"I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game and I think both of them can help us win," said Kelly, who has not named a starter for the Dec. 30 contest in Nashville, Tennessee.
Golson, a redshirt junior, started all 12 games for the 7-5 Fighting Irish this season but was replaced by Zaire, a redshirt freshman, in the regular-season finale at USC, a 49-14 loss.
Zaire completed 9 of 20 passes in that game for 170 yards, adding 18 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries.
Kelly said he would play both next year, too, if it's what's best for the team.
What's that? We haven't gotten to bowl season? Santa hasn't even come to fill our stockings?
Pssssh! It's never too early for some prognostication that has nothing to do with the current season. And looking ahead to the Heisman is so much fun.
So who could be in the mix for a trip to Times Square next December? I think the SEC has a few candidates to keep an eye on. Too bad Todd Gurley isn't returning, because he would be at the top of this list. In fact, if he didn't deal with that NCAA suspension or lose his season to an ACL injury, Gurley might have won the Heisman over Mariota. But that's a story for another day.
Also, Heisman finalist Amari Cooper isn't on our list because he would be crazy not to bolt to the NFL.
Here's our very early list of possible SEC Heisman candidates in 2015:
- Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: This hinges on Prescott's NFL prospects. He is awaiting his draft grade, but if Prescott isn't projected to go in the first or second round, expect him to come back for his senior year. Prescott was an early Heisman front-runner in 2014, but his numbers fell in the final month of the season. Still, if he returns, he will be a favorite from the SEC after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014: total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9), touchdowns responsible for (37), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (2,996), passing yards per game (249.7), 200-yard passing games (11), passing touchdowns (24), passing efficiency (151.3) and rushing yards by a quarterback (939).
- Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: With Gurley sidelined for the second half of the season, Chubb took off. Already impressing everyone when he came in to relieve Gurley, Chubb finished the season with seven straight 100-yard games (all starts), was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged a league-high 6.9 yards per carry. Chubb is explosive and powerful with his runs, and his vision is incredible.
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Another special sophomore-to-be to keep an eye on, Fournette needed some time to really get going. But when he did, he was usually the best player on the field. He finished the season with 891 yards and capped the season with 146 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a dominating performance against Texas A&M. Avert your eyes, Aggies! Fournette is a special talent who will be doing a lot more of this in the next couple of years.
- Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Before his season was cut short by a devastating ankle injury against Auburn, Treadwell was one of the SEC's best overall players. With Cooper most likely jetting for the NFL, Treadwell will return as the SEC's best receiver in 2015. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Treadwell, who has incredible athleticism, led the Rebels with 48 catches. He finished with 632 yards and five touchdowns.
- Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Though he didn't have the season most -- including me -- expected, Henry is a freak of an athlete capable of having a special season. If he is the lead guy in Alabama's backfield next fall, he should compete for the title of best running back in the SEC and improve on the 895 yards and 10 touchdowns he had while splitting carries this fall.
- Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The bowling ball had a fantastic season in Starkville, rushing for 1,128 yards (third in the SEC) and 11 touchdowns. Robinson was at the top of the SEC's rushing chart for most of the season and rushed for at least 100 yards four times. His numbers fell off during the final portion of the season, but Robinson is a big-play machine. Small in stature, he is a bull of a runner with a knack for tossing defenders off him or slipping out of their grasp for extra yards.
- T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: He leads Alabama with 932 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns, but he could take his game to the next level. He wasn't completely healthy this season, but his vision and ball security improved a lot in 2014.
- D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: He missed two games but still led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Another top-tier athlete, Williams made a ton of clutch plays for Auburn this fall. But with his incredible athleticism and size, he's very much a candidate to leave early.
It seems like every year, true freshmen are having a greater impact on the game. This season continued that trend. There were so many good first-year running backs that great players such as Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook couldn't find their way to this team. Meanwhile, a trio of SEC pass-rushers had immediate influence, with one even breaking Jadeveon Clowney's freshman sack record. Expect to hear a lot more from this group over the next few years.
QB: Brad Kaaya, Miami
This past summer was a disaster at quarterback for Miami, which lost starter Ryan Williams to injury and prospect Kevin Olsen to off-the-field issues, but Kaaya provided a resounding solution. After some early struggles on the road in his first start, Kaaya was exceptional and led the ACC in touchdowns (25), yards per attempt (8.6) and passer rating (148.2) while proving to be one of the best deep-ball threats in the country.
