 104 yards and two scores, while T.J. Yeldon rushed for another 88 yards and a touchdown. Alabama's third-string tailback, Derrick Henry, had 115 yards on six carries. All told, the Tide accounted for 532 total yards of offense.

But the tone after the game was stoic. The win against Arkansas came at a cost. A number of players were banged up after facing one of the more physical teams they'll see all year. Ice baths and hot tubs will be in high demand over the next 24 hours.

Sunseri, though, will face the trainer's table.

Only a week ago, Sunseri was throwing wads of paper at wide receiver Kevin Norwood, jumping up and down like a giddy child. He would be a key part of Alabama's quest for a third consecutive national championship. Another win on the road ensured it.

On Saturday, he was hobbling from teammate to teammate to tell them the bad news. He finally ventured to the far end of the bench and watched the rest of the game in silence. Alabama was moving on without him.

How far the Tide will go remains to be seen. What happens next is destiny.

Five things: Alabama-Arkansas

October, 19, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when No. 1-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) hosts Arkansas (3-4, 0-3 SEC) on Saturday night.

Stopping the run: It hasn't mattered the score or the situation or even the defensive alignment, Arkansas is going to run the football. And with the tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, why not? They're the only two teammates to rank in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing. Collins, just a freshman, is the star. He started the season by becoming the first player in NCAA history to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three career games, and he hasn't looked back since. He leads the SEC in broken tackles (10) and he's in the top 15 nationally in rushing yards (720).

Who starts at corner: Will it be Bradley Sylve or Eddie Jackson starting at cornerback this week for Alabama? Or will it be yet another player to enter the carousel at the position? So far it looks like Sylve -- who started his first game last week against Kentucky and didn't allow any big plays to come his way -- has the advantage. "I think Eddie's struggling with an injury," UA linebacker Trey DePriest said. "Bradley's been filling in [and] handling it well. He's been consistent at it and had a good game last week."

Protecting the quarterback: Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith is one of the best in the SEC. He leads the conference and is seventh in the NCAA with six sacks this season. If he wants to get to AJ McCarron, he'll have to go through either Cyrus Kouandjio or Austin Shepherd to do it, depending on where he lines up. It will likely be Kouandjio, which would provide a great look to NFL scouts who will have their eye on both players for next year's draft. Alabama, for its part, ranks fourth in the league in sacks allowed (7).

A one-two punch: It took a few weeks longer than many expected, but Kenyan Drake has emerged as Alabama's clear No. 2 tailback behind T.J. Yeldon. "I think they compliment each other and both guys have a little different running style," UA coach Nick Saban said. "I think it's a real change of pace that they both present to the defensive players." Drake, a speedy sophomore who tends to go outside the tackle more than Yeldon, has run for 245 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Play action pass: Every time Saban has talked about Arkansas' ability to run the football, he's added that his team must be on the lookout for the play-action pass. "Like Coach Saban says: from guard, to fullback, to opposite guard," safety Vinnie Sunseri explained. "Whichever side of the field you're on, you have to read the triangle." As young as Alabama's secondary is this season, pay attention to the triangle and whether any of the Tide's defensive backs bite on the run fake. If they do, they could make things easy on quarterback Brandon Allen, who does have the arm strength to burn Alabama with the deep pass.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 17, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No. 1 Alabama is in the final stages of preparing for its showdown with Arkansas at home on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesAJ McCarron and Co. figure to make this signal with frequency against an Arkansas defense that yielded 52 points on Saturday.
For the time being, winning is simply a matter of showing up and continuing to make progress. Though things looked shaky at first against Kentucky this past weekend, we saw Alabama steadily improving. Coach Nick Saban said he was proud of the way his team controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and how the offense was able to move the chains effectively in Lexington. He might pull his hair out if he sees the same number of turnovers, but past history says not to expect T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake to cough up the football again.

Though Arkansas presents a different set of challenges on Saturday, what it really comes down to for Alabama is staying the course. After all, Arkansas allowed 52 points to South Carolina in its last game. It's safe to say Alabama's offense is capable of the same type of success. The front seven will be tested with the Razorbacks' running game, but the Tide know the drill. Day after day in practice it goes up against an offense that similarly prides itself on a physical style of play. As long as Brandon Ivory holds down the middle and C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Co. wrap up and don't allow many broken tackles, Alabama should be fine.

The Razorbacks will win if ...

