2. The playoff is great, but that’s just the beginning. The new way of bowl selections might have been confusing, but it worked. There are plenty of intriguing matchups for SEC teams beginning with Ole Miss-TCU and Mississippi State-Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve as a part of the New Year's Six bowl games. Dan Mullen will return to Miami for the first time since he won the national championship there in 2007 with Florida, and in an unlikely matchup, the Rebels face a TCU team that has to be upset after getting snubbed from the top four. Other bowl games that jumped out to me included Auburn-Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, LSU-Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, and Arkansas-Texas in the Texas Bowl.
3. The only “loser” in the SEC from Sunday’s bowl selections was Georgia. The Bulldogs didn’t end up in the Sunshine State like many predicted they would. Instead, they will make the short three-hour drive to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. However, the SEC and ACC had to know what they were doing when they paired Georgia up with Louisville. For one, Todd Grantham will face his former team. The Louisville defensive coordinator held the same position at Georgia for four seasons under Mark Richt. The Cardinals also have a pair of former Bulldogs, Josh Harvery-Clemson and Shaq Wiggins. Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin reached out to Wiggins on Sunday, tweeting “see ya over the holidays big dawg!” This should be fun.
Around the SEC
- Muschamp to Auburn? Gus Malzahn updates the search for a new defensive coordinator.
- After Saturday’s SEC championship, the gap remains wide between Missouri and the elite.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has not closed the door on Muschamp, staff changes.
- With rumors swirling, Tennessee and coach Butch Jones are closing in on a new contract.
JAN. 3, NOON ET, LEGION FIELD, BIRMINGHAM, ALA. (ESPN)
Season highlights: If only ECU had played in the ACC Coastal, the Pirates might have won the division. After a tough loss to South Carolina, ECU spent back-to-back weeks demolishing Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Shane Carden threw for 865 yards and accounted for 10 touchdowns in those wins, which vaulted ECU into the national spotlight. For much of the next month, the Pirates were considered the cream of the crop of the Group of 5.
Season lowlights: The loss to South Carolina was understandable. ECU controlled much of the game, but it slipped away late. The back-to-back losses to Temple and Cincinnati were tougher to swallow. Carden struggled against Temple, failing to throw or run for a TD for the first time since his third career start in 2012. A week later, Carden threw for 425 yards but was outdueled by Gunner Kiel in a 54-46 win by the Bearcats. When it was over, ECU’s hopes for a New Year’s Six game had evaporated. The regular season ended on a particularly sour note with a defeat to UCF on a last-second Hail Mary.
Players to watch: Carden and receiver Justin Hardy are the backbone of ECU’s offense and among the most dangerous QB-WR combos in the country. Carden finished second in the nation in passing yards (4,309), and Hardy was fifth in receiving (1,334), setting the NCAA record for career receptions in the process.
Motivation factor: From the start of the season, ECU has been hoping to win some national acclaim for its success. The Pirates have four wins over Power 5 teams in the past two years (more than any other non-Power 5 school, save BYU), but they have rarely gotten to showcase their success on a national stage. A bowl berth will certainly give them an opportunity, but more importantly, it will be a sendoff to Carden and Hardy, two of the best players to ever come through the program. ECU will surely want to say goodbye in style.
Season highlights: While Florida’s offense still wasn’t very impressive in Will Muschamp’s final year in Gainesville, the defense really evolved as the season went on. After rough showings against Kentucky and Alabama, the Gators finished the regular season ranked second in the SEC in total defense, allowing just 311 yards per game. Dante Fowler Jr. proved to be one of the nation’s best pass-rushers, registering 5.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries. The Gators essentially clinched a bowl berth by blowing out rival Georgia 38-20. It was the first time Florida had beaten the Bulldogs since 2010.