Some picks were easy. For instance, Alabama’s Amari Cooper might have been the easiest choice for All-SEC wide receiver in history. Others, not so much.
Here are some of the places where we were split on a decision or where we made a somewhat surprising omission, plus a couple of guys who we feel confident will make our team in the future -- possibly as soon as next season:
Sims vs. Prescott at QB
With that in mind, my selection for All-SEC QB was simple. It was Sims over Prescott -- by a mile.
That’s no knock on Prescott. Personally, I love watching him play. But when his Heisman Trophy campaign waned after Mississippi State reached No. 1 in the polls, he went sideways. Throwing out games against FCS Tennessee-Martin and woefully pathetic Vanderbilt, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the second half of the season.
Sims, meanwhile, was stellar in the biggest moments of the second half, whether it was the overtime affair in Death Valley, his 15-play drive against Mississippi State that Nick Saban ranked as one of the best in school history, or the end the regular season where he bounced back from three interceptions against Auburn to lead five consecutive touchdown drives.
If you need production, consider this: Sims ranks first or second in the SEC in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. His Adjusted QBR (88.4) ranks second in the country, trailing only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. With 3,250 yards passing, he surpassed AJ McCarron for the school record in a single season.
David Ching: Let’s use a fancy-pants baseball statistic here: Wins Above Replacement Player. That stat assigns a number value to a player, reflecting the wins he individually added to his team’s total compared to what an average player would add in the same circumstances.
For instance, Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw led MLB this season with an 8.0 WARP, meaning that simply having Kershaw on the team gave the Los Angeles Dodgers eight wins more than they would have had with a replacement-level player (like a minor leaguer).
I’ll get to the point. If there was such a thing as WARP in college football, Prescott would be a mile ahead of Sims. There isn’t even much of a debate in my mind.
Sims had a good season, and was even great at times, but he also plays for a team that is stocked with future NFL talent. By far the biggest reason that Mississippi State was in the playoff conversation until the end of the season was that Prescott is the Bulldogs’ quarterback.
This is a guy who’s probably going to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 once bowl season is over, plus he’s already thrown 24 touchdowns, caught one scoring pass and run for 13 more. I’m eminently confident that if the two players switched teams, Alabama would still be where it is in the national hierarchy. Could State say the same? I don’t think so.
Where’s Cedric Ogbuehi? Texas A&M’s 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle has a strong chance to be a first-round pick. In fact, he’s currently No. 11 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board and considering his athleticism, it seems to be a safe bet he’ll perform well at the NFL scouting combine and improve his draft stock. However, 2014 wasn’t quite the home run that many were expecting from Ogbuehi when he made the move from right tackle in 2013 to left tackle this season.
Ogbuehi was inconsistent at times and didn’t always appear comfortable at left tackle. It’s a position he didn’t play in college before this season, so some transition was to be expected, especially with footwork when switching from the right side to the left as an offensive lineman. He had his moments when he looked the part, but others, like this one vs. Robert Nkemdiche or this one vs. Kwon Alexander where he didn’t.
He moved back to right tackle for a few games as the Aggies tried to manage without starting right tackle Germain Ifedi, who missed time because of an injury and Ogbuehi looked more comfortable there, though even at that position, Missouri’s Markus Golden gave Ogbuehi all he could handle when the Tigers came to town. Overall, it just didn’t feel like a first-team All-SEC season for the future pro. (Sam Khan Jr.)
Wait until next year, defense: Myles Garrett is a star. There’s no doubt about that. In most leagues, he probably makes first-team all-conference with the season he put together. But this is the SEC, with a lot of great defensive linemen, so Garrett -- while excellent this season -- must wait. The Texas A&M true freshman defensive end had 11 sacks this year, which ties him for second in the conference with Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt, but Garret compiled eight of those against the following opponents: Lamar, Rice and Louisiana-Monroe. The sacks still count, but they aren’t as impressive as they would have been if more had come during SEC play. Garrett did pick up a sack against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, all teams with quality offensive lines, so that is noteworthy. And had he not got injured against Auburn after being yanked to the ground by Shon Coleman, Garrett might have had a stronger finish (he missed the Missouri game because of the injury, though he did return to play against LSU). Garrett earned deserved honors by making it onto both the Associated Press and coaches All-SEC second teams and if he continues to improve at his current rate, you can bet he’ll be a first-teamer across the board at this time next season. (Sam Khan Jr.)
