LSU Tigers: Jonathan Williams

We've already ranked all 14 running back groups in the SEC. Now it's time to check out who we think will be the 10 best running backs in the league this fall when it comes to production and team value:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley has been slowed by injuries but still projects to be the best back in the SEC in 2014.
1. Todd Gurley, Jr., Georgia: Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Jr., Alabama: After registering 1,235 yards last year, Yeldon became the first back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. Yeldon has had his fumbling issues, but when he’s in control he’s extremely tough to stop with the strength he has to grind out yards. Add on his speed and elusiveness, and Yeldon has no problem making defenders look silly.

3. Derrick Henry, So., Alabama: OK, so all the excitement around him stems from an incredible high school career and a superb bowl performance. But we saw so much power and finesse in all 161 yards of total offense he had in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Henry is the total package and an every-down back who can push his way through the line of scrimmage like a tank but is also deadly in space. Don’t be shocked if he eats up a big chunk of Yeldon’s carries.

4. Mike Davis, Jr., South Carolina: You could easily put him higher because of pure, brute strength and his speed and elusiveness. After rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, Davis’ stock in this league has skyrocketed. Last season, Davis rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.

5. Alex Collins, So., Arkansas: The prize of Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class, Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004. Collins fell off after a great start but still finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson could be primed for a breakout 2014 season in a featured-back role.
6. Tra Carson, RJr., Texas A&M: Carson wasn’t asked to do a lot last year (329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries), but that will change with Ben Malena gone. Carson will no longer be viewed as just a short-yardage guy. He has a ton of power but also can explode out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game. He’s also deceptively elusive in open space.

7. Jonathan Williams, Jr., Arkansas: Like Collins, he started the 2013 season off fast with three straight 100-plus-yard games. He finished the year with 900 yards and four touchdowns but could be even better in 2014. Having Collins play better shouldn’t hurt, either, because of how well they complement each other. While Collins is capable of big plays with his speed, Williams is more of a power runner.

8. Leonard Fournette, Fr., LSU: No, he hasn’t touched the ball at the college level or gone through practice with the Tigers. But he was the nation's top-rated prospect in the 2014 class and ran for almost 1,800 yards as a senior in high school. He rushed for more than 7,600 yards in his high school career and was ready to run at the college level before his senior prom. He’s built like a truck and will run like one with the Tigers.

9. Cameron Artis-Payne, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers won’t have a problem spreading the wealth around at running back this fall, but Artis-Payne is built to carry the load. Corey Grant is used as more of a speed back in this offense, while Artis-Payne is more of an every-down back for the Tigers, and his downhill style should thrive with more touches.

10. Kelvin Taylor, So., Florida: Taylor has NFL blood coursing through his veins, and people in Gainesville hope to see more of his father, Fred Taylor, out of him this fall. He progressed as last season went on and finished with 508 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor is faster and more agile now and has the chance to be a true game-changer in a more wide-open offensive scheme.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

Five things: LSU-Arkansas

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
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No. 17 LSU (8-3, 4-3 SEC) renews its annual Thanksgiving weekend rivalry with Arkansas (3-8, 0-7) today, with the “Golden Boot” at stake. The Tigers have taken home the 175-pound statue seven times in the last decade and are big favorites to do so again.

Let's take a look at five key points in today's game in Baton Rouge:

Where did that come from?: Prior to last Saturday's dominant win against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, we last saw LSU getting run off the field by top-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide pulled away in the second half and rolled up 372 yards of total offense in its 38-17 victory. Against the Aggies, however, John Chavis' defense looked like a completely different group from the one that produced mediocre results for most of the season. LSU held A&M to 299 yards, its fewest since totaling 226 in a 65-10 loss to Oklahoma in 2009. Manziel posted a career-low 14.9 Total QBR against the Tigers, and A&M's 13-game streak of scoring at least 40 points -- tied for the longest in major college football history -- also came to a screeching halt. We say all that to say this: maybe that confidence-building performance means that Chavis' young defense is starting to turn a corner as we near the end of the season.

Struggling Hogs: On that front, Arkansas' offense shouldn't pose much of a threat as long as the Tigers defend the run adequately. LSU has had its ups and downs on that front -- the Tigers rank sixth in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 145.8 yards per game -- but running the ball is all Arkansas has done with any competence. The Razorbacks are 26th nationally and fifth in the SEC with an average of 211.1 rushing yards per game, but they are an atrocious passing team. They rank dead last in the conference and 115th nationally with an average of 145.8 passing yards per game. Keep an eye on Razorbacks runners Alex Collins (179-998, 4 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (137-842, 4 TDs), who are about the only offensive players who could create any headaches for the Tigers today.

