Alabama Crimson Tide: Michigan Wolverines

Getting to know: CeCe Jefferson 

June, 2, 2014
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — CeCe Jefferson is one of the top defensive ends in the country, ranked No. 9 in the ESPN 300. Yet the 6-foot-3, 248-pound, five-star prospect found himself playing middle linebacker, defensive end and even fullback in his team's spring football game.

That’s exactly how Jefferson likes it.

"I like moving around because it shows the coaches at the next level that I’m versatile enough to do it,” Jefferson said. "I don’t mind playing multiple positions in college. Linebacker is probably what I’m going to be because I’m not really that big to play defensive end against 300-pounders all night. So moving around is definitely not a problem to me. I feel like I’m versatile enough to do it, so if a coach asks me to do it, I’m going to do it.”

It’s Jefferson’s versatility and ability to cause so much disruption for opposing offenses that has college coaches from across the country flocking to Glen St. Mary, Florida, to try to land the talented defender from Baker County High School.


The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.

On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.

Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Urban Meyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Nick Saban have faced off for SEC titles, but their current teams, Ohio State and Alabama, have played only three times in history.
1. Alabama vs. Ohio State: Alabama’s Nick Saban and OSU’s Urban Meyer dominated the SEC when Meyer was coaching at Florida, combining to win five BCS national championships from 2006 to 2012.

When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.

Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.

2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.

The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.

With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.

3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.

Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.

We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.

4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.

The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.

We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.

5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.

3-point stance: Fresno State lurking

November, 4, 2013
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1. It’s not smart to delve deeply into BCS what-ifs. The season has five remaining weeks -- a full third of the schedule. Besides, the top of the BCS standings will sort itself out. It has every year since the FBS went to a 12-game schedule. But the race at the other end of the BCS is worth keeping an eye on. Fresno State has reached No. 16, the minimum threshold a BCS buster needs to secure a bid as long as it’s ahead of an AQ champion. Louisville and UCF of the American are No. 20 and No. 21, respectively.

2. No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Oregon turn their heads toward their biggest conference nemeses. Nick Saban is only 4-3 against No. 13 LSU while since taking over as coach of Alabama. He’s 72-10 against everyone else. No. 5 Stanford is the only team to beat Chip Kelly’s Ducks twice in his four seasons. Last season’s 17-14 overtime loss cost Oregon a berth in the BCS Championship Game. Suffice to say it left a mark. Expect coach Mark Helfrich to have something in his game plan this week. The Ducks kept it pretty vanilla last year, and it cost them.

3. When Michigan State defeated Michigan four consecutive times from 2008-11, it didn’t quite feel as if the Spartans owned the rivalry. This wasn’t the real Michigan -- coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t fit the Wolverine mold. Michigan State took advantage of Michigan, but so did a lot of teams. That’s not the case any longer. Michigan has its own (Brady Hoke) running the program. He is in Year Three. Yet Michigan State just beat Michigan 29-6, the Spartans’ biggest margin in their 5-1 run against the Wolverines. The rivalry belongs to Sparty as securely as it did in the mid-1960s run of Duffy Daugherty.
SabanAP Photo/Chris O'MearaNick Saban is a major reason the SEC has hoisted the crystal football for seven years in a row.
So you think your team has a chance to reach the national championship game this season. You think this could be the year.

Hold up a second.

While there are always questions of timing and scheduling and the human element to winning college football games and reaching the national championship, there are some surprising similarities between teams that have been able to lift a crystal football at the end of the season and those who have come close.

Some, like talent, coaching and, at least for the past seven years, residing in the SEC, are obvious. But what about what takes place on the field?

Since 2006, when the Southeastern Conference began dominating college football, there have been specific criteria which have fit all of the champions plus three other teams (Florida in 2009, Penn State in 2008 and Ohio State in 2006), all of whom reached the Bowl Championship Series.

The criteria would have even been more streamlined, except Auburn’s defense in 2010 was a statistical tire fire and Florida found a bunch of ways to not score or rush too well in 2006. Had they been better in those areas, almost every statistical category measured by the NCAA would have had a strong baseline ranking for a champion.

While this isn’t foolproof -- again, see Auburn and Florida -- the following criteria could give you an idea as the season goes along how much of a chance your school really has at winning it all.

Rank 38th or better in rushing offense: Every national champion averaged more than 160 yards rushing during its national championship season and all save that 2006 Florida team gained more than 214.4 yards a game on the ground and ranked in the top 16.

Rank 23rd or better in scoring offense: National champions have been able to score a lot, which is even more impressive considering every national title winner since the 2006 season has been in the defense-oriented SEC. Every title team averaged at least 29.7 points a game and only 2006 Florida was under 32 points.