Arkansas' best shot of coming out of Tuscaloosa with the upset victory rests in the hands of its two talented running backs. Jonathan Williams, who was a third-string back a year ago, is among the top 10 rushers in the SEC today. And he's essentially a sidekick to Alex Collins, who has put up monster numbers his freshman year, ranking 11th nationally in rushing yards. If those two can move the chains, control the clock and find the end zone a few times, they'll have half the recipe for a win. That is, of course, if Brandon Allen can give Arkansas some production at quarterback.

The other half of the equation involves Arkansas' defense. There are some good parts there with Chris Smith rushing off the edge and Tevin Mitchell at cornerback, but there are also some major holes. South Carolina nearly exposed them all when it hung 52 points on the Razorbacks this past weekend. It doesn't get any easier as they'll have their hands full again on Saturday with AJ McCarron and his group of talented wide receivers. If Arkansas can't slow down Alabama's offense and create a few turnovers, it won't matter what Collins and Williams do.

Arkansas players to watch

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Alex Collins leads a potent Hogs running game.
RB Alex Collins: When Bielema took the job at Arkansas, we knew he was going to put a major emphasis on running the football. What we didn't know was who would be the one to shoulder the load. Well lo and behold it was a true freshman. Collins, a former four-star recruit from Florida, who stepped in and was an immediate success, setting an NCAA record by becoming the first freshman to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three games.

C Travis Swanson: Bielema didn't hesitate when he named Swanson as one of his top two players at SEC Media Days a few months ago. The senior isn't a household name because of his position, but he's a Rimington Trophy candidate for a reason. A team captain for the third straight season, he's the heartbeat of the Arkansas offense.

DE Chris Smith: Alabama hasn't faced an elite pass rusher like Smith yet this season. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound end was an honorable mention choice on the All-SEC team a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Now a senior, he has picked up where he left off, leading the team with six sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Alabama players to watch

LB C.J. Mosley: This is the type of game Mosley returned to school for. He has shown how dominant a force he can be against spread teams, but the question mark has always been how he holds up against traditional offenses that run between the tackles. Well, Arkansas is as old school as they come.

OT Grant Hill: Boy, Hill got quite the tongue-lashing from Saban for his penalty against Kentucky this past weekend. But really it has been the one noticeable hiccup since the true freshman has come on at right tackle the past few games. As he continues to develop, one has to ask whether Austin Shepherd is in danger of losing his job starting at right tackle.

CB Bradley Sylve: It looked like Eddie Jackson had the starting job to himself after back-to-back solid performances against Colorado State and Ole Miss. But an injury and a setback in his development thrust Sylve, a third-year sophomore, into the starting lineup against Kentucky. He played well and could start again this week.

Key stats

10: Arkansas freshman running back Alex Collins runs hard. Thirty-seven percent of his rushing yards have come after contact and he leads the SEC in broken tackles with 10.

216.3: It will be a significant change of pace for the Alabama defense against Arkansas. The Tide's previous six opponents have averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.

5: The streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown ended for Alabama's defense at 14. But another impressive stat remains as the Tide extended its number of games allowing 10 or fewer points to five.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When something old is new again, you know you've come a long way. Suddenly half-shirts and slouch socks are in stores across the country once more. The 1980s style buddy comedy has returned to theaters and cars like the Dodge Charger have brought back a timeless feel to today's streets with their classic designs. Even the price of gas is floating mercifully back to $3 a gallon.

There's comfort in the familiar returning from extinction.

The last time Alabama saw an I-formation is anyone's guess. If it's happened at all this season, it's been sparingly. Power running teams have gone the way of the Dodo. Every weekend the top-ranked Crimson Tide goes up against the likes of Texas A&M and Ole Miss, offenses that have adopted newfangled designs that spread the field and push the tempo like a young driver blowing through traffic stops. Dual-threat quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel would have been indecipherable to coaches in decades past. The term HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) would have sounded like an offshoot of the NASA program to grizzly men like Paul "Bear" Bryant.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas and running back Alex Collins will pose a different challenge on Saturday for Alabama's defense.
So when Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri was asked what he thought of seeing something resembling a traditional offense with Arkansas coming to town, he had to smirk. Sunseri, though not old enough to rent a car, could have called the Razorbacks schemes an offense of his youth and no one would have batted an eye. The HUNH has zapped ground-and-pound offenses such as theirs into hiding with increasingly few exceptions.

"It will be a little bit different because we have played these spread teams that like to sling it around a little bit," Sunseri said. His versatility to play at the line of scrimmage and in coverage has become coveted with the rise of the HUNH, but he's still a masher at heart, the son of a defensive line coach who values grit. "It will be fun to play the run a little bit more," he added.