Crazy series: It was clear even before the season started that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would need time to transition from predecessor Bobby Petrino's pass-happy scheme to the personnel needed to run the ground-based attack that he employed at Wisconsin. But nobody would have predicted that Bielema's debut season would be as ugly as it has been, with the Hogs entering Friday's game on an eight-game losing streak and losing by an average of three touchdowns per game over that stretch. That said, this has been a crazy series at times in the last decade -- most notably the 2007 game, when the top-ranked Tigers lost to Darren McFadden and unranked Arkansas 50-48 in triple overtime. No. 12 Arkansas also upset No. 5 LSU 31-23 in 2010. But overall, LSU has held the upper hand in this series over the last decade, posting a 7-3 record overall and 4-1 mark at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers are 6-0 in Death Valley this season, while Arkansas is 0-4 on the road.

Bringing the heat: Part of the reason that LSU experienced so much success last weekend was that its blitzes were extremely effective when Manziel dropped back to pass. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Tigers brought five or more pass rushers on 37.3 of Manziel's dropbacks and he completed just 3 of 16 passes, tossing two interceptions. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen has games where he has attempted 41, 36 and 32 passes, respectively, this season, so if LSU builds an early lead, the Tigers could have another opportunity to let their blitz wreak havoc once the Razorbacks have to pass more than they would prefer.

Keep it grounded: If LSU builds that early lead, it would not be at all surprising to see the Tigers grind out the win on the ground despite quarterback Zach Mettenberger ranking fourth nationally in opponent-adjusted Total QBR (87.8) and wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. (56 catches, 1,101 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (67-1,059, 10 TDs) ranking third and fourth, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. LSU's aerial attack can certainly be effective, but after rushing for 324 yards against Texas A&M -- 149 from Terrence Magee and 76 from Jeremy Hill -- the Tigers seem content to let the ground game put away wins in their traditional style under Les Miles. A productive running game is certainly an indicator of success for LSU. In its eight wins, LSU is averaging 242.25 rushing yards. In its three losses, its rushing average drops to 78 yards per game.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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Showcasing two big showdowns between ranked conference teams -- LSU at Georgia and Ole Miss at Alabama -- this looks like a more promising weekend of SEC football than the one that preceded it. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch around the league this Saturday:

1. Another top-10 matchup for Georgia: A common criticism leading into last season's SEC championship game was that Georgia hadn't played anybody. Well the schedule has certainly toughened up since then. Starting with that game against then-No. 2 (and eventual BCS champion) Alabama, the Bulldogs have faced No. 2, No. 16 (Nebraska), No. 8 (Clemson), No. 6 (South Carolina) and now-No. 6 LSU in their last six games. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in those games heading into Saturday's key conference showdown at Sanford Stadium -- LSU's first game this season in an opponent's stadium.

2. Can Ole Miss keep its mojo alive?: Resurgent Ole Miss already has a couple of impressive wins on its resume, winning at Vanderbilt in the closing minutes and running away from Texas in the fourth quarter in Austin. Good luck this weekend, though, Rebels. No. 1 Alabama -- which will host No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday evening -- is in a far different class than the aforementioned opponents. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa only once (1988), and that doesn't figure to change this weekend, even if Alabama's offense has underwhelmed lately.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCan Tyler Murphy keep Florida moving in the right direction?
3. All eyes on Murphy: When Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury last week, little-used backup Tyler Murphy got his first chance to shine. Murphy took advantage of that opportunity, completing 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score in a 31-17 win over Tennessee. Now he's THE guy after watching an assortment of Gators take snaps ahead of him over the last three years. He'll be taking his shots against a Kentucky program that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 years -- the second-longest active series winning streak in the country.

4. Clash of styles in Fayetteville: The offensive approaches in Saturday's Texas A&M-Arkansas game could hardly be more different. On one hand, you have the wide-open Kevin Sumlin offense at A&M, with triggerman Johnny Manziel helping the Aggies post 602.2 yards and 50.2 points per game -- both SEC highs. Arkansas has run the ball effectively (246.0 ypg, third in the SEC), but that's about it. If the Razorbacks have any hope of hanging with A&M, they'd better hope that their impressive running back tandem of Alex Collins (SEC-high 120.2 ypg) and Jonathan Williams (second at 104.5) can extend clock-eating drives that keep Manziel and company on the sideline.

