Alabama Crimson Tide: Nick Marshall

Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

HOOVER, Ala. -- When ESPN Junior 300 star Jauan Jennings visited Auburn this past weekend, he had the opportunity to take in the Tigers’ first scrimmage of the spring and watch quarterback Nick Marshall, a player not so different from himself.

Marshall played quarterback in high school but signed with Georgia as a defensive back. After committing a violation of team rules, he was dismissed from the team and ended up in junior college. One positive that came from the incident was that it gave Marshall an opportunity to return to the position he loves, and now he’s one of the top returning signal-callers in the SEC.

“He came from not playing quarterback at first,” Jennings said. “He was a defensive back. He did a lot of things I want to be able to do. A lot of coaches don’t feel I can play quarterback. A lot of fans don’t feel I can play quarterback. I want to say, ‘I told you so.’”


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SEC's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
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The talk around the SEC today is how three teams from the conference -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennesse -- reached the round of 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And this was supposed to be a down year for the league.

But we're here to discuss football. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league:

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall is talented enough to play the position in the NFL.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith is relishing his new role after playing defensive end as a freshman.

Now healthy, quarterback Brandon Allen is preparing for a position battle at Arkansas.

Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- attempting to return from a torn ACL from last season -- suffered another injury last week, although the Bulldogs' medical staff says he'll be back in time for August practices.

South Carolina offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers could face suspension after his alcohol-related arrest from early Sunday.

The defense had the edge in Vanderbilt's spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Alabama's players like what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is teaching thus far.

Jeff Driskel looked sharp working with the first-team offense in Florida's practice on Saturday, according to the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu.

With Missouri's team on spring break, here is a spring practice reset from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Ultimate 300: SEC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
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video
The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.

Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.


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Nine of the SEC's top 13 rushers from this season will return in 2014.

Who's the odds-on favorite to lead the league in rushing next season? That's your job.

SportsNation

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

  •  
    18%
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    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    11%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,953)

So go to our SportsNation poll and vote, and we'll break down the results later this week.

The top two rushers in the SEC this season -- Auburn's Tre Mason and LSU's Jeremy Hill -- opted to turn pro and won't be back.

But five more 1,000-yard rushers from this season will return, not to mention Georgia's Todd Gurley. Hurt for part of this season, Gurley still flirted with 1,000 yards in just 10 games.

It could be that the SEC's rushing leader next season isn't exactly a household name at this point. Not many people would have picked Mason at the start of this season to lead the league in rushing even though he rushed for 1,000 yards the year before. And two years ago, nobody saw Johnny Manziel bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and leading the league in rushing.

Of the returnees, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon had the most rushing yards this season (1,235), and Yeldon also led the league in rushing in SEC games. Of course, next season, Yeldon will almost certainly share the backfield duties with Derrick Henry, who was lights out for the Crimson Tide in the bowl game.

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
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The weekend is fast approaching and bowl game action is beginning to heat up. Here are some headlines from around the league today to sink your teeth into:

SEC sleepers for Heisman in 2014

December, 19, 2013
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Now that Jameis Winston has been crowned this year's Heisman Trophy winner, it's time to take an early peak at the top candidates for next season. Our own Travis Haney did all the hard work for us earlier this week when he debuted his list of the top 10 candidates who should be up for the award in 2014.

Winston tops his list, but he also had four players from the SEC -- Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon and Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham -- on there.

I like all four of those choices, and it should be noted that like me, he doesn't see Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel or Auburn running back Tre Mason returning to school in 2014. That's why you won't find them on his list.

I think Gurley might have the best chance out of this bunch because he pretty much proved that he's one of the country's best players -- regardless of position -- when he's healthy. And he really was never 100 percent after that ankle injury, yet still managed to finish with 903 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 30 passes for 344 yards and five more scores.

In what could be his final year in Athens, Gurley could have a big, big year if he stays healthy.

So who are some other SEC players to keep an eye on in the Heisman race? Well it's way, way too early, but who cares? I'd love to have A&M's Mike Evans on this list, but I think after back-to-back monster seasons, Manziel's top receiving target is off to greener pastures.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
AP Photo/John RaouxSophomore Mike Davis had five 100-yard games in SEC play.
Here are five other guys who you should pay attention to:

1. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Because I think LSU running back Jeremy Hill isn't long for the SEC and will likely take his talents to the NFL, Davis gets my top spot. He's great between the tackles, can hit the home run play on the outside and isn't too bad in the passing game. He's fourth in the SEC with 1,134 rushing yards and has 11 touchdowns. He also has caught 32 passes for 342 yards.

2. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU: It might be hard for him to stay at LSU after a tremendous junior year, but if he does, he should get some early Heisman love. He'll have a new quarterback, but Beckham showed this season that he certainly has go-to talent and he'll get some extra Heisman attention with his play in the return game. Not only did Beckham catch 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season, he registered 947 return yards.

3. Henry Josey, RB, Missouri: A year and a half removed from shredding his knee, Josey made the ultimate comeback with 1,074 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He was one of the most explosive backs in the SEC and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. More than 700 of Josey's yards came in SEC play this season. DGB will get most of the preseason love in Columbia this fall, but Josey has everything it takes to be an elite back in this league.

4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He had a relatively quiet regular season, but Cooper has what it takes to be a real superstar in this league. We saw major flashes of it during his freshman year, but nagging injuries cut his production in 2013. He caught 36 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder against Auburn. Cooper is a deep threat and can make the tough catches in traffic. If he's healthy, he could make a Heisman push, as he becomes the prime go-to guy for Alabama's new quarterback.

5. Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: OK, so we've been down this path before. A lot of hype dumped on a relatively inexperienced player. Usually, it doesn't pan out. The good news for Mauk is that he got some valuable playing time during the regular season. He learned from James Franklin and then performed swimmingly in his place after Franklin missed a month with a shoulder injury. Mauk knows the offense backward and forward, is a threat to run and pass, and should still have some nice offensive weapons around him next fall. During the regular season, he threw for 1,039 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he rushed for another 156 yards and a touchdown.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to put Saban-to-Texas to bed and get back to the matter of playing football.

No. 3-ranked Alabama's season isn't over yet. Practices and a bowl date with No. 11 Oklahoma in New Orleans remain.

For Nick Saban, who after weeks of speculation and a new contract gets to focus solely on his Crimson Tide again, the next few weeks will be valuable. Not only does finishing the season well matter, but gathering momentum into next year is important as well.

With that in mind, here are five key areas Alabama must improve upon between now and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and Alabama still have plenty to sort out in preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Put all the talk to rest: Think AJ McCarron got tired of answering all the questions about his coach leaving for Texas? What about the rest of his teammates, who had to wonder at some point whether all the rumors could turn out to be true? The brief offseason between the Auburn game and the start of bowl practice was more eventful than Alabama and Saban would have liked. In fact, Saban loathes these things. Off-the-field distractions are the bane of his coaching existence. Being on the road recruiting, he didn't have time to address his team. But on Tuesday, he will. Putting the talk to rest and focusing on the task at hand -- Oklahoma, remember? -- will be vital in how the next few weeks play out.

Find motivation: The Iron Bowl loss has to linger. McCarron can say all he wants that he'll root for Auburn now, but in his heart of hearts he has to be jealous. He and his teammates have to be mad. This Alabama team that was supposed to be preparing for a trip to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif. Instead, it's forced to muster the energy to travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl no one in Tuscaloosa wanted. Finishing the season off right should be motivation enough, but that's not always been the case. Alabama fans will remember the last Sugar Bowl. It didn't end so well, with Utah upsetting the heavily favored Tide. In their last non-championship bowl, however, Alabama throttled Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 49-7, on Jan, 1, 2011.

Replace Anthony Steen: Who will it be? The options to replace Steen as the right guard are numerous. Alphonse Taylor is listed as his backup, but Kellen Williams wound up starting in Steen's absence earlier in the season. Then there's Chad Lindsay, who has started three games at center and could slide over to guard. But if Alabama is truly looking ahead, it might turn to Grant Hill, who has played tackle primarily in his freshman season but came to Tuscaloosa as the top-rated offensive guard out of high school. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will return next season and there's a chance top-ranked offensive tackle Cam Robinson could step in at left tackle immediately, should Cyrus Kouandjio enter the draft. If the staff is serious about Hill playing as a sophomore, he might be better off beginning the process at guard now.

Stop the running game: It wasn't as if Alabama wasn't ready for Auburn's running game. Gus Malzahn's Tigers made no secret of their desire to move the ball on the ground against the Tide. And still, Saban and Co. couldn't stop it. Tre Mason and Nick Marshall helped Auburn to 296 yards rushing, the most allowed by Alabama since it faced Georgia Southern in 2011. In fact, Marshall's 99 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Saban era at Alabama. Now, Oklahoma is not the same type of dynamic running team as Auburn, but it's not as far off as you might expect. The Sooners have demonstrated an ability to run the ball this season, averaging 235.8 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 18th in the country. For the sake of the bowl game and for the many Iron Bowls that lie ahead, Alabama has to figure out how to stop the run.