Arkansas is exactly what you'd expect from a former defensive lineman from the Midwest. Bret Bielema built a reputation agonizing over the line of scrimmage. A barrel-chested, close-cropped man's man, he took the head coach's job at Wisconsin in 2006 and went to six consecutive bowl games largely on that philosophy. One of his tailbacks, Montee Ball, had more carries from 2010-12 (826) than any other player in college football over that time.

When Bielema came to Arkansas last December, he insisted on running the same physical style of offense. At SEC Media Days, he ignored his skill players and instead touted his center, Travis Swanson, and his fullback, Kiero Small, as his two best players.

Though the results haven't been what he wanted -- Arkansas is 3-4 and winless in league play -- Bielema has stayed the course. His team has the only pair of backs in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing. Jonathan Williams was the third back a year ago. Now he's sixth in the league in carries (87) and eighth in rushing yards (564). But he's still second on his team in both categories.

Bielema has fed freshman Alex Collins the football from his first step on campus. The 206-pound machine ran it 21 times for 131 yards in the season opener. He followed that up by running for more than 100 yards in each of his next two games, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to reach the century mark in his first three games. Today he ranks 10th nationally in carries (123) and 11th in rushing yards (720). According to ESPN Stats & Information, he leads the SEC with 10 broken tackles. A whopping 37.2 percent of his total yards have come after contact.

Collins and Williams have done it all despite having an underwhelming passing game to keep safeties like Sunseri honest. Arkansas, by design as much as a lack of playmakers at quarterback and wide receiver, is dead last in the conference in passing yards. Compared to what Alabama's seen of late with teams throwing the ball incessantly, the change of pace will be as startling as much as it is challenging. The Tide's previous six opponents averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per-game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.

"They can run the ball really well," Sunseri said. "The freshman is really strong and explosive, can break it any point. We have to bring our A-game to stop them up front."

Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose team Bielema praised as "second to none," had only flattering things to say of Bielema in turn, saying, "Bret has really done a good job of getting his guys to play hard and compete and play with a lot of toughness." Saban sounded refreshed when he talked about how much of a change of pace Arkansas' offense will be.

Saban has been forced to evolve on defense to match HUNH offenses in recent years, trading the size he covets for speed. C.J. Mosley, for instance, isn't what Saban typically recruits in a middle linebacker at about 230 pounds. But Alabama still has bulk up front with 300-pounders Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake to clog the middle.

"It's going to take a very good effort," Saban said, "because this is really different than anything that we've played against so far this year in terms of how they run the ball and the sort of formations, the heavy formations, they get in to do it."

It will look different at first, but familiarity will sink in eventually. When it does, relish it. Arkansas is only one of a few programs still clinging to the old school. How Saturday plays out could help determine whether traditional power offenses like the Razorbacks will make a comeback or go the way of parachute pants and fly away for good.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
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Showcasing two big showdowns between ranked conference teams -- LSU at Georgia and Ole Miss at Alabama -- this looks like a more promising weekend of SEC football than the one that preceded it. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch around the league this Saturday:

1. Another top-10 matchup for Georgia: A common criticism leading into last season's SEC championship game was that Georgia hadn't played anybody. Well the schedule has certainly toughened up since then. Starting with that game against then-No. 2 (and eventual BCS champion) Alabama, the Bulldogs have faced No. 2, No. 16 (Nebraska), No. 8 (Clemson), No. 6 (South Carolina) and now-No. 6 LSU in their last six games. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in those games heading into Saturday's key conference showdown at Sanford Stadium -- LSU's first game this season in an opponent's stadium.

2. Can Ole Miss keep its mojo alive?: Resurgent Ole Miss already has a couple of impressive wins on its resume, winning at Vanderbilt in the closing minutes and running away from Texas in the fourth quarter in Austin. Good luck this weekend, though, Rebels. No. 1 Alabama -- which will host No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday evening -- is in a far different class than the aforementioned opponents. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa only once (1988), and that doesn't figure to change this weekend, even if Alabama's offense has underwhelmed lately.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCan Tyler Murphy keep Florida moving in the right direction?
3. All eyes on Murphy: When Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury last week, little-used backup Tyler Murphy got his first chance to shine. Murphy took advantage of that opportunity, completing 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score in a 31-17 win over Tennessee. Now he's THE guy after watching an assortment of Gators take snaps ahead of him over the last three years. He'll be taking his shots against a Kentucky program that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 years -- the second-longest active series winning streak in the country.