5. Mettenberger's homecoming: One of the most popular storylines this week concerns LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger returning home to Georgia, where he competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job in 2010 before being dismissed from the team after an offseason arrest. Mettenberger's mother is a longtime employee in Georgia's football office, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt gave her the week off to avoid the obvious conflict of interest that accompanies this game week. Players from both sides have answered plenty of Mettenberger-related questions, and the Tigers' quarterback seemed to be getting chapped by the subject by midweek. LSU needs him to play a composed game on Saturday, so this is a distraction that the Tigers didn't need.

6. Can South Carolina finish?: Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 28-0 lead in their last game against Vanderbilt, only to see the Commodores rally to within 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks protected that lead the rest of the way, but it was hardly a positive sign when they had scored only six points in the fourth quarter the week before in a 41-30 loss to Georgia after it was 24-all at halftime. Playing at Central Florida (3-0), which beat Penn State in its last game, South Carolina might not be able to afford another sloppy second half.

7. Alabama's cornerback competition: Nick Saban's defense rotated five cornerbacks last week against Colorado State with two veterans out of the lineup. Deion Belue should be back in the lineup against Ole Miss, but the Rebels' up-tempo offense is much more capable of exploiting defensive vulnerabilities than the Tide's previous opponent. Alabama needs to get its secondary concerns sorted out quickly or the Rebels could make things interesting on Saturday.

8. Mizzou angling for 4-0: Saturday's game against Arkansas State marks the fourth straight nonconference matchup for the Tigers. That means it's all SEC games from here on out, and there are some tough ones on the list. Mizzou has posted some nice yardage totals so far in wins against Murray State, Toledo and Indiana. With a challenging October schedule ahead (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina), quarterback James Franklin and company need to keep the offensive momentum going.

9. Get-well game in Knoxville: Following two straight horrendous showings -- against Oregon and Florida -- things aren't looking too pretty for first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers desperately need a win against South Alabama on Saturday or it could get really ugly in October with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama on the schedule. The first step for Jones is settling on a quarterback, with Justin Worley apparently stepping back into the starting job he lost last week before replacement Nathan Peterman injured his hand against Florida.

10. Will the real Commodores please stand up?: Coach James Franklin raised expectations in Nashville with a nine-win season last year, but Vanderbilt hasn't even looked like a bowl team in the wake of a sexual assault case that rocked the team and campus. Vandy is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in league play coming off last week's underwhelming 24-7 win at UMass. The Commodores reached the 2012 postseason based largely on wins against second-tier foes like Saturday's opponent, UAB. If they want to play in another bowl this season, they need to start getting their act together against the Blazers.

SEC Saturday roundup

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
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There won't be any BCS implications in today's marquee SEC games -- so long as the big favorites in a couple of traditionally important divisional matchups take care of business.

No. 6 LSU (3-0) and No. 19 Florida (1-1) are both double-digit favorites over Auburn (3-0) and Tennessee (2-1), respectively. And both have controlled the recent history of series that have been much more competitive in the past.

Formerly THE most important annual game in the SEC East, Florida-Tennessee has become less interesting in recent seasons now that the Gators have won the last eight meetings, with only two of those games being decided by fewer than 10 points. Likewise, LSU has won five of the last six against Auburn, although the games have typically been more competitive.

We'll learn a lot more tonight about whether a last-minute win against Mississippi State last Saturday was a sign that Auburn is on the way back. The last two times Auburn visited Baton Rouge, it lost by 21 points (2009) and 35 points (2011), which was the biggest win by either team in series history. Tiger Stadium is a notoriously difficult place for the road team to win, so Gus Malzahn's Tigers certainly face long odds if they are to remain undefeated by the end of the night.

Meanwhile, Florida has been sulking for two weeks after repeatedly choking in the red zone against Miami and Tennessee has had a week to stew over its blowout loss to Oregon last Saturday. Only three Eastern Division teams have played a conference game yet, so today's winner in Gainesville will take a big step toward contending in the division.

Butch Jones' Vols could prove a lot about themselves by stealing a win in The Swamp -- and they'll have a chance if Florida doesn't clean up its act on offense. This will be a big game for Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel to begin progressing toward the more consistent play that Will Muschamp and Florida's coaches expected from him this season.

