LSU Tigers: Nick Saban
The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.
Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.
Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.
With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.
The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.
But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).
Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.
Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.
Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.
Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.
Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.
Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.
Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.
Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.
Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.
We've still got plenty to discuss in SEC country, however. Here's a sampling of what's going on around the league:
- Texas A&M's Board of Regents on Thursday approved a new contract for coach Kevin Sumlin that will pay him $5 million a year.
- Auburn's “Kick Six” was named the college football play of the year on Thursday at ESPN's College Football Awards show.
- Quarterback AJ McCarron on Thursday became the first Alabama player to win the Maxwell Award.
- Speaking of McCarron, he recently discussed how just before signing day 2009, he nearly flipped his commitment from Alabama to Oklahoma – the team he will face in his final college game.
- A scholarship crunch is affecting South Carolina's recruiting efforts for 2014.
- NOLA.com's Ron Higgins writes that Nick Saban has been there and done that when it comes to flirtations with other jobs. LSU's Skip Bertman can attest to that.
- The backup quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska are getting a grip on the starting jobs as their TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl matchup approaches.
- The Clarion Ledger's Hugh Kellenberger lists three storylines to watch as Ole Miss opens bowl practice today for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Georgia Tech.
- Rice coach David Bailiff knows his team will have to prepare for the noisy distraction that cowbells can create before the Owls face Mississippi State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
- Since we last convened here at lunchtime Thursday, Florida landed commitments from a pair of ESPN 300 prospects.
- Athlon traces Auburn's bizarre path to Pasadena.
- In Orlando, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier aimed some jabs at schools in the state where he once coached Thursday at a news conference to promote the Capital One Bowl.
- Many members of Kentucky's recruiting “class to change the program” will gather this weekend in Lexington.
Records against ranked opponents at the time of the game provide some insight, but a better gauge is how a team fared against the top 25 in the final BCS standings, which takes into account the two human polls and the computer rankings.
In fact, the Gamecocks were the only team in the country this season with wins over three teams ranked in the top 15 of the final BCS standings.
Of the 10 teams playing in BCS bowls this season, counting the VIZIO BCS National Championship, four failed to record wins over top-15 teams in the final BCS standings: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and UCF.
In the last three seasons, LSU’s 10 victories over teams that finished in the top 25 of the final BCS standings are the most nationally. Alabama, South Carolina and Stanford each have nine wins over the last three seasons.
How does that compare to some other teams nationally during that same three-year span?
Notre Dame has seven wins, which is more than Oklahoma State (six), Clemson, Oregon and Wisconsin (five each), Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma (four each) and Texas (two).
Turning back to the SEC, if you extend it out over the last five seasons, Alabama (16-6) has the best record. LSU (14-11) is right behind the Crimson Tide.
They’re the only two SEC teams over the last five seasons with winning records against teams that finished in the top 25 of the final BCS standings.
Les Miles, during his career at LSU, is 27-18 against top-25 teams in the final BCS standings. Alabama’s Nick Saban is 19-10.
Here’s a look at how all 14 teams in the SEC have fared in the last five seasons against top 25 teams in the final BCS standings:
- Alabama: 16-6 (.727)
- LSU: 14-11 (.560)
- Auburn: 13-13 (.500)
- South Carolina: 10-10 (.500)
- Arkansas: 7-17 (.292)
- Missouri: 5-14 (.263)
- Georgia: 6-17 (.261)
- Florida: 6-18 (.250)
- Texas A&M: 5-17 (.227)
- Ole Miss: 3-20 (.130)
- Vanderbilt: 1-15 (.063)
- Kentucky: 1-16 (.059)
- Tennessee: 1-21 (.045)
- Mississippi State 0-24 (.000)
Who's under center?: This was something of a question for both teams before their coaches cleared it up in the last few days. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Jake Rudock should be “absolutely fine” to play against LSU after leaving the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a right knee injury. Meanwhile, LSU's Les Miles said freshman Anthony Jennings will take over for the injured Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter. Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in the finale against Arkansas, but Jennings came on to complete the Tigers' comeback, hitting Travin Dural with the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play.
