Some teams come out of the woodwork to contend for titles. Others expected to contend for titles tank. Coaches go from the hot seat to a hot commodity. Players go from part-time starter to Heisman Trophy candidate, and entire states are transformed into the epicenter of football.
Welcome to the first half of the SEC season.
Here’s my list of some of the things we thought we knew about the league back in August, but as it turns out, really didn’t:
Not only was Coker not the answer, he’s yet to even start a game and has attempted just 33 passes, most of those coming in a blowout 41-0 win over Florida Atlantic. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims, who played running back as a redshirt freshman, has been the Tide’s starting quarterback the whole way. Sims got off to a hot start, but the entire Alabama offense has bogged down the last two weeks with just three offensive touchdowns in a 14-13 win over Arkansas and 23-17 loss to Ole Miss.
The Iron Bowl will determine the West champion
Hey, it still might with the way the West is beating up on each other. But it’s another bowl on Nov. 29 everybody can’t wait for -- the Egg Bowl. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are the only two unbeaten teams remaining in the SEC. Not only that, but the Bulldogs are No. 1 in the polls and the Rebels No. 3. Just the way we all figured it, huh? Seriously, it probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise when you consider they both have experienced difference-makers at quarterback in Dak Prescott and Bo Wallace and deep, talented front sevens on defense.
Kentucky won’t make a bowl in Mark Stoops’ second year
The Wildcats still aren’t there. They need one more win, but how many people had them at 5-1 at the midway point? It could easily be 6-0, too, if not for a triple-overtime loss at Florida and a controversial no-call when the play clock hit zero on the Gators’ fourth-down touchdown pass to force the second overtime. Stoops and his staff have done an exceptional job with this team, which is infinitely more explosive on offense than it was a year ago. Coming back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to beat South Carolina was the kind of win that should pay dividends all season. Two of the Wildcats’ next three games are on the road, starting with LSU on Saturday, but this is a team that believes right now.
Texas A&M will have a big drop-off offensively
On further review, the Aggies really haven’t missed a beat offensively, even though they head to Alabama this weekend trying to snap a two-game losing streak. They lead the SEC in scoring offense (43.9 points per game) and total offense (564.9 yards per game). Kenny Hill, who torched South Carolina in his debut as the Aggies’ starter in the opener, is fifth nationally with an average of 358.7 passing yards per game and second nationally with 23 touchdown passes. Hill has had five interceptions in his last two games, both losses, but he’s filled in better than anybody could have imagined for Johnny Manziel. In fact, Hill’s numbers through seven games (2,511 passing yards and 23 touchdown passes) are better than Manziel’s were through seven games a year ago (2,289 yards and 18 touchdown passes).
South Carolina is the East's team to beat
The Gamecocks have already lost three games. Granted, the way the East is looking, three losses might very well win it the way it did in 2010 when South Carolina went to Atlanta with a 5-3 record. It’s difficult, though, to see the Gamecocks rebounding in the second half. They still have to play at Auburn and at Florida. Moreover, they haven’t done the things it takes to win a divisional crown, like holding fourth-quarter leads and winning the turnover battle. In their two losses to Kentucky and Missouri, they were outscored 35-14 in the fourth quarter and are minus-3 for the season in turnover margin.
LSU RB Leonard Fournette will be the biggest-impact freshman
Fournette has gobs of ability and has thrown it into overdrive of late with 100-yard rushing performances in two of his last three games, but he hasn’t been the league’s top true freshman. That distinction belongs to Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, who’s been a big-time finisher off the edge for the Aggies. He’s second in the SEC with 7.5 sacks and leads Texas A&M with nine tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. The scary part is he’s only going to get bigger, stronger and more in tune with how opposing offensive linemen are trying to block him.
Georgia’s Todd Gurley is the league's most dynamic player
And he was … until an investigation into whether he was paid for autographing memorabilia took him off the field. Tackling Gurley was like tackling a runaway freight train. And when somebody went low on him, he simply used his hurdling skills. He was perhaps on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Now, he and the Bulldog Nation wait impatiently to see how many more games he’ll have to sit.
Speaking of up-and-down quarterbacks, Missouri's Maty Mauk knows the feeling. He had a solid start to the season but had a dismal day in a 34-0 loss to Georgia last week. After a five-turnover performance against the Bulldogs, Mauk said he's aware of the criticism from some fans, who wanted Gary Pinkel to yank him, but it doesn't faze Mauk. Pinkel said it never crossed his mind and offered a vote of confidence to the quarterback, saying "He's our guy." Mauk and the Tigers will have a chance for redemption when they head to The Swamp to take on Florida. The Gators know firsthand that Mauk can play after going for 295 passing yards against Florida last season.
The Todd Gurley autograph saga continues. Georgia officials met with NCAA officials in Indianapolis on Thursday and gave us an update -- in the form of no real update. In a statement, Georgia said "there is no news at this time and no further comment necessary." An NCAA spokesperson did note that it is awaiting a request for reinstatement from Georgia. If the Bulldogs are to make such a request, they have to resolve any issues surrounding his eligibility before doing so. For what it's worth, coach Mark Richt tweeted early Thursday morning that he's "not anticipating [Gurley's status] to change this week."
Around the SEC
- So where did Bo Wallace's game ball from the Alabama game go? Follow its journey.
- Former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said he saw players take money for autographs "all day, every day."
- Nick Chubb isn't the only freshman making an impact at Georgia.
- LSU's running game poses a big challenge to Kentucky's defense.
- Tennessee's beat-up backfield hoping to step it up this week.
- Nick Saban talks about Alabama's offensive line issues.
Nick Saban smiling. pic.twitter.com/7Cz5NhKalb— TexAgs (@TexAgs) October 16, 2014
Why Alabama wins: The Crimson Tide haven’t looked anything like those past championship teams, and this team is sick of hearing about it. Coach Nick Saban is, pretty, uh, mad at how his team is being perceived, so there’s plenty of motivation in Tuscaloosa. Alabama cruises against an A&M defense that's giving up almost 35 points a game in conference play. Alabama 31, Texas A&M 21 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Texas A&M wins: This is a good matchup for the Aggies. Nick Saban’s teams traditionally have struggled against up-tempo, no-huddle offenses, and that’s what the Aggies do. Sure, the Aggies have struggled the past two weeks, but they’ve also been missing their best receiver and offensive leader, Malcome Kennedy. He’ll be back, and I’m betting that this team has a chip on its shoulder -- the way it did before going to South Carolina -- after taking two beatings from Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Texas A&M 34, Alabama 28 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Georgia wins: The SEC East hasn’t beaten a