Alabama Crimson Tide: Bob Stoops

Now that signing day is over and the fax machine is allowed another 364 days of rest, it’s time to look back on who did the most on the recruiting trail in the SEC.

It’s important to note that this is not purely a rank of who had the best class. You can go to ESPN’s class rankings for that information. Rather, this list took into account the state of each program and how it performed against expectations, hence Kentucky’s lofty standing.

No. 1: Alabama
Rundown: The class wasn’t just No. 1 overall, it was No. 1 by a mile. Alabama cleaned up with one-third of all the five-star prospects in the ESPN 300, the highest ranking of which was offensive tackle Cameron Robinson, who could challenge for immediate playing time as a freshman. Along those lines, coach Nick Saban and his staff didn’t just sign the best prospects, they signed those that fit the program’s needs. The offensive line class could be the best in Saban’s history, the cornerback class promises two future stars and quarterback David Cornwell helps expand the field of candidates to replace AJ McCarron.

Instant impact signee: Tony Brown won’t be the only five-star cornerback on campus, but he’ll be the first one there. The speedy track star enrolled in January and will compete in spring practice. With both starting cornerback spots open, he’ll have a chance to start right away.

No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain’t your grandfather’s Kentucky. It’s not your father’s or your older brother’s, either. Mark Stoops didn’t have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it’s here to play and win.

Instant impact signee: There’s opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats’ offense.

No. 3: Tennessee
Rundown: No program brought in more young talent than the Vols. All told, Tennessee signed 35 prospects, far more than any BCS-level program. Coach Butch Jones joked that he’ll have an all-freshman team next year, and with 11 ESPN 300 players in the class it’s not that farfetched an idea. Not only did Jones lock down in-state stars like Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd, he reached across borders and landed LaVon Pearson and Dillon Bates. Where his first recruiting class in 2013 was more about creating buzz, 2014 was about fulfilling a promise.

Instant impact signee: Jones and his staff are high on junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolled at Tennessee early. Considering the Vols are completely reloading on the offensive line, the 6-7, 307-pound Blair will have the chance to step in and play from Day 1.

No. 4: LSU
Rundown: Les Miles was on the hook after losing several in-state stars to programs like Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida. Seeing Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Laurence Jones commit elsewhere cast LSU’s recruiting efforts in a bad light. But that all changed when Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, announced that he would be a Tiger. And on Wednesday, Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation, followed suit. By the end of the day, 11 of the top 25 players in Louisiana ended up at LSU.

Instant impact signee: Fournette is the No. 1 overall prospect for a reason. He’s got all the physical tools and the mindset to play at the next level. Because of that he’s been compared favorably to former Sooner Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, Fournette can insert himself into the running back rotation right away.

No. 5: Texas A&M
Rundown: In 2012, Texas A&M signed the 15th best recruiting class in the country. In 2013, it joined the SEC and rose to eighth in the rankings. And on Wednesday, it completed that climb by finishing fourth. Kevin Sumlin and Co. signed an impressive 10 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 athlete and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Signing a pair of junior college offensive linemen -- Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor -- solidifies depth on a line moving on without Jake Matthews.

Instant impact signee: There’s no doubt Texas A&M needs help on the defense. Defensive end Myles Garrett's body is college-ready (6-5, 255 pounds) and he’s ripped to shreds. If he can pick up the defense and show he's capable of holding up against the run, he could play soon.

No. 6: Florida
Rundown: It’s the win coach Will Muschamp so desperately needed. Keeping together this class after one of the most disastrous seasons in program history was a remarkable feat. In all, Florida signed 13 ESPN 300 commitments, including seven players who rank among the top 10 nationally at their position. Even more impressive was that Muschamp sold Florida against some other top programs, flipping four-star Florida State quarterback commitment Treon Harris to cross the state to Gainesville.

Instant impact signee: Jalen Tabor has as good a chance as anyone to start at cornerback opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the former standout freshman whose footsteps he's trying to follow. Florida coaches are high on his talent and skill level, and of course, being an early enrollee helps.