We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.
Here's what we came up with:
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.
RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.
WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.
TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.
OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.
OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.
OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.
OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.
All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.
LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.
LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.
CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.
S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.
S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.
P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.
K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.
KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.
2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.
3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.
Around the SEC
" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.
" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.
" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.
Tweet of the day
“It was a few weeks ago,” Magee said of when he learned that he had been invited to participate in the East-West Shrine Game, an all-star game for college seniors. “Coach Frank [Wilson, LSU’s running backs coach] pulled me aside and told me, and then I got the thing in the mail.”
The all-star game – which will be played Jan. 17 in St. Petersburg, Florida – announced at the end of November that Magee and fellow LSU running back Kenny Hilliard had both accepted invitations to participate. In doing so, they will try to add to the remarkable success rate for Tigers tailbacks who attempt to make a living in the NFL.
Since Les Miles took over as coach in 2005, all but one LSU tailback who stayed on the team long enough to become draft eligible – 5-foot-6 Shyrone Carey’s height hurt his cause in the 2006 draft – has spent at least one season on an NFL roster.
The fact that some of them never handled an enormous workload in college, much like Magee and Hilliard, hasn’t seemed to matter.
Alfred Blue’s college career high for rushing was 539 yards in 2011 and yet he has nearly eclipsed that total this season as a rookie with the Houston Texans (457 yards in 13 games, including a 156-yard effort against Cleveland). Keiland Williams’ high was 478 yards in 2007 and he spent multiple seasons in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. And Richard Murphy also bounced around the NFL for more than a year despite never rushing for more than 230 yards (2007) in a season at LSU.
That bodes well for Magee and Hilliard, who have been role players throughout their time at LSU. While neither player seems likely to become an early-round draft pick, they can use their time in the all-star practices and subsequent draft workouts to give themselves a chance to join their fellow Tigers in the pros.
“[I want to] just go out there and show that I’m an every-down back,” Magee said. “Show that I can pass block, catch the ball out of the backfield and run the ball in between the tackles, as well as outside. Basically the same things that I’ve been doing here.”
That versatility will be Magee’s greatest asset as a prospect. Although he was a secondary option behind Jeremy Hill last season and Leonard Fournette this fall, Magee still contributed in a variety of ways. He’s second on the team with 545 rushing yards and third with 16 receptions for 162 yards. He also contributes on multiple special-teams units, which is a huge bonus for a player battling to make a 53-man NFL roster.
Hilliard, meanwhile, is more in the mold of the prototypical NFL power back, and he has plenty of tread left on the tires. His 87 carries in 10 games this season are a career high, and he’ll need to play in LSU’s Music City Bowl matchup against Notre Dame in order to set a new career high for rushing yardage (he has 431 yards, just shy of his 464 yards in 2012).
As of Sunday, Hilliard’s status for the bowl game was still undetermined, after he missed most of the last three games with a shoulder injury suffered on the opening drive of an overtime loss to Alabama.
“I don’t know that he will or won’t [play], but I think the time of the bowl gives us a chance,” Miles said Sunday night.
Regardless of whether he plays against the Fighting Irish, Hilliard has already displayed a skill set that would fit on a pro roster, even if he never became a full-fledged star in college. Same for Magee.
If they do the things that they’ve done at LSU during all-star practices and in the pro workouts that follow, history shows that they have a good shot to make it with an NFL club.
“I’m not going to go there and change anything that I’ve been doing here,” Magee said of his approach to all-star practices. “You know, go out there and show them the same things that I’ve been doing here at LSU.”
2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.
3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.
Around the SEC
" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.
" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.
" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.
" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.
Tweet of the day
Narrowing the choices down from dozens of great candidates to four was not easy, but the finalists for college football play of the year have been made, and now it's your turn to decide which wins.
Jog your memory by watching and reading about the memorable plays below, then cast a vote for your favorite by tweeting the hashtag #PlayOfTheYear with the school's name. (#PlayOfTheYear Arkansas, #PlayOfTheYear Kansas, #PlayOfTheYear LSU or #PlayOfTheYear Nebraska.)
Based on your tweets, the winner will be announced during Thursday's Home Depot College Football Awards Show (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
Without further ado, here are the finalists, with descriptions of the plays from the players, coaches and reporters who were there.
Jordan Westerkamp goes behind his back
The play: In Nebraska's Aug. 30 season opener against Florida Atlantic, receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught a ball behind his back. We still don't know quite how he did it.