When last we met: Iowa fans will never forget how the 2005 Capital One Bowl ended, when Drew Tate hit little-used receiver Warren Holloway with a 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired. That 30-25 loss marked an ugly end to Nick Saban's LSU tenure, as he left to coach the Miami Dolphins immediately afterward. Within hours of the game's end, Miles was named as Saban's successor.
What's at stake: Not much, really. Fresh off an awful 4-8 record in 2012, Iowa started the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. But it's certainly possible that Ferentz's Hawkeyes can finish the season as a ranked team if they beat LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers have already bid farewell to Mettenberger and could be featuring some of their top draft-eligible skill players for the final time as well. A win in the bowl would give LSU its fourth straight season with at least 10 wins, a school record.
Hit the ground running: It would not be a surprise to see this become a run-heavy game. Without Mettenberger -- who was one of the nation's most effective passers -- LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might opt to lean heavily on Jeremy Hill (1,185 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Terrence Magee (614-8) against the Hawkeyes. The problem there is that Iowa's defense is no pushover. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense (303.2 ypg) and are 17th against the run (120.8 ypg). On the other hand, all Iowa wants to do is run. The bruising Mark Weisman (937-7) and slippery duo of Damon Bullock (467-1) and Jordan Canzeri (451-2) take most of the carries for Iowa, which ranks 41st nationally in rushing (188.6 ypg).
Back to the Outback: This will be LSU's second visit to the Outback (formerly Hall of Fame) Bowl, having last played in Tampa at the end of the 1988 season when it lost 23-10 to Syracuse. Iowa has played an SEC club in this bowl three times in the previous 11 seasons, beating Florida 37-17 in 2003, losing 31-24 to the Gators in 2005 and blasting South Carolina 31-10 in 2008.
Best wins: It didn't seem like much at the time, but LSU was the only team to beat No. 2 Auburn, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and winning 35-21 on Sept. 21. LSU also posted a memorable 34-10 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M near the end of the season. Iowa closed with a three-game winning streak to secure its first winning record (5-3) in league play since 2009. That run included a 24-21 win over Michigan and a decisive 38-17 victory at Nebraska to conclude the season.
Worst losses: Iowa's four losses are all respectable, particularly since three of the teams that beat the Hawkeyes -- Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State -- finished with 12-1 records, and the other was to 9-3 Wisconsin. LSU's worst loss was certainly its 27-24 defeat against Ole Miss, although the 38-17 loss at Alabama also felt like a low point.
Defensive stars: All-Big Ten linebackers Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFLs) are the headliners for Iowa's stingy defense along with defensive back B.J. Lowery (55 tackles, three interceptions, 16 pass breakups). Linebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU's defense with 86 tackles, while defensive linemen Anthony Johnson (32 tackles, 7 TFLs) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) lead the defensive front and safety Craig Loston (51 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Jalen Mills (61 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) anchor the back end of the defense.
X-factor: Even if both teams run and run some more, quarterback play could be the determining factor. Jennings will surely need to get the ball to Beckham, Landry and company -- and do so without many costly turnovers -- to force the Hawkeyes to respect the pass. And Rudock will have to prove he can get the job done against a strong opponent. In Iowa's eight wins, he hit 64 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in the Hawkeyes' four losses -- against the only four ranked teams on their schedule -- he completed 55 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and six picks.
1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.
2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.
3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably summed it up best.
“What a crazy year to be on defense in the SEC,” Shoop said.
Some of the numbers on defense are even crazier.
Already, there have been 10 SEC matchups this season where both teams scored 30 or more points. A year ago, there were only five such shootouts for the entire season.
By contrast, five SEC teams finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense last season, and four of those -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina -- finished in the top 11.
There’s no question that the quarterback play in the SEC this season, both the caliber and experience of the quarterbacks across the league, has had a huge impact.
And as veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson points out, the NFL draft the last few years has decimated the top defensive fronts and pass rushers in the league.
In the most recent draft, 17 defensive linemen and/or outside linebackers from the SEC were selected. Nine of those players were underclassmen.
“You’ve seen a little dip in this league on defense as far as where it’s going to be in the future because of some of these things,” said Johnson, who’s at his fifth different SEC school as a defensive coordinator.
“But I also think you’re seeing a gradual changing of college football. What’s deteriorating defenses more than anything is the way the offenses are practicing and the way you have to practice against them. You can’t run a fast-paced offense and be extremely physical on defense.”