No. 7: Georgia
Rundown: Mark Richt got his guy in Lorenzo Carter. Without him, the entire outlook of the class changes. While it wasn’t high on numbers -- 21 signees in all -- the quality of Georgia's class was impressive. Richt signed 11 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in the country. Four-star athlete Isaiah McKenzie was a big signee as well. He’s small in size (5-8), but his speed and quickness could translate to early playing time.

Instant impact signee: “That defense is going to be nasty,” Carter said. “And I plan on being a part of it.” With that, Georgia got a taste of the energy the No. 3-rated defensive end will bring to Athens. His ability as a pass-rusher will help the Bulldogs right away, and if he adds a few more pounds he could develop into an every-down lineman.

No. 8: Auburn
Rundown: It’s not always about who you sign, but who you miss. The loss of Rashaan Evans still stings a day later, but Auburn landed commitments from offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams to close out what was already an impressive class. In all, the Tigers have 12 signees in the ESPN 300 and two ranked in the ESPN JC 50. Despite losing Evans to the Tide, Auburn signed four of the state’s top 10 players, including its top-ranked player in the class, running back Racean Thomas.

Instant impact signee: Nobody is more qualified to step in and contribute than wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He’s the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he’s already on campus. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s go-to wide receiver by the start of next season.

No. 9: Ole Miss
Rundown: The class wasn’t filled with stars like the year before, but coach Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t let up in 2014. The Rebels went after more seasoned recruits, signing six players from either junior college, prep schools or delayed enrollment. Actually, this year’s class might end up having more depth than the previous year’s as 15 four-star recruits signed in 2014, compared to 12 four-star recruits and two five-star recruits in 2013. With players like Garrald McDowell and C.J. Hampton, there’s plenty to build around.

Instant impact signee: Ole Miss needed help on the offensive line and four-star Rod Taylor could be the man to give them a boost. The No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 300 and the Rebels’ highest ranked signee enrolled in school early and will compete in spring practice.

No. 10: South Carolina
Rundown: It wasn’t the most heralded class in Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina, but it didn’t lack talent, especially on defense where the Gamecocks signed four defensive linemen and four cornerbacks. Stealing defensive tackle Dexter Wideman from Florida State and nabbing cornerback Chris Lammons from Wisconsin’s sights was huge in moving South Carolina up from 27th in the class rankings to 19th.

Instant impact signee: He’ll no doubt add a few pounds to his 6-3, 250-pound frame, but no amount of weight will help Dante Sawyer's attempts to fill Jadeveon Clowney's sizable shoes at South Carolina. That’s not Sawyer’s job as a freshman, though. The four-star prospect should help the Gamecocks pass rush and is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end.

No. 11: Arkansas
Rundown: When I spoke to Bret Bielema during the season, he told me that he wasn’t going after guys based on their rankings. He wanted “his guys,” guys who fit his blue-collar system. And he did exactly that with six of his top eight signees coming on the offensive and defensive lines. Throw in Rafe Peavey, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback, and Arkansas’ got a good foundation to build upon.

Instant impact signee: With starting defensive tackle Byran Jones gone, the door is open for big Bijhon Jackson, who comes in at a hefty 6-2 and 330 pounds. The No. 6-ranked defensive tackle is one of three ESPN 300 member in Arkansas’ recruiting class.

No. 12: Mississippi State
Rundown: The Bulldogs’ 2014 signing class was on the small side with 23 signees, and it was planned that way. With so few seniors, coach Dan Mullen chose to be selective. Still, the class left something to be desired without a single player ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. It was good to see the Bulldogs get so many in-state recruits, but the furthest their reach went was to Texas, Alabama and Georgia. That said, Mississippi State fans will be glad to see that both of its ESPN 300 signees -- Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson -- were skill players on offense, an area in need of development.

Instant impact signee: There’s plenty of opportunity in the Bulldogs’ backfield now that LaDarius Perkins is off to the NFL. Enter Aeris Williams, a four-star prospect from Mississippi. With Dak Prescott at quarterback, Williams could make hay on the read-option.

