Georgia Bulldogs: Bobby Petrino
The second week of the college football season is upon us.
Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.
Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:
2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?
3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.
4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.
5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.
6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.
7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.
8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.
9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.
10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.
So how does the rest of the SEC stack up? Well, we have our final power rankings of the year right here:
1. Alabama (13-1, 7-1 SEC): Total domination in the championship game and three titles in four years? A load of NFL talent on both sides of the ball? Alabama had it all (again), and even with a team that didn't exactly have the same sort of defensive talent as it did a year ago, the Crimson Tide still made it to the BCS title game and came away with a commanding 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in a game that was over when the Tide arrived on South Beach. With the talent Alabama has coming back, the Tide could once again be in the national championship picture.
2. Texas A&M (11-2, 6-2 SEC): Thanks to Johnny Football, the Aggies ended the season as one of the nation's hottest teams. There are some out there who think A&M might be the best team in the country, despite its two losses. Johnny Manziel was the nation's best player and even without Kliff Kingsbury helping him on the sideline against Oklahoma, he ran all over the Sooners for a bowl-record 516 total yards in a total rout. Imagine if both of those Aggies tackles return in 2013.
3. Georgia (12-2, 7-1 SEC): The Bulldogs capped off the 2012 season with a 45-31 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It wasn't exactly the bowl the Bulldogs wanted to be in, after coming up just yards short of making it to the BCS title game in Alabama's place, but you have to admire how this team came out and won like it did. Back-to-back SEC title game appearances is nothing for this team to be ashamed of.
4. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC): The Gamecocks had a legitimate shot at our No. 3 spot, but at the end of the day, Georgia's appearance in Atlanta, coupled with its 14-point bowl win, kept South Carolina behind the Bulldogs. Still, what a year for the Gamecocks. Behind the coaching of Steve Spurrier, South Carolina won 11 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Gamecocks also beat back-to-back ranked opponents to close out the season.
5. Florida (11-2, 7-1 SEC): After entering the postseason with arguably the country's best résumé, the Gators fell flat on their faces against Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Their 10-point loss didn't show just how bad the game was for Florida. The Gators might not have wanted to be there and Florida clearly didn't show up for its first BCS bowl since 2009. But you can't discount what Florida did during the regular season. It didn't have a pretty offense, but it defeated four top-10 teams, including ACC champ Florida State in Tallahassee in a year in which the Gators weren't expected to win nine games.
6. LSU (10-3, 6-2 SEC): The Tigers had a very up-and-down year, and it ended on a very down note with that last-second loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU was totally off its offensive game in the second half, turning to the pass more than the run. With that offense struggling in the fourth quarter, LSU's defense was left huffing and puffing as Tajh Boyd & Co. gutted it for three straight scoring drives. But LSU did win double-digit games for the third straight year, and it took Alabama down to the wire and beat Johnny Football.
7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 5-3 SEC): The Commodores ended the season in historic fashion, with a seven-game winning streak (the longest since 1948), and won five conference games for the first time since 1935 and nine total games for the first time since 1915. That ninth win came in dominating fashion with a 38-24 win over NC State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Commodores turned into the team that no one wanted to play at the end of the season, and they carry a ton of momentum into 2013.
8. Ole Miss (7-6, 3-5 SEC): The Rebels had quite the first year under new coach Hugh Freeze. For a program that won just six games in the two previous seasons, Ole Miss grabbed seven, including its first bowl win since 2009, this year. The depth was lacking all year, but the heart wasn't, as the Rebels were much more competitive and won three SEC games after entering the season on a 14-game conference losing streak. Freeze did a tremendous job of changing the culture in Oxford, but the players did a great job of responding to adversity all season.