Season lowlights: Well, losing five games is never appropriate at Florida. The Gators got creamed at Alabama 42-21, lost in the closing seconds to an offensively inept LSU team, got blown out 42-13 -- on homecoming -- to a Missouri team that registered just 119 yards of offense, lost in overtime to a bad South Carolina team and forced four interceptions at Florida State only to lose by five. The offense ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in scoring, passing and total offense. Florida got no consistency at quarterback or receiver, and Muschamp resigned after the South Carolina game.
Player to watch: Quarterback Treon Harris has his first audition for new coach Jim McElwain. It’s likely that the quarterback spot will be up for grabs. While Harris took the starting job from Jeff Driskel during the last month of the season, he is raw and has a lot of work to do when it comes to his development. Harris finished the year with 896 passing yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. He is pretty dangerous on the ground, registering 291 yards and three scores.
Motivation factor: Who would have thought that getting to seven wins and having a winning record would be an accomplishment at Florida? The Gators haven’t done either since 2012. They also haven’t won a bowl game since the 2011 season. A lot of guys are trying to impress their new coach. This will be one of many tryouts for players whom McElwain will be monitoring carefully.
-- Edward Aschoff
We knew the SEC would get one team into the inaugural College Football Playoff when Alabama beat Missouri on Saturday. Nailing down the destinations for the conference's other 11 bowl-eligible teams is much more difficult.
Here are our best guesses in the final hours before we will know for sure:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Arkansas
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Georgia
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina
Edward Aschoff, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Jim McElwain took playful shots at his alma mater, the Oakland Raiders and himself.
He was friendly, funny, witty and self-deprecating during his introductory news conference Saturday.
More importantly to the Gators, he was ultra-confident that he can and will get what used to be one of the most feared offenses in the Southeastern Conference back to being a juggernaut.
"I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell," McElwain said. "There are good players here. It's our responsibility to get that going."
Florida hired the former Alabama offensive coordinator and Colorado State head coach nicknamed "Mac" on Thursday to get the Gators back to prominence -- maybe even relevance -- in the SEC East. His top priority is revamping an offense that has grown stagnant since former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow left school in 2009.
McElwain declined to specify whether he plans to install a spread scheme, which he had success with at Colorado State and Fresno State, or a pro-style scheme, which he used to help get Alabama to the top of the league.
He also said no decisions have been made about whether to keep some of Florida's current staff. Speculation has centered on retaining defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and recruiting ace Travaris Robinson.
So McElwain provided no real news Saturday, but drew plenty of laughs from a crowded room that included reporters, fans, boosters, his boss, university employees and his wife and three children.
"People like being around him," athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "You can see he's very comfortable, has a good sense of humor."
That was evident Saturday. Here are some of the highlights:
Defense: Florida's secondary returns the most talent for McElwain's staff to work with. The Gators only lose senior safety Jabari Gorman, but return a solid contingent of cover cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Sophomore Keanu Neal returns as the Gators' top safety, and freshman Duke Dawson can play safety and cornerback. Marcus Maye and Brian Poole, who improved greatly this season, return to the nickel spot. Expect to see more from redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris, a special teams beast, and Nick Washington. Also, true freshman J.C. Jackson returns from a season-ending shoulder injury. The Gators lose seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor, but could return senior-to-be Antonio Morrison, who is coming off his best season with the Gators and is considering a jump to the NFL. Florida returns good depth, starting with sophomores Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin could also have a bigger impact on the defense next fall. The defensive line will lose the defense's best player in end Dante Fowler Jr., along with starting nose tackle Darious Cummings, but could return junior tackle Jonathan Bullard, who is also flirting with the NFL. Ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. have the potential for bright futures, as do young tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie.
Special teams: The Gators went back and forth with their kickers, but lose senior Francisco Velez, who hit 12 of 14 field goals this fall. That means sophomore Austin Hardin (7 of 10), who finished the season as the starter, will have all eyes on him. Incredibly efficient punter Kyle Christy will be gone, but Johnny Townsend returns after starting ahead of Christy in 2013. Finding a return man to replace Andre Debose won't be easy. He had four kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown in his career.