No. 13: Missouri
Rundown: Maybe the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta didn’t amount to much on the recruiting trail. Maybe the thrilling Cotton Bowl win didn’t impress enough recruits either. Whatever it was, coach Gary Pinkel didn’t exactly make hay on signing day. Landing just two ESPN 300 commitments was underwhelming, as was the grand total of four four-star recruits. The signing of Andy Bauer, a four-star offensive tackle who was targeted by Alabama, does engender some hope. Still, as we watch Texas A&M take advantage of the bump it received in recruiting since joining the SEC, one has to wonder why Missouri hasn’t done the same.

Instant impact signee: Brandon Lee, the nation's No. 17 outside linebacker, comes in at a healthy 6-2 and 210 pounds. Given that two of the Tigers’ three starting linebackers were seniors last season, Lee will have a chance to come in and contribute right away.

No. 14: Vanderbilt
Rundown: With so little time to recruit, Derek Mason couldn’t put together the class he wanted. And with former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin poaching so many of his former recruits at Penn State, it only made matters worse. So don’t judge Mason’s first class and its two ESPN 300 signees too harshly. But do give him credit for convincing Nifae Lealao, the No. 20 defensive tackle, to come to Nashville. The four-star prospect is among the most highly rated recruits to ever sign with the Commodores.

Instant impact signee: It isn’t just Jordan Matthews who's leaving. So is Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games last season. Enter three-star Rashad Canty. He’s not the most highly ranked recruit, but the 6-3, 201-pound receiver has the tools to make a push for reps early.

Early Offer: It’s a wrap 

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
5:30
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Alabama’s 2014 class is special, but is it the best class ever? Who were my biggest winners Wednesday, and what can we look forward to with the class of 2015?

Special class for Bama

Best coach of BCS era: Nick Saban

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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There are coaches with more BCS appearances than Nick Saban. There are coaches with better BCS winning percentages than Nick Saban.

But there is nobody with more BCS national championships than Saban.

That is why he is the best coach in the BCS era.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban has re-established Alabama as a football dynasty.
Winning championships trumps any other BCS coaching statistic out there. None of this diminishes how many times Bob Stoops has taken Oklahoma to BCS games (nine, with a win over Saban in the Allstate Sugar Bowl two weeks ago). Or how impressive it is that Urban Meyer took three different programs to BCS games, going 4-1 with two national championships at Florida.

But Saban took two different schools to national championships, starting with LSU. He has four championships in all, having never lost a title game and has re-established Alabama as a football dynasty with three BCS championships over the past five years.

While there are probably folks in Baton Rouge and Miami still smirking over the way Saban left their programs, college football has been almost re-energized since Alabama re-emerged as a force, allowing fans outside Tuscaloosa and the SEC to pool their collective animosity together at both the program and the coach. Everybody loves a winner. But everybody also loves to root against a winner that wins too much, too.

Saban has not won many fans along the way to greatness for a host of well-documented reasons, but you do not have to like him to respect what he has accomplished. He is a coach who generally thrives when pressure is at its greatest. His ability to win at an iconic program with an iconic former coach speaks to that. His 4-0 mark in BCS national championship games speaks to that, most especially the 21-0 retribution victory over LSU in 2012. So does his 0-2 mark in BCS games when there are no championships on the line (losses to Utah and Oklahoma).

Those BCS victories have served Saban well for obvious reasons. But they have also had an impact on the entire college coaching fraternity. As Saban has continued to win, his contract has grown, ballooning to jaw-dropping values. When Saban was first hired at LSU in 1999, he received a five-year deal worth $6 million total.

Eight years later, Alabama hired him from the Miami Dolphins at an unprecedented $4 million per season. In the recently concluded 2013 season, seven more coaches joined him in the $4 million club. Of those seven, six have gone to BCS games and four have won the national championship. Only one coach among the seven -- Stoops -- won a national title before Saban did.

Next season, Saban is set to earn in the $7 million neighborhood, outdistancing himself from his coaching peers once again. With the BCS chapter now closed, Saban must get to work on making himself the best coach in the playoff era, too.

Honorable mention

Urban Meyer: Meyer has taken Utah, Florida and Ohio State to BCS games, going 4-1 in his five appearances with two national championships. His Utah team was the first BCS buster from outside the automatic qualifying conferences, taking down Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

Bob Stoops: Stoops has the most BCS appearances of any coach, with nine, though he is probably known most for failing to win on the big stage. His teams played for four national championships but won only one, in the 2001 Orange Bowl over Florida State. His overall BCS record is 4-5.

1. Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight came of age Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which is more than anyone can say about anyone in Alabama’s secondary. A young group of defensive backs, riddled with injuries, cost the Crimson Tide on a big stage. Knight threw for four touchdowns in the No. 11 Sooners’ stunning 45-31 upset. Oklahoma got seven sacks against an Alabama offensive line that allowed only 10 all season. You can’t blame all of those on the absence of injured right guard Anthony Steen.

2. Anyone still think Bob Stoops has lost a step? Oklahoma finished the season with consecutive wins over top-six teams, one on the road against an in-state rival (No. 6 Oklahoma State) and this one on a neutral field against a two-time defending national champion (No. 3 Alabama). And Oklahoma did it by scoring the most points a Nick Saban team has allowed in seven seasons at Alabama. Saban is 4-0 in BCS Championship Games at LSU and Alabama, and 1-2 in BCS bowls that don’t involve a crystal football.

3. Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt called Auburn senior fullback Jay Prosch “the guy that makes them go.” Pretty impressive for a guy with no carries and five catches all season. Prosch, a Mobile native, went unrecruited by SEC schools. When a family illness two years ago compelled him to try to transfer near home, Auburn offered a scholarship. “It was a huge opportunity for me, and an honor,” Prosch said. “Now that I’ve played in this conference and had a year of success, I really feel great about it.”

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
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NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.
Nick Saban and Bob StoopsGetty ImagesAlabama's Nick Saban and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops often have shared ideas in the offseason.

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defensive improvement wouldn’t have been possible without Alabama.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was looking to alter the defensive scheme during the offseason, with an eye on making OU’s defense more versatile, more athletic and more aggressive. A three-man front seemed to fit in line with those goals, so the obvious place to turn was to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, particularly because Bob and Mike Stoops have a good working relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban.

“You go to the best to get the information if the willingness to share with us is good,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s where you like to exchange ideas.”

OU transformed from the four-man front it used in 2012 to the three-man look. The result was a defense that finished among the top 25 nationally in opponent adjusted QBR (35.4), points per game (21.3), total yards (336.3), passing yards per game (198), passing yards per attempt (6.27), first downs (17.8) and third-down conversion rate (32.5 percent), improving over last year's squad in each of those categories.

Mike Stoops' unit was the foundation of OU’s 10-2 record, earning them an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth against the team that helped make it all happen.

“When we made this move to a 3-4, they helped us with a lot of install,” Mike Stoops said of the Alabama influence on the 2013 Sooners. “Chad Walker, who is our quality control guy who works with me in structuring our defense, spent four or five years with Nick. He’s helped me tremendously to put this thing together. They understand it better than anybody. Coach Saban has been running this and variations of all kinds of defenses.”

The Stoops brothers and Saban have sharing ideas for years, with OU coaches visiting Alabama and vice versa during the past few offseasons.

“We have always exchanged ideas,” Mike Stoops said.

But it’s not like OU will take the field running Alabama’s defense on Jan. 2. The Sooners have their own spin on things, adjusting schemes to fit their personnel and the wide-open spread attacks they typically face in the Big 12.

“Some things fit what you are doing, and maybe the same for them,” Bob Stoops said of the idea-sharing. “It’s not like you are doing everything they are doing. It’s just certain ideas fit and you can add to what you are already doing.”

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Eric Striker benefited from the change in the defensive scheme for the Sooners.
Creating a defense that puts more linebackers on the field was a driving force behind OU’s move to the 3-4. Linebackers were nonexistent in OU’s defense at the end of 2012, but that’s changed this season with Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander ranking 1-2 in tackles for the Sooners. Shannon averaged 7.08 tackles per game and Alexander averaged 6.8. They each earned a spot among the Big 12’s top-20 tacklers.

“They’ve been huge for us,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “They’ve made a lot of plays. They’re some of the most productive players on our team this year. Those guys have definitely stepped up this year.”

Mike Stoops found the versatility and athleticism he was searching for at linebacker by using a 3-3-5 system with an occasional shift to the 3-4 approach against run-heavy teams.