Rank 37th or better in passing efficiency: The national title winners have all been in the upper third when it comes to passing the ball -- again, a mild surprise considering the level of defenses in the SEC. Every national champion had a passer efficiency rating of 133.61 or better and was ranked 37th or better.

[+] EnlargeAlabama defense
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe past seven national champs have been particularly adept at stopping the run.
Have a top 15 run defense: For all the prior criticism of Auburn’s defense in 2010, the Tigers actually fared well here, ranking ninth in rushing defense that season. They did give up the most yards per game of any of the national champions, though, with 109.07. All, too, were ranked in the Top 15. Interestingly, Alabama has been the top rushing defense in the country the past two seasons when it won national titles. Of the seven national champions, four held opponents under 80 yards rushing a game.

Rank in the top 40 in sacks (but don’t rank too high): Surprisingly, none of the national title winners was in the top 10 in sacks, either, but all landed in the Top 40, somewhere between 2.29 and 2.64 sacks a game and somewhere between No. 24 and No. 40. So putting some pressure on an opponent’s quarterbacks -- but not too much? -- should be at a premium when it comes to fielding a title contender.

Have at least one player selected in the first round of the NFL draft following the national title game: This, actually, should not be much of a surprise considering the national champion should have at least some NFL-caliber talent on it to survive the season. Defending national champion Alabama did a good job of this in this past draft with three players in the top 11. The total first-rounders for the Crimson Tide actually dropped from the 2012 draft, which saw four players taken from the school. Every title winner, though, has had at least one the following April.

Have a player score at least 10 touchdowns rushing and/or receiving: Again, this seems like a no-brainer, especially considering how many points a game the national champion teams are averaging. But it also shows if a team spreads it around too much, there might not be that gamebreaker type of player to get a team a score when it was absolutely necessary.

Did not lose a non-conference game in the regular season: Again, not a stunner here. The national champions over the past seven years which have lost games have all lost them within the confines of the SEC. This, though, actually blows up the theory that losing early is better than losing late when it comes to the national polls and winning a national championship considering most non-conference games are played in September and early October. So as you get ready to dig in to conference play, know if your team dropped a game, it could be in real trouble to win a title. And/or if it has a difficult non-conference game (see Georgia vs. Clemson in August and Michigan vs. Notre Dame in September), that game might loom even larger.

OT Damian Prince slims down, speeds up 

April, 23, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- At an event that featured three of the top 11 defensive prospects in the ESPN 150, third-rated offensive tackle Damian Prince of Forestville (Md.) Bishop McNamara impressed every bit as much as any of them Sunday at the Nike Football Training Camp outside of Washington, D.C.

Prince showed off a slimmed down frame -- he’s lost more than 30 pounds, he said, to reach about 285 -- and dominated in blocking drills against a stout group of defensive linemen.

Prince, No. 33 in the ESPN 150, put himself in position to rise over the upcoming months.

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Game of the Week: Michigan at Alabama

September, 1, 2012
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Join our ESPN.com college football experts for the game of the week: No. 8 Michigan at No. 2 Alabama.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8 p.m. ET. See you there.

Standards don't change for Alabama's D

August, 31, 2012
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The faces may change on Alabama’s vaunted defense, but the standards don’t.

“If you’re going to play in this defense, you better be ready to live up to that standard every day,” Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “Nobody wants to be the weak link and disrespect all those teams that came before us here.”

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireSenior linebacker Nico Johnson is one of four starters returning to Alabama's defense following last year's national title run.
The defense that came before the one we’ll see for the first time this season Saturday night against Michigan and Denard Robinson will go down as one of the greatest in Alabama history.

The Crimson Tide ranked first nationally in all five of the major defensive categories last season, the first time that’s been done since Oklahoma did it in 1986.

Alabama suffocated opposing offenses a year ago en route to winning its second national championship in three years. The Crimson Tide held teams to an average of 3.32 yards per play. For perspective, everybody else in the FBS ranks was up over 4 yards per play.

“We’re all proud of what we accomplished last year, but we want to make our own mark with this defense,” Johnson said. “We’ve kind of got a chip on our shoulder because everybody’s talking about all the players we lost, Dont’a [Hightower], Mark [Barron], Dre [Kirkpatrick] and Courtney [Upshaw]. They’re not talking about the players who’re still here.”

Only four starters return from a year ago, and six of the seven starters the Crimson Tide did lose were selected in the NFL draft -- including four in the top 35 picks.