Those are the only two league games this week, with the rest of the SEC schedule featuring nonconference matchups that carry varying levels of interest (Vanderbilt AT UMass? What went into that decision?). Here are a couple more that could carry some intrigue:

Arkansas (3-0) at Rutgers (2-1) is perhaps the most interesting measuring-stick game outside of league play this week. The Scarlet Knights' 35-26 win in Fayetteville came in the middle of the Razorbacks' 1-4 start of the season -- a stretch that also included a 52-0 loss to Alabama and 58-10 defeat against Texas A&M -- and helped lead to Bret Bielema's hiring as Arkansas' head coach. It has been so far, so good for Bielema at Arkansas, with the Razorbacks beating three overmatched nonconference foes behind the running back duo of Alex Collins (second in the SEC with 139.3 rushing yards per game) and Jonathan Williams (third with 131.0).

Today will provide their toughest test yet -- their first game outside of Arkansas and a matchup against a team that has reached a bowl in seven of the last eight seasons. If Arkansas wins again today, a bowl bid becomes a much more likely possibility despite a murderous conference schedule that starts with a visit from Texas A&M next week.

And if the scoreboard at Kyle Field is still functional after the 91 points from last week's game against Alabama, SMU (1-1) at No. 10 Texas A&M (2-1) might place a further strain on its electrical supply. Texas A&M possesses the nation's fourth-highest-scoring offense at 53 points per game and should have little difficulty moving the ball against Saturday's visitors. The problem, though, is that the Aggies haven't shown an ability to stop anyone on defense. SMU is averaging just 27 points per game, but A&M has given up an average of 36 ppg to Rice, Sam Houston State and Alabama, good for 107th nationally.

SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert is third nationally in total offense, averaging 393.5 yards per game -- 352.5 through the air, which ranks fourth nationally. Defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel (379 ypg) is fifth in total offense, with 328 of his yards coming via the pass.

We fully expect Texas A&M to keep lighting up the scoreboard, but the Aggies might have to earn a stop to win one of these shootouts. They haven't demonstrated much of an ability to do that yet.

Here's today's lineup:
Vanderbilt at UMass, Noon ET, ESPNews
North Texas at Georgia, 12:21 p.m., SEC TV
Arkansas at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m., ESPN
Tennessee at Florida 3:30 p.m., CBS
SMU at Texas A&M, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Colorado State at Alabama, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Troy at Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m., FSN
Auburn at LSU, 7:45 p.m., ESPN
Missouri at Indiana, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network

SEC Power Rankings: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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We've gone through three Saturdays in the SEC, and it seems like a billion points have been scored. The times, they are a changin', and so have our Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (2-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 1): Every offense has looked good against Texas A&M, but seeing the Tide win that shootout in College Station, Texas, was very impressive. AJ McCarron is back in the Heisman race, and Alabama remains the team to beat in the SEC and nationally. However, questions still remain on a defense that gave up the most yards in school history (628) Saturday.

2. LSU (3-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 2): Ladies and gentlemen, this might be the SEC's most complete team. The Tigers can throw (Zach Mettenberger is averaging 265.7 yards per game), run (218.7 yards per game) and rank 10th nationally in total defense (267.7). Sure, the last two opponents have been of the cupcake variety, but this offense didn't look this efficient against cupcakes last season.

3. Texas A&M (2-1, 0-1 SEC; last week: 3): Yes, this defense isn't SEC quality and might not be FBS quality right now, but when you have Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, you're going to be able to score on anyone. Manziel threw for a school-record 464 yards with five touchdowns, while Evans caught seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a score. This defense needs major work, but this offense won't be stopped by many.

4. Georgia (1-1, 1-0 SEC; last week: 4): The Bulldogs were off, so the defense didn't give up any points. Georgia gets a tuneup in the form of North Texas Saturday before taking on LSU in two weeks. Expect a lot of Bulldogs points and some much-needed improvement from the Dawgs' defense.

5. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC; last week: 5): The Gamecocks continue to put up points and pile on yards. Through three games, South Carolina has registered 406, 454 and 579 yards, respectively. The Gamecocks let Vanderbilt hang around in their 35-25 win over the Commodores, but the defense turned it up a notch after getting embarrassed by Georgia. South Carolina allowed just 268 yards, and Vandy made just two of 12 third-down conversions.

6. Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 7): A season ago, Bevo ran the Rebels out of the Grove. Saturday night, the Rebels chased Bevo & Co. out of Texas. Last season, the second half was almost a death sentence for the Rebels, but this season, they are outscoring opponents 56-37 and blanked Texas 27-0 in the second half of their 44-23 route of the Longhorns Saturday. As long as the read-option is still legal, the Rebels will be a very dangerous team.

7. Florida (1-1, 0-0 SEC; last week: 6): The Gators were off, which means the staff was probably drilling ball security and execution into its players' brains. Florida is last in the SEC in red zone efficiency (50 percent), and, as a result, the Gators are last in the SEC in scoring offense (40 points in two games). However, the Gators own the SEC's best defense, which also ranks third nationally.

8. Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 9): Quarterback Nick Marshall really grew up in Auburn's 24-20 win over Mississippi State. He isn't quite Cam Newton, but he looked like a seasoned vet on that last-minute, game-winning drive. The defense still has its issues up front, though. Teams are rushing for almost 160 yards per game against the Tigers and are averaging nearly 5 yards per rush. That defensive line is in for quite the fight this weekend at LSU.

9. Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-2 SEC; last week: 8): Yes, the Commodores have two losses, but they're losses to top-25 teams. And the Commodores were very much in both games. Still, if Vandy is going to make progress and take the next step, these close losses have to turn into wins, especially against teams like South Carolina. There are some holes on defense that have to get plugged.

10. Missouri (2-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 10): The offense is healthy and the Tigers even got a nice bye week before they travel to Indiana to take on the Hoosiers. The offense has been impressive through two games, averaging 539 yards and 48 points per game, but the competition has been subpar. Indiana's defense, which is allowing 410 yards and nearly 30 points a game, should keep Mizzou's offensive momentum going.

11. Arkansas (3-0, 0-0 SEC; last week: 11): It wasn't a very pretty win over Southern Miss, but I'm sure Bret Bielema will take it. The offense had issues here and there when quarterback Brandon Allen left early with a bruised shoulder. He's expected to be back for Saturday's game at Rutgers. The good news is that the running game didn't suffer, as both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins rushed for more than 100 yards for the third straight game.

12. Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC; last week: 12): We knew that cross-country trip to Eugene, Ore., would be tough, and Oregon made sure it was a very uncomfortable stay for the Vols. Before the Ducks built a 30-point first-half lead, fans were already chanting "We want Bama!" I can only imagine what Tennessee players were thinking. Things only got worse, as the Ducks registered 687 yards in their 59-14 drubbing of the Vols. Tennessee limps into its matchup with Florida looking for answers on defense.

13. Mississippi State (1-2, 0-1 SEC; last week: 13): For the second straight week, Dak Prescott played pretty well in place of the injured Tyler Russell, but when the defense had to make a stop late against Auburn, it came up short. After two solid outings, Mississippi State's defense struggled to stop Auburn's passing game, and now people in Starkville, Miss., are getting a little antsy. The Bulldogs have lost seven of their past nine games dating back to last season.

14. Kentucky (1-2, 0-0 SEC; last week: 14): The Wildcats put up a fight in the first half of their 27-13 loss to Louisville, but they just couldn't find any sort of consistency on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith left in the third quarter with a right shoulder injury, while turnovers and dropped passes stalled the offense whenever it made any attempt to threaten Louisville's lead. The defense gave up 242 rushing yards, but it was gassed by the fourth quarter thanks to an offense that went 0-for-13 on third down.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
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The Alabama-Texas A&M game was as exciting as we could have hoped, but it was far from the only entertaining game on the SEC slate this weekend.

Here are five things we learned around the league on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeJonathan Williams
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Williams helped power Arkansas to 258 rushing yards against Southern Miss.
The SEC is a defense-first league?: For a minute there, it looked like Alabama (2-0) was preparing to blow out Texas A&M (2-1), as the Tide held a three-touchdown lead at the start of the fourth quarter. But Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel reminded us in the fourth that he's pretty darn good. Manziel tossed three touchdown passes in the final period -- including a 95-yard bomb to Mike Evans -- and helped A&M climb within a touchdown in the final minute. There wasn't much defense on display at Kyle Field -- the teams combined for 1,196 yards, 62 first downs and 91 points -- but Alabama avenged its upset loss last year by holding on at the end for a thrilling 49-42 victory.