Find a quarterback: It would be unreasonable to assume that Alabama hasn't already begun looking for McCarron's replacement at quarterback. But the process that began long ago should begin in earnest during bowl practice. McCarron will continue taking reps, but at this point in his career, he doesn't need every snap to be prepared. Why not stick another quarterback in with the first team and see what they can do? Whether it's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod or Luke Del Rio -- and, yes, the list of candidates is that long -- someone needs to emerge before the start of spring practice. By getting a jump start now, Alabama can go into the offseason with a plan in place.

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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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.
Ten SEC teams are headed to the postseason and one of them is playing the granddaddy of them all. All is right in the college football world below the Mason-Dixon Line, as the SEC looks to extend its BCS title streak to eight in a row.

Once again, the SEC has Urban Meyer to thank for more conference gold ... or should I say orange and blue ...

Here's this season's SEC bowl lineup:

VIZIO BCS National Championship game, Jan. 6: Auburn vs. Florida State
Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina vs. Wisconsin
AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3: Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: LSU vs. Iowa
Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31: Texas A&M vs. Duke
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Nebraska
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31: Mississippi State vs. Rice
BBVA Compass Bowl, Jan. 4: Vanderbilt vs. Houston

I'm sure we'll have more on all of these bowl games in the coming weeks, but here are our first impressions of this season's lineup:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesCan tailback Tre Mason and the Tigers bring home an eighth consecutive national title for the SEC?
Edward Aschoff's first impressions

Best game: VIZIO BCS National Championship game. This one is for all the marbles, and once again the SEC is involved. Real shocker there, even if it is Auburn. Somehow, the SEC found a way, and we now get to see the nation's best rushing offense (335.7 yards per game) take on Florida State's vaunted passing game, which is led by Heisman favorite Jameis Winston. The Noles own the country's 14th-ranked pass defense and rank third nationally in total defense. Auburn is on a special run this season and, with a month to rest and look over things, you have to wonder if coach Gus Malzahn will throw a couple more items into his playbook just for Florida State.

Worst game: TaxSlayer.com Gator. On paper, watching Georgia and Nebraska play each other looks pretty fun. But we've seen this matchup before. We saw it last season in the Capital One Bowl. Obviously, these are different teams, but they have the same uniforms on and the bowl season is about seeing something new and different. This isn't, and Georgia fans will let you know it. It'll probably be a pretty good game, but it would have been a lot better to see both of these two with different opponents.

Sneaky good game: Franklin American Mortgage Music City. The triple option vs. Hugh Freeze's fun spread? Yes, please! The Rebels didn't end the season the way they wanted, but you can see a lot of growth at Ole Miss. The Rebels owned one of the SEC's best offensive attacks, while the Yellow Jackets mirrored Auburn at times on the ground, averaging 311 rushing yards a game. But don't forget that Georgia Tech's defense only gave up an average 350 total yards per game. This should be a good one that has fourth-quarter drama written all over it.

The bowl season will be a success if: All the SEC cares about is bringing home an eighth straight crystal football. Commissioner Mike Slive is looking right at you, Auburn. Beat Florida State, and the SEC ends the BCS right where it started: with a national championship. The league can have a losing record in bowl play, but if it wins the one out in Pasadena, Calif., the conference will be all smiles (even folks in Tuscaloosa) and will still claim its perch atop the college football world.

Chris Low's first impressions

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisQuarterback James Franklin and Missouri will take on Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
Best game: VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Florida State might be a little more than a touchdown favorite by the oddsmakers, but Auburn is playing lights out on offense. How do you stop that running game? The Seminoles come into the game with the better defense. That’s not debatable. But the Tigers seem to be in their comfort zone when they can turn a game into a track meet. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason are both electrifying playmakers, and Mason has shown that he’s plenty durable, too. The matchup, though, that makes this game so enticing is an Auburn offensive line that has blossomed this season against a talented, athletic Florida State defensive front. Nobody has run the ball against the Seminoles all season. But, then, nobody had run the ball against Alabama this season, either, until Auburn lit up the Tide for 296 rushing yards two weeks ago.

Worst game: BBVA Compass. What does Vanderbilt have to do to get a bowl game higher in the SEC’s pecking order? The Commodores are sitting there with eight regular-season wins for the second straight season and will be making the short trip to Birmingham, Ala. They get a Houston team that enters the postseason having lost three of its last four games. A close second goes to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, where we get a rematch of last season’s Georgia-Nebraska game from the Capital One Bowl.

Sneaky good game: AT&T Cotton. Two old Big 12 rivals will get it on in Arlington, Texas, and if you like offense, this is your kind of game. Missouri’s passing game, especially now that James Franklin is healthy again, is both balanced and explosive. Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington combined for 22 touchdown catches this season. The Tigers’ defense gets a chance for redemption after being shredded by Auburn’s running game, but faces an Oklahoma State offense averaging 39.8 points per game.