“Structurally, it’s totally different,” Mike Stoops said. “Just putting them in position to make plays.”

No player fits those words better than sophomore linebacker Eric Striker. An afterthought as a freshman, Striker played mainly on special teams despite displaying pass-rushing prowess in practices. This season, he stepped into the Sooners’ starting 11 and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors with 43 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

“I didn’t know if we were going to change anything at first,” Striker said of the defensive scheme change. “We really didn’t know where we were going; we just went with it. Spring was cool and then we came up with a new one [scheme] in the fall and we ran with it. It fit us well and I fit into it well. It was a defense for the linebackers to go attack and have fun. It was a great opportunity for us.”

An opportunity with a little Crimson Tide influence.

Sugar Bowl glance: Alabama-Oklahoma

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
11:40
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There's one thing the Allstate Sugar Bowl has in spades: tradition.

Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.

But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.

Key storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAfter leading Oklahoma to a Bedlam win, will Blake Bell get the call against Alabama?
Letdown factor: Both Alabama and Oklahoma came into this season with eyes on Pasadena, Calif., and the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but neither wound up in a position to make the long trip to the West Coast. How will that play a factor when the two teams meet in New Orleans? Is there any kind of unfinished business both programs feel? For Alabama, at least there's the idea that coming out and winning big might show the country that despite a last-second loss to Auburn, the Tide is the better team. A convincing win won't vault it to No. 1 in the rankings again, but a No. 2 finish could be cause enough to show up in New Orleans ready to compete.

Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.

Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.

Players to watch

Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).

Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.

Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Stats to keep an eye on

2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.

18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.

20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.

Ranking the SEC's bowl games

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
1:40
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What's the most interesting bowl matchup of them all? Auburn-FSU with a BCS championship hanging in the balance, of course.

But what about after that fairly obvious choice? ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach attempted to rank them all from 1-35 on the college football homepage.

For our purposes, let's take a look at where Schlabach ranked the bowl games for the nine SEC teams that aren't Auburn that will appear in the postseason.

No. 4: Alabama-Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl: Sooners coach Bob Stoops has talked a big game about how tough the SEC actually is. He's about to get a close look at perhaps the toughest customer in the whole league.

No. 5: Missouri-Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl: This should be a fun matchup between former Big 12 rivals who feature explosive offenses. Just like the old days.

No. 6: South Carolina-Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl: If not for an inexplicable midseason loss to Tennessee, South Carolina would have been in the thick of the BCS picture. A win here would be a proper sendoff in what will almost certainly be Jadeveon Clowney's final game as a Gamecock.

No. 9: LSU-Iowa in the Outback Bowl: No Zach Mettenberger for LSU, but Anthony Jennings' debut at quarterback against a stout Iowa defense could make this one interesting.

No. 10: Georgia-Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Yeah, it's a rematch from last season's Capital One Bowl, but it should still be another tight contest between injury-riddled teams that will have had another month to heal.

No. 11: Texas A&M-Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl: If this is Johnny Manziel's final game as an Aggie, he'll have an opportunity to throw against a Duke team that is playing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. This game delivers an exciting result almost every year, and this season could turn into a shootout.

No. 22: Ole Miss-Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Facing Georgia Tech's option offense is always a challenge, and the young Rebels will need to slow down the Yellow Jackets in order to cap another year of improvement under Hugh Freeze.

No. 23: Vanderbilt-Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl: Commodores fans were angry that they didn't get invited to a more prestigious bowl after Vandy's second straight eight-win regular season. They'll need to turn out at Legion Field to prove their point.

No. 24: Mississippi State-Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl: The Bulldogs barely slipped into bowl season by beating Ole Miss in overtime. Now they'll have to take down Conference USA champ Rice, which won its first outright league title since 1957 when it blasted Marshall last weekend.

Stoops set to answer for SEC jabs

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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Talk is cheap, but it's never left the hype machine feeling shortchanged.

As if an Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring two of college football's most prestigious programs wasn't intriguing enough, we get to rehash a good old-fashioned war of words in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 2 showdown in New Orleans between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma.