It’s not just at Auburn, either. Johnson has seen it throughout college football.
“We practice against our scout team, and that deteriorates your fundamentals and deteriorates your physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I understand it because if you’re going to run that style of offense, the only way you can perfect it is to practice that way.
“But you are what you play against every day in practice. We try to hit a hit happy medium here, but it’s never going to be enough to satisfy me. We don’t tackle good backs except on Saturdays, so how good is your tackling going to be?”
At least half of the teams in the SEC are running some form of a hurry-up attack on offense, and it’s no coincidence that the offensive numbers are up.
Nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 430 yards per game in total offense. Of the five who aren’t, only Vanderbilt has a winning record. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all have losing records.
What’s more, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. A year ago, only six averaged more than 30. And in 2011, it was only five.
It’s no secret that Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t a fan of the fast-paced offenses and being able to snap the ball before the defense is lined up or has a chance to make situational substitutions. That said, Saban is also smart enough to realize that playing that way can be a huge advantage for the offense and has even suggested the Tide could look to play faster in the future.
““The offenses are taking advantage of the rules that we have, whether it’s to play fast or keep the defense from being able to do some situational things that it would like to do to create an advantage for themselves,” Saban said. “A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them, whether it’s throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage and being able to block downfield or whatever these things are.
A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them.” -- Nick Saban
“It’s more difficult to play good defense in this day and age. I don’t know that you reconstitute how you evaluate it. But the way you try to play defense, you have to re-evaluate and try to do a better job against the things that we’re seeing now.”
Five teams in the SEC this season are allowing nearly 30 yards more per game than they did a year ago. Topping that list is Texas A&M, which has seen its total defensive average climb by 64.2 yards per game.
LSU, which lost eight starters on defense, is allowing 46.1 yards more per game than it did last season. Vanderbilt is up 38.6 yards, South Carolina 33.9 yards and Georgia 29.1 yards.
The Bulldogs were also hit with major personnel losses on defense, and their youth on that side of the ball has taken its toll. They’re giving up an average of 30.2 points per game after allowing just 19.6 a year ago.
All but three teams in the SEC this season are giving up more than 350 yards per game. But as first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops notes, some stats matter more than others.
“Different teams are so explosive, and if you hold them under a certain number of yards and a certain number of points, you feel like that’s maybe as good as you can do with certain teams,” Stoops said. “A lot of statistics matter, and as a defensive guy, every yard and every point is personal.
“Sometimes, the bottom line is just winning games.”
But the SEC's Western Division cycle just doesn't seem to be running out. During the league's magical run of seven straight BCS national titles, the East has been represented twice, both by Florida in 2006 and 2008. All five other titles have been won by Alabama (three), Auburn and LSU.
Of the seven SEC teams ranked in the BCS standings, five reside in the West, and as we get closer to bowl season, the West currently has five bowl eligible teams to the East's four. The East also has four teams with losing conference records, while the West has just two.
"It's a really tough game every week, and the only way you have a chance to be successful in our league, or in this division, is to play well every week and be very, very consistent in how you prepare and how your players [use] their mental edge they go into every game with," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of playing in the SEC West. "You're being successful because you really can't afford to lose a game."
With the state of the West now and in the future, it appears that it will only continue to be the SEC's breadwinner.
The East has been more exciting with its divisional races in the past couple years, but it just hasn't matched the West's overall strength. And with the division likely having even more questions in 2014 with perceived powers Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the East could fall behind yet again.
In the West, things are only looking up. Alabama and LSU are still recruiting like elite teams do, as both hold top-11 recruiting classes in ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings, but they aren't alone. Texas A&M, Auburn and Ole Miss are all ranked within the top 15. The East does have three teams ranked in the top 10, but Kentucky (No. 17) is the only other East member ranked in the Top 25.
Last season, the West had six teams ranked inside the Top 25 of the class rankings, while the East had four. The year before, both divisions had four teams ranked in the Top 25 of the rankings.
So the future is very bright for the West, which is both good and bad for the division. The East hasn't won the conference since Florida did in 2008 and was ravaged by injuries this season. It continues to swirl into the unknown, while the West is plowing ahead.