4. Clash of styles in Fayetteville: The offensive approaches in Saturday's Texas A&M-Arkansas game could hardly be more different. On one hand, you have the wide-open Kevin Sumlin offense at A&M, with triggerman Johnny Manziel helping the Aggies post 602.2 yards and 50.2 points per game -- both SEC highs. Arkansas has run the ball effectively (246.0 ypg, third in the SEC), but that's about it. If the Razorbacks have any hope of hanging with A&M, they'd better hope that their impressive running back tandem of Alex Collins (SEC-high 120.2 ypg) and Jonathan Williams (second at 104.5) can extend clock-eating drives that keep Manziel and company on the sideline.

5. Mettenberger's homecoming: One of the most popular storylines this week concerns LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger returning home to Georgia, where he competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job in 2010 before being dismissed from the team after an offseason arrest. Mettenberger's mother is a longtime employee in Georgia's football office, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt gave her the week off to avoid the obvious conflict of interest that accompanies this game week. Players from both sides have answered plenty of Mettenberger-related questions, and the Tigers' quarterback seemed to be getting chapped by the subject by midweek. LSU needs him to play a composed game on Saturday, so this is a distraction that the Tigers didn't need.

6. Can South Carolina finish?: Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 28-0 lead in their last game against Vanderbilt, only to see the Commodores rally to within 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks protected that lead the rest of the way, but it was hardly a positive sign when they had scored only six points in the fourth quarter the week before in a 41-30 loss to Georgia after it was 24-all at halftime. Playing at Central Florida (3-0), which beat Penn State in its last game, South Carolina might not be able to afford another sloppy second half.

7. Alabama's cornerback competition: Nick Saban's defense rotated five cornerbacks last week against Colorado State with two veterans out of the lineup. Deion Belue should be back in the lineup against Ole Miss, but the Rebels' up-tempo offense is much more capable of exploiting defensive vulnerabilities than the Tide's previous opponent. Alabama needs to get its secondary concerns sorted out quickly or the Rebels could make things interesting on Saturday.

8. Mizzou angling for 4-0: Saturday's game against Arkansas State marks the fourth straight nonconference matchup for the Tigers. That means it's all SEC games from here on out, and there are some tough ones on the list. Mizzou has posted some nice yardage totals so far in wins against Murray State, Toledo and Indiana. With a challenging October schedule ahead (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina), quarterback James Franklin and company need to keep the offensive momentum going.

9. Get-well game in Knoxville: Following two straight horrendous showings -- against Oregon and Florida -- things aren't looking too pretty for first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers desperately need a win against South Alabama on Saturday or it could get really ugly in October with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama on the schedule. The first step for Jones is settling on a quarterback, with Justin Worley apparently stepping back into the starting job he lost last week before replacement Nathan Peterman injured his hand against Florida.

10. Will the real Commodores please stand up?: Coach James Franklin raised expectations in Nashville with a nine-win season last year, but Vanderbilt hasn't even looked like a bowl team in the wake of a sexual assault case that rocked the team and campus. Vandy is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in league play coming off last week's underwhelming 24-7 win at UMass. The Commodores reached the 2012 postseason based largely on wins against second-tier foes like Saturday's opponent, UAB. If they want to play in another bowl this season, they need to start getting their act together against the Blazers.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
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We've gone through three Saturdays in the SEC, and it seems like a billion points have been scored. The times, they are a changin', and so have our Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (2-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 1): Every offense has looked good against Texas A&M, but seeing the Tide win that shootout in College Station, Texas, was very impressive. AJ McCarron is back in the Heisman race, and Alabama remains the team to beat in the SEC and nationally. However, questions still remain on a defense that gave up the most yards in school history (628) Saturday.

2. LSU (3-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 2): Ladies and gentlemen, this might be the SEC's most complete team. The Tigers can throw (Zach Mettenberger is averaging 265.7 yards per game), run (218.7 yards per game) and rank 10th nationally in total defense (267.7). Sure, the last two opponents have been of the cupcake variety, but this offense didn't look this efficient against cupcakes last season.

3. Texas A&M (2-1, 0-1 SEC; last week: 3): Yes, this defense isn't SEC quality and might not be FBS quality right now, but when you have Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, you're going to be able to score on anyone. Manziel threw for a school-record 464 yards with five touchdowns, while Evans caught seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a score. This defense needs major work, but this offense won't be stopped by many.

4. Georgia (1-1, 1-0 SEC; last week: 4): The Bulldogs were off, so the defense didn't give up any points. Georgia gets a tuneup in the form of North Texas Saturday before taking on LSU in two weeks. Expect a lot of Bulldogs points and some much-needed improvement from the Dawgs' defense.

5. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC; last week: 5): The Gamecocks continue to put up points and pile on yards. Through three games, South Carolina has registered 406, 454 and 579 yards, respectively. The Gamecocks let Vanderbilt hang around in their 35-25 win over the Commodores, but the defense turned it up a notch after getting embarrassed by Georgia. South Carolina allowed just 268 yards, and Vandy made just two of 12 third-down conversions.

6. Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 7): A season ago, Bevo ran the Rebels out of the Grove. Saturday night, the Rebels chased Bevo & Co. out of Texas. Last season, the second half was almost a death sentence for the Rebels, but this season, they are outscoring opponents 56-37 and blanked Texas 27-0 in the second half of their 44-23 route of the Longhorns Saturday. As long as the read-option is still legal, the Rebels will be a very dangerous team.

7. Florida (1-1, 0-0 SEC; last week: 6): The Gators were off, which means the staff was probably drilling ball security and execution into its players' brains. Florida is last in the SEC in red zone efficiency (50 percent), and, as a result, the Gators are last in the SEC in scoring offense (40 points in two games). However, the Gators own the SEC's best defense, which also ranks third nationally.

8. Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 9): Quarterback Nick Marshall really grew up in Auburn's 24-20 win over Mississippi State. He isn't quite Cam Newton, but he looked like a seasoned vet on that last-minute, game-winning drive. The defense still has its issues up front, though. Teams are rushing for almost 160 yards per game against the Tigers and are averaging nearly 5 yards per rush. That defensive line is in for quite the fight this weekend at LSU.

9. Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-2 SEC; last week: 8): Yes, the Commodores have two losses, but they're losses to top-25 teams. And the Commodores were very much in both games. Still, if Vandy is going to make progress and take the next step, these close losses have to turn into wins, especially against teams like South Carolina. There are some holes on defense that have to get plugged.

10. Missouri (2-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 10): The offense is healthy and the Tigers even got a nice bye week before they travel to Indiana to take on the Hoosiers. The offense has been impressive through two games, averaging 539 yards and 48 points per game, but the competition has been subpar. Indiana's defense, which is allowing 410 yards and nearly 30 points a game, should keep Mizzou's offensive momentum going.

11. Arkansas (3-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 11): It wasn't a very pretty win over Southern Miss, but I'm sure Bret Bielema will take it. The offense had issues here and there when quarterback Brandon Allen left early with a bruised shoulder. He's expected to be back for Saturday's game at Rutgers. The good news is that the running game didn't suffer, as both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins rushed for more than 100 yards for the third straight game.

12. Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC; last week: 12): We knew that cross-country trip to Eugene, Ore., would be tough, and Oregon made sure it was a very uncomfortable stay for the Vols. Before the Ducks built a 30-point first-half lead, fans were already chanting "We want Bama!" I can only imagine what Tennessee players were thinking. Things only got worse, as the Ducks registered 687 yards in their 59-14 drubbing of the Vols. Tennessee limps into its matchup with Florida looking for answers on defense.

13. Mississippi State (1-2, 0-1 SEC; last week: 13): For the second straight week, Dak Prescott played pretty well in place of the injured Tyler Russell, but when the defense had to make a stop late against Auburn, it came up short. After two solid outings, Mississippi State's defense struggled to stop Auburn's passing game, and now people in Starkville, Miss., are getting a little antsy. The Bulldogs have lost seven of their past nine games dating back to last season.

14. Kentucky (1-2, 0-0 SEC; last week: 14): The Wildcats put up a fight in the first half of their 27-13 loss to Louisville, but they just couldn't find any sort of consistency on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith left in the third quarter with a right shoulder injury, while turnovers and dropped passes stalled the offense whenever it made any attempt to threaten Louisville's lead. The defense gave up 242 rushing yards, but it was gassed by the fourth quarter thanks to an offense that went 0-for-13 on third down.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
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The Alabama-Texas A&M game was as exciting as we could have hoped, but it was far from the only entertaining game on the SEC slate this weekend.

Here are five things we learned around the league on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeJonathan Williams
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Williams helped power Arkansas to 258 rushing yards against Southern Miss.
The SEC is a defense-first league?: For a minute there, it looked like Alabama (2-0) was preparing to blow out Texas A&M (2-1), as the Tide held a three-touchdown lead at the start of the fourth quarter. But Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel reminded us in the fourth that he's pretty darn good. Manziel tossed three touchdown passes in the final period -- including a 95-yard bomb to Mike Evans -- and helped A&M climb within a touchdown in the final minute. There wasn't much defense on display at Kyle Field -- the teams combined for 1,196 yards, 62 first downs and 91 points -- but Alabama avenged its upset loss last year by holding on at the end for a thrilling 49-42 victory.