9. Mississippi State (8-5, 4-4 SEC): A year that started with such promise after a 7-0 start imploded and led to a lot of criticism about the talent on both sides of the ball. The second half of the season proved the first seven games were a farce. A lot of the defensive deficiencies were masked until the month of November, as the Bulldogs went 1-5 to end the year, including a blowout loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
10. Missouri (5-7, 2-6 SEC): The Tigers would love to forget their first season in the SEC. This was supposed to be the Big 12 team that succeeded in its first year out of its comfort zone. This team returned too much not to win a few games in the SEC East. But injuries, most notably to quarterback James Franklin and that offensive line, and an offense that was constantly going in reverse made for a rough start in Missouri's new home. Offensive coordinator David Yost resigned at the end of the year, and this team has to find some sort of rhythm/chemistry on offense in 2013.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC): The Derek Dooley era ended with quite a whimper. For the second straight season, Tennessee missed out on the postseason because of a loss to one of its rivals. Last year, Kentucky ended the Vols' bowl hopes. This time around, Vandy's blowout win on Nov. 17 bounced Tennessee from a postseason appearance. For as much fun as the offense was to watch, the defense was awful for the majority of the season, finishing dead last in the SEC in total defense. New coach Butch Jones has some solid talent to work with, but a ton of questions surround this program.
12. Arkansas (4-8, 2-6 SEC): Many thought the Razorbacks' dreams of a championship season probably ended when Bobby Petrino took that infamous motorcycle ride in April. Boy, were they right. John L. Smith tried to bring some energy to the program, but he and his players fell flat in a 4-8 season that saw the Hogs give up 30 or more points in seven games. The offense lacked its usual explosion and the Hogs began the year 1-4, with a shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock, Ark.
13. Auburn (3-9, 0-8 SEC): On paper, the Tigers had a host of young talent, but on the field, they were outmanned just about every single weekend. Auburn roamed around the bottom of most offensive and defensive categories in the SEC all season long. Coach Gene Chizik was fired only two years removed from winning a national title after going winless in conference play and being outscored 129-21 in his final three SEC games, including a 38-0 loss to Georgia and a 49-0 loss to Alabama in the season finale.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC): Outside of blowing out a Kent State team that was a win away from making a BCS bowl, nothing went right for the Wildcats this year. Injuries ravaged this team, as it had to turn to two true freshman quarterbacks and never found a consistent playmaker to help out on offense. The offense hovered around the bottom of the SEC all year and the defense surrendered 31 points per game, and coach Joker Phillips was fired before the season even ended.
Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.
Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?
In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?
The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.
If you think everybody else in college football is tired of seeing the SEC win all the time, try taking the temperature of fans in Baton Rouge, La., or Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., over how tired they are of seeing Alabama win all the time.
The Crimson Tide will be chasing history Jan. 7 in the Discover BCS National Championship game against Notre Dame when they go after their third national title in the past four years. The last team to win three outright national titles in a four-year span was Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
An Alabama victory in Miami would mark the seventh consecutive national championship for the SEC, which might have been as balanced and strong across the board this season as any of the seasons during its national championship run.
The final BCS standings looked more like the SEC standings. Six of the top 10 teams were from the SEC, and all six won at least 10 games.
And talk about beating up on each other.
Texas A&M, in its first season in the SEC, waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset Alabama 29-24 with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Georgia lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina back in October, but rebounded to make its second consecutive appearance in the SEC championship game. It wasn’t until the final play that Alabama’s 32-28 win over Georgia was decided last weekend in Atlanta.
Florida is headed back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009 thanks to a transformation in Will Muschamp’s second season that saw the Gators go from being soft at times in 2011 to one of the most physical teams in the league this season. Florida will meet Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl after collecting four victories over teams that finished in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina poised to win 11 games for the second straight season. It wasn’t until a year ago that the Gamecocks had ever won 11 games in a season.
The Aggies, who lost close games to Florida and LSU during the first part of the season, showed no signs of stage fright during their first season in the SEC.
So much for Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo, spread offense not being able to cut it in the SEC. The Aggies led the conference in just about every offensive category and scored 29 or more points in six of their eight league games.
It wasn’t just the old guard that made waves this season.
Ole Miss began the season shouldering a 14-game SEC losing streak, but first-year coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game, and probably more importantly, pinned a 41-24 whipping on rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.
The SEC has historically chewed up and spit out coaches, and this season was no exception.
Arkansas’ John L. Smith, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips and Tennessee’s Derek Dooley were all sent packing. In Chizik’s case, his ouster came just two years removed from winning a national championship, but the Tigers crashed this season with their first 0-8 SEC finish in school history.
It was also another gut-wrenching season for South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury in the Tennessee game and was lost for the season. He was already coming off a torn ACL in his other knee the season before.