There's the resurgence of Ole Miss and Auburn, and the arrival of Texas A&M. The Aggies have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the league's best offense two years running and a very impressive 19-4 record since joining the SEC in 2012.
I think the challenge is tremendous. It's a responsibility, if you will, to be ready to roll. You better be able to pick that helmet up and play full-on, hard-nosed football.
-- LSU coach Les Miles, on playing in the SEC West
Auburn rose from below mediocrity this season to rank sixth in the BCS standings with a 10-1 record and a shot at both the West crown and a return to the BCS title game.
And after winning just six games combined during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Ole Miss ranks 24th nationally and has won seven games in back-to-back years, with a chance to win 10 with a bowl victory this season.
If recruiting holds, those teams don't appear to be vanishing anytime soon, along with traditional powers Alabama (searching for its third straight BCS title) and LSU. So the bad news is that the division will only continue to get stronger.
"I think the challenge is tremendous," LSU coach Les Miles said. "It's a responsibility, if you will, to be ready to roll. You better be able to pick that helmet up and play full-on, hard-nosed football. It's every week, and I can't imagine anybody wanting to play in another division that's as exciting and competitive as there is."
Just like the East held the edge during the 90s, the West has its own stranglehold on the conference and is continuing the trend as the toughest division in college football.
"I think this Western Division is going to be a dynamic group of football teams," Miles said of the division's future. "We look forward to competing in it.
"They make you play in it. It doesn't make any difference who it is, it's a quality team."
Sure enough, the Commodores went into the Swamp and made an already forgettable season for Florida that much worse.
That’s the only game we missed last week, both of us going 6-1. Something told me to pick the Commodores. But in my old age, I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
Picking Vanderbilt to win at Florida would be like picking the ATL Kid to get in before 2 o’clock in the morning one night. It just doesn’t happen.
And now that he’s branching out and covering the entire SEC, I will say that he’s become quite the country music fan. We were both bopping to a little “Dixieland Delight” last Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Kid even knew some of the words.
I’m proud of him. He’s truly evolving and still leading by a game in our picks contest. He’s 79-12 (.868) on the season, and I’m 78-13 (.857).
But these next few weeks are where you make your “jingle” in this business.
Here’s the way we see this week’s games going:
TROY at OLE MISS
Chris Low: After winning seven games a year ago in Hugh Freeze’s first season, Ole Miss is thinking bigger and better things this season. The Rebels will extend their winning streak to four straight games Saturday with a victory over Troy, setting up what will be a critical finish against Missouri and Mississippi State. Ole Miss 47, Troy 17
Edward Aschoff: The Rebels are rolling with both their offense and defense clicking. The last time Troy played an SEC team, the Trojans were throttled by 55. Expect another SEC rout. Ole Miss 51, Troy 13
KENTUCKY at VANDERBILT
Low: There used to be a time when Vanderbilt hated to see the month of November coming. The Commodores were always too beaten down physically to finish the season with any pop. Those days are long gone, as James Franklin has guided this program to six straight wins in November. Vanderbilt will make it seven in a row Saturday at home against Kentucky. Vanderbilt 31, Kentucky 17
Aschoff: These programs are going in opposite directions right now. Vandy is riding high after its first win at Florida since 1945, while the Wildcats will miss a bowl game for the third straight year. Vandy will inch closer to potentially having back-to-back eight-win seasons. Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 14
ALABAMA at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Low: After watching Alabama in the second half last week against LSU and the way the Crimson Tide broke the Tigers mentally and physically, how could you possibly pick against the two-time defending national champions at this point? Nobody has come within 21 points of them since the 49-42 win at Texas A&M back on Sept. 15. Look for that trend to continue this weekend in Starkville. Alabama 34, Mississippi State 7
Aschoff: Alabama passed another big test with a commanding win over LSU last week. The Crimson Tide are playing at their best, and Mississippi State has dropped two straight during the gauntlet that is November. People think this could be a trap game, but Nick Saban will have his squad in top shape for the Bulldogs. Alabama 38, Mississippi State 10
FLORIDA at SOUTH CAROLINA
