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Anthony Jennings pass intercepted Kawe Johnson return for no gain to the NMxSt 43
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Anthony Jennings sacked by Dalton Herrington for a loss of 9 yards to the LSU 12
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Anthony Jennings run for 6 yds to the 50 yard line Anthony Jennings fumbled, forced by Kawe Johnson, recovered by NMxSt Dalton Herrington , return to the 50 yard line
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Tyler Rogers pass intercepted Tre'Davious White return for no gain to the LSU 26

SEC viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
AM ET
A look ahead at Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.

Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesCalling Texas A&M-Arkansas a big game seemed a stretch a few weeks ago, but Kenny Hill and the Aggies could have their hands full against the Razorbacks.
3:30 p.m.

Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.

4 p.m.

Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.

7 p.m.

Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?

7:30 p.m.

New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.

Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.
BATON ROUGE, La. – The topic du jour at Les Miles’ three Q&A sessions on Wednesday concerned his quarterbacks. Specifically, what will be LSU’s next move in the battle for playing time between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris?

Who will be the starter in Saturday’s game against New Mexico State? It most likely will be Jennings, Miles said on the SEC’s weekly coaches teleconference.

Has Harris – who starred in last Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback against Mississippi State after Jennings’ dismal outing – made up ground in the race? “Some,” Miles told reporters in his post-practice interview.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsIt appears LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings will get another shot to start after a tough night against Mississippi State.
Will Harris get more than the garbage-time snaps he mostly received to this point? “Look forward to him getting a little bit more playing time. He certainly was deserving,” Miles said on his weekly call-in show.

The problems that revealed themselves in the Mississippi State loss are much greater than simply which player is behind center, but we’ll start there in this week’s storylines for Saturday.

Third-down inefficiency: LSU has been mediocre in nearly every offensive category, but its decline on third down has been striking. That had to be expected with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham all departing from a 2013 offense that led the nation by converting 57 percent of its third downs.

It has been a problem this season, particularly with Jennings at quarterback. ESPN Stats and Information reports that LSU ranks 70th nationally in third-down conversions (41 percent) and has only converted on 38 percent of its third downs with Jennings at quarterback, compared to 63 percent with Harris.

During the last two seasons, Jennings led LSU to a 30-percent conversion rate on third down, while Mettenberger converted 54 percent of the time. The differences are also huge when comparing Mettenberger and Jennings’ Total QBR (97.2 to 37.1), yards per attempt (10.9 to 6.2) and passing touchdowns (nine to two) on third down.

These comparisons are unfair, of course. Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who ranked second nationally behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on both third-down QBR and third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Jennings just made his fifth career start. Nonetheless, the dropoff has been substantial and is one of the contributing factors in LSU’s offensive slowdown.

QB comparison: Let’s shift from one comparison that doesn’t look pretty for Jennings to another. Again, different sample sizes paint an unfair picture for Jennings, but the Tigers’ offense has been more productive with Harris at quarterback.

LSU scored a touchdown on two of its three drives against Mississippi State with Harris at quarterback compared to one in 12 with Jennings. Of course, Jennings played against the starters and Harris did not face the Bulldogs’ full defensive arsenal when he entered the game with less than four minutes to play and Mississippi State ahead by double digits. But he was clearly the more productive quarterback last Saturday, leading LSU’s offense to 159 yards in just 12 snaps.

We could make similar statements about the other games in which they appeared. Jennings took the starters’ best shots in the first four games and Harris came on in relief, typically in the second half. But in his smaller sample size, Harris has led the Tigers to more yards per play, a greater percentage of touchdowns per drive and a significantly higher percentage of third-down conversions.

Stopping the run: We discussed this in a post earlier this week, but LSU must shore up its issues defending runs straight up the middle. On designed runs between the tackles, Mississippi State ran for 286 yards – the most allowed by an SEC defense in the last two seasons – averaged 8.2 yards per carry and broke nine runs of 10 yards or longer.

In the first three games, LSU allowed just 52.3 yards on designed runs between the tackles, 3.5 yards per carry and just one run of 10-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Opening it up? With the bulk of the SEC schedule still ahead, this seems like a good week for LSU to work on opening up its offense a bit if it will, in fact, spread the field in future games. But that doesn’t exactly jibe with what works best against New Mexico State’s defense.

The Aggies have been atrocious against the run, surrendering 299.3 rushing yards per game and ranking 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. So perhaps we’ll see plenty of Kenny Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and LSU’s power running game early and the Tigers can work on the passing game once they build a lead.

Dural, then who? If LSU puts the ball in the air more frequently, Travin Dural (18 catches, 494 yards, 4 TDs) is a given as the first option. But then who?

Maybe it will be Malachi Dupre, who delivered a breakout performance last Saturday night against Mississippi State. Fellow freshmen Trey Quinn and John Diarse are also possibilities. After Dural, the Tigers’ next three receivers have only connected with their quarterback for a completion on 19 of the 37 passes in which they were the intended targets.

 

After inheriting an Ole Miss program that won two games in 2011 and had suffered 14 consecutive losses against SEC opponents, coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a 7-6 record in his first season in 2012.