On a more positive note, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will be in New York this weekend and has a great chance to become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Johnny Football may well become Johnny Heisman.
Offensive MVP: Manziel. While Manziel is admittedly a big video-game buff, his numbers this season weren’t from a video game. They just looked that way. He broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season and cranked out 4,600 yards while accounting for 43 touchdowns. He also saved his best game for the biggest stage by rolling up 345 yards in total offense against No. 1 Alabama in the Aggies’ 29-24 win.
Defensive MVP: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. This was an extremely tough call, and in any other year, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore would be runaway winners. But Clowney was the most explosive game-changer in the league this season defensively. He leads the SEC with 13 sacks and is second with 21.5 tackles for loss. Easily one of the best pass-rushers in college football, Clowney became a much more complete player this season as a sophomore.
Newcomer of the Year: Manziel. He was a redshirt freshman by classification, but played liked a seasoned veteran. One of the most impressive things about Manziel is that he learned from earlier losses against Florida and LSU, when he didn’t play as well, then proceeded to carve everybody apart down the stretch. He’s the first freshman in FBS history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The award for the top true freshman goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who leads the SEC with 1,260 rushing yards.
Biggest surprise: Ole Miss. Florida certainly deserves mention here. Not many people had the Gators winning 11 games and going to a BCS bowl back in August, which is a tribute to Muschamp and his staff. But nobody had the Rebels getting to a bowl game in Freeze’s first season. They’d lost 14 straight SEC games when he arrived. Not only that, but they were way down in scholarship numbers and forced to play a ton of first-year players. They scrapped their way to six wins, and it could have easily been eight or nine wins if they could have held on to a few fourth-quarter leads.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas. The Hogs went from No. 8 in the country and talking about a national championship in the preseason to sitting at home for the postseason. It was a disaster from the outset, and the team simply didn’t respond to Smith, who stepped in during the spring as interim coach after Bobby Petrino was fired. The Hogs finished 4-8 (2-6 in the SEC). They lost to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock the second week of the season, and it was all downhill from there.
Best game: Alabama 32, Georgia 28, Dec. 1, SEC championship game. The previous few SEC championship games had been blowouts, but this one went down to the final play when the clock ran out on the Bulldogs after Aaron Murray’s tipped pass was caught by Chris Conley at the Alabama 5. Georgia, which led 21-10 midway through the third quarter, drove from its own 15 with 68 seconds to play and no timeouts. But when Conley gathered in the deflected pass and was tackled inbounds, the Bulldogs had no way to stop the clock. Alabama rushed for an SEC championship game-record 350 yards, as the Crimson Tide’s offensive line took matters into its own hands in the second half.
Who's the next Urban Meyer? The next Chris Petersen? What about another Brady Hoke?
Who's that next great assistant who rises up the ranks and takes over a major program ... and succeeds?
I'm not completely sure, but I have a few ideas. Here are some coaches lurking in the SEC who could be on their way to bigger and better things or are ready to take the next step with their current teams:
- James Franklin, Vanderbilt: Franklin became the only first-year coach in Vandy history to guide the Commodores to a bowl game. He surpassed the program's win totals in each of its previous two seasons and signed arguably the school's best recruiting class in 2012. He brought attitude, confidence and a bit of swagger to the program. He could have left after one year but is really looking to turn things around at Vanderbilt.
- Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Bulldogs fans probably don't like hearing this, but Mullen is becoming a hot name among the coaching ranks. In his three seasons in Starkville, he has guided Mississippi State to two straight bowl wins. In 2010, he led the Bulldogs to nine wins for the first time since 1999. Mullen says he is happy in Starkville, but if he continues to win, bigger schools won't hesitate to go after him.
- Shawn Elliott, South Carolina offensive line coach/running game coordinator: Steve Spurrier has raved about Elliott's impact on offense and bringing in the zone read package. Elliott has done wonders for South Carolina's offensive line, which was a continual sore spot in Spurrier's early years at the school. Elliott is also a dogged recruiter. Having grown up in Camden, S.C., Elliott is somebody to watch when Spurrier hangs it up. If he doesn't get that job, somebody is going to snap him up.