Rumors of South Carolina's demise were greatly exaggerated: For South Carolina fans who were concerned that last week's loss to Georgia was a sign of impending doom, the Gamecocks (2-1) provided a reminder that they've still got a strong pulse in the first quarter against Vanderbilt (1-2). Steve Spurrier's team rode strong early performances by quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to jump out to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and led 28-0 before a better-than-average Vanderbilt team notched its first points. Vanderbilt mounted a rally in the fourth quarter to make things interesting, but make no mistake, the Gamecocks will still be a force to reckon with in the SEC East race.

Arkansas' running game is worth watching: When quarterback Brandon Allen went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, Arkansas (3-0) abandoned the passing game almost entirely against Southern Miss. The Razorbacks didn't need to pass much with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams in the backfield. Williams had a team-high 116 rushing yards and Collins added 115, making him the first freshman in SEC history to rush for more than 100 yards in each of his first three games, and the first in any conference since Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson in 2004. Collins entered the weekend as the SEC's top rusher and Williams was third, and the duo didn't do anything to damage their standing on Saturday. They haven't faced a powerful defense yet -- next week's game at Rutgers will be their biggest test to date -- but Collins and Williams’ considerable running skills have helped Arkansas jump out to a 3-0 start.

One slide ends, another continues: It's hard to say who needed a win more at Jordan-Hare Stadium: an Auburn team that hadn't won an SEC game since 2011 or a Mississippi State team that had lost six of its last eight games. It was Gus Malzahn's Auburn club (3-0) that rallied for the game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds to play on Saturday, handing Mississippi State (1-2) another gut-wrenching defeat. Auburn's victory ended a 10-game league losing streak that provides an enormous boost with a trip to LSU on tap next weekend.

Vols aren't back yet: Tennessee (2-1) couldn't keep its game with No. 2 Oregon interesting for long, as the promise the Volunteers showed in wins against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky didn't translate into remaining competitive with one of the nation's better teams. The Ducks scored 59 straight points and ran up 687 yards -- 456 passing by quarterback Marcus Mariota -- in blowing new coach Butch Jones' club off the field. In the next five games, the Vols will face four ranked teams: No. 18 Florida, No. 9 Georgia, No. 13 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama. So the road could get rocky quickly for the Vols.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
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We've arrived at Week 3 of the season in the SEC, bringing us to one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season: Alabama's trip to Texas A&M in a rematch of last season's thriller in Tuscaloosa, when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Aggies upset the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide 29-24.

But that's not the only game worth watching in the conference this season. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday around the conference.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMaybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but Nick Saban is 7-1 at Bama in rematch games following a loss, with an average win margin of 20.9 points.
1. Revenge factor in College Station: At No. 6 in this week's AP Top 25, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone this year. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and his troops have stewed over that loss throughout the offseason -- and that has typically been a bad sign for opponents. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Tide is 7-1 in rematch games following a loss, with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Of course, the Aggies have no intention of simply rolling over before its home crowd. Kevin Sumlin's club leads the SEC in scoring (58.5 ppg), total offense (600.0 ypg) and passing offense (392.0 ypg), so the Aggies should provide an enormous test for a formidable Alabama defense that allowed just 212 yards to Virginia Tech in its first game.

2. Run the X factor for Alabama: How the Aggies' porous defense fares against Alabama's strong running game might be the determining factor Saturday. An A&M defense that was depleted by suspensions has been horrendous so far, ranking last in the SEC by allowing 273 rushing yards per game to Rice and Sam Houston State. Oddly enough, Alabama is last in the league in rushing after totaling only 96 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but that trend is sure to be short-lived with star-caliber talent on the offensive line and T.J. Yeldon among the standouts in the backfield. Alabama is sure to try to control the pace of this game by hammering the Aggies' defense with its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. It will require an infinitely more effective performance by A&M's defense than what we've seen thus far if the Aggies are to do an acceptable job against the Tide's ground game.

3. Tough nonconference matchups: The SEC hasn't fared so well in its marquee nonconference games thus far, with Georgia and Florida falling to a pair of ACC opponents, Clemson and Miami, and Mississippi State laying an egg against Oklahoma State. Yes, LSU and Alabama held up their ends of the deal with wins against TCU and Virginia Tech, respectively, but this might be another weekend where SEC teams come up on the short end of high-profile nonconference matchups. As of Tuesday night, Tennessee was a 27.5-point underdog for Saturday's game at Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon, and Kentucky was also a double-digit underdog (plus-13.5) for its in-state rivalry game with Louisville. One of the more intriguing games of the weekend is Ole Miss' visit to a Texas program in turmoil, but the Longhorns are the favorite in that game, as well.