Low: The injuries and the losses just keep mounting in this nightmare of a season for Florida, which is in danger of having its first losing season since 1979. South Carolina, meanwhile, is rested, coming off a bye and hoping to stay in the Eastern Division race. The Gamecocks also remember the beating they got in Gainesville last season. South Carolina 31, Florida 13
Aschoff: The Gamecocks are still very much in the SEC Eastern Division hunt, while Florida is fighting for its postseason life. The Gators haven't missed out on a bowl game in 23 years, but with the injuries piling up, Tyler Murphy possibly out and South Carolina playing at another level, the Gamecocks will roll at home. South Carolina 27, Florida 10
GEORGIA at AUBURN
Low: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has ramifications in both the Eastern Division and Western Division races. Auburn has won six in a row and is eyeing a possible Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama with the West title on the line. Georgia is still hanging around in the East race, but needs some help. Both teams can put up points in bunches, but the nod goes to the Tigers and the SEC’s top running game. Auburn 35, Georgia 28
Aschoff: The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has a lot on the line this weekend. The Plains will be rocking, as Auburn is still in the SEC West hunt and sniffing a BCS bowl berth. Georgia is barely hanging on in the East, but the Bulldogs are certainly a player. This one will come down to which defense can stop the run. Right now, Auburn's running game has been too much for anyone, as the Tigers have rushed for 280-plus yards seven times this season. Auburn 34, Georgia 30
There are a handful of good choices in 2013 so we had to bring in multiple experts to tackle this one. With injuries and elevated play all around, this year's No. 1 isn't so cut and dry.
Along with four other SEC minds, we're taking on the question of which running back is the baddest of them all in the deep South. Because I'm such a southern gentleman, I'll let my esteemed colleagues go first before I state my case for the league's top running back in 2013:
Alex Scarborough: T.J. Yeldon isn't a one-man show at Alabama. That's not the way Nick Saban likes to run his program, as evidenced by the Eddie Lacy-Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram-Richardson tandems of seasons past. So putting Yeldon's numbers up against other top rushers in the SEC can be deceiving. He doesn't have nearly the same number of carries as Tre Mason or Mike Davis. In fact, he ranks sixth in the SEC in rushing attempts (140) this season. He's not the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic, but in terms of production over the past two seasons, it's hard to take any tailback over Yeldon and his 1,970 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's only been stopped for zero or negative yards 34 times, the best in the country among those with at least 300 carries. His 47.8 percent of rushes for five or more yards is fifth best nationally and trails only Johnny Manziel for tops in the SEC. Those numbers might not wow you, but he's been steadily impressive since Day 1, which not every tailback in the conference can say.
Greg Ostendorf: Tre Mason wasn’t a five-star recruit. He’s not a guaranteed first-round draft pick. But you wouldn’t know it by watching him on Saturdays. The Auburn running back piles up the yards week after week, and he has a knack for finding the end zone. He’s second in the SEC with 1,038 rushing yards, and he leads the conference with 16 rushing touchdowns. As a sophomore, Mason quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards on a 3-9 football team. This year, the secret is out. The junior is the lead back in an offense that’s averaging 320 yards per game on the ground. That’s tops in the SEC and No. 3 nationally. Consequently, the Tigers are 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS and they control their own destiny in the West. Mason might not regarded as the most talented back in the league, but as far as production and consistency, nobody has been better.
Edward Aschoff: I've said over and over that Gurley is the best running back in the country when he's fully healthy. I still believe that, but with him not at 100 percent and after watching LSU's offense fade the less Jeremy Hill touched it against Alabama, I can't help but think that Hill is the most valuable running back in the SEC. Keeping the ball out of his hands is a mistake. He's third in the league with 964 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he leads all running backs who have at least 100 carries with 6.8 yards per carry. In league play, he has eight touchdowns and averages nearly six yards per carry. He has a magnificent blend of power and speed with his 6-2, 235-pound frame. He can grind out tough yards and gash defenses with his breakaway ability. But he means so much to LSU's offense. He pulverized Florida's top-ranked rush defense for 121 yards and 6.4 yards per carry, and in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama, his carries dropped to 16 and 13 carries for a combined 106 yards and two touchdowns, resulting in LSU's two worst offensive performances. If he isn't continuously touching the ball, LSU's offense stalls.
When Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley looks at film of LSU's offense, he can find time to smile and grimace.
On one hand, Mosley likes the fact that the Tigers run a more traditional pro-style approach, but on the other, he's fully aware of the vast offensive improvements LSU has made.
"We already know what we're going to get," Mosley said. "They're going to line up and try to run the ball down our throats and, when they get the chance, go deep over our heads. It's not really too much that we haven't seen or something that they're going to do that we haven't seen before. It's all about who's going to be the most physical team."
That pretty much has summed up this game since Nick Saban and Les Miles joined this series a few years ago. Both teams are going to get punched in the mouth, bleed and limp out of the stadium.
"I think this is one of the best offensive teams, probably, we've faced all year," Saban said.
He's absolutely right. This will be the third time No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) has faced a team averaging more than 400 yards a game, and it's easily the most potent offense the Crimson Tide have played since Texas A&M.
This is an LSU offense that wants to bulldoze you up front then dismantle you with its vertical passing game. Running back Jeremy Hill is second in the SEC with 922 rushing yards, while quarterback Zach Mettenberger is second in passing, averaging 276.9 yards per game.
"Any chance you go out there and you're seeing yourself make these plays over and over again, it gets to a point where it doesn't matter who you're going against," LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "It's just what we do, and it's what we're built to do."
Compare that to recent offenses the Tide have faced and it's not really close. Of Alabama's six opponents since A&M, only Colorado State and Ole Miss rank within the top 50 nationally in total offense.
Alabama's defense has taken full advantage of the schedule. Check out these numbers ESPN Stats & Information gathered about Alabama's last six outings:
- Alabama has outscored teams 246-26, scored five more touchdowns (31) than opponents have points and allowed two touchdowns in 67 opponent drives (3 percent).
- Alabama hasn't allowed any first-half points in its past six games. In three, opponents didn't run a first-half play in Alabama territory.
- There have been nine first-half pass attempts by opponents in Alabama territory, with opponents throwing more interceptions (three) than completions (one).
Say what you will about Alabama's last six opponents (a combined record of 18-34), but the defense has done exactly what has been asked and then some.
"Every offense is good that we've played; we've just prepared to perfection," safety Landon Collins said. "We tried our best not to make any mistakes or give up any big plays. When we do that, that's the outcome of our defense. If we keep doing that and keep playing to our standards -- our Alabama way -- we all know what the outcome will be."
The Tigers might have two losses, but their offense will serve as a major test on the Tide's third-straight BCS title run.
"Their offense is explosive," Collins said. "Even though you know the play and you know what they're going to do, they're still going to execute to their full advantage. It's unstoppable sometimes."
LSU is second in the league at 7.4 yards per play and is averaging 106 more yards per game than last year and almost 130 more than 2011. One reason has been the maturation of Mettenberger, who had a breakout game against the Tide last year. He has flourished under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and has more command and comfort in the huddle.
He also has Hill to hand the ball to and Beckham and Jarvis Landry to throw to. That receiving duo has combined to catch 106 passes for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Really, my job's easy," Mettenberger said. "I just have to get [the ball] to some of the best athletes in the country and let them go to work.
"It's just my job to get those guys the ball. It's just what I have to do."
The thing is that even when Mettenberger struggles, this offense is still deadly with its running attack. It creates the conundrum of when to play two high safeties or stack the box.
So stay glued to the big uglies. Watch the trenches, because that's where Alabama wants to own things and create mayhem for the run and pass. Alabama wants to win the physical game in order to limit LSU's explosiveness.
"We know it’s going to be a dogfight, and it’s like that every year," Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said. "We want to try and come out and step on their throats, break their will and try and end the game as quick as possible and let some of our freshmen play."
History proves his point. The regular-season matchups between LSU and Alabama since Les Miles and Nick Saban became their coaches have all been tight, with both winning three times and the average margin of victory standing at only 5.3 points.
Saturday's meeting in Tuscaloosa won't receive the same “Game of the Century” treatment as the teams' meetings from recent seasons -- particularly the one in January 2012 when their rematch was for the BCS title -- but it carries huge stakes all the same.