- Rodney Garner, Georgia defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Georgia for a while and has been wooed several times by other schools. LSU went after him several years ago, and Lane Kiffin was interested in bringing him to Tennessee. In the past 12 years, he has coached plenty of NFL talent, including four first-round draft picks. He has consistently been one of the league's best recruiters as well.
- Todd Grantham, Georgia defensive coordinator/associate head coach: He could start getting more looks for head-coaching gigs. He has vast NFL experience, including being a defensive coordinator at that level, and more schools are looking for coaches with NFL experience. Grantham has proven himself as a recruiter and worked under two of the best in the college ranks -- Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Nick Saban at Michigan State. He has made a tremendous difference in turning around Georgia's defense and has an edge about him that successful head coaches possess.
- Chris Kiffin, Ole Miss defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator for defense: He is one of the bright young names among the assistant ranks. As the defensive line coach at Arkansas State, he coached up Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Joiner, who tied for third in the nation in sacks and 10th in tackles for loss. Arkansas State also led the conference and ranked eighth nationally in tackles for loss (7.62 per game) and tied for 15th in sacks (2.69 per game). He is a tremendous recruiter and helped bring in a solid defensive class in a short amount of time this spring.
- Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator: After being a standout quarterback at Texas Tech, he is considered one of the top young assistants in college football. He came over with Kevin Sumlin from Houston, where he helped guide the Cougars' offense to its record-setting year in 2011. Houston led the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring in 2011 behind quarterback Case Keenum. The Cougars averaged 599.1 total yards per game, including 450.1 through the air, while scoring more than 49 points per game.
- Paul Petrino, Arkansas offensive coordinator: He came over to help run Arkansas' offense with his brother, but after Bobby Petrino was fired this spring, Paul Petrino assumed the role as primary playcaller. In 2010, he guided an Illinois offense that broke school records for total points (423) and points per game (32.54). The Illini averaged 42.1 points and 448.9 total yards over the final seven games of the season. If he can keep Arkansas' offense going this year, his phone might start ringing a little more.
- Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt defensive coordinator/safeties coach: He has been a head coach at Columbia and is innovative on defense, playing the kind of attacking style that attracts great players. He helped orchestrate one of the most impressive defensive turnarounds in the country last year, as Vanderbilt ranked ninth nationally in pass defense efficiency and 18th in total defense. Vandy's defense also ranked among the nation's top units in interceptions, points allowed and rush defense.
- Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator: He is one of the best defensive coordinators around, and it seems like only a matter of time before he is a head coach somewhere. Smart has already passed on a few head-coaching opportunities. He is making $950,000 a year and is in a position to be picky with coaching jobs.
- Trooper Taylor, Auburn wide receivers coach/assistant head coach: He is one of the hottest and most successful recruiters in the SEC. He brought in and trained some elite receivers at Oklahoma State and Tennessee before making his way to Auburn. He is continuing that trend and has turned Emory Blake into one of the SEC's best pass-catchers. He was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and if Auburn's receivers make another jump, Taylor could be waving his towel elsewhere soon.
- Frank Wilson, LSU running backs coach/recruiting coordinator: He has emerged as one of the sport's top recruiters. As a running backs coach, he has done a tremendous job with the Tigers. Last season, LSU averaged 202.6 rushing yards per game and tied a school record with 35 rushing touchdowns. Three backs eclipsed the 500-yard rushing mark. Wilson commands tremendous respect from his players.
- David Yost, Missouri offensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Missouri for 11 years, but he has to start getting more attention as an exceptional playcaller. He has a great eye for talent and pointing out mismatches in his spread scheme. In 2011, Mizzou ranked ninth nationally in rushing (244 yards per game) and had one of the most balanced offenses, as Mizzou was one of only two schools in the country to average at least 230 yards rushing and passing in each game.
That's where we come in. As we take a deeper look into programs around the country this week, we're looking at how each program stacks up in every conference. In the SEC, there's always a fierce arms race going on, and getting left behind can be dangerous.
Today, we're ranking each coaching job in the SEC. We considered a lot of factors, including location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.
Here's how we ranked all 14 SEC jobs.
