Georgia Bulldogs: Barrett Jones
It's only fitting that the best offensive line in college football would produce some of the most intriguing prospects in the NFL draft. Alabama will likely have three offensive linemen taken in the first few rounds in April, further proof of the talent that resided in Tuscaloosa this past season.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
SEC drama: It doesn’t get much better than Alabama’s 32-28 win over Georgia last Saturday in the SEC championship game. And, really, the league needed a good game after duds each of the past two years. Both teams showed a lot of moxie and a lot of resolve, and the battle on the line of scrimmage epitomized what SEC football is all about. The interest around the country was already massive. The winner earned the right to play in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. But with the game coming down to the final play, it made for the kind of drama that brings the most reserved fan to the edge of his seat. It’s the first time since the 2008 SEC championship game when Florida played a flawless fourth quarter to outlast Alabama that the game was decided in the final quarter. Tickets certainly weren’t cheap. But if you paid $600 or $700 a pop, at least you got your money’s worth.
Notre Dame’s chances: Notre Dame might be unbeaten and ranked No. 1. But already, the prevailing sentiment in and around college football is that the Irish don’t stand much of a chance against Alabama. The Crimson Tide are favored by more than 10 points in some quarters. Think Brian Kelly loves being such a decided underdog when his team hasn’t lost a game this season? You bet he does.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin: He has done wonders for the Commodores’ program and has become a coaching commodity. Keeping him in Nashville long term will be difficult, but Vanderbilt has stepped up to the plate with a new deal for Franklin that will pay him more than $3 million per year and guarantee in writing upgrades to Vanderbilt Stadium and the football complex.
Georgia’s record in big games: Mark Richt was peeved at the question and understandably so. His team had just lost on the last play of the game and showed a lot of heart in driving right back down the field in that last minute and knocking on the door of Alabama’s end zone. But the fact is that Georgia hasn’t won a lot of marquee games over the past few years. The Bulldogs have lost nine of their past 12 games against nationally ranked opponents.
Alabama center Barrett Jones: The whole Alabama offensive line deserves some serious props. But for Jones to play most of that game essentially on one leg after injuring his foot in the first quarter -- and play the way he did against Georgia’s touted interior personnel -- tells you all you need to know about Jones and his deep sense of team. You win with great players in the SEC, but you also win with great people.
Coach search candor: With three SEC schools -- Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee -- still looking for head coaches, we’re reminded that the one true gospel as it relates to coach searches is that nobody ever tells the complete truth. The only thing more prevalent than the untruths floating around out there is the misinformation. No coach ever interviews for a job. No athletic director ever gets turned down by a coach. No agent ever leverages one school against another.
Georgia’s run defense: What Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said prior to the SEC championship game was probably accurate. He went on ESPN Radio and said Georgia was more talented than Alabama. “We have better players at each position, across the board, especially on defense,” Rambo said. And when the NFL draft rolls around the next two years, he probably will be proved correct. But talent only matters when you play up to that talent, and the Bulldogs might as well have been playing with walk-ons Saturday when it came to stopping the run. Alabama lined up and hit Georgia in the mouth over and over again, and the Bulldogs wanted no part of it. The Crimson Tide finished with an SEC championship game-record 350 rushing yards. On one drive in the second half, they ran the same play five straight times. It was a total mismatch, and there’s no way it should have been. Echoing what Rambo said last week, there are probably six players on that Georgia defense who will play in the NFL. And, sure, Alabama is outstanding on the offensive line with its own collection of future NFL players, but there’s no excuse for getting pummeled the way the Bulldogs did in their run defense.
Two players barely a year out of high school football would decide the fate of Alabama’s 2012 season.
Boy did it pay off.
“Two big plays by freshmen there,” senior center Barrett Jones said.
Big doesn’t even begin to describe them. You need more hyperbole for this one, like mammoth or gargantuan.
The first play came on third-and-5 at the 50-yard line. Georgia held a 28-25 lead, and it appeared that the Tide were squandering their great field position. With about four minutes remaining, quarterback AJ McCarron stuck the ball in T.J. Yeldon’s gut, and the frosh cut to the right side and barreled his way past the first-down marker.