For one thing, two-time defending BCS champ Alabama (8-0, 5-0) is the frontrunner in the SEC West and BCS races. No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2) will not be a player in the national-title chase this season, but it can keep alive its dwindling division hopes -- and knock Saban's Crimson Tide off its perch -- by pulling the upset.
“That's OK,” receiver Jarvis Landry said of the Tigers' underdog status. “I think that every time you get LSU and Bama on the same field, that's the two best teams in the SEC. I think that everybody knows that and it's a respected rivalry, hated rivalry. … But I think for us, it's not about being the underdog, it's about getting the W.”
LSU has won five of the teams' six meetings in Tuscaloosa dating back to 2001, including three of four under Miles. An open date last week allowed the Tigers to heal from a spate of recent injuries and focus on extending that run of good fortune at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“It just gave us another week to work on running routes, doing what we do best and getting all those guys healthy, all the offensive linemen healthy, is something that we're really going to need for this game,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said.
Mettenberger's performance might be one of the biggest keys in Saturday's game. He ranks among the nation's most improved quarterbacks, but struggled recently, tossing four touchdowns against five interceptions in the Tigers' most recent games against Ole Miss and Furman.
Against Alabama's defense, which leads the SEC in every key statistical category, Mettenberger knows he has to be as close to error-free as possible.
“I know I'm going to get hit this game,” Mettenberger said. “It's a physical game and I'm going to have to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes while getting hit.”
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel was able to do that in a 49-42 loss to Alabama, passing for 464 yards and five touchdowns, but he also had an interception returned for a touchdown. The Tide hasn't left the door open for anyone else since then, surrendering just 4.3 points per game since the shootout in College Station.
The lesson from watching that game and others on film, Mettenberger said, is that LSU's margin for error will be miniscule.
“For you to beat them, you have to make less errors and hope that they make a few. They've gone through games where they played error-free football,” he said. “For us, we're going to have to go out there and not only maximize on the errors that they make, but we just have to capitalize on the situations where we can make a big play.”
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger are working to get the quarterback back to the form he displayed early in the season.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has enjoyed some memorable moments against LSU.
Alabama coach Nick Saban's agent told Texas regents of the “special pressure” he feels in coaching the Crimson Tide.
Time for toughness as Alabama and LSU prepare to meet.
Maty Mauk says he's ready to hand the reins of Missouri's offense back to James Franklin.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn promises no more “questionable issues” in wake of the controversy over a player facing accusations that he faked an injury against Arkansas.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier plans to stay put with a number of starters returning to this young team in 2014.
What is Johnny Manziel worth to Texas A&M football? Aggie officials backtrack following an article where they minimized his impact.
Once the team's strength which Florida relied upon to keep it in games, its defense is getting off to progressively slower starts lately.
Saturday's game against Appalachian State will be Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's 50th career start.
Mississippi State is in the middle of a daunting stretch of the schedule where it must play three ranked teams in a row.
Ole Miss can clinch bowl eligibility for the second straight season by beating Arkansas on Saturday.
Kentucky's secondary will have its hands full against Missouri's big receivers.
Tennessee's offensive line impresses Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Vanderbilt opened its football indoor practice facility on Tuesday.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.
And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.
"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.
"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."
LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.
Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.
"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."
Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.
Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).
"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."
It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).
Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.
"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
If you check Anthony Johnson's calendar, you won't find Nov. 9 circled. While special to most of the college football world, LSU's junior defensive tackle sees it as another day -- another game.
"I go week by week," Johnson said with a laugh.
Even though Saturday stands as annual Alabama-LSU day to college football purists, it's game No. 10 to Johnson. He insists that's no disrespect to No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC), but Johnson said he doesn't focus on the crimson jerseys that will line up opposite him. That color has no effect on him.
The No. 13 Tigers (7-2, 3-2) have seen all this before. They've won under the bright, intimidating lights of Bryant-Denny Stadium and they've been involved in plenty of games that have been at the center of the college football universe.
Alabama doesn't faze LSU. Yes, the Crimson Tide are No. 1 and closing in on possibly a third straight national championship. Yes, Alabama has won two straight in this series twice since 2007. Yes, the Tide have dynasty status, but it doesn't scare LSU.
Alabama isn't quite the red team to the Tigers, but it is just Saturday's team. As quarterback Zach Mettenberger put it, Alabama is "nameless and faceless" like everyone else on LSU's schedule.