In February 2013, Ole Miss signed the country's No. 5-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, and landed several blue-chip prospects, including defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner.

With those freshmen playing significant roles, the Rebels went 8-5 in 2013, upsetting then-No. 6 LSU 27-24 along the way, and won a bowl game for the second season in a row.

Yet, as Ole Miss entered Freeze's third season in August, it was still staring up at Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Such is life in the rugged SEC West.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesHugh Freeze's Rebels are 3-0, but they have a difficult schedule filled with SEC West opponents in coming weeks.
 "I'm probably the only coach that speaks the truth about that," Freeze said. "I don't know if our fans like it or not, but there are times you feel like it's insurmountable. The confidence you have is that you know in your heart that you've closed the gap from what it was, and that on a given day, you're good enough to beat them."

We're about to find out how much the upstarts have closed the gap on the recent heavyweights in college football's best division. Heading into this weekend's games, six of the seven SEC West teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll: No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 17 LSU.

The other team, Arkansas, lost to defending SEC champion Auburn 45-21 in its opener, but then won its next three games by an average of 42 points.

"I can't remember a time when there were that many good teams in one division," said former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who guided the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship. "Texas A&M probably wishes it was on the other side. It's a really strong division right now."

Consider the strength of the SEC West through the first month of the 2014 season:

• SEC West teams are 22-0 against teams not in the division and are winning those games by an average margin of 34 points. SEC West teams are a combined 24-2, with the only losses coming against each other. Along with Auburn's victory over Arkansas, Mississippi State upset LSU 34-29 on the road last week.

• The SEC West has a 99.3 rating on a 0-100 scale in ESPN's division power rankings, which is 33 points higher than any other division in college football.

• Each of the SEC West teams rank in the top 20 of ESPN's Football Power Index, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC have combined. The top three teams in the FPI are from the SEC West: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 Auburn.

• Five SEC West teams (Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M) rank in the Top 25 among FBS teams in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Texas A&M is No. 2 in scoring offense (55.3 points per game) and No. 8 in scoring defense (11.8 points). Arkansas is No. 3 in scoring offense (48.8 points), and the Razorbacks and Aggies are on pace to break the SEC scoring record set by Florida (46.6 points) in 1996.

A month into the season, the weight of the SEC seems to have shifted dramatically back to the West. Every SEC East team has already suffered at least one loss, including defending division champion Missouri and preseason favorites Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. SEC East teams are 0-3 against SEC West foes.

"I think these things kind of run in cycles," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They run in cycles from team to team and they run in cycles from division to division. I just think this happens to be one of those years where it seems like the West has a lot of really good teams. I think our league is just really, really strong from top to bottom. There's a lot of balance, and I just think our side of it seems to be especially strong this year."

Starting this weekend, the SEC West teams will start to cannibalize themselves. Texas A&M plays Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, and then plays three consecutive games against ranked opponents from the SEC West. After hosting Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss plays four ranked SEC West foes in its next five games, and the Razorbacks will face ranked opponents in six of their next seven games.


Auburn might play the most arduous schedule of anyone, with six consecutive games against ranked SEC opponents after Saturday's home game against Louisiana Tech. After playing that murderer's row, the Tigers close the regular season with a home game against FCS foe Samford on Nov. 22 before a road trip to Alabama for the Iron Bowl the next week.

How difficult will the stretch run be in the SEC West? ESPN Insider's Brian Fremeau, who created the Fremeau Efficiency Index, gives each of the five remaining undefeated SEC West teams less than a 5 percent chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. Fremeau predicts defending national champion Florida State has a 41.8 percent chance of finishing undefeated, with Oregon (18.2 percent) and Oklahoma (13.2 percent) having the best opportunities to go unbeaten among the other Power 5 conference teams.

According to FPI projections, there's a 56 percent chance the SEC champion will have at least two losses. The Big 12 and ACC champions are each projected to have one or fewer losses.

"If you're going to win and be in the playoff, you've got to be a good football team anyway," Stallings said. "The bad thing is they're going to knock each other off. I don't know who's choosing the teams for the playoff, but the [SEC West] teams could lose two games by a couple of points and still be a better team than an undefeated or one-loss team from another league."

Over the next 10 weeks, the SEC West will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Over the next few weeks, we'll start to learn whether an upstart like Arkansas, Ole Miss or Mississippi State is ready to take a stand against Alabama and Auburn.

"We've made progress," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "We've done certain things better. I think, without a doubt, our guys have a lot more confidence than they maybe had a year ago. But until you've done it on a big stage and against a quality opponent like we're going to see Saturday, it's really just talk."

SEC morning links

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:00
AM ET
1. Texas turnaround: Kevin Sherrington from the Dallas Morning News took a look at which college football program is actually the top dog in the state of Texas. The Lone Star State belonged to the Texas Longhorns for many years, but programs like Texas A&M and Baylor have completely altered things in recent years -- a sea of change that has only become more dramatic because of the problems that have occurred in Austin. Here’s another odd coincidence that hints at the changes within the state: Texas A&M announced on Thursday a home-and-home series with Notre Dame in 2024 and 2025. On the same day, Notre Dame confirmed that half of its four-game series against Texas (the games in 2019 and 2020 are off, while the 2015 and 2016 games will still be played) is cancelled.