1. Florida: For starters, Florida is all about location, location, location. It's in a state that produces some of the country's top talent and it's a state that players around the country will flock to. Thanks to Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Florida has become a national brand like Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame and Texas. Recent significant facility upgrades and a tremendous fan base have only helped this be the top job in the SEC.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
On Friday, Mississippi State faces Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. And on Saturday, Vanderbilt takes on Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, while Auburn meets Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Who in the SEC has the most to prove this season in the bowl games? And we’re talking head coaches, assistant coaches, players, teams and particular units on teams.
South Carolina: Don’t bother looking up South Carolina’s bowl record. It’s ugly. Try 4-12 all-time, and the Gamecocks have lost four of their last five, including three straight. They’ve played some real stinkers in the postseason, too. Steve Spurrier has knocked down a lot of barriers at South Carolina. Here’s a chance to knock down another one against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He and his ball team need to prove they can get it done in the postseason.
Alabama: Second chances are rare in college football. The Crimson Tide are getting one in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game against LSU. There was a lot of chatter coming out of Tuscaloosa the first time about Alabama being the better football team despite what the scoreboard said. Well, this time, there’s a lot of chatter nationally about the Crimson Tide not belonging in the national title game. There’s only one way to quell that.
Mississippi State: It wasn’t a bad season in Starkville. Unfulfilling is probably a better way to put it. The Bulldogs had high expectations, but wound up 6-6. It’s true they were a few plays away from being 8-4, but they didn’t make those plays. Making them against Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl and completing a second straight winning season would make everybody in Bulldog Land feel a lot better.
Bobby Petrino: It’s not so much that Petrino has a lot to prove. After all, he’s turned Arkansas into one of the SEC’s elite programs in four seasons. But here’s a chance to get to 11 wins and do it against a top-10 team — Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. The Hogs have lost five of their last seven games to top-10 opponents. If they’re going to take that proverbial next step, this is the kind of game they need to win, and a victory would generate a ton of momentum heading into next season.
James Franklin: The coach has already done what nobody (outside the guys in that Vanderbilt locker room) expected -- he's guided the Commodores to a bowl game. But if they don’t win it against Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, it’s just going to go down as another losing season, which would be the 28th at Vanderbilt in the last 29 seasons. The difference between winning and losing this game for Franklin and the Commodores is huge.
Alabama's place-kickers: Not much needs to be said here. If the Crimson Tide had made a couple of field goals back on Nov. 5, they would be unbeaten right now. Cade Foster is the one who’s struggled the most, but he handles the longer attempts. In Jeremy Shelley’s defense, he ended the regular season by making his last four attempts. Alabama fans hope they’re saving up all their big kicks for the Big Easy.
Jordan Jefferson: There are a lot of folks who don’t think the LSU quarterback can beat Alabama standing in the pocket and throwing the ball. Obviously, a big part of Jefferson’s game is running the ball. But something says Alabama will be a bit more prepared for the option this time. If LSU is going to win its second national championship in five years, Jefferson will have to make a few big plays in the passing game.
Isaiah Crowell: For a true freshman who flirted with 1,000 yards in the regular season, Crowell sure has been a lightning rod. He still has a lot of growing up to do, but the talent is there to be a great one in a long line of great Georgia tailbacks. Maybe he'll put it all together for four quarters in the Outback Bowl versus Michigan State.
Auburn's defense: Not that head coach Gene Chizik is prone to point the finger, but if he’s looking for somebody to blame about the way Auburn plays on defense after the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he’ll have to point it at himself. Chizik is in charge of the Tigers’ defense for the bowl game, and this is their last chance to get that sour taste out of their mouths from the regular season. Auburn was one of two SEC teams to give up an average of 400 yards per game and allowed 34 or more points in seven of 12 games.
Florida's offense: Charlie Weis has taken off for Kansas, meaning Brian White moves in as the Gators’ interim offensive coordinator. He could be auditioning for the full-time job. The thing he has going for him is that it can’t get much worse than the regular season. Not counting the Furman game, the Gators scored more than one offensive touchdown in a game only once in their last seven contests. The other bit of good news is that Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey should both be as healthy as they’ve been.
I’m 83-14 for a .856 percentage, and so is my soccer-loving colleague, Edward Aschoff. You know him best as the ATL Kid.
There was a time, not long ago, that he held a three-game lead. Something says you’re already well aware of that given how much he crowed about it.
But that was then, and this is now.
It’s bowl season, meaning it’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders … and the rookies from the veterans.
