LSU Tigers: AJ McCarron
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Start date: March 16
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- Battling complacency: Alabama is gearing up for yet another title defense. Will complacency finally rear its ugly head? Not if Nick Saban has anything to do with it. The head coach will no doubt remind players of the targets on their backs and what little they've accomplished as presently constituted.
- Opening up the passing game: The return of AJ McCarron, coupled with a talented, deep crop of receivers, could mean a more wide-open passing game in Tuscaloosa. If true freshman tight end O.J. Howard develops as some expect, the offense could become even more dynamic.
Johnny Manziel appropriately capped things off in our countdown to No. 1, so it's time to take a closer look at how things played out in our rankings. Remember, we could only put 25 players on our list. I wasn't a math major, but I'm pretty sure you can't squeeze 30 players into a list made up of 25. Trust me, we wanted to, but we just couldn't figure out a way to do it.
When ranking players, we looked at stats, progress through the season, impact, and importance to their team on and off the field.
Some very good players were left off the list ... but we'll get to that later. For now, let's see a breakdown of our countdown:
Texas A&M: 4
Mississippi State: 1
South Carolina: 1
It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEven South Carolina's Steve Spurrier concedes that Alabama has been college football's best team in big games in recent seasons.
Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.
“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”
That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.
It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.
Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.
Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.
Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.
Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.
If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.
The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will certainly have high hopes in 2013 with Aaron Murray returning to lead the offense.
One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.
Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.
Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.
The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.
If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.
This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.
There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.
This time a year ago, Damontre Moore, Dee Milliner, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Matthews, Tre Mason, Ace Sanders and Manziel weren’t exactly household names.
We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.
Some were obvious. Some weren’t so obvious.
Either way, it was another banner season for the SEC, which produced its seventh consecutive national championship and became the first conference in history to have five of the top 10 teams -- 1. Alabama, T-5. Georgia, T-5. Texas A&M, 8. South Carolina and 9. Florida -- in the final rankings.
Sit back and enjoy.
Alabama’s repeat: Rebounding from a November home loss to Texas A&M, Alabama became the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to repeat as national champions with a 42-14 battering of previously unbeaten Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. The Crimson Tide mauled the Irish physically and scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. The game was over by the time the second quarter began, and Alabama’s historic run had officially become a dynasty. The Crimson Tide won their third outright national title in four years, the first school to accomplish that feat since Notre Dame in the late 1940s.
John David Mercer/US PresswireJohnny Manziel was at his finest in Texas A&M's upset of Alabama.
Mosley’s tip: Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley got just enough fingers on the football to deflect Aaron Murray’s pass in the final seconds of the SEC championship game. The ball careened into the hands of Georgia receiver Chris Conley, who slipped to the turf at the Alabama 5-yard line as time expired. Alabama survived 32-28 and earned the right to play for another national championship in one of the most exciting SEC championship games in history.
Clowney’s hit: They’re referring to it as simply “The Hit” in South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ all-world sophomore defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith, sending both Smith’s helmet and the ball flying. Clowney snatched the ball up with his left hand in one of those plays that becomes even more jaw dropping every time you see it.
Miles’ outburst: LSU coach Les Miles has been must-see TV for a long time now. But do yourself a favor and go relive his “What a game!” performance during his news conference following LSU’s 41-35 victory over Ole Miss. An emotional Miles even dropped an F-bomb and then implored fans to thank the "spectacular group" of LSU players with this memorable line: “You go find them, throw your arms around them and give them a big kiss on the mouth ... if you're a girl."
Screen to Yeldon: With Tiger Stadium roaring, Alabama awakened offensively in the final minutes, and quarterback AJ McCarron led the Crimson Tide on a game-winning drive that was capped by a 28-yard screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for a touchdown with 51 seconds to play. McCarron was 1-for-7 for 0 yards in the second half before that final drive, which allowed Alabama to escape 21-17.
Franklin’s hug: Vanderbilt’s 38-24 win over North Carolina State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl earned the Commodores their first nine-win season since 1915. Afterward, a Vanderbilt fan made his way into the news conference and thanked second-year coach James Franklin for what he’d done for the program. Franklin stopped the news conference, gave the fan a big hug and told him thanks for sticking with the Commodores. “You’re due for this,” Franklin exclaimed.