“That’s what supposed to happen here at Alabama. We lose great players to the NFL, but we have great players waiting to take their spots,” said junior Dee Milliner, who steps in as an every-down starter at cornerback after playing in the nickel last season.

“If you’re not ready, we move on to the next guy.”

Some of those “next guys” this season (or guys who’ve been waiting their turn) include linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest; end Ed Stinson; and safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix.

And that’s not even counting newcomers such as junior college transfer Deion Belue at cornerback. The big move the Tide made this offseason was sliding Jesse Williams inside to nose guard, and he has a chance to be one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the league.

The unknown of replacing so many players is always an uneasy feeling for any coach, especially going into an opener with a dynamic offensive threat like Robinson on the other side.

The questions coach Nick Saban has about this Alabama defense don’t involve talent. Rather, they involve how quickly the first-time starters can adapt to everything being thrown at them.

“When you lack knowledge and experience, sometimes you make more mental errors,” Saban said. “What’s the consequence of that going to be? To me, that is the biggest thing I worry about when you don’t have a lot of experienced players and don’t have a lot of starters coming back.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not capable. It just takes a little time for them to develop. Sometimes, they can make the mistakes in practice and you correct them, but they always seem to have a greater impact when they make them in a game. Hopefully, we’ll be able to minimize that and play well as a unit.”

Facing a quarterback like Robinson out of the gate only raises the stakes. Johnson said former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the only one he can think of that the Tide has faced in recent years who can break down defenses running the ball the way Robinson can.

“He’s not as big as Cam, but he’s faster and more elusive,” Johnson said. “When he’s outside the pocket is when he’s most dangerous because he can throw it better than a lot of people give him credit for.”

One of the keys Saturday will be how many times Robinson can dial up big plays on the Alabama defense and keep the Crimson Tide spread out.

Last season, Alabama simply didn’t give up big plays. But two years ago, when the Tide weren’t as experienced on defense, they had an uncharacteristic number of mental errors and gave up more big plays than usual.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re communicating and make sure we’re where we’re supposed to be,” Milliner said. “If we’re not, that’s when [Robinson] will make you look bad.”

Since the start of the 2010 season, Robinson leads all FBS players with 102 rushes of 10 yards or longer. Not since Ray Rice in 2006 and 2007 has a player in the FBS ranks had that many rushes of 10 yards or longer in a two-year span. Rice, now one of the top running backs in the NFL, had 106.

The flip side is that Alabama led the country last season in allowing opponents only 22 rushes of 10 yards or longer.

“We know what we’ve got to do and are really confident in our game plan,” Johnson said. “This is an opportunity to go out and show what this defense can do.

“We’re ready to create our own identity.”

Video: SEC game of the week

August, 30, 2012
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Chris Low takes a closer look at the Alabama-Michigan game.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Somehow, the University of Alabama and Michigan have never played one another in the regular season in their 1,709-game history. The two schools have combined to win 25 national titles, but have only met on the field three times -- all in bowl games.

As the Maize and Blue and the Crimson Tide gear up for their first-ever regular-season showdown Saturday, the differences between the two programs might not as numerous as you might think, though. Common threads still exist.

Take for instance Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. The 56-year-old assistant coach caught on with Brady Hoke at San Diego State in 2009 and made the trip with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2011 when Hoke was hired to replace Rich Rodriguez.

Before Borges ever coached in the Mountain West Conference, he made a name for himself in the SEC at Auburn, beating up on Alabama in his four seasons on the Plains. He went undefeated in the Iron Bowl from 2004-2007, winning the four games by a combined score of 98-56.

While Alabama coach Nick Saban was a part of just one of those losses to the Tigers, he said on Wednesday that there's a familiarity and respect for what a Borges-run offense looks like.

(Read full post)