Rumors of South Carolina's demise were greatly exaggerated: For South Carolina fans who were concerned that last week's loss to Georgia was a sign of impending doom, the Gamecocks (2-1) provided a reminder that they've still got a strong pulse in the first quarter against Vanderbilt (1-2). Steve Spurrier's team rode strong early performances by quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to jump out to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and led 28-0 before a better-than-average Vanderbilt team notched its first points. Vanderbilt mounted a rally in the fourth quarter to make things interesting, but make no mistake, the Gamecocks will still be a force to reckon with in the SEC East race.

Arkansas' running game is worth watching: When quarterback Brandon Allen went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, Arkansas (3-0) abandoned the passing game almost entirely against Southern Miss. The Razorbacks didn't need to pass much with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams in the backfield. Williams had a team-high 116 rushing yards and Collins added 115, making him the first freshman in SEC history to rush for more than 100 yards in each of his first three games, and the first in any conference since Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson in 2004. Collins entered the weekend as the SEC's top rusher and Williams was third, and the duo didn't do anything to damage their standing on Saturday. They haven't faced a powerful defense yet -- next week's game at Rutgers will be their biggest test to date -- but Collins and Williams’ considerable running skills have helped Arkansas jump out to a 3-0 start.

One slide ends, another continues: It's hard to say who needed a win more at Jordan-Hare Stadium: an Auburn team that hadn't won an SEC game since 2011 or a Mississippi State team that had lost six of its last eight games. It was Gus Malzahn's Auburn club (3-0) that rallied for the game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds to play on Saturday, handing Mississippi State (1-2) another gut-wrenching defeat. Auburn's victory ended a 10-game league losing streak that provides an enormous boost with a trip to LSU on tap next weekend.

Vols aren't back yet: Tennessee (2-1) couldn't keep its game with No. 2 Oregon interesting for long, as the promise the Volunteers showed in wins against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky didn't translate into remaining competitive with one of the nation's better teams. The Ducks scored 59 straight points and ran up 687 yards -- 456 passing by quarterback Marcus Mariota -- in blowing new coach Butch Jones' club off the field. In the next five games, the Vols will face four ranked teams: No. 18 Florida, No. 9 Georgia, No. 13 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama. So the road could get rocky quickly for the Vols.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
We've arrived at Week 3 of the season in the SEC, bringing us to one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season: Alabama's trip to Texas A&M in a rematch of last season's thriller in Tuscaloosa, when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Aggies upset the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide 29-24.

But that's not the only game worth watching in the conference this season. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday around the conference.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMaybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but Nick Saban is 7-1 at Bama in rematch games following a loss, with an average win margin of 20.9 points.
1. Revenge factor in College Station: At No. 6 in this week's AP Top 25, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone this year. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and his troops have stewed over that loss throughout the offseason -- and that has typically been a bad sign for opponents. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Tide is 7-1 in rematch games following a loss, with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Of course, the Aggies have no intention of simply rolling over before its home crowd. Kevin Sumlin's club leads the SEC in scoring (58.5 ppg), total offense (600.0 ypg) and passing offense (392.0 ypg), so the Aggies should provide an enormous test for a formidable Alabama defense that allowed just 212 yards to Virginia Tech in its first game.

2. Run the X factor for Alabama: How the Aggies' porous defense fares against Alabama's strong running game might be the determining factor Saturday. An A&M defense that was depleted by suspensions has been horrendous so far, ranking last in the SEC by allowing 273 rushing yards per game to Rice and Sam Houston State. Oddly enough, Alabama is last in the league in rushing after totaling only 96 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but that trend is sure to be short-lived with star-caliber talent on the offensive line and T.J. Yeldon among the standouts in the backfield. Alabama is sure to try to control the pace of this game by hammering the Aggies' defense with its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. It will require an infinitely more effective performance by A&M's defense than what we've seen thus far if the Aggies are to do an acceptable job against the Tide's ground game.

3. Tough nonconference matchups: The SEC hasn't fared so well in its marquee nonconference games thus far, with Georgia and Florida falling to a pair of ACC opponents, Clemson and Miami, and Mississippi State laying an egg against Oklahoma State. Yes, LSU and Alabama held up their ends of the deal with wins against TCU and Virginia Tech, respectively, but this might be another weekend where SEC teams come up on the short end of high-profile nonconference matchups. As of Tuesday night, Tennessee was a 27.5-point underdog for Saturday's game at Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon, and Kentucky was also a double-digit underdog (plus-13.5) for its in-state rivalry game with Louisville. One of the more intriguing games of the weekend is Ole Miss' visit to a Texas program in turmoil, but the Longhorns are the favorite in that game, as well.