It was a play everyone inside the Georgia Dome or plastered to a TV set knew was coming.
Yet Georgia’s defense, which had been giving up rushing yards like men give up beads at Mardi Gras, couldn’t stop the force that was Yeldon.
“He went out there and just ran people over,” offensive lineman D.J. Fluker said of the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder. “You can’t find that too often.”
It was a simple post play to the left side, where it’s better if Amari Cooper releases on the inside. He cut outside and stopped momentarily as he looked for McCarron. Once he saw the play was coming, he left a helpless Damian Swann in his dust before hauling McCarron’s perfectly thrown pass and waltzing into the end zone to give Alabama the winning score in a 32-28 victory.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and I wanted to come out here and be a big-time player,” said Cooper, who finished with a game-high seven catches for 127 yards and the key score. “I envisioned it before it happened, and it came true.”
He probably envisioned it because it looked easy on film, as he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier felt confident taking shots at the Dawgs.
“That’s what we want as receivers,” Cooper said. “We want to take those shots, and that’s what we did.”
It helps that Cooper, who goes by the nickname Hollywood because of his on-field skill, is an extraordinary athlete. Before his touchdown, his play of the night came when he went up top and snatched a 44-yard prayer from McCarron away from one of the most physical players in the game in safety Bacarri Rambo in the second quarter. After that, he spent the rest of the night sprinting past or cutting by Georgia defenders and bailing Alabama’s offense out in crucial situations.
“He’s able to do the things that you would think a normal freshman wouldn’t do,” Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He’s making big plays in big games, like he did today.
“He takes it and runs with it and lives to that name. He’s something special.”
To Jones, Cooper just has a different gear than a lot of players. One moment he is side-by-side with a defender; the next, he’s gone -- with the ball.
“He’s one of the fastest people I’ve ever seen,” Jones said.
Cooper stretched the field and gave Alabama more running room, which helped free Yeldon, who entered the game with just three 100-yard performances but carried the ball a game-high 25 times for a backbreaking 153 yards and a touchdown. While giving Eddie Lacy the occasional breather, Yeldon helped Alabama register an SEC championship record 350 rushing yards Saturday.
“It’s like he’s been here three times himself,” Lacy said. “As a freshman, you can’t ask him to play any better than he did tonight.”
You can’t ask more from either. They did so much for Alabama in the biggest game of either's career. Yeldon had nine runs that resulted in first downs, while Cooper had three first-down plays. Together, they touched the ball 32 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson tells both Cooper and Yeldon before every game to play with purpose. On Saturday, they did that and then some. This is only the beginning for these fabulous freshmen.
“I’m glad they’re freshmen because they are going to be here for a while,” offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio said.
That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Alabama: It's hard to believe AJ McCarron is only a junior starting in his first SEC Championship. It seems like so long ago that he took over the reins from Greg McElroy and became the first underclassman to start and win the BCS National Championship Game. He learned how to treat big games like any other. The let-it-rip attitude has paid off this season as he ranks No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency while setting a school record for touchdown passes in a season.
Georgia: Junior Aaron Murray has already put together one of the best seasons in school history. Last week he became the first player in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons and tied Peyton Manning for second in career touchdown passes with 89. The national leader in passing efficiency (177.15), he has thrown 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The big question against Alabama, however, is whether Murray can play loose enough to be effective. He struggled against South Carolina and Florida, with one touchdown and four interceptions.
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“You know how they do me when it comes to pass rush and they throw two, three guys on me,” said Jones, who has been stuck on 10.5 sacks this season since last facing a more traditional offense three weeks ago against Auburn. “But it’s fun to get back in the range of it so we can run our defense and get out of this Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern mess. I hated the last two weeks of practice.”
Jones certainly expects to spend more time rushing Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron in Saturday’s SEC championship game than he did against Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern, who combined to attempt only 25 passes while focusing largely on the running game. Getting to McCarron against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted offensive line is a different story altogether.