"Obviously, we have a historical rivalry with Alabama, and we know what it takes to win this game," Mettenberger said. "I wouldn't say that teams fear them, but we're definitely not a team that's going to fear those guys."
If there's any team out there that has no reason to fear Alabama, it's LSU. Since coach Les Miles' first season in Baton Rouge in 2005, he's gone 5-4 against the Crimson Tide. He's 3-4 against Alabama coach Nick Saban, which is more wins than any other coach in the country has against Saban during his tenure at Alabama.
Even before the days of Miles and Saban, LSU wasn't threatened by Alabama, as the Tigers have won six of their last eight in Tuscaloosa.
And these two always seem to be very similar in the stat books. Currently, both rank in the top five of the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. Both have running backs with more than 700 yards and at least 10 touchdowns, and quarterbacks with more than 1,800 passing yards and at least 16 touchdowns.
Alabama has won two in a row against LSU, but that doesn't seem to rattle the Tigers. Nothing really seems to unnerve this team when it comes to big-time games. The Tigers are more than used to it, as they've face Alabama yearly and Miles has had them traditionally play solid out-of-conference opponents.
Since Miles took over, the Tigers have gone 7-0 against ranked nonconference teams during the regular season, so big games and big stages aren't threatening. Forget that LSU has two losses this season, there will be ice water in the Tigers' veins when they step onto the playing field Saturday.
"It's in us. It's something we come here to do," wide receiver Odell Beckham said. "We come here to play in these big-time SEC games.
"When we line up, it's LSU versus whoever we are playing."
Beckham added that players have to be loose now and on Saturday. Stress can't trickle into preparation. Smiles and laughs should stick to players like shadows as they work. Being tense only leads to psyching yourself out.
It's why Miles began his weekly Monday news conference delivering a thorough scouting report on three of his children's athletic endeavors during LSU's bye week.
"Macy had two goals in a soccer game on Saturday," Miles said. "Long-legged, runs well, seems to defend [but] can't use her left foot as well as she'd like, but very enjoyable [to watch]."
That was six days before the game dubbed previous times as the "Game of the (fill in the blank)." It was lighthearted and amusing. That's just how LSU operates, even with a game approaching that will have major SEC Western Division and national championship implications.
It's not like the Tigers don't respect Alabama, but tensing up isn't their style. Players understand Saturday's importance and the high level of ball they'll see across from them, but they refuse to let this game's rhetoric impact them. The plan is to treat Saturday like, well, another Saturday.
"This game is no bigger than the Furman game," Johnson said. "This game is no bigger than the UAB game. It's the next step to trying to finish out with a great season. That's absolutely our biggest focus right now."
- Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles have different philosophies in preparing for big games.
- LSU's receivers believe they can make some big plays against Alabama's secondary.
- Alabama-LSU lacks recent luster, but the rivalry is still very much alive.
- The Charleston Post and Courier's Ryan Wood: South Carolina will either play in Atlanta or New Orleans, but probably not both.
- Auburn's defense has been impressive when opponents drive inside the Tigers' 20-yard line.
- Should Florida coach Will Muschamp be on the hot seat? Athlon Sports' writers discuss.
- Butch Jones wants his team to be “Tennessee tough” before facing Auburn's running game on Saturday.
- Texas A&M was mum on the reasons behind longtime athletic trainer Kyle Kapchinski's firing on Monday.
- Mississippi State is focused on containing Johnny Manziel in Saturday's game against the Aggies.
- Ole Miss' defense is finally healthy entering Saturday's game against Arkansas.
- Georgia receiver Justin Scott-Wesley addressed his marijuana possession arrest in a series of four tweets.
- Maty Mauk is still Missouri's quarterback – for now.
- Kentucky receiver Alexander Montgomery is out for the season with a torn ACL.
- The Lexington Herald Leader's Mark Story: For Mark Stoops to elevate Kentucky football, success against Missouri is a must.
LSU Bulks Up 2014 Recruiting Class
2:52 4th Qtr Washington State 45 Colorado State 37 12:20 3rd Qtr 20 Fresno State 6 25 USC 35 9:13 1st Qtr Buffalo 0 San Diego State 0 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State