4. Measuring stick for Vols: New Tennessee coach Butch Jones' club has been impressive in its first two games, routing overmatched Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, but its next two games are a completely different animal. The Vols have the pleasure of facing No. 2 Oregon on national TV Saturday, followed by another tough road trip, to No. 18 Florida, the following week. Tennessee ranks 13th nationally with an average of 48.5 points per game and it leads the SEC with a plus-seven turnover margin, but slowing down Oregon's offensive juggernaut in Eugene is no simple task. The Ducks are 27-2 at Autzen Stadium dating back to the start of the 2009 season and at 62.5 points per game in wins against Virginia and Nicholls State, this year's club looks to be just as good as its recent predecessors.

5. Odell Beckham show: LSU's multi-talented return man and receiver punctuated an outstanding night by returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown last weekend against UAB. He also caught 136 yards worth of passes for three touchdowns against the Blazers. Kent State should provide ample opportunity for Beckham to add to his impressive stats -- he already has 10 catches for 254 yards and three TDs -- before the Tigers jump into conference play next week against Auburn.

6. Rebels primed for upset?: What do we make of Saturday night's Ole Miss-Texas game in Austin? The Longhorns won last year's game in Oxford by five touchdowns, but they hadn't just performed so poorly that coach Mack Brown felt compelled to fire a coordinator two games into the season. Texas' defense was horrendous last week, allowing 550 rushing yards -- the most by an opponent in school history -- in a 40-21 loss at BYU. That prompted Brown to reassign defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and bring back Greg Robinson to take his job. Flash forward to this weekend. At No. 25, Ole Miss is ranked for the first time since 2009, and the Rebels aren't too shabby on offense with an average of 510.5 yards per game. That matchup between Hugh Freeze's up-and-coming team and a Texas club on the verge of imploding makes for one of the weekend's most compelling storylines.

7. Arkansas' running game: Those around the conference are starting to take notice of the new-look ground game that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville. Once a pass-heavy offense under Bobby Petrino, Arkansas is 11th nationally with an average of 312.5 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have both the No. 6 (Alex Collins at 151.5 yards per game) and No. 12 (Jonathan Williams, 138.5 ypg) rushers in the country, and they'll face a Southern Miss defense this weekend that has been vulnerable against the run so far, ranking 81st with an average of 179.0 yards against.

8. Gamecocks, Commodores with something to prove: Steve Spurrier was livid after the way his defense performed in last week's loss to Georgia, vowing that the Gamecocks would change things up to force more turnovers. The Gamecocks risk falling out of the SEC East race if they suffer another division loss, so games like Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt are essentially must-wins. Although there have been a few near-misses, the Commodores are still in search of their first win against the East's power trio of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. With an SEC-high eight sacks and an overall productive defense, the Commodores might be able to give themselves a chance in Columbia if they contain South Carolina's offense and hit a big play or two against a Gamecocks defense in transition.

9. Enormous test for Kentucky secondary: Saturday's matchup against Louisville is a minor nightmare for a Kentucky team that lists three freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep at its five secondary positions. Led by Heisman contender Teddy Bridgewater (376.0 ypg, 9 TDs, 1 INT) at quarterback, Louisville possesses one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Kentucky has actually defended the pass fairly well so far, ranking fourth in the SEC with 147.0 yards allowed per game and limiting opponents to an 11.5-percent conversion rate on third down, but the Wildcats posted those numbers against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio). Defensive end Za'Darius Smith (an SEC-high four sacks) and company must get after Bridgewater for the Wildcats to have a chance on Saturday.

10. Bowl implications for Auburn, Mississippi State: For a pair of teams harboring mid-level bowl hopes, Saturday's matchup is a big one. Already 2-0, Auburn is a win away from matching its win total for all of last season. But with games remaining against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, bowl eligibility likely hinges on beating the Mississippi States of the world. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, meanwhile, are desperate to right the ship after dropping six of their last games since starting the 2012 season 7-0. They flat-out stunk in a 21-3 loss to open the season against Oklahoma State and still have all of the West's heavyweights left on the schedule, plus South Carolina. The loser of this one might very well be home for Christmas.

SEC Week 2: Did you know?