4. Measuring stick for Vols: New Tennessee coach Butch Jones' club has been impressive in its first two games, routing overmatched Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, but its next two games are a completely different animal. The Vols have the pleasure of facing No. 2 Oregon on national TV Saturday, followed by another tough road trip, to No. 18 Florida, the following week. Tennessee ranks 13th nationally with an average of 48.5 points per game and it leads the SEC with a plus-seven turnover margin, but slowing down Oregon's offensive juggernaut in Eugene is no simple task. The Ducks are 27-2 at Autzen Stadium dating back to the start of the 2009 season and at 62.5 points per game in wins against Virginia and Nicholls State, this year's club looks to be just as good as its recent predecessors.

5. Odell Beckham show: LSU's multi-talented return man and receiver punctuated an outstanding night by returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown last weekend against UAB. He also caught 136 yards worth of passes for three touchdowns against the Blazers. Kent State should provide ample opportunity for Beckham to add to his impressive stats -- he already has 10 catches for 254 yards and three TDs -- before the Tigers jump into conference play next week against Auburn.

6. Rebels primed for upset?: What do we make of Saturday night's Ole Miss-Texas game in Austin? The Longhorns won last year's game in Oxford by five touchdowns, but they hadn't just performed so poorly that coach Mack Brown felt compelled to fire a coordinator two games into the season. Texas' defense was horrendous last week, allowing 550 rushing yards -- the most by an opponent in school history -- in a 40-21 loss at BYU. That prompted Brown to reassign defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and bring back Greg Robinson to take his job. Flash forward to this weekend. At No. 25, Ole Miss is ranked for the first time since 2009, and the Rebels aren't too shabby on offense with an average of 510.5 yards per game. That matchup between Hugh Freeze's up-and-coming team and a Texas club on the verge of imploding makes for one of the weekend's most compelling storylines.

7. Arkansas' running game: Those around the conference are starting to take notice of the new-look ground game that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville. Once a pass-heavy offense under Bobby Petrino, Arkansas is 11th nationally with an average of 312.5 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have both the No. 6 (Alex Collins at 151.5 yards per game) and No. 12 (Jonathan Williams, 138.5 ypg) rushers in the country, and they'll face a Southern Miss defense this weekend that has been vulnerable against the run so far, ranking 81st with an average of 179.0 yards against.

8. Gamecocks, Commodores with something to prove: Steve Spurrier was livid after the way his defense performed in last week's loss to Georgia, vowing that the Gamecocks would change things up to force more turnovers. The Gamecocks risk falling out of the SEC East race if they suffer another division loss, so games like Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt are essentially must-wins. Although there have been a few near-misses, the Commodores are still in search of their first win against the East's power trio of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. With an SEC-high eight sacks and an overall productive defense, the Commodores might be able to give themselves a chance in Columbia if they contain South Carolina's offense and hit a big play or two against a Gamecocks defense in transition.

9. Enormous test for Kentucky secondary: Saturday's matchup against Louisville is a minor nightmare for a Kentucky team that lists three freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep at its five secondary positions. Led by Heisman contender Teddy Bridgewater (376.0 ypg, 9 TDs, 1 INT) at quarterback, Louisville possesses one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Kentucky has actually defended the pass fairly well so far, ranking fourth in the SEC with 147.0 yards allowed per game and limiting opponents to an 11.5-percent conversion rate on third down, but the Wildcats posted those numbers against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio). Defensive end Za'Darius Smith (an SEC-high four sacks) and company must get after Bridgewater for the Wildcats to have a chance on Saturday.

10. Bowl implications for Auburn, Mississippi State: For a pair of teams harboring mid-level bowl hopes, Saturday's matchup is a big one. Already 2-0, Auburn is a win away from matching its win total for all of last season. But with games remaining against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, bowl eligibility likely hinges on beating the Mississippi States of the world. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, meanwhile, are desperate to right the ship after dropping six of their last games since starting the 2012 season 7-0. They flat-out stunk in a 21-3 loss to open the season against Oklahoma State and still have all of the West's heavyweights left on the schedule, plus South Carolina. The loser of this one might very well be home for Christmas.

SEC Week 2: Did you know?