In his own words
Westerkamp: "It was all luck."
In his coach's words
Bo Pelini: “That one’s hard to explain. To even have the wherewithal to put your hands back there, it’s amazing. I’ve always said that he catches everything that’s near him.”
In a witness' words
Mitch Sherman, ESPN.com: Nebraska led 31-7 in the third quarter of its season opener, so little did the crowd at Memorial Stadium expect to witness the most memorable catch of the game -- and probably the entire season -- when Tommy Armstrong Jr. took a shotgun snap on third-and-6.
His throw sailed toward the east sideline past midfield in front of the Nebraska bench. FAU defensive back Christian Milstead went horizontal and leaped to tip the football, which changed direction and found the moving hands of Westerkamp -- behind his back. He nimbly kept both feet in-bounds.
It left thousands in the stadium wondering if they actually just saw what they thought they saw. Even the officials weren’t sure; they stopped the next play for a review. When the HuskerVision screens displayed a replay of the catch, the crowd roared as loudly as the first time. Yes, that really happened.
Trick play turns into a big-guy touchdown pass
The play: In a game against UAB on Oct. 25, Arkansas attempted a fourth-and-goal play on which it lined up Sebastian Tretola under center. Tretola is a 6-foot-5, 350-pound offensive lineman. And he threw it to a ... wait for it ... long snapper. It was a proud moment for big guys everywhere, including former Kentucky QB Jared Lorenzen.
In his own words
Tretola: “We ran the play, and he snapped me the ball, and everything went slow motion from there. I have a whole newfound respect for Brandon Allen, you know what, because it gets hectic back there. I mean, D’Appollonio got open, and I made the throw. It was nuts. When I initially threw the ball, I thought I missed it, you know, because of the crowd. You kind of listen to the crowd, so I didn't know if I got it, but they gradually started getting louder, and I was like, 'All right, I got it, I got it,' and it worked out. It was a great feeling.”
In his coach's words
Bret Bielema: “Come to Arkansas ... if you’re [an offensive] lineman, we’ll make you famous.”
In a witness' words
Robbie Neiswanger, Arkansas News Bureau: It’s not unusual for Arkansas to try something different under Bret Bielema. He’s only been in Fayetteville for two years but has reached into his bag of tricks numerous times. But no one imagined one of his offensive linemen would throw a pass. That’s what makes guard Sebastian Tretola’s touchdown toss to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio one of those plays you’ll never forget. I remember watching players shift into a swinging gate formation, which was something Arkansas has done before. Then I remember seeing someone shift into the backfield for a shotgun snap. It was only after the touchdown toss -- and after jumping up from my seat in the press box to get a closer look at the replay on the nearest monitor -- that I truly pieced together what happened. Tretola was the quarterback. And he threw a pass. I guess in the end we should’ve known Bielema, a proud and vocal proponent of offensive linemen, would be the mastermind behind a big-guy touchdown pass.
A circus catch in Lawrence
The play: Tip drill! In a game that looked for a while like it could shake up the college football landscape, Kansas took a stunning 27-17 lead on an equally stunning 78-yard touchdown catch-and-run, on which KU receiver Nigel King not only tipped the ball to himself several times but also somehow stayed in bounds while doing so.
King: “My biggest focus on that ball that was tipped was to keep my feet in bounds because I felt like the defenders took the ball out-of-bounds. When I realized that I could catch the ball and possibly score, I was focusing on keeping my feet in bounds and catching the ball at the same time. One thing that I can say that’s helped me a lot is that coach has a saying: ‘To catch with our eyes and not with our hands.’ Looking the ball in is what helps the most."
In his coach's words
Clint Bowen: Yeah, you know, he continues to do that. I think that's going on about four weeks in a row it seems like Nigel and Michael have hooked up on a big play. Nigel continues to compete and make plays for us. He's been a big positive for us."
In a witness' words
Jake Trotter, ESPN.com: I never thought Kansas had any chance to beat TCU -- until that incredible play. There had been a series of breaks that had gone the way of the Jayhawks in the first half, but you never really felt TCU was in danger or had lost control until King pulled off that catch. The thing is, Kansas actually recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff return. Had the Jayhawks capitalized there, too -- they didn't -- they probably would have pulled off the upset of the year in college football.