Fan base: Gator Nation isn't happy. There was a toxic atmosphere within the fan base for the past couple of seasons because the product on the field just wasn't adequate. Is this fan base excited about McElwain's hire? That is to be determined, but fans have to be happy about the prospect of having some sort of real offensive pulse going forward. Obviously, fans want wins, and the Gators didn't deliver enough of those during Muschamp's tenure. These fans also want a competent offense, and that was clear when there wasn't a ton of buzz around the program during an 11-win 2012 season that featured a run-heavy, defensive Florida team.
Administrative support: Athletic director Jeremy Foley is one of the most loyal athletic directors out there. He stuck with Muschamp after an embarrassing 4-8 season for crying out loud. But he also knew exactly the direction his program needed to go in 2014, and it never went the right way. Foley isn't afraid to stand up for his coaches publicly, and he's always willing to work with his coaches to find ways to improve everything around them. He's one of the smartest athletic directors around, and Florida's athletic program isn't short for cash. The program has been incredibly successful under Foley's watch, and he will make sure his new coach is taken care of and put on the right path for success.
Recruiting: Florida's current recruiting class only holds nine players. Four are offensive linemen, who have to stay committed to the Gators going forward because of how thin that line will be in 2015. Two of those linemen -- Mike Horton and George Brown Jr. -- have visited other schools. The Gators also only have a couple of offensive skill players committed. Dual-threat quarterback Sheriron Jones is committed and will have to see if he works within McElwain's offense. McElwain has to snag some solid offensive talent to help the Gators in 2015, because Florida has somehow failed to sign elite offensive talent for years now. With Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris taking the SMU job, the Gators could get in on Clemson athlete commits Deon Cain and Ray Ray-Ray McCloud III, who have interest in Florida. Miami running back commit Dexter Williams has flirted with Florida before, and his family likes what Florida has to offer, so keep an eye on him. Uncommitted five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey is still high on the Gators, and Florida is still looking at receiver Antonio Callaway, who was a teammate of Treon Harris' at Booker T. Washington High. Defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart are also high priorities for McElwain.
You know Mike Riley as the universally liked, overachieving, player-developing, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding coach who made Oregon State relevant but never a conference champion. He spent time in the NFL and had opportunities to take jobs at brand-name college programs (Alabama, USC) but never did until Thursday, when he shocked the college football world by accepting the Nebraska job. He's a "wow" hire, as Tom Shatel writes, but not a doing-backflips hire.
Less of you know Jim McElwain, the new head man at Florida. He did a tremendous job building Colorado State into a Mountain West contender, and previously excelled under Nick Saban as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Like Riley, McElwain is a quarterback guru with some NFL experience, spending the 2006 season coaching the Oakland Raiders' signal-callers. But a rock-star hire he is not, even though the 52-year-old will upgrade Florida's sleepy offense and should get the Gators back in the SEC East mix.
I like both hires and think both men will have success at their new programs. But fans want big names, flashy hires, and these two are not.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
3. In case you missed it during this week's swirl of coaching transactions, Bret Bielema said he isn't going anywhere. Arkansas, which won three of five games to close out the regular season, should breathe a heavy sigh of relief. While it felt unlikely that Bielema would bolt Arkansas for Nebraska after just two years, you never really know. An Iowa native with Big Ten roots, he isn't of the SEC and the West isn't exactly a forgiving division to be a part of. But nonetheless, the SEC is a better place with him in it, and not just because of his chest-out attitude and clever jabs. No, he brings a style of football to the conference that it desperately needs. His hard-nosed, between-the-tackles brand brings balance to a growing sea of spread, uptempo offenses. And more importantly, its starting to yield wins. After going two years without a conference win and knocking at the door against Alabama and Texas A&M, Bielema's Razorbacks have broken through. Already stacked with a strong running game, a big offensive line and a defense that prides itself on physicality, all that's missing is a polished passing game. If Brandon Allen can make strides or another quarterback can come in and lift the offense, Arkansas could be a dangerous team in 2015.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Florida AD Jeremy Foley joins Finebaum
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State