At first glance, the Tide’s line has been fairly pedestrian in protecting the quarterback, ranking fourth in the SEC with 20 sacks allowed for a total of minus-161 yards -- a pace just ahead of Georgia’s 22 sacks allowed for minus-145. But Alabama surrendered six of those sacks for minus-48 in a 35-0 win against Western Kentucky. Otherwise, Alabama has not surrendered more than two sacks in any game, and none since Texas A&M sacked McCarron twice in dealing Alabama (11-1) its only loss of the season Nov. 10.
“They’ve got three All-Americans up there that are big and physical,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said, referring to Alabama center Barrett Jones, left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker. “The reason their running backs have had success is one, the running backs are talented, but the offensive line makes some holes for them. They do a good job of getting them some running lanes, they keep the quarterback clean in the pocket.
Alabama and LSU each had three players selected.
Center Barrett Jones, offensive guard Chance Warmack and noseguard Jesse Williams are the Crimson Tide players on the team.
The LSU players who made it are defensive end Sam Montgomery, safety Eric Reid and punter Brad Wing.
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks and LSU punter Brad Wing round out the SEC representatives.
It should be noted that the media has only picked the correct SEC champion four times since 1992. Those correct picks were Florida in 1994 and 1995, LSU in 2007 and Florida in 2008.
Here are some notes from the league on the All-SEC team:
- The 222 voters is an all-time high for SEC media days. The previous high was 177 voters in 2010.
- South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was the leading vote-getter this season with 201 of 222 votes. He is the fourth running back in the past six years to be the highest vote-getter (2007 – Darren McFadden, Arkansas; 2008 – Knowshon Moreno, Georgia and Percy Harvin, Florida; 2009 – Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, Florida; 2010 – Mark Ingram, Alabama; 2011 – Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina).
That’s what we did last week at our house.
So in keeping with the All-Star theme, we’ll select a preseason SEC All-Star team with the East going up against the West.
Who would win?
Here are all 19 SEC players on the Nagurski Trophy list:
- Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
- Matt Elam, S, Florida
- Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
- John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
- Nico Johnson, LB, Alabama
- Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
- Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
- Robert Lester, S, Alabama
- Rob Lohr, DT, Vanderbilt
- Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
- Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
- Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
- Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
- C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
- Eric Reid, S, LSU
- Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
- Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
For the complete Nagurski Trophy watch list, go here.
The SEC also leads the country with 19 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Alabama leads the SEC with four players on the list, including reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.
Here are all 19 SEC players on the Outland Trophy watch list:
- Alvin Bailey, OG, Arkansas
- Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
- Chris Faulk, OT, LSU
- Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
- D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
- Alex Hurst, OT, LSU
- Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
- John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
- Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
- T.J. Johnson, C, South Carolina
- Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt
- Barrett Jones, C, Alabama
- Bennie Logan, DT, LSU
- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
- Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas
- Dallas Thomas, OG, Tennessee
- Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky
- Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
- Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
For the full Outland Trophy watch list, go here.
Keep in mind that these are the guys we project to be the 10 best college football players this coming season in the SEC and not necessarily the 10 best NFL draft prospects. There's a difference.
So let the second-guessing begin:
1. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia: In his first season of action in the SEC after transferring from USC, Jones didn’t need much of a refresher course. He quickly emerged as the most dynamic big-play defender in the SEC and is one of those players who can take over a game. Just ask Florida. Much more than just a pass-rusher, Jones led the league with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks.
2. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Wilson had shown in flashes what he was capable of while filling in for Ryan Mallett, but put an All-SEC season together last year in his first season as a starter. He passed for 3,638 yards and only threw six interceptions in 438 passing attempts. He’ll be even better his second time through the league.
QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina: Shaw didn't seem to feel the pressure of a bowl game, as he completed 11-of-17 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 42 yards and another score in the Gamecocks' win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He even gave South Carolina all the momentum in the second half with a touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half.
RB: Onterio McCalebb, Auburn: As Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in Auburn's win against Virginia.
WR: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina: Jeffery's day would have been even better if he hadn't been ejected. However, he still caught four passes for a game-high 148 yards and snagged Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. He also had a 78-yard reception.
WR: Tavarres King, Georgia: King tried his best to get Georgia a victory in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. He was Aaron Murray's best friend, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass that at one point stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
If Alabama should beat LSU, particularly in a close game, then the vote in the final Associated Press poll in the hours following the game could get really interesting.