Leonard Fournette, Human Bulldozer
The play: LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette entered the season as the nation's No. 1 recruit. He showed flashes of brilliance throughout the fall, but no more so than when he bowled over a Texas A&M defender on Thanksgiving at Kyle Field.
In his own words
Fournette: “It felt great. It felt normal.”
In his coach's words
Les Miles: “I would get out of the way if Leonard were running at me.”
In a witness' words
Sam Khan Jr., ESPN.com: The soon-to-be-demolished press box at Kyle Field is pretty high, so I almost always try to have a pair of binoculars on hand so I can get a closer look at the action during Texas A&M home games. On Thanksgiving night, what Fournette did within the scope of my viewfinder on my pair of Bushnells was something I’ve never seen a 19-year-old do before.
When Fournette broke through the large hole on the left side of the line of scrimmage, it was clear a big gain was ahead. But when he lowered his head and ran through senior safety Howard Matthews, all I could say was “Oh, wow!” I try not to make too much noise in a press box, but this was a rare exception. I couldn’t help myself. There were some “Whoas!” and “Wows” and “Ooohs” among the assorted media. Some could have injured their necks with the speed they turned their heads to spot the nearest TV monitor to view the replay. There were also grimaces and audible sympathy for Matthews, a known hard-hitter himself, for being victimized by the seemingly super-human Fournette.
As I searched for proper terms to describe Fournette’s feat for the Twitterverse, I arrived on “grown man,” “beastly” and “truck stick” before quickly searching for the replay clip to share with those who might have missed it and reiterate he is a true freshman. After the game, LSU safety Jamal Adams simply made a face and a sound when I asked for his reaction. That was all that needed to be said.
"I feel like the Ole Miss game was kind of where we made a statement saying that we're for real," said Collins, the junior cornerback whose defense limited Ole Miss to 313 total yards in LSU's 10-7 win. "Just the way that we played and came out every series, every snap and tried to stop them. They're a great offense and we held them to well under their average for the year."
The Tigers did that to a lot of opposing offenses this season, especially after their 41-7 loss at Auburn on Oct. 4. Auburn and Mississippi State both ripped holes in LSU's reconstructed defensive front early in the season, and complemented the run with a handful of big plays in the passing game, but once the Tigers' front seven settled in, LSU's overall defensive results started to improve.
In the second half of the season, only three defenses (Clemson, Central Florida and Penn State) allowed fewer yards per game than LSU's 273.8 and no defense in the country surrendered fewer touchdowns than LSU's 10.
The Tigers capped the season by holding Texas A&M to 228 total yards and 144 passing yards -- among the Aggies' worst performances in either category this season -- with Collins clinching the victory by intercepting a Kyle Allen pass on A&M's final play.
"I feel like we got better every game," Collins said. "Going into camp, [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond was hard on us and made sure we prepared. And every week we tried to get in some extra work, tried to make sure our communication was good so we were prepared for whoever we were facing. I feel like we did a lot."
It was a far cry from the problems that the 2013 secondary experienced, with multiple opponents lighting up LSU's pass defense early in the season before freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson grabbed starting roles.
Robinson was suspended twice in 2014, and his future status seems to be in jeopardy since he has been indefinitely suspended for the past three games, but White and Collins formed a consistent combination at cornerback.
And at safety, despite missing Corey Thompson for the entire season and Dwayne Thomas for most of it, the combination of Ronald Martin, Jalen Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams was formidable.
Although All-SEC pick Martin is a senior and juniors Mills and Collins will have the opportunity to join him in the NFL draft pool if they opt to forgo their final seasons of eligibility -- Collins confirmed Sunday that he submitted his name to be evaluated as a possible early entrant into the draft -- the returning players should help LSU's secondary rank among the nation's best again in 2015.
As White and Robinson did the season before, true freshman Adams started to come into his own toward the end of the season. He started two of the last three games and is now tied for sixth on the team with 56 tackles.
"It definitely slowed down," Adams said after matching his career high with eight tackles against A&M. "Each game, I'm trying to get better, trying to help the team out and each day we're getting better and better as a team."
Depending on who returns next season, Adams could be among a handful of LSU defensive backs who earn All-SEC attention in 2015. Entering his junior season, White will be a no-brainer, and several other Tigers veterans have flashed the skills to join him in the upper echelon of SEC DBs.
"The way that we came to work this past year and just kind of shed that light on the younger guys, everybody's having another year under their belt," Collins said, looking ahead to next season. "It'll just be that much more exciting to see what we can do and how good we can be."