2. East showdown: Between the retrospectives on South Carolina’s overtime win at eventual SEC East champ Missouri last season and rundowns of the ESPN College GameDay hoopla that will parade into Gamecocks country this weekend -- Kenny Chesney is the guest picker, y’all! -- let’s also remember that South Carolina and Missouri will play a pretty big game on Saturday. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward says his defense is developing a better pass rush, and it will need to with Maty Mauk and Missouri’s passing game coming to town. The Tigers have tinkered with their starting offensive line, but their sophomore quarterback can sling it around. And the Tigers are pretty good on kick returns, too, which has been a problem for South Carolina of late.

3. Volunteers-Bulldogs: How’s this for a statement on the changing philosophies in college football. Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek says it’s unusual these days to scheme for Georgia’s relatively traditional pro-style offense. Of course, former UGA assistant Jancek has seen more of Mike Bobo’s offense than most, but the Bulldogs have also shaken things up a bit schematically since Jancek left the staff after the 2009 season. Saturday’s game pits two teams who have relied heavily on freshman contributors so far. It should be an interesting matchup between a Tennessee program that’s on the rise and one from Georgia that seems to rank among the favorites to win its third SEC East title in four seasons.

Around the SEC:

" As it turns out, LSU coach Les Miles has an appreciation for baseball’s advanced statistical analysis. Who wants to hear him break down sabermetrics?

" After an underwhelming performance against Kansas State last week, Auburn hopes to get its running game back on track against Louisiana Tech.

" Although he still weighs 360 pounds, Kentucky defensive tackle Matt Elam says he’s dropped 30 pounds since he arrived on campus.

" Alabama’s defense has worked lately on toughening up.

" Associated Press writers Steve Megargee and David Brandt give us a list of matchups and items to watch in this weekend’s SEC games.

Tweets of the day

There are plenty of stars in the SEC. Whether you're looking at Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board of NFL draft picks or the national rankings for receptions, passing yards or tackles, you're likely to find plenty of players from the Southeast. But through a quarter of the regular season, who in the SEC has separated themselves as the elite talent in the league? It's early, but let's take a look at three tiers.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama safety Landon Collins has firmly established himself in the elite category.
THE ELITE

  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (32) and passes defended (2), and he's done all that in a secondary that hasn't had much stability. Collins' talent is unquestionable. He showed against Florida how disruptive a force he can be, whether that's in the passing game or playing near the line of scrimmage.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: We all knew how good the junior wideout could be. Heck, he broke Julio Jones' freshman records at Alabama two years ago. Now that he's fully healthy again, Cooper is defying all expectations, leading the country in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to pick up large chunks of yards after the catch is uncanny.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He's a beast. There's no two ways about it. The junior has settled any debate heading into the season: He's the best running back in the country. In a one-dimensional offense, he shoulders the load. He averages 134 rushing yards per game. And he's explosive, with 13 runs of 10 or more yards through three games.
  • Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny who? The redshirt sophomore has made Aggies fans forget the mercurial Johnny Manziel. Hill's raw QBR (94.0) is the best of any quarterback in the country with at least three starts -- ahead of Oregon Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota. Hill's 13 passing TDs to one interception is ridiculous.
  • Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defense hasn't been the best this season, but it has nothing to do with the pass rush. Ray, a junior from Missouri, has played lights out. He leads the league in sacks with six and is tied for ninth in total tackles with 22.
STUCK ON THE FENCE

  • Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: He was being billed as a possible contender for the Heisman Trophy, but Davis hasn't played up to those expectations yet. Nagging injuries have kept the junior tailback from reaching his potential once again. His 264 yards rushing ranks 10th in the SEC.
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Don't put all of Cooper's 201 yards and three touchdowns on Hargreaves. The sophomore cornerback wasn't covering him the whole time, and when he did give up a TD in the second half, he was worn out from his offense's inability to stay on the field. Nonetheless, Hargreaves should be considered one of the best corners in the SEC.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There had to be an A.P.B. put out on Howard earlier in the season. The dynamic sophomore wasn't getting the football. He had no catches in the first three games. The only time he'd been targeted, it resulted in an interception. Last Saturday was a move in the right direction -- two receptions for 22 yards -- but Howard has to find a way to become a bigger part of Alabama's offense.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: So much for a true freshman contending for the Heisman. But who really expected that would happen? Fournette has played well but not great. His 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 average) is respectable but not noteworthy. Let's give the kid some time, why don't we?
  • Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: What was all that talk we heard this offseason about Marshall developing into a better passer? It hasn't happened yet. The senior's completion percentage is still stuck well below the 60 percent benchmark. His QB rating (126.8) is worse than it was last season (143.2).
RISING UP THE RANKS

  • Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: For all the talk about Georgia and Alabama's running backs, it's been Arkansas with the most productive duo in the SEC. Collins leads the league in rushing yards (490) and Williams leads the league in rushing touchdowns (7).
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: If it weren't for Cooper, we'd be drooling over LSU's explosive sophomore. He was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last season, but not anymore. Dural is second in the league in receiving yards (494) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (4) despite getting the ball just 18 times, compared to Cooper's 43 or Malcome Kennedy's 30 receptions.
  • Myles Garrett, DL, Texas A&M: The true freshman defensive end was brought to Aggieland to rush the passer, and he's done just that. The former five-star prospect has lived up to his talent, ranking second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks.
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Whether it's with his arm, his feet or even his hands, Mississippi State's junior quarterback is getting the job done. In addition to having the fourth-highest QB rating in the SEC (178.4), Prescott is tied for the league lead in scoring with 90 total points.
  • Duke Williams, WR, Auburn: The former junior college transfer arrived at Auburn to much fanfare, and he quickly lived up to the hype. A physical 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's become Marshall's favorite target. The Louisiana native is fifth in the SEC in receptions (21), sixth in receiving yards (324) and ninth in yards per catch (15.4).

SEC Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
9:00
AM ET
This week's marquee game, Missouri at South Carolina, lost a little luster after the Tigers' inexplicable loss at home to Indiana. Not surprisingly, all of our reporters got that one wrong, while a correct Mississippi State pick helped move Jeff Barlis into a first-place tie with Chris Low. There's not too much disagreement this time around, although that should change next week with three Top 25 games on tap.


Why South Carolina wins: Neither team has looked too impressive so far, but the Gamecocks are a quality team at home, the season-opening loss to Texas A&M notwithstanding. (They’ve won 20 of their last 21 at Williams-Brice Stadium.) The Gamecocks have been tested by three top-25 teams (Texas A&M, Georgia, East Carolina) while Missouri has not (and lost at home to Indiana). The Tigers are also shuffling their offensive line after losing a starter to injury. South Carolina 30, Missouri 20 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Why Missouri wins: Before you say anything, I know. How can you lose to Indiana? Well, the Hoosiers would probably put up 30-plus points on this South Carolina defense. I can only imagine the kind of game Maty Mauk is going to have. Also, expect the Missouri defense to play better with star DE Markus Golden back in the lineup. How about this for redemption? Andrew Baggett kicks the game-winning field goal. Missouri 34, South Carolina 31 -- Greg Ostendorf


Why Georgia wins big: Tennessee is coming off a bye, and there's no doubt the Vols are improved, but their defense is not ready to stop Georgia. Against Oklahoma, Tennessee gave up an average of 7.4 yards per carry to freshman running back Samaje Perine. Georgia's Heisman Trophy candidate, Todd Gurley, is averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and backup Sony Michel averages 10.3 yards per carry. More gloom and doom for the Vols: Once the ground game gets going, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will hurt you with the play-action game. He's completing 71.2 percent of his passes this season. Georgia 42, Tennessee 20 -- Jeff Barlis

Why Tennessee keeps it close: This might be a bit of an overreaction to Georgia's loss to South Carolina. It was on the road. And it was decided by less than an inch. But Hutson Mason hasn't showed me he can complement Todd Gurley enough. And the Bulldogs' secondary isn't especially inspiring. Tennessee finds a way to make a few explosive plays though the air (Justin Worley is spoiled at receiver), and the Vols keep it tight well into the fourth quarter. Georgia 23, Tennessee 20 -- Alex Scarborough


Why Texas A&M wins big: I like what Bret Bielema is building at Arkansas. His brand of offense -- big, physical, nasty -- is refreshing and increasingly unique. But while I don't expect Texas A&M's defense to be especially stout against the run, I think DC Mark Snyder will find a way to force Brandon Allen to throw. If that's the case and Kenny Hill continues his trill ways, this one goes the Aggies' way in a hurry. Texas A&M 42, Arkansas 20 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Arkansas keeps it close: It's clear the Hogs are better than they were, with the 324.5 rushing yards per game and 17 total rushing touchdowns as proof. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have been fantastic, and the Aggies haven't faced an opponent remotely close to this one when it comes to the running game. I'm just not sure that the A&M line can hold up against it. But Kenny "Trill" Hill will find a way to zip throws through that shaky Arkansas secondary, and I'm just not ready to put a game on Brandon Allen's shoulders. It's just not enough in Jerry's World. Texas A&M 38, Arkansas 31 -- Edward Aschoff

More unanimous picks
Auburn over Louisiana Tech: This is Auburn’s only gimme for the next two months, so count on Gus Malzahn to get his starters out early with games against LSU and Mississippi State up next. Auburn 48, Louisiana Tech 14

LSU over New Mexico State: Because last week was a total embarrassment for LSU, New Mexico State probably won’t enjoy this visit to Tiger Stadium as Les Miles’ club tries to rebuild its confidence before returning to SEC play. LSU 40, New Mexico State 17

Kentucky over Vanderbilt: Maybe Florida’s blowout loss to Alabama made Kentucky’s overtime defeat in The Swamp look a bit less impressive, but it's still enough to expect Mark Stoops’ team to beat rebuilding Vandy. Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 21

Ole Miss over Memphis: Like most of the other games in this renewed border rivalry -- Ole Miss holds a 47-10-2 advantage -- this one will end with the Rebels winning comfortably. Ole Miss 42, Memphis 20

Unanimous summaries and scores by David Ching

Standings
Jeff Barlis 38-4
Chris Low 38-4
Edward Aschoff 37-5
David Ching 37-5
Sam Khan Jr. 36-6
Greg Ostendorf 36-6
Alex Scarborough 34-8
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the first, second and fourth quarters last Saturday, Mississippi State’s offense converted just one out of nine third downs. But in the Bulldogs’ key third-quarter run – a stretch where they pushed their lead from 17-10 to 34-10 – State’s offense didn’t just convert on third down, it made some of its biggest plays of the entire game.