Support for Lattimore: No moment was more tear jerking, and yet, heartwarming than the injury to South Carolina star tailback Marcus Lattimore this season. Sadly, Lattimore blew his knee out for the second straight season in the 38-35 win over Tennessee. As he lay on the field in pain after going down with the injury, players, coaches and support personnel from both teams surrounded Lattimore on the field in a touching show of support. It's the kind of thing you rarely, if ever, see on a football field and says volumes about the universal respect Lattimore has as a player and as a person.
Jones' strip: Great players make great plays, and Jarvis Jones' strip of Florida tight end Jordan Reed was the play that sent Georgia to the SEC championship game for the second straight year and kept Florida at home despite a huge turnaround for the Gators this season. Reed was motoring for the end zone with just over two minutes to play in Jacksonville, but Jones was able to punch the ball loose inside the 5, and the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone. It was one of two forced fumbles for Jones, who also had three sacks in the 17-9 win.
Ole Miss' resurgence: The Rebels entered the season with a 14-game SEC losing streak. But under the guidance of first-year coach Hugh Freeze, they scrapped their way to a 7-6 season, which included a resounding 41-24 win over rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale after three straight losses to the Bulldogs. The Rebels then followed that up with a 38-17 rout of Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Hotty Toddy!
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
In postseason games, that was largely true...until last season.
When Alabama dominated the Tigers, 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game, it not only ended LSU's dreams for one of the great seasons of the BCS era, it also put a damper to the notion that the Tigers, 5-1 in bowls under Les Miles, were at their best in postseason games.
That part of its swagger compromised, LSU will look to regain some of that reputation in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the site of two of the previous five Miles LSU bowl wins.
"Our football team really is anxious for a quality game. We’re looking for a bowl game that’s a great matchup, and certainly those Clemson Tigers are a very, very talented football team," Miles said.
The Tigers coach has certainly done a masterful job of motivating his teams for bowl games. In 2008, an LSU team that limped to the finish in the worst year of the Miles tenure gouged Georgia Tech at the Chick-fil-A. Miles' Tigers teams have maimed Miami at the Chick-fil-A, knocked out Notre Dame at the Sugar Bowl, tamed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and, of course, owned Ohio State in the 2008 BCS national championship game.
The one blemish in all that came in the 2009 season when LSU met Penn State on a field that was so muddy, it was nearly unplayable, and lost 19-17 in the Capital One Bowl, the only loss to a non-SEC team in Miles' eight years as head coach at LSU. That's what it seemed to take to beat LSU in the postseason, a freakishly muddy field that negated LSU's speed advantage and took away the edge the Tigers seemed to have when Miles had time to prepare.
But that was before Jan. 9, 2012, the day that changed everybody's perception about how Miles-coached LSU teams prepared in bowls. LSU was so inept on offense, it crossed midfield just once. The Tigers looked lethargic, over-matched and ill-prepared at the tail end of what some were calling the greatest regular season college football has seen.
With LSU facing a 10-2 Clemson team averaging 42 points a game, Les Miles will have a chance to prove that last year an anomaly. And maybe restore that swagger.
The conference has six teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings, including three -- Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- in the top four.
Six teams have two or fewer losses on the season, while two more have eight wins.
Six teams rank in the top 25 in defense, and three rank in the top 25 in offense.
Nine of the SEC’s 14 teams are bowl eligible and if not for some dubious play calling on the side of USC in its game with Notre Dame over the weekend, the country would almost have been assured to see yet another all-SEC national championship.
The SEC also has a nation-best six teams ranked in the AP, USA Today and Harris Interactive Polls. The SEC has now had at least five teams ranked in at least one AP Top 25 poll every year since expansion in 1992. Just as in 2011, the conference has had at least five teams ranked in every AP poll throughout the season.
Compared to other BCS conferences, the SEC is tied with the Big 12 with the most bowl eligible teams. With only 10 teams, all but one Big 12 team -- Kansas -- is bowl eligible. And if there weren’t postseason bans at Ohio State and Penn State, the Big Ten would have nine, too.
The SEC’s resume shows that in a year in which some people called it overrated, the conference still has all the clout it entered the year with and will leave the 2012 season with the label as the nation’s top football conference yet again.