Edward has fought the good fight. He’s learned not to pick his alma mater, Florida, every week, and he’s not basing his picks solely on how his Xbox games turn out anymore.
Hey, he’s picked enough games now that he’s no longer a rookie. We don’t use youth as an excuse on the SEC blog like some coaches in this league have been known to do.
We’ll kick off our picks with the non-BCS bowls and will come back in a week or so with our prediction in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
Enough talking, though. It’s showtime:
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Dec. 30)
Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)
Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs didn't exactly have the year they expected, as offensive-line injuries and offensive inefficiency doomed them. They also enter this one with quarterback issues. Wake Forest started hot, but lost four of its final five, including a 41-7 defeat to Vanderbilt. Mississippi State's defense surprised most this year and will be the difference. ... Mississippi State 20, Wake Forest 17
Chris Low: Both teams just did squeeze into the postseason, but Wake Forest was really wobbling there at the end. The Deacons' only victories since the second week of October came over Duke and Maryland. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were playing their best defense when the regular season ended, and that will be the difference in Nashville. … Mississippi State 31, Wake Forest 17
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31)
Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
Edward Aschoff: Vandy enters its first bowl game since 2008 with some nice momentum. James Franklin has turned the Commodores into a pretty tough team with some attitude. It looks like the Bearcats will have starting quarterback Zach Collaros back from his broken ankle, but while Cincinnati won a share of the Big East championship, this Vandy defense will be too jacked up and aggressive for the Bearcats. ... Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 21
Chris Low: It looks like Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros will be back for the bowl game after breaking his ankle in November. The Commodores’ defense will be ready no matter who lines up under center, and an improved Vanderbilt offense will make enough big plays to carve out only the third bowl victory in school history. … Vanderbilt 28, Cincinnati 24
Chick-fil-A Bowl (Dec. 31)
Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)
Edward Aschoff: These teams mirrored each other at times this season. Both won close games and were loaded with youth. However, Auburn's youngsters hit the wall at the midpoint of the season, while Virginia almost made the ACC title game. Coach Gene Chizik is now coaching Auburn's very subpar defense and star running back Michael Dyer is suspended. Advantage Cavaliers. ... Virginia 31, Auburn 17
Chris Low: It’s been hectic around the Plains lately. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at UCF, meaning Gene Chizik is running the defense for the time being. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is leaving for the Arkansas State head job after the bowl, and the Tigers’ only consistent offensive threat during the season, sophomore running back Michael Dyer, is suspended. The Cavaliers smell blood in the water, but Chizik loses bowl games about as often as he loses close games. … Auburn 27, Virginia 21
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl (Jan. 2)
Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)
Edward Aschoff: All anyone will be talking about in this one is Urban Meyer ... and he isn't even coaching. His former team (Florida) takes on his future team (Ohio State). Both teams really struggled on offense this season, but the Gators' defense ranks ninth nationally. Florida should be motivated to play the Buckeyes, but even with a new man calling the offensive shots, nothing tells us the offense will look any different. ... Ohio State 20, Florida 13
Chris Low: There’s no truth to the rumor that Urban Meyer will conduct the coin toss. In fact, he’s not even supposed to be at the game. He will be in spirit, though. Both teams have had forgettable seasons, although the Gators’ defense deserved better. At the end of the day, it’s Ohio State vs. an SEC team in a bowl game, and we all know how that movie ends. … Florida 21, Ohio State 17
Outback Bowl (Jan. 2)
Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3)
Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs were one of the hottest teams in the country before getting blasted by LSU in the SEC championship game. Michigan State was also a victory away from the Rose Bowl. Both sport top-five defenses and fun offenses. This one could be one of the top bowl games of the year and should come down to the very end with Georgia squeaking by. ... Georgia 27, Michigan State 24
Chris Low: If you like rock-solid defense, this is your game. Georgia is ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense, Michigan State No. 5. The question is: Which offense can find a way to move the ball and score some points? The Spartans averaged 38.6 points over their final five games, and the Kirk Cousins-to-B.J. Cunningham connection was lethal. But Aaron Murray has an array of targets and will use them all in this game. … Georgia 30, Michigan State 21