The Bulldogs converted four out of five of their third-down situations in that third quarter and averaged 30.8 yards per play. That included a pair of long touchdowns -- a 56-yard run by quarterback Dak Prescott and a 74-yard pass from Prescott to Jameon Lewis -- where the Bulldogs exploited huge holes in the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeJameon Lewis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU defenders say that many of Mississippi State's big plays last Saturday -- like Jameon Lewis' TD reception -- were the result of mental breakdowns.
“We had the momentum at the start of the third quarter,” LSU middle linebacker D.J. Welter said, referring to the Tigers’ defensive touchdown on the first play of the second half. “That kind of hurt us throughout the whole second half was not getting off the field on third down. And when they started moving the ball, it kind of got their momentum back and it really hurt us.”

We examined Mississippi State’s third-down success during the quarter in a post earlier this week. Today let’s look at it from an LSU perspective. Prescott’s improvisational skills and his running ability were key factors in several of those big plays, which is relevant since the Tigers will soon face other quarterbacks with similar run-pass ability.

If there is a silver lining to the many big plays LSU surrendered in the game, it’s that player after player insisted that their biggest problems against State – like aligning improperly or failing to make the proper pre-snap adjustments – were correctable mental errors instead of physical issues.

“I’m not taking anything away from Dak as a quarterback. The dude’s impressive, he’s a good athlete, you see him on film and he makes big plays,” Welter said. “But [if] we definitely played our techniques, it could have helped us out a lot in that game in not giving up those big busts that he had. When we gave it to him, he took it from us -- and give props for that -- but it definitely was a mistake in our technique.”

Take Prescott’s long touchdown run, for example. The Bulldogs spread out LSU’s defense with five receivers and Welter oddly lined up in a gap between right defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and right end Tashawn Bower, leaving nobody in the center of the field. When Prescott broke through a hole between defensive linemen Christian LaCouture and Deondre Clark, State’s quarterback needed only to break a tackle attempt by safety Jalen Mills in order to find himself with acres of running room on his way to the end zone.

On several of the Bulldogs’ other third-quarter conversions, defenders showed their concerns about State’s running game by either chasing Prescott or biting on run fakes, which created holes for the Bulldogs to exploit.

“Most of the key third downs, it wasn’t so much what they did, it was so much things that we didn’t do well,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “They played a great game – not to take things away from them – but if we just do the little things, the things that we’re taught to do, we don’t put ourselves in that position.”

Tiger Stadium’s legendary decibel level actually hurt, as well, the players said. There were times where it was so loud in the stadium that all of the defenders failed to hear the Tigers’ pre-snap calls. Several LSU defenders admitted that they must do a better job communicating between plays in order to prevent future busts.

“While it’s being so loud in our stadium, the loudest crowd out there, it’s kind of hard to be yelling at each other, so we’ve got to get our signals down pat so everybody’s on the same play before they snap the ball and get there faster,” defensive back Dwayne Thomas said.

This was LSU’s first big game in expanded Tiger Stadium, so perhaps some growing pains were inevitable as the defense adjusts to the noise created by 10,000 extra people in the stands. But while that might have been a factor, it’s hard to imagine that a home-field disadvantage was a major reason for so many defensive lapses.

With several high-scoring spread offenses fast approaching on the schedule, the Tigers must clean up their missed assignments, play tougher along the line of scrimmage and tackle more effectively in the future or this will not be their last rocky defensive outing. LSU has actually been effective on third down overall -- opponents have converted 16 of 57 attempts, with LSU's 28.1 percent conversion rate ranking fourth in the SEC -- but it probably can't afford to surrender so many big plays in those situations again.

“I feel like we could be a whole lot better all around as far as communicating, tackling, all that,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We’ve just got to get back to the old LSU way, being a dominant, dominant defense, and that starts in practice.”

SEC morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Quarterbacks under fire: They might be on shorter leashes after last Saturday's implosions, but it looks like Anthony Jennings' and Jeff Driskel's starting jobs are safe – for now. LSU coach Les Miles and Florida coach Will Muschamp both said on Wednesday that they intend to stick with their embattled quarterbacks. But that doesn't feel like a permanent decision in either case, as freshman quarterbacks seem to be bearing down on the two starters. Florida fans are already clamoring forTreon Harris to get more action, and Muschamp said that's a possibility. Likewise, LSU freshman Brandon Harris outperformed Jennings last week against Mississippi State and Miles said he has earned more playing time, even if he hasn't overtaken Jennings as the starter. Both starters simply have to perform better if they expect to hold onto their jobs, though. The freshmen are still learning, but their teams' offenses both played horribly with the veterans under center in last week's losses. At some point, their coaches could decide it simply makes better sense to let the rookies get their shots.