This game is the top one for obvious reasons, primarily, it’s the one bowl game involving the SEC that has real stakes -- the winner goes to the national championship game. If the College Football Playoff semifinal wasn’t strong enough for you, it matches two of the most well-known head coaches in the game right now, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Those two did battle before when Meyer was at Florida, so the reunion should be plenty compelling.
2. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU
This is the only other SEC bowl that matches up two top-10 teams. TCU was one of the teams left at the altar by the selection committee, so it’s probable that the Horned Frogs would like to stomp a highly-regarded SEC team to make a statement. Ole Miss has had an impressive season and can secure only its seventh 10-win campaign in school history and its third since 1971.
3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville
It’s the Grantham Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s current team (Louisville) takes on his previous team (Georgia). It’s a safe bet he’d like to have his unit excel en route to a Cardinal win. The Cardinal defense is sixth nationally in yards per game allowed (293.2) but it’ll get tested by the Georgia running game, led by freshman sensation Nick Chubb (1,281 yards), who leads Georgia’s 12th-ranked rushing attack (255 yards per game).
4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin
You have two of the nation’s top rushing teams as well as two pretty good running backs in this one. There’s the nation’s top individual rusher, Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards) against Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482) who leads the SEC. Wisconsin averages a whopping 314 rushing yards per game, third in the nation while Auburn posts a hefty 258.5 (11th).
5. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia
If you like scoring, you’ll enjoy this one. Both teams average more than 33 points per game and they each throw it around a lot, averaging more than 300 passing yards per game. There are familiar faces on the coaching staffs as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked for Kevin Sumlin for two seasons at Houston and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked for Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and West Virginia before going to A&M. It’s Air Raid everywhere.
6. Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech
He wasn’t a Heisman finalist but Dak Prescott was in the Heisman conversation for much of the season. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see Prescott and his partner-in-crime, running back Josh Robinson, who is aptly nicknamed “Bowling ball.” Georgia Tech is worth a watch for traditionalists, as the Yellow Jackets run the triple option well: just ask Georgia (who they beat in overtime) or Florida State (a team they stayed step-for-step with for much of the night).
7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas
Long live the Southwest Conference. This is a throwback battle if there ever was one. These teams are both in the top 30 nationally in defense, each allowing fewer than 350 yards per game. The job Bret Bielema has done to get the Razorbacks to a bowl this season is noteworthy, while Charlie Strong seems to be laying the foundation for future success at Texas. Also, Strong has history in Arkansas -- he was born in Batesville and played for Central Arkansas. He said Tuesday this will be the first time he’ll root against the Hogs.
8. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame
Considering the profile of these two programs, you wouldn’t expect this game to be this far down the list. While the two teams have strong histories, this season hasn’t been stellar for either. There’s plenty of intrigue, though, from getting to see LSU’s star freshmen (Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, etc.) to the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly has opened up competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. For what it’s worth, Les Miles said bowl prep will also be an important evaluation time for his quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
9. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota
This one may not have the sizzle on the surface but it matches two quality teams, both ranked in the Top 25. Missouri features two of the league’s best pass-rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Those two are worth watching alone, even if the Tigers’ offense isn’t always. Minnesota features one of the nation’s top rushers, running back David Cobb, who is ninth in rushing yards this season (1,548).
10. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina vs. Miami
This game could become a feeding frenzy for Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is 12th in the country in rushing yards (1,520). South Carolina allows 214.4 rushing yards per game, 107th nationally. But the Gamecocks can score plenty of points, they average 33.3. Keep an eye on Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic receiver and returner who can do it all, including pass, and has 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season.
11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa
Tennessee is thrilled to be in a bowl. You might even say they’re happy. It’s the first time in a bowl since 2010 for the Volunteers. There’s still a long way to go to get this proud program back to where it wants to be but they’re moving in the right direction. The Vols have a ton of talented freshmen on the roster who played key roles this season and sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who came on strong late in the season, seems to have a bright future in Knoxville.
12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina
Any time you go into a game with an interim coach, it’s not ideal. That’s what the Gators have to do after firing Will Muschamp. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach. For Florida fans, this is a chance to scout a future opponent -- the Gators and Pirates meet Sept. 12 next season. East Carolina brings a high-powered offense led by quarterback Shane Carden, who is second nationally in passing yards (4,309). That should be a good test for a talented Florida defense. The continued development of true freshman quarterback Treon Harris is also worth keeping an eye on.