Capital One Bowl (Jan. 2)
Nebraska (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2)
Edward Aschoff: The Gamecocks haven't been very good in bowl games, losing three straight. While Nebraska had its own bowl issues last year, barely showing up in the Holiday Bowl. Both teams really know how to run the ball, but South Carolina's defense has fed on offenses for most of the year. With all those athletes up front, the Gamecocks will end their postseason woes against the Huskers. ... South Carolina 27, Nebraska 20
Chris Low: It’s always risky to pick the Gamecocks in a bowl game, especially when you consider that they’ve lost their past three and didn’t come close to playing a decent game in any of the three. But the Head Ball Coach is doing things at South Carolina that have never been done before, and he has a defense that’s capable of dominating games. The Gamecocks will find a way to grind it out and accomplish another first – winning 11 games in a season. … South Carolina 24, Nebraska 20
AT&T Cotton Bowl (Jan. 6)
Kansas State (10-2) vs. Arkansas (10-2)
Edward Aschoff: Both of these squads looked BCS-worthy, but didn't make it to the party. Still, this game should have people glued to their TV sets. The Razorbacks and the Wildcats know how to move the ball, while their defenses had a lot of bend in them this year. There shouldn't be any shortage of points, but if this one turns into a shootout, Arkansas is better equipped when it comes to talent. ... Arkansas 34, Kansas State 28
Chris Low: Both of these teams feel like they should be playing in a BCS bowl game, although it doesn’t get much better than Cowboys Stadium and the Cotton Bowl. The Hogs’ big problem this season was that they happened to be in the same division as Alabama and LSU. Kansas State was one of the surprise stories of the college football season, but the Wildcats won’t be able to keep up with the Hogs. … Arkansas 38, Kansas State 24
Time to find out who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:
LSU’s running game: If you really want to know what running the football with a purpose looks like, watch LSU run the ball. The Tigers mash people up front, and they’re so deep at running back that you can’t keep track of who’s in the game. Trying to slow down their running game in the second half is like trying to stop a tidal wave.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino: If you’re an accomplished lip reader, the television cameras caught Petrino mouthing some not-so-nice things while gesturing across the field to the LSU sideline in the final minutes of Friday’s game. The post-game handshake was awkward, too, when it looked Petrino sort of pulled away. Asked if they had words, LSU coach Les Miles cracked, “Not many.”
Vanderbilt’s offense: It’s hard to believe this is the same offense that went back-to-back games against South Carolina and Alabama without scoring a touchdown. The Commodores routed Wake Forest 41-7 last Saturday and rolled up 481 yards in total offense. It’s been a total metamorphosis, and everybody deserves credit -- the offensive coaches, quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, receiver Jordan Matthews and an offensive line that might be the most improved unit in the league.
Florida’s offense: The Gators have shown up in this space more than once this season for their offensive ineptitude. Come to think of it, they did last season, too. Surely, it can’t get any worse on that side of the ball in Gainesville, but it’s also difficult to look ahead to next season and make a strong case for why the Gators will be appreciably better.
LSU’s defense: Even without injured starting safety Eric Reid, the Tigers were dominant in their 41-17 win against Arkansas and the Hogs’ high-powered offense. The Hogs managed just 89 total yards in the second half. LSU’s first-team defense has now gone six straight games without allowing a touchdown in the second half.
Auburn’s finish: There was a time this season when it looked like Auburn might hang in there and be one of the surprise teams in the league. But the Tigers unraveled down the stretch. Not only did they lose three of their last four SEC games, but they lost those games by a combined 132-31 margin.
The Big Orange Nation: The ground is quaking right now on Rocky Top coming off Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since 1984, which ensured the Vols’ second straight losing season. The last time that happened was 1910 and 1911. It’s Tennessee’s fourth losing season in the past seven years, and even though a lot of the fans want to give second-year coach Derek Dooley the benefit of the doubt because of the situation he walked into in terms of player attrition and the NCAA cloud hovering, the gloves have come off after the loss to Kentucky. Several former Tennessee players, some who played on the Vols’ 1998 national championship game, went on a Knoxville radio show the day after the loss and unloaded on Dooley. It’s a broken football program right now, and Dooley’s going to get at least one more year to fix it. But if the Vols don’t make some major strides next season, one more year might be all he gets.