Dillon Day fallout: It will be interesting to see how center Dillon Day's one-game suspension will affect Mississippi State's offense in the Bulldogs' outing against Texas A&M. Quarterback Dak Prescott said he doesn't think it will hurt his play. Archie Muniz is next on the depth chart, but he was responsible for a high snap -- a problem he experienced during spring practice, as well -- that expedited LSU's comeback last Saturday. It's entirely possible that guardBen Beckwith might take over for a game, although he hasn't played center in an actual game since high school in 2008. Regardless of who starts, it will be a position worth watching for the Day-less Bulldogs. Texas A&M's 16 sacks rank fourth in the FBS.

Bulldog nuggets: It was a newsy day at Georgia, particularly on the injury front. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said cornerback Shattle Fenteng probably won't play again this season and might need shoulder surgery, but Richt believes receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 2013 opener against Clemson -- might be back for Georgia's Oct. 4 game against Vanderbilt. Among other Georgia notes, defensive back J.J. Green said he disagreed with the referees' targeting call against him in last week's game against Troy, saying the rule is “taking all the fun out of football.” Green was ejected on the third play of the game and watched the rest of the game from the coaches' locker room at Sanford Stadium. Finally, Mike Lutzenkirchen -- the father of former Auburn tight end Philip, who died in a June alcohol-related auto accident -- spoke to the Bulldogs before Wednesday's practice about making good decisions.

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Tweet of the Day (and why Auburn probably won't win the SEC West)

 

LSU's coverage issues exposed in loss

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Would the real LSU secondary please stand up?

Entering last Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the Tigers boasted arguably the nation’s most dominant defensive backfield. They hadn’t allowed a completion of more than 15 yards in the first three games. (Opponents were 0-for-17 on throws of at least 15 yards.) The Tigers had held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 11.2, which was the best among all FBS defenses.

Against Mississippi State and quarterback Dak Prescott, however, the Tigers were anything but dominant. Prescott hit a 25-yard completion on Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage and finished the night 4-for-8 on throws of 15-plus yards with an average of 20.6 yards per attempt.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott's ability to freelance outside the pocket gave the Tigers fits on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished with 570 yards of total offense, including 268 passing yards and two touchdowns by Prescott, which represented the highest yardage total allowed by an LSU defense since 2001.

“It doesn’t sit with none of us pretty good,” LSU safety Jalen Mills said after the game. “Going into practice, we kind of wish that we could skip Sunday and go straight to Monday. Going into practice, if you don’t want to practice on Monday and bring full intensity, don’t come out there at all."

No. 17 LSU (3-1) will most likely improve to 4-1 after a visit from New Mexico State (2-2) on Saturday, although oddly enough, the Aggies have the exact same passing yardage total (1,067 yards) through four games as Mississippi State. But defending quarterback Tyler Rogers (264 passing yards per game, nine touchdowns six interceptions), receiver Teldrick Morgan (116 receiving ypg, four TDs) and NMSU’s spread passing attack will be good practice for some of the SEC offenses the Tigers will face down the road.

Several of them will look to air it out against LSU, and the Tigers’ secondary for the first time looked vulnerable last weekend. Mississippi State had five pass plays that went at least 20 yards, although the good news for LSU is that only one of those completions was a downfield throw where a receiver beat man-to-man coverage. Even on that play -- a 26-yard back-shoulder completion to De’Runnya Wilson in the first quarter -- LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White provided tight coverage, but Prescott simply made a good throw to a receiver with a serious size advantage who made the stronger play for the ball.

One of the other long completions was a misdirection screen pass to H-back Malcolm Johnson, and two others -- a 44-yard pass to Wilson in front of safety Ronald Martin and a 21-yard connection with Jameon Lewis before cornerback Jalen Collins' big hit failed to dislodge the ball -- came against zone coverage.

The most painful completion of the night (a 74-yard touchdown pass to Lewis) came when Prescott extended the play by scrambling once the pocket collapsed. Bulldogs receivers Wilson and Lewis were both in Martin's zone along the sideline, and Martin broke toward Wilson instead of Lewis as Prescott started to throw. With the LSU safety out of the picture, Lewis caught the ball at the Mississippi State 45 and went untouched for a score that put State up 31-10 in the third quarter.

Prescott also proved that the Tigers needed extra practice on coverages when quarterbacks begin to improvise.

“When you’re in man-to-man and it’s a scramble drill, it’s quite easy because you can just lock on your man and just run whatever he runs,” White said. “But when we’re in a zone coverage and you’re forced to do a scramble drill, it’s quite tough. You’ve got to grab whoever’s in your zone.

“If two people are in your zone at the same time, it’s hard to cover two guys. That’s probably what happened on some of the scramble drills, so we were basically in zone coverage and two guys were in one guy’s zone.”

That doesn’t explain all of LSU’s coverage breakdowns, nor does it provide much solace with dual-threat quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Alabama’s Blake Sims and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace ahead on the schedule.