Bob Stoops, the Sooners longtime coach, hasn't been bashful in his criticism of the Southeastern Conference, of which the Crimson Tide are a charter member. He's called it an overrated, top-heavy league with a history of overblown defensive prowess. And that's just what he's said on the record in the past year or so.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Bob Stoops gets a chance to make a statement against the SEC's Alabama Crimson Tide.
The last seven BCS national champions be damned, Stoops has been on a one-man mission to change the narrative surrounding college football's most dominant conference. He's shouted at the gates of Mike Slive's castle over and over again, and rather than send one of the commissioner’s meager lords to answer Stoops’ cries, the doors have opened and Alabama has come to call.

The Tide, owners of three of the last four national championships and arguably the best coach in college football, will represent the league in a game that many fans of the SEC hope shuts Stoops up once and for all.

Only don't count on it.

When Stoops was asked Sunday about his history of opining on the SEC it was as if he misunderstood the premise.

"What comments?" he asked in return.

Well let's see. You could start with the part about his seeing the SEC's dominance being sold as "propaganda." Or you could point to his comments about the league's poor defense in which he sarcastically mocked teams for struggling to defend Texas A&M, meanwhile neglecting how Oklahoma was blown out by the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl last season, 41-13. But instead the reporter in question noted how Stoops said that the bottom of the SEC was overrated.

"I'm not playing the bottom half," Stoops responded. "If the SEC is Alabama, there is nothing to talk about, right? If you want to say the SEC is Alabama, then sure, they're the ones that have won all the national championships, or most of them. Now, if you want to play in the bottom half, that's a different story. But we're not playing the bottom half, are we? So there's not a lot to talk about, is there? "

Stoops, however, failed to realize that when he initially made his disparaging comments about the bottom half of the SEC, Auburn and Missouri were included among that group after coming off dreadful seasons in which they combined for two wins in league play. But Auburn beat Alabama only a few weeks ago and on Saturday it bested Missouri in the conference title game. The bottom of the bottom half is now set to play Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif.

The last time Stoops went to the Big Game he lost to SEC champ Florida in 2009. In 2004 the Sooners lost to USC and the year before they lost to an SEC team again in LSU, who happened to be coached by Alabama's Nick Saban at the time.

Just don't look for Saban to take up for the SEC against Stoops and Oklahoma this time around. Providing bulletin board worthy quotes isn't a part of his M.O. He'll let the game on the field do the talking. The most you'll get from him was the blunt response he gave during the offseason: "I’ve got more important things to do than sit around and read what Bob Stoops has to say about anything."

But leave it to Bob's brother, Mike, who coaches the Sooners defense, to smooth the waters somewhat. Maybe he thought we'd had enough gossip already.

"I think they have great programs," he said of the SEC. "The athletes they have down there, the coaches they have down there, it's rated as the top conference in college football for many years, having won seven national championships, having a chance to win eighth. They've got great athletes. Every time you step on the field with a Southeastern Conference team, they're very well coached and they play very hard. They're very complete when you look at any of these top Southeastern Conference teams."

But one Stoops doesn't speak for all, and when brother Bob goes toe-to-toe with one of the SEC's best in Alabama, he'll either answer his critics or eat his words.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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We're entering the dreary time of year with no SEC football Saturdays ahead for quite a while. But with bowl season still in front of us, there's plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Texas not making the top four for 2015 star Daylon Mack is an interesting -- and troubling -- development; the top player in Texas is scheduled to announce next week and everything is looking good for the Aggies; and Washington adds a four-star lineman, which could help give the Huskies recruiting momentum before Oregon comes to town.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Five-star running back Leonard Fournette proved why he’s ranked as the nation’s No. 1 player; Oklahoma didn’t land any commits, but its official visit weekend was still a big hit with many high-profile recruits; and Florida running back commit Dalvin Cook continues to set up visits, which has to be making Gator coaches nervous.