1. Alabama, LSU stand supreme: The regular season has come and gone, and Alabama and LSU are exactly what we thought they were. They’re the two best college football teams in the country, and it’s really not even close. Hey, it’s still college football, and upsets are possible. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see one Saturday in Atlanta in the SEC championship game when Georgia takes its shot at LSU. But over the course of this season, when you weigh everything, Alabama and LSU stand alone. And really, it should be LSU and Alabama, in that order. The Tigers are No. 1 for a reason. As coach Les Miles said Friday after LSU's 41-17 win against Arkansas, they’ve taken on all comers, beating seven nationally ranked teams along the way, including three top-3 teams. In a lot of different ways, they’re chasing history. There’s been a lot of chatter around the country about not wanting to see a rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and generally, I would agree. Rematches are never ideal. But when it comes to these two teams, and when you consider that nobody else around the country has exactly knocked the door down to secure one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings, a rematch makes perfect sense. The SEC haters won’t like it, because it ensures a sixth straight national title for the league. But if it’s truly about pairing the two best teams in the country in the national title game, then the Big Easy had better get ready. Alabama and LSU are on their way.
2. Richardson is Heisman worthy: Alabama coach Nick Saban was straight to the point Saturday, which he usually is. “To me, Trent Richardson is the best football player in the country,” Saban said following Richardson’s career-best 203-yard rushing performance against Auburn. Everybody has different criteria in voting for the Heisman Trophy. But if you’re looking for the player who’s consistently been the most dominant player in the country and has consistently done it on the biggest stages, then Richardson will walk away next month from New York City as the second Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history. He’s been a difference-maker for the Crimson Tide all season long, and while everybody likes to knock the offenses in the SEC, he’s done his work against some of the best defenses in the land. Richardson has piled up his 1,583 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns against eight top-50 defenses nationally. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, no other Heisman Trophy contender had faced more than four top-50 defenses.
3. Arkansas falls short: The Hogs have come miles under Bobby Petrino in four seasons and are clearly in that upper echelon of SEC teams. It’s equally clear that they’re not in the same league as Alabama and LSU. Then again, who is? Arkansas has made some strides defensively, but still has to make a lot more to play at the same level as Alabama and LSU. The Hogs were no match for the Tigers’ bruising running game Friday and simply couldn’t get off the field in the second half. And before everybody blames it all on Willy Robinson and the defense, it does the Hogs no good to roll up 450 and 500 yards on everybody else and then shoot blanks offensively against Alabama and LSU. The Hogs finished with 254 yards against LSU and only 226 against Alabama. They managed just three offensive touchdowns against Alabama and LSU, and they also broke down in special teams against both of the West powerhouses. What’s so frustrating about that for the Hogs is that they were very good all season in the kicking game. But they gave up two punt returns for touchdowns -- one to Alabama and one to LSU. Arkansas is a top-10 to top-15 program right now, no doubt. But to take that next step, the Hogs are going to have to figure out a way to play their A-game in the biggest games.
4. Georgia is coming: Not only are the Bulldogs riding a 10-game winning streak and playing their best football heading into Saturday’s SEC championship game matchup with LSU, but this is a program that should be able to ride that momentum into next season. Most of the key pieces on offense and defense will be back, and the Bulldogs will likely start next season as the team to beat in the Eastern Division and could be a top-10 team nationally in the preseason. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones says he’s coming back. Top inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will be back, not to mention quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s thrown 32 touchdown passes this season. Running back Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell are just freshmen, and the Bulldogs continue to recruit at a very high level. For a program that was supposedly reeling back in September, the future looks bright.
5. More bowls than eligible teams: The SEC won’t be able to fill all of its bowl obligations this season. Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee all finished with losing records and will be staying home in the postseason. So at this point, it looks like the BBVA Compass Bowl won’t have an SEC representative. It hasn’t been a memorable season for the bottom half of the league. In fact, six teams finished the regular season with non-winning records. In addition to the three teams with losing records, Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are all 6-6. It’s the Gators’ worst regular-season record since 1987. First-year coach Will Muschamp didn’t pull any punches following the 21-7 loss to Florida State. He called the program “soft” and said the Gators were not physically or mentally tough enough. Tennessee, once an Eastern Division heavyweight along with Florida, finished with its second straight losing season, the first time that's happened on Rocky Top since 1910 and 1911.