Those players will also be able to freelance with their feet once the pocket collapses, and if LSU’s secondary doesn’t solve its coverage issues between now and then, Prescott won’t be the last quarterback to make the Tigers look bad.

“We’re going to see a guy like him again -- probably not as big, but we’ll see a guy [with] probably the same kind of skill set that he has,” White said. “But it’s just a learning curve for us. We just want to move forward and just try to improve.”

That was a theme in LSU coach Les Miles' Monday press luncheon. Whether it was scheme, personnel or coaching, Miles said it was all under review this week as the Tigers attempt to correct their problems. On defense, one of their biggest concerns, both last Saturday and moving forward, is doing a better job against quarterbacks who can create while on the move.

“We recognize what just happened, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Miles said.

SEC playoff tracker: Sept. 24

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
10:30
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video
As the first month of the season comes to a close, the playoff debate is already heating up. Could the SEC get two teams in? Who has the best chance of running the table? Here's a breakdown of the eight SEC teams with the best chance of making the four-team playoff.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Record: 4-0
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: Blake Sims wasn’t supposed to be Alabama’s starting QB, but he’s not only won the job, he’s become a playmaker. With a potent offense and a secondary improving every week, Alabama is starting to look like the real deal.
Cause for concern: The SEC West is a bear. Before the season, we all thought Texas A&M would take a step back and Arkansas would be a pushover. Neither happened, and now there’s no gimme in the division. Even with Alabama’s improvements, it’s hard to imagine navigating the West without at least one loss.
Who they’ll be rooting for next week: Mississippi State over Texas A&M -- Alex Scarborough

Auburn Tigers

Record: 3-0
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Reason for optimism: The offense didn’t play to standards in Thursday’s win at Kansas State, but the defense looks to be much improved. It held the Wildcats to 14 points and fewer than 300 yards. If both units play well, Auburn is as good as anyone.
Cause for concern: A win at Kansas State was a good start, but Auburn still has seven Top 25 teams on its schedule. It doesn’t help that senior Jermaine Whitehead, a three-year starter at safety, will be suspended another game this weekend for violating team rules.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Arkansas over Texas A&M -- Greg Ostendorf

Texas A&M Aggies

Record: 4-0
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: The offense is humming, the defense is improving, the special teams unit is solid and the Aggies seem to be hitting on all cylinders. LSU and Missouri look a little weaker after recent losses. This week's game against Arkansas will show how much the Aggies have really improved on defense, and if they show well, it bodes well for the future.
Cause for concern: The one area where this team is a little thin is an important one -- linebacker. Aside from that, the biggest concern is the schedule. The Aggies have to go to Starkville, Auburn and Tuscaloosa. No matter how you slice it, those are three huge challenges.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: South Carolina over Missouri -- Sam Khan Jr.

Ole Miss Rebels

Record: 3-0
AP rank: No. 10
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: QB Bo Wallace has been incredibly efficient since a rough first half against Boise State. He is completing an SEC-high 75.5 percent of his passes and is averaging 341 yards per game. The defense has really stepped up, ranking second in the SEC with 296 yards allowed per game and nine takeaways.
Cause for concern: There are still depth issues along the offensive line, and another injury could really cost the Rebels. The schedule is brutal, especially in October, when Ole Miss will face three ranked opponents, including Texas A&M and LSU on the road.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Arkansas over Texas A&M -- Edward Aschoff

Georgia Bulldogs

Record: 2-1
AP rank: No. 12
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Missouri
Reason for optimism: The SEC East is a mess. There is no dominant team, and while South Carolina beat the Bulldogs, it’s a very flawed team. Having Todd Gurley gives you a chance to win any game. The country’s best running back trimmed down but somehow got stronger.
Cause for concern: The defense still has questions, especially in the back end. The Bulldogs have athleticism back there, but South Carolina torched this secondary. Also, the defensive line has to get more pressure on quarterbacks. South Carolina's Dylan Thompson was barely touched the other weekend.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Missouri over South Carolina -- Edward Aschoff

South Carolina Gamecocks

Record: 3-1
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: The Sept. 13 win over Georgia was huge in terms of giving the Gamecocks a pulse after the season-opening shellacking from Texas A&M. They are still ranked behind the Bulldogs but when the playoff committee rankings release, that could change if South Carolina keeps winning. If they get by Missouri this weekend, the schedule lightens up with Kentucky and Furman on deck.
Cause for concern: The Gamecocks, even in a couple of their wins, haven't looked flawless. They fell behind by two touchdowns early to Vanderbilt and had quite a fight with East Carolina. They also have to step up defensively and bring their points allowed average (36) down.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Georgia over Tennessee -- Sam Khan Jr.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Record: 4-0
AP rank: No. 14
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Texas A&M
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs are full of confidence after rolling into Tiger Stadium and blasting LSU, even if a late comeback made the final score look closer than the game was. If Dak Prescott stays healthy, he and State’s physical defense should give the Bulldogs a chance to win every week.
Cause for concern: The schedule is about to get tough. Texas A&M comes to Starkville on Oct. 4, and the Bulldogs will have to play without suspended center Dillon Day. Then defending conference champ Auburn comes to town the very next week. If State sweeps -- or maybe even splits -- those two, its Western Division hopes remain intact.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Arkansas over Texas A&M -- David Ching