He’s the real deal
Leonard Fournette (New Orleans, La./St. Augustine) erased any doubt as to who the true No. 1 player in the country is on Friday night with a Herculean effort against defending national championship River Ridge (La.) John Curtis on ESPN2. Fournette rushed for 262 yards on 36 carries and had a 27-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that led to the game-winning two-point conversation. Fournette used everything in his repertoire -- highlighted by his speed, vision and pure brute strength -- to lead his team to victory. “I had to put my foot on the gas, put the pedal to the medal,” Fournette told the NOLA.com. His performance in front of a national television audience went noticed by many, including rapper Lil Wayne, who tweeted “Leonard Fournette is the truth.”

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer join Twitter, demonstrating the power the social media vehicle has on recruits; Cameron Robinson’s decision is pushed back to next week, and one team is feeling better about its chances; and former four-star athlete Chase Abbington is making a big splash in the junior college ranks.

Welcome to Twitter Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer
Twitter has become one of the biggest recruiting tools for college football coaches. Not only do they use it for communication with prospects, since the rules on electronic communication are more lax than phone calls. Tweets are also a great way to share recruiting propaganda and are more likely to be read compared to letters that pile up in a recruit’s mailbox. The latest coaches to embrace the new recruiting world order are Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. “My good friend Bob Stoops talked me into this Twitter stuff -- let’s see how it goes,” Meyer tweeted Tuesday after opening an account and quickly gaining 30,000 followers. Stoops has had his own Twitter account for about a year but it had always been set to private -- until Wednesday. One of his first tweets was about going after national championship No. 9. It was recruiting through social media at its finest.

Robinson pushes back announcement date

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The Big 12-SEC dream games

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
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The SEC and Big 12 announced an annual challenge on the basketball court, but colleague Edward Aschoff wondered what it would look like if that challenge extended to the football field.

There are already two games on the schedule this season -- between TCU and LSU, and Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. What else would I like to see?

Let me start by saying that renewing the Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas rivalries are a given. I'm omitting those matchups, but I'd love to see them.

Let's get started:

Oklahoma State vs. Alabama: OSU narrowly missed out on playing for the national title back in 2011, and both are among their conference favorites again in 2013. When the BCS "snubbed" the Pokes after the 2011 regular season, OSU coach Mike Gundy half-jokingly suggested these two play for the right to play LSU in the title game. It would be fun to see this one finally played out on the field.

Baylor vs. LSU: Straight up offense vs. defense. That's the Big 12 vs. SEC debate at its heart. Baylor just might be the Big 12's best offense, and LSU will put together another strong defense. These are the matchups we want to see. The Big 12 has faltered on the big stage, helping the SEC stretch its run of national titles, but seeing Bryce Petty sling it around against an athletic defense would be a lot of fun.

Texas vs. Arkansas: Arkansas' exit from the Southwest Conference helped usher in the birth of the Big 12 after the SWC crumbled. Texas has bigger rivals like Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but these two played some of the greatest games in college football history, and as an Arkansas native, I've seen up close how much Razorbacks fans detest the Longhorns to this day. The result would be a great game and a hyped atmosphere.

TCU vs. Texas A&M: Texas A&M fans take exception to the idea that TCU was an on-field "upgrade" over the Aggies in the Big 12. The Aggies largely struggled in the Big 12 after some early success and a Big 12 title under R.C. Slocum. Since leaving for the SEC, the Aggies have gone nowhere but up, and ended 2012 as the hottest team in college football. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel has a Heisman Trophy. Could he shred the Frogs? Want to prove TCU is not an upgrade? Beat TCU on the field.

Kansas State vs. Florida: Kansas State is perpetually underrated and wins with a bunch of junior college guys, and high school players overlooked by major programs. Florida won big under Urban Meyer, but has been largely overrated since Meyer left and was whacked by Louisville to end 2012. The Gators would be suiting up an army of recruiting stars, but could Bill Snyder, the Manhattan Magician, grab a win for the Big 12?
Oklahoma vs. Georgia: Mark Richt and Bob Stoops have one big thing in common: Neither fan base truly appreciates what their coach has accomplished. Consider this an opportunity for both to quiet the hot-seat talk. It's been a lot more intense for Richt, who endured a 6-7 season back in 2010, but he's won the SEC East in each of the past two seasons. Stoops has averaged just over 10 wins a season at Oklahoma, and Richt has averaged just under 10 wins. Call this the "Underappreciated Bowl."

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