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
10:00
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We're in the swing of things now. With Week 1 in the books, it’s time to take a look at some notes from the SEC and ESPN Stats & Info to get you prepared for the second full week of college football:
  • A total of 10 players from the SEC rushed for 100 yards or more in their opening games, including both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins of Arkansas.
  • Since 2006, the SEC has posted the highest nonconference winning percentage (regular season & bowls) of any conference. The league has a 333-74 record (81.8 winning percentage).
  • With the start of the NFL season upon us, a quick look around the league reveals that the SEC has had more of its former players on NFL rosters in the last five seasons than any other conference. Since 2006, the SEC has averaged 266.1 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters. The league had a high of 257 players on NFL rosters last year, compared to the second highest ACC with 226.
  • Florida is now 13-0 under coach Will Muschamp when rushing for 150 or more yards.
  • The Gators have allowed two rushes of 50 yards or longer in the last 10 seasons combined, three fewer than any other FBS team. Last week, the Gators allowed a total of 50 yards on the ground and just one rush of 10 yards or longer.
  • Jadeveon Clowney recorded only three tackles in South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina, but he still had an impact on the game. He had three total pressures, which brings his total number to 31 over the last two seasons, tying him with former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones for tops in the SEC.
  • Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is going to miss his top target, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who's out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Murray completed 72 percent of his passes thrown to Mitchell, compared to 59 percent when targeting his other receivers.
  • It's been pointed out time and again, and we're going to continue bringing it up until it changes: Murray is 3-11 against ranked opponents in his career. He's 0-3 all-time against South Carolina. Murray's 46.0 QBR against the Gamecocks is the lowest of any team in the SEC East.
  • Your SEC leaders in Raw QBR aren't what you might expect as Arkansas’ Brandon Allen led the charge with a 91.6 rating, followed by Missouri’s James Franklin, Texas A&M’s Matt Joeckel and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Last season Mettenberger ranked 12th out of 13 SEC quarterbacks in QBR.
  • Mettenberger's numbers could improve again versus UAB, which allowed 319 yards passing from Troy quarterback Corey Robinson, who set a NCAA record completing 93.8 percent of his passes (30-for-32).
  • Auburn is now 194-1 all-time when scoring 30 points or more against non-SEC opponents. The Tigers defeated Arkansas State in both previous matchups, with each victory coming by at least 26 points.
  • Ole Miss is 149-82-7 (.641 winning pct.) all-time during the month of September, including a 3-2 record last year.
  • Arkansas hosts Samford in its home away from home, War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, where the Razorbacks are 166-67-4 (.709) all-time.
  • Hogs coach Bret Bielema wanted to cut down on penalties during his first offseason, and the Razorbacks’ did just that on Saturday, accounting for all of four penalties vs. Louisiana -- the fewest in a season opener since 2008.
  • UK had 11 first-time starters in its season-opening loss to the Hilltoppers, which is a school record for first-time starters in a game according to records kept back to the 1993 season. A total of 10 newcomers (six true freshmen) saw action.
  • Tennessee is 7-0 all-time vs. current Sun Belt schools, including two wins last season (51-13 over Georgia State, 55-48 over Troy).
  • The Vols offensive line has a total of 129 career starts, led by Ja’Wuan James with 38 and Zach Fulton with 29.
  • Tennessee's 45-0 win in Week 1 marked the first shutout for UT since a 27-0 win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 5, 2011.
  • The Aggies gained 486 total yards against Rice last week, which marked the 13th straight game that the offense has surpassed the 400-yard plateau, which is easily the longest streak in school history. Only Baylor has a longer streak of 400-yard offensive game among FBS teams. Since head coach Kevin Sumlin’s arrival in College Station, the Aggies have surpassed 400 in 13-of-14 games, including 500-plus yards eight times.
  • Missouri's Gary Pinkel coached Toledo’s through the 2000 season, and left for Columbia as the Rockets’ winningest coach in school history, with a 73-37-3 record in 10 seasons. Pinkel, who was inducted into Toledo's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009, led the Rockets to a MAC title and claimed three other MAC West Division championships.
  • It took 659 days, but Missouri junior running back Henry Josey, returning from a knee injury, picked up where he left off at Faurot Field this past weekend, rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Mizzou’s 58-14 victory over Murray State.
  • Vanderbilt saw Austin Carta-Samuels become just the second quarterback in Vanderbilt history to pass for 300 yards or more in a season opener on Saturday. The last time a Commordores quarterback hit that mark was when Greg Zolman threw for 300 yards in the 2001 opener against Middle Tennessee.
  • Jordan Matthews' 178-yard effort versus Ole Miss was the most by a Vanderbilt receiver since Earl Bennett amassed 223 receiving yards against Richmond in 2007.

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