More than half of the SEC is postseason bound and if Ole Miss wins its bowl, the league will have nine teams with a winning record when the 2012 season officially comes to a close.
People will point to the SEC’s out-of-conference schedules, but the SEC as a whole has a history of staying very comfortable when it comes to nonconference opponents. It’s a real drag, yes, but there are ample opportunities for voters to deduct points from SEC teams because of softer non-SEC opponents. But they don’t.
And you can look at the teams’ strength of schedule, but the SEC actually has some of the tougher schedules out there. Nine SEC teams are ranked within the top 25 when it comes to strength of schedule, including six in the top 10. Florida and Missouri are No. 1 and 2, respectively.
Of the six teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings, four are ranked in the top 25 of schedule difficulty.
When you look at the SEC, more than the top half pulled its weight in 2012. And when the SEC took on the ACC in two top-12 road matchups in front of the nation over the weekend, the SEC dominated, with Florida beating Florida State 37-26 and South Carolina beating Clemson 27-17.
It has been a very good year for the conference, but you can’t completely dismiss the naysayers. They do have a point when it comes to the strength of the conference from top to bottom.
Nine bowl-eligible teams and six top-tier teams speaks volumes, but there is also a very dark side to the SEC.
With Sunday's firing of Gene Chizik, Auburn joined Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee as teams that will be hiring new head coaches in the coming weeks. Those four teams combined to go a dreadful 14-34, with only three conference wins. Add 5-7 Missouri, and the SEC had five teams fail to reach .500.
Last year, the SEC had only three teams fail to reach the .500 mark during the regular season and had nine bowl-eligible teams. In 2010 and 2009, only two teams fell below .500 before the postseason and 10 went bowling.
It might be bright and sunny at the top, but it’s doom and gloom at the bottom, and that affects the overall perception of the league.
But in the end, the power at the top outweighs the sludge at the bottom. If the playoff started this season, the SEC probably would have two teams in, and right now, the top six teams are playing their best ball of the year.
Some may dismiss the conference’s strength this year because of the struggles at the bottom, but the top appears stronger than ever.
With an effort to keep the dynamic freshman out of his comfort zone after he got off to a quick start, LSU employed the strategy of keeping him in the pocket as opposed to trying an all-out rush to get to the elusive young star.
It gave Manziel time to throw, but he often simply could not find receivers because the Tigers perfectly executed the coverage downfield.
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But AJ McCarron's masterful drive down the field for the game-winning touchdown can't overshadow all. It can't overshadow the litany of three-and-outs on offense, the missed tackles on defense and the poor execution all around.
"I don't think we played our best game" coach Nick Saban said. "I think (LSU) played an outstanding game."
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t sure he has ever been prouder of a football team.
Saban’s senior center, Barrett Jones, isn’t sure he has ever seen his coach happier after a football game.
“He gave me a big, old bear hug,” Jones beamed. “This is one we’ll all remember forever.”
As well they should.
Alabama’s thrilling come-from-behind 21-17 victory over LSU on Saturday night answered emphatically what everybody around college football has wanted to know about the Crimson Tide.
How would they respond when they finally found themselves in a close game and with their backs to the wall?
After all, Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) had trailed for all of 15 seconds this season, and nobody had come within 19 points of the Crimson Tide. They’d won their previous eight games by an average margin of 32.5 points.
“We knew a game like this was coming somewhere along the way, and we were going to be ready for it,” Alabama senior safety Robert Lester said. “We pride ourselves on being ready for any situation, and tonight we created another part of our identity.
“We showed the world that we can overcome hard situations.”
It certainly wasn’t Alabama’s best game. Not even close, really. The Crimson Tide looked like they might be on the verge of putting the game away late in the third quarter, but freshman running back T.J. Yeldon lost the handle on a handoff and fumbled at the LSU 10.
Not only that, but junior quarterback AJ McCarron missed his first five passes to start the second half, and Alabama’s normally suffocating defense was on its way to giving up 435 yards in total offense, the most the Crimson Tide have allowed since Saban’s first season in 2007, when they gave up 475 yards to LSU in a 41-34 loss.
“I don’t feel like we could have played any worse in the second half. We were just sloppy,” Jones said. “But we never panicked.”
Instead, the Crimson Tide demonstrated why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and why they’ve won 22 of their past 23 games dating back to the end of the 2010 season.