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
10:00
AM ET
We're in the swing of things now. With Week 1 in the books, it’s time to take a look at some notes from the SEC and ESPN Stats & Info to get you prepared for the second full week of college football:
  • A total of 10 players from the SEC rushed for 100 yards or more in their opening games, including both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins of Arkansas.
  • Since 2006, the SEC has posted the highest nonconference winning percentage (regular season & bowls) of any conference. The league has a 333-74 record (81.8 winning percentage).
  • With the start of the NFL season upon us, a quick look around the league reveals that the SEC has had more of its former players on NFL rosters in the last five seasons than any other conference. Since 2006, the SEC has averaged 266.1 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters. The league had a high of 257 players on NFL rosters last year, compared to the second highest ACC with 226.
  • Florida is now 13-0 under coach Will Muschamp when rushing for 150 or more yards.
  • The Gators have allowed two rushes of 50 yards or longer in the last 10 seasons combined, three fewer than any other FBS team. Last week, the Gators allowed a total of 50 yards on the ground and just one rush of 10 yards or longer.
  • Jadeveon Clowney recorded only three tackles in South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina, but he still had an impact on the game. He had three total pressures, which brings his total number to 31 over the last two seasons, tying him with former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones for tops in the SEC.
  • Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is going to miss his top target, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who's out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Murray completed 72 percent of his passes thrown to Mitchell, compared to 59 percent when targeting his other receivers.
  • It's been pointed out time and again, and we're going to continue bringing it up until it changes: Murray is 3-11 against ranked opponents in his career. He's 0-3 all-time against South Carolina. Murray's 46.0 QBR against the Gamecocks is the lowest of any team in the SEC East.
  • Your SEC leaders in Raw QBR aren't what you might expect as Arkansas’ Brandon Allen led the charge with a 91.6 rating, followed by Missouri’s James Franklin, Texas A&M’s Matt Joeckel and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Last season Mettenberger ranked 12th out of 13 SEC quarterbacks in QBR.
  • Mettenberger's numbers could improve again versus UAB, which allowed 319 yards passing from Troy quarterback Corey Robinson, who set a NCAA record completing 93.8 percent of his passes (30-for-32).
  • Auburn is now 194-1 all-time when scoring 30 points or more against non-SEC opponents. The Tigers defeated Arkansas State in both previous matchups, with each victory coming by at least 26 points.
  • Ole Miss is 149-82-7 (.641 winning pct.) all-time during the month of September, including a 3-2 record last year.
  • Arkansas hosts Samford in its home away from home, War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, where the Razorbacks are 166-67-4 (.709) all-time.
  • Hogs coach Bret Bielema wanted to cut down on penalties during his first offseason, and the Razorbacks’ did just that on Saturday, accounting for all of four penalties vs. Louisiana -- the fewest in a season opener since 2008.
  • UK had 11 first-time starters in its season-opening loss to the Hilltoppers, which is a school record for first-time starters in a game according to records kept back to the 1993 season. A total of 10 newcomers (six true freshmen) saw action.
  • Tennessee is 7-0 all-time vs. current Sun Belt schools, including two wins last season (51-13 over Georgia State, 55-48 over Troy).
  • The Vols offensive line has a total of 129 career starts, led by Ja’Wuan James with 38 and Zach Fulton with 29.
  • Tennessee's 45-0 win in Week 1 marked the first shutout for UT since a 27-0 win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 5, 2011.
  • The Aggies gained 486 total yards against Rice last week, which marked the 13th straight game that the offense has surpassed the 400-yard plateau, which is easily the longest streak in school history. Only Baylor has a longer streak of 400-yard offensive game among FBS teams. Since head coach Kevin Sumlin’s arrival in College Station, the Aggies have surpassed 400 in 13-of-14 games, including 500-plus yards eight times.
  • Missouri's Gary Pinkel coached Toledo’s through the 2000 season, and left for Columbia as the Rockets’ winningest coach in school history, with a 73-37-3 record in 10 seasons. Pinkel, who was inducted into Toledo's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009, led the Rockets to a MAC title and claimed three other MAC West Division championships.
  • It took 659 days, but Missouri junior running back Henry Josey, returning from a knee injury, picked up where he left off at Faurot Field this past weekend, rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Mizzou’s 58-14 victory over Murray State.
  • Vanderbilt saw Austin Carta-Samuels become just the second quarterback in Vanderbilt history to pass for 300 yards or more in a season opener on Saturday. The last time a Commordores quarterback hit that mark was when Greg Zolman threw for 300 yards in the 2001 opener against Middle Tennessee.
  • Jordan Matthews' 178-yard effort versus Ole Miss was the most by a Vanderbilt receiver since Earl Bennett amassed 223 receiving yards against Richmond in 2007.

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