The bowl season will be a success if: It’s all about the bling in the SEC. In other words, the onus is on Auburn to make it eight straight national championships. If the streak remains intact, the SEC will have bragging rights for another year. Counting the BCS National Championship game, 10 SEC teams are playing in bowl games. The league went 6-3 last season, so 7-3 sounds about right this season. Then we can all drum up some more propaganda, although Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops might have more to worry about than propaganda -- real or perceived -- when his Sooners take on Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to face facts, Alabama.

It's been a few days since the debacle on The Plains and nothing is going to take the sting away from watching Chris Davis outrun the field goal team for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. The shock is still wearing off. Auburn is moving on to the SEC Championship Game and you're probably still questioning whether Nick Saban should have tried that long field goal from Adam Griffith, or better yet, whether he should have kicked it on fourth-and-one a few drives earlier. Maybe you're still reeling over Amari Cooper's dropped touchdown or the false start that negated what would have been a made field goal from Cade Foster.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillNick Marshall had a big day for Auburn against the Alabama defense.
Agonize over the what-ifs all you want. That's what these times are for. It will be a while until we know what bowl game Alabama will go to, and even then we'll come back to Saturday's Iron Bowl as the turning point in the season. But recognize that the most disturbing thing about Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn wasn't the coaching decisions, missed field goals or dropped passes. Those can be remedied. Those lessons can be learned.

Instead, what's most troubling was how Saban and Kirby Smart's defense once again failed to stop a spread, uptempo offense. Tre Mason ran inside and outside the tackles at will and Nick Marshall was able to evade the pass rush too easily. After that and what we saw earlier this season from Texas A&M, isn't it time to come to grips with the fact that Alabama needs to do something to slow down these types of attacks?

Gus Malzahn might indeed be the best offensive play-caller in the country. And, yes, Johnny Manziel is a freak of nature and arguably worthy of a second straight Heisman Trophy. Sometimes these things can't be helped. But the body of evidence is growing to suggest that Alabama has a real problem on its hands.

It's not like Saban and Smart didn't know what they were getting into. We heard all during the offseason how they were working to slow down Johnny Football and adjust to the tempo of no-huddle schemes. Alabama is nothing if not familiar with the work of Malzahn. There was more than enough tape from his time at Auburn and Arkansas State to know the zone-read was going to be a focal point of the game. Nothing they saw from either Auburn or Texas A&M was unfamiliar, except maybe the remarkable production their offenses gained on what's supposedly the best defense in college football.

"Their running game has had a lot of success against everybody all year long," Saban said after the loss at Auburn. "They have a very difficult offense to defend. Like I said, it takes a lot of discipline."

But discipline is what Saban's defenses have been known for all along. They don't go for the sack or the big play. Players are told to maintain their gaps and let the scheme work its magic. More often than not it does. Not against Auburn, though, which rushed for 296 yards, the most Alabama has given up since 2011. Auburn averaged 4.2 yards before contact on designed rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Alabama entered Saturday averaging an SEC-best 1.5 yards before contact per rush.

[+] EnlargeKirby Smart
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Kirby Smart have watched the Tide struggle with uptempo offenses.
"There were times when we did not defend the plays properly," Saban explained. "… We did not close and do the things we were supposed to do and they hit us for a couple of big runs.

"You certainly have to stop the run a little better than we did today to have a chance to beat a team like this."

Mason's 164 yards rushing was the third most of any player against Alabama in the last decade. Marshall's 99 yards on the ground was the most allowed by a quarterback in the Saban era. The zone-read Mason and Marshall ran accounted for 270 yards on 38 attempts. That 7.1 yards per carry average was nearly double what Alabama entered the game allowing on zone-read plays (3.4).

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "On some plays we messed up on our technique and [Marshall] made us pay, and some plays he made on his own."

In short, Alabama didn't have an answer for Auburn, just as it didn't against Texas A&M earlier this season.

Lost in the Alabama's sprint toward an undefeated season was how the defense gave up a school-record 628 yards of offense that day in September. Manziel threw for 464 yards, many of which came on plays where he scrambled to buy time for his receivers. He ran for 98 more yards of his own. Mike Evans abused Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards receiving, the most in Texas A&M's history and the most the Tide had allowed since 2001. When the Aggies got on a roll, they couldn't be stopped.

Making sense of what Texas A&M and Auburn did to Alabama's defense won't be easy, but it's a job that must be done. If not, repeat performances will come next year and the year after that.

If Alabama wants to retain the mantle of the best defense in college football, it has work to do. Saban and Smart have shown they're some of the top minds in the game, but now maybe more than ever they have to prove it.

SEC: Oh so close ...

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
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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.

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