Tiger Stadium was so loud that it was literally quaking after LSU took a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter and seized all the momentum.
Alabama got the ball back on its own 28 with 1:34 to play and no timeouts remaining.
As the Tide players huddled, Jones looked at his teammates and said, “Guys, we have a chance to make history right here. Who wants to make history?”
Sure enough, McCarron completed four of his next five passes, and five plays later, Yeldon was celebrating in the LSU end zone after a 28-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly executed screen pass.
“A lot of things didn’t happen right, and a lot of things were out of character for us,” Jones said. “But we made plays when we had to.”
Saban knew what his team was in for, and he also knew that LSU would find a way to make it a four-quarter game.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert"I've never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity," Alabama's Nick Saban said.
In just about every championship season, there are going to be games where you don’t play your best, but you find a way to win.
Saban’s message to his team at halftime was simple.
“I told our guys that we’re going to have to keep fighting in this game and keep punching until we knock them out,” Saban said.
It was LSU, though, that did most of the punching coming out of the break and rallied from a 14-3 deficit. Alabama went three-and-out on its first two possessions, which set the tone for the Tigers to climb back into the game.
“We told our players, and it’s kind of ironic, that we would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here,” said Saban, who’s won eight of his past nine games against nationally ranked teams.
“And when things went bad and the momentum of the game changed, that’s what we kept talking to them about. They kept their poise, and they kept playing and they kept competing. I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity.”
When you play for Saban, it’s never wise to get caught up in reflection during the course of the season. In his world, there are no rearview mirrors.
But Jones did allow himself one brief moment of reflection before leaving the field late Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
“It was surreal being a part of this game,” Jones said. “One day I’ll be watching [TV] and the greatest games ever played, and this one will be on there.”
The Tide hope their great escape is only a prelude to something bigger and better, like a third national championship in the past four years.
And maybe even another bear hug for Jones.
Top-ranked Alabama (9-0, 6-0) and No. 5 LSU (7-2, 3-2) saved the best for Game 3. It came right down to the final drive, as Alabama squeaked out its 21-17 win with a 28-yard screen play from quarterback AJ McCarron to running back T.J. Yeldon with 51 seconds remaining.
After struggling mightily for most of the second half, McCarron connected on four of his final five passes for 72 yards and that touchdown.
While McCarron played his best at the end, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger played the best game of his career, completing 24 of 35 passes for a career-high 298 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
LSU actually outgained Alabama 435 yards to 331.
Alabama is clearly in the driver's seat for a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game, but it also controls its destiny for the Discover BCS National Championship in Miami.
It was over when: McCarron and Yeldon orchestrated a beautiful screen call that went 28 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-17 with 51 seconds left. LSU got the ball back, but Mettenberger was sacked on the third play of the drive as time ran out.
Game ball goes to: Outside of that costly fumble that led to LSU's final scoring drive, Yeldon was a beast for the Tide. He scored the game-winning touchdown and finished with 76 yards on 11 carries. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry and had a long of 23 yards.
Stat of the game: LSU did a very good job of extending drives against Alabama's vaunted defense, converting 10 of 20 third downs, while Alabama converted just 1 of 9 third downs.
Stat of the game II: McCarron completed 4 of 5 pass attempts on Alabama's final drive for 72 yards and a touchdown. Before that, he completed 1 of 7 second-half passes.
Second-guessing: LSU fullback J.C. Copeland's penalty took away all the momentum the Tigers gained from Jeremy Hill's 19-yard run to Alabama's 13-yard line. He foolishly knocked an Alabama player to the ground after the play was over and well away from where the play ended. It pushed the Tigers back, and they eventually failed to execute a fake field goal that took crucial points off the board.
Second-guessing II: Les Miles' decision to go for a fake field goal on a 47-yard attempt and then actually go for a 54-yarder in the second quarter will haunt him. Both decisions didn't work out, and that left the Tigers without a crucial second score before halftime. Alabama drove down the field 63 yards and scored a touchdown to make it 14-3 after Drew Alleman's 54-yard miss. Miles also decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at Alabama's 24 with just under 9 minutes left and LSU leading 17-14.