LSU Tigers

Record: 3-1
AP rank: No. 17
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: The good news for LSU is there is still plenty of time left to emerge as a dangerous team. Les Miles made it clear his staff will consider lineup changes after Saturday’s loss to Mississippi State, and that will probably be a good thing.
Cause for concern: There is uncertainty on both sides of the ball. The Tigers went from shutting out two nonconference opponents to surrendering the most yards to any opponent since 2001. The offensive line continues to struggle. The Tigers are in the wrong division for so many roster questions to exist.
Who they’ll be rooting for next week: Texas A&M over Mississippi State -- David Ching

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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Several true freshmen once again made an impact last week in the SEC -- particularly in Georgia’s rout of Troy, when former high school teammates Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie stole the show. They’re on our list of five SEC freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) last Saturday.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama

What he did: Against Florida, the former five-star prospect made the first start of his young career at Alabama. Put up against the likes of Demarcus Robinson, he didn't back down. He ended up with three tackles, including one that went for a loss, and helped contribute to a secondary that limited QB Jeff Driskel to just 9 of 28 passing.

What it means: Alabama desperately needed help at cornerback. Bradley Sylve showed in the season opener he can't hold down a starting job, and Eddie Jackson hasn't proven he can stay healthy enough to start either. Though Brown is young, he seems like the man for the job. Growing pains will likely occur, but his ceiling is certainly high. (Alex Scarborough)

WR Malachi Dupre, LSU

What he did: Dupre caught touchdown passes of 31 and 30 yards in the final two minutes of a 34-29 loss to Mississippi State, helping the Tigers close within striking distance after trailing by 24 points early in the quarter. Dupre finished with four catches for 120 yards, notching the first 100-yard outing of his young career.

What it means: Dupre didn’t make much of an impact in LSU’s first three games, and in truth he didn’t make an enormous impact in the first three quarters against Mississippi State. But he was one of the key figures in LSU’s comeback bid, and that might be a sign of things to come for the former No. 1 receiver prospect. (David Ching)

QB Brandon Harris, LSU

What he did: Like Dupre, Harris made his presence felt in the closing minutes against Mississippi State. He first entered the game with 3:43 to play and LSU trailing 34-16 and promptly led touchdown drives of 95 and 30 yards. Harris drove the offense to the Mississippi State 46 on LSU’s final drive and attempted a game-winning heave to the end zone, only to have the pass intercepted at the goal line by Will Redmond.

What it means: Harris nearly led LSU to what would have been one of the most miraculous comeback win in its history. He finished 6-for-9 for 140 yards and two touchdowns in barely more than two series, while Anthony Jennings was 13-for-26 for 157 yards in three-and-a-half quarters. The freshman provided a spark that Jennings did not, and that seems to have reignited the Tigers’ quarterback battle. (David Ching)

RS Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia

What he did: With a zig-zagging 52-yard score against Troy, McKenzie provided Georgia’s first punt return for a touchdown since Brandon Boykin did it against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. McKenzie also ran twice on sweeps and picked up 54 yards, including one that one for a 49-yard gain.

What it means: Opponents had punted 160 times since Boykin’s touchdown and Georgia had not scored once. In fact, the Bulldogs hadn’t broken a return longer than 30 yards since then. But McKenzie and sophomore Reggie Davis (51 yards) both broke long punt returns in the Troy game, so perhaps Georgia’s unproductive return game might actually develop into a weapon like it was several years back. (David Ching)

RB Sony Michel, Georgia

What he did: With Todd Gurley taking a seat on the sideline early and Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall limited by injuries, Michel got a chance to be the star in Georgia’s backfield against Troy. He made good use of the opportunity, rushing 10 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns. His long run of the day, which covered 75 yards, actually didn’t go for a score, but it set up his 8-yard score on the next play.

What it means: Georgia has no shortage of backfield talent, so don’t look for Michel to post enormous numbers this season -- particularly if Gurley remains healthy. But Michel and Chubb have already given Bulldogs fans reason to be excited about the running game even after their Heisman Trophy-contending star leaves campus. The freshmen look like future stars themselves. (David Ching)

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Took over for Kenny Hill in a 58-6 rout of SMU and went 8-for-15 for 130 yards and connected with Jeremy Tabuyo on a 50-yard touchdown strike.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Rushed seven times for 38 yards, all in the first half, caught a pass for a 1-yard gain and returned three kickoffs for 60 yards against Mississippi State.

QB Wade Freebeck, Vanderbilt: Replaced injured starter Patton Robinette against South Carolina and went 11-for-20 for 168 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

OT Cam Robinson, Alabama: Started at left tackle for the fourth time in four games and continues to impress at the position. In last Saturday’s win against Florida, the Gators rarely pressured quarterback Blake Sims. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense generated 672 yards of total offense.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety against SMU and posted five tackles and one stop for a 3-yard loss.

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