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University of Alabama coach Nick Saban took to the SEC teleconference on Wednesday morning and spoke about his team heading into Saturday's showdown against No. 8 Michigan. Here's some of what the sixth-year coach had to say:
  • Opening statement: "First games are always really exciting for everyone. Everybody is certainly tired of practicing against each other. We're really looking forward to the opportunity we have to play a really good, well-coached Michigan team. They have a fantastic player playing quarterback and it will be very challenging for us to contain him. ... In first games you like to see where you are. … It's always exciting for us to have a challenging game in the home opener. That really excited the players throughout the year and not just this week."
  • On Michigan coach Brady Hoke: "Their staff does a great job, he's obviously done a great job. He was a great coach when he was an assistant at Michigan, which is when I knew him. He did a really good job at San Diego State. Their team is fundamentally sound in everything they do. They have a really good scheme defensively in terms of the things they do. Offensively, they have a really good scheme that features the players they have. They do a great job on special teams. They do an outstanding job and that's got to be, to some degree, a reflection of his leadership."
  • On focusing on the process, not the result: "We're process-oriented in what we do. We're trying to make this team as good as we can make this team. When you lose 25 percent of your team every year in college football so you have a whole different team, a whole different mindset, a whole different chemistry, character, strengths, weaknesses, things that you have to do to work hard to try to get young players to have the maturity they need to have to play winning football."
  • Finding leaders on defense: "The important thing for leadership is how they do it in a game. Coaches can always affect practice, in my opinion, the tempo of practice, the energy, the enthusiasm. Leadership can help that. We have had a few guys on defense step up and show some leadership. Them continuing to do that in game-like situations is going to be critical."
  • Different identity on defense: "The biggest thing about this defense … is when you have a lot of new starters is the experience they have we had last year that we don't have this year. How these guys mature, how they focus -- when you lack college experience sometimes you make more mental errors. What's the consequence of that going to be? To me, that's the biggest thing I worry about when you have a lot of inexperienced players, you don't have a lot of starters coming back. It doesn't mean they're not capable, it just takes a little time for them to develop. Sometimes make the mistakes in practice and you correct them, but they always seems to have a greater impact when they make them in the game. Hopefully we'll be able to minimize that and play well as a unit."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama defense is making no bones about it: They plan on knocking the bronze off Denard Robinson's Heisman campaign.

The Crimson Tide want to get to the Michigan Wolverines' indomitable quarterback and make their presence known from the opening snap when the two schools meet in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday.

Defensive end Damion Square already has a plan laid out. He can even tell you the way it will happen.

"Bootleg. Sack. First play," Square said with a smirk. "13-yard loss."

There wasn't any hesitation in Square's voice. It's something he's thought about often.

"No doubt about it," he said.

The Alabama defense will have its hands full with Robinson, who enters the season as a potential candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. The senior quarterback is a play-maker on offense, a threat throwing the ball or tucking it down and taking off in a sprint down the sideline. Last season, Robinson led the team in passing and rushing. He threw for 2,173 yards and rushed for 1,349 more. He combined to score 36 touchdowns.

(Read full post)

Video: Tide vs. U-M biggest early game

August, 26, 2012
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Kirk Herbstreit, Todd Blackledge and Scott Van Pelt look at some big early season match ups in college football.
It's no surprise that tight end O.J. Howard (Prattville, Ala./Autauga Academy) performed well at The Opening. The No. 46 overall player in the country has the size and athleticism at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds to blow people away in that type of setting.

While he wasn't a finalist for the SPARQ National Championship, Howard instantly became a an integral part of his 7-on-7 team, the Land Sharks. He became a main target of Michigan quarterback commit Shane Morris (Warren, Mich./De La Salle) right from the get-go.

"Right away he made a great catch in the first game," Morris said. "From then on I knew he was the real deal, so I involved him a lot."

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Vanderdoes names his top 15 

June, 18, 2012
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Monday was a busy day for commitments in the West region, but defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (Auburn, Calif./Placer) isn't exactly ready to jump into the commitment scene. More than half of the top 30 players in the West have already made verbal commitments, but Vanderdoes is taking things slowly. On Monday, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound lineman took to twitter to release a list of his top 15 schools.

Alabama, Baylor, California, Florida, Georgia Tech, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oregon, Penn State, UCLA, USC and Washington all made the cut. Vanderdoes included in his tweet that he will be cutting that down to a top 10 group soon.

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Borges talks Bama

May, 18, 2012
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Michigan’s season opener against defending national champion Alabama is beginning to loom larger and larger. The Wolverines’ ticket allotment is sold out. Students and fans are planning road trips to the game, in Arlington, Texas. The hype has begun.

But for Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, it’s business as usual around the offices.

“We’re not going down there like it’s a bowl game. We’re going down there like we’re playing in the Big House, first game of the season,” said Borges, who spoke at the annual Mott Takeover radiothon fundraiser. “Alabama is a heck of a football team, but I would be watching the first game of the season no matter who it was.”

Marquee matchup or not, the Wolverines have begun game-planning for the Crimson Tide.

Borges said he has watched a lot of game film on Alabama, but the part of its game that has stood out the most has been the speed on the field. Opponents averaged less than 200 yards per game against the Crimson Tide defense last season.

“They’re fast guys,” Borges said of Alabama. “Coaching down there [Borges was the OC at Auburn from 2004-07], I’m very aware. Plus, they’re very well trained. Their staff, (defensive coordinator) Kirby Smart does a great job and (head coach Nick) Saban is a defensive guy by nature.”

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