2. Lashlee isn't the only offensive coordinator in Alabama making headlines. In what some considered an upset, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did not win the Frank Broyles Award on Tuesday. The award, which honors the nation's top assistant coach, went to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman instead. However, Kiffin was in attendance and spoke publicly for the first time since the beginning of fall practice. He was quite entertaining, too, when talking about his boss Nick Saban. What does Saban say tell him on the sideline? “Hey Lane, I love you so much,” Kiffin joked. “Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times please.” Maybe that's why Saban has kept his offensive coordinator off-limits to the media this season.
3. More honors were given out Tuesday. A day after releasing its All-SEC team, the Associated Press named Amari Cooper the conference's offensive player of the year and Shane Ray the defensive player of the year. Ray became the second straight Missouri player to win the award, joining last year's recipient Michael Sam. The league's coaches also put out their All-SEC team Tuesday, and it looked similar to the AP. Dak Prescott was voted first-team quarterback ahead of Blake Sims, and names like Cooper, Ray, and Landon Collins were all on the list as well. In all, 12 of the 14 SEC teams had at least one player on the first team. Stay tuned this week as we at the SEC blog will be releasing our All-SEC first team on Friday.
Around the SEC
- Still searching for a coach, Michigan has “reached out” to LSU coach Les Miles' agent.
- Junior college linebacker commits to Ole Miss 15 minutes after Rebels extend an offer.
- Tennessee has replaced UAB with Bowling Green for next season's opener in Nashville.
- Texas A&M pledge Kyler Murray named Gatorade National Football Player of the Year.
LSU's Jennings and Notre Dame's Golson both struggled down the stretch, but they struggled in entirely different ways.
Notre Dame (7-5) coach Brian Kelly said Sunday that the team will hold open competition for playing time at all positions, including quarterback, after yanking Golson in the second quarter of a season-ending 49-14 loss at USC and going with redshirt freshman Malik Zaire once the Trojans took a 35-0 lead.
"There's a way I want that position to operate, and it's going to operate the way that I want it to operate," Kelly said. "If you operate it the way that I want it done, you'll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame."
Meanwhile, the quarterback position has typically been a playmaking afterthought this season at LSU (8-4), which has placed more of an emphasis on protecting the football than taking aggressive shots downfield. Jennings has been successful in that regard -- he tossed seven interceptions and lost two fumbles this fall -- but the Tigers' offense also went into deep lulls at times with Jennings at the helm.
LSU coach Les Miles said Sunday that bowl practice would be an important evaluation time as the season-long competition continues between sophomore Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris.
"Absolutely it is," Miles said. "It's that time that you continue to compete, you continue to press your quarterbacks to throw it, run it and do the things that we're going to ask them to do."
Miles said the competition was close on an almost weekly basis this season, yet it has largely taken place only on the practice field. Jennings started all but one of LSU's games -- a 41-7 loss at Auburn where Harris seemed overwhelmed by the moment -- and the freshman appeared in only two of the Tigers' final six games in the regular season.
True competition would be something entirely new for Notre Dame this season, however. Fourth-year junior Golson, who quarterbacked the Irish in its 2012 BCS championship loss to Alabama, was the obvious choice as the starter once he returned from a season-long academic suspension earlier this year.
Kelly said Sunday that Notre Dame submitted Golson's name to be evaluated as a possible early entrant into the NFL draft. Even if he returns, this could be a competition that extends through the offseason and into next fall.
"It may be eight practices [that the competition lasts], it may be a year," Kelly said. "But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."
The scenario at LSU might be similar. Beyond bowl practice, this will be a huge offseason for Jennings and Harris -- and they could have additional competition at the position next fall. Among the prospects LSU has expressed an interest in is ESPN's No. 1 junior college quarterback Chad Kelly, a former Clemson backup who passed for 434 yards and five touchdowns on Sunday in leading East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA national title.
But regardless of whether LSU signs an experienced quarterback to compete with the youngsters, the Tigers' bowl workouts and spring practices will be enormously important for Jennings and Harris.
LSU's grind-it-out offensive approach worked at times, but it was unable to keep up in high-scoring games. The Tigers need more from the position than they typically got in 2014, and this is the quarterbacks' final opportunity to prove that they can handle the job.
"If they have designs on being the leader of this team and being that quarterback, this will be a very competitive time even before the game," Miles said.
Intriguing SEC bowl games
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