What it means for Alabama: The SEC title is still in sight and so is the national championship. A win over Texas A&M next week and Alabama is guaranteed a trip to Atlanta for the first time since 2009. If Alabama wins out, it will play for its second national title in as many years.
What it means for LSU: The Tigers' BCS national title hopes are all but gone, but there's still some hope in Baton Rouge that LSU can still sneak into the Sugar Bowl. If the Tigers win out, they could still be in position to play in New Orleans in January. This was also a big step for Mettenberger, who came into the game as one of the SEC's most scrutinized quarterbacks but grew tremendously against the nation's No. 1 defense.
Yet, there is an air of pessimism that sort of envelops the excitement around LSU with No. 1 Alabama coming to town.
The Crimson Tide are favored by 9-1/2 points over the Tigers and few are expecting an LSU team that is young to be able to compete. Here are five storylines to watch:
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For 10 months, you courageously sat through spring/fall ball, NBA playoffs, the Olympics, Tiger Woods coming and falling back, and the very, very long MLB season just to get to this moment.
"The Game of Games: Part III."
Trilogies can jump the shark ("Matrix" trilogy, anyone?), but we’ve had some classics (thank you, "Godfather" and original "Star Wars"). The hope is that Game 3 between Alabama and LSU will live up to its blockbuster billing.
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAJ McCarron showed in last season's BCS Championship Game that Alabama has an edge over LSU in the passing game.
(Don’t even try to argue that last point because you won’t get far at all.)
And Saturday’s game in Baton Rouge, La., between No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) and No. 5 LSU (7-1, 3-1) has the chance to be epic. No, we don't have a Honey Badger or Trent Richardson, but we have two swarming defenses and major BCS implications on the line. An SEC and national championship appearance are there for both, and it’s a chance for one squad to break the 1-1 tie these teams, which are very similar to the ones that battled twice last year, have.
It also will break the 3-3 tie Nick Saban and Les Miles have against each other.
Now, Saban and his Crimson Tide have the edge when it comes to style points. A 21-0 drubbing of LSU in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game last year trumps the Tigers’ 9-6 overtime win against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
In a way, it essentially eliminated everything LSU did to get to New Orleans and almost made everyone forget about the epic bout these two teams had in Bryant-Denny Stadium in November.
That was the game everyone had wanted to talk about. You had the two best teams in the country duking it out in a game that, at the time, stood as a quarterfinal for the national championship. It was the defensive standstill of all defensive standstills, as we witnessed eight punts, four turnovers and 534 combined yards of offense.
Oh, and no touchdowns.
Although many above the Mason-Dixon Line yawned at both offenses, fans in the Deep South oohed and ahhed at what they thought was how real football was supposed to be played. If you were a true fan of great defense, you fell in love with Epic Rumble: Part I.
But we quickly forgot just how great Game 1 was after these two teams (clearly still the best teams in the country) met again in NOLA. Basically playing in its own backyard, top-ranked LSU was knocked unconscious by the Tide. Alabama literally resembled a herd of elephants as it stomped LSU into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf.
The run-first attack that worked against Alabama in November was immediately suffocated by the Tide defense. LSU’s game plan never really changed, and the Tigers were held to just 92 total yards and didn’t cross midfield until eight minutes were left in the game.
LSU was supposed to have a historic year, but everything was lost with an offensive game plan that didn’t come close to challenging Alabama. In essence, it was a one-game season for LSU, and 13-0 swiftly vanished from everyone’s memory.
It’s redemption time for LSU, which is looking to get back into the national championship picture while Alabama is trying to continue its dominant run that really started on that crisp night in New Orleans.
We’ll see similar teams to what we saw last year, as both defenses rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, passing defense, rushing defense and total defense, with Alabama being No. 1 in all but passing defense.
Both have a run-first mentality, as Alabama ranks second in the SEC (214.4 yards per game) in rushing and LSU third (208.4). Both have also had up-and-down special-teams performances.
The only real difference is that Alabama’s passing game, manned by potential Heisman Trophy candidate AJ McCarron, is far superior to LSU’s.
But you can throw statistics out when these semitrucks slam into each other in a game that could send the winner on a one-way ticket to Miami for the Discover BCS National Championship Game.
It’s been fun to watch these teams elevate this rivalry in the past year, and Saturday’s bout should be a dramatic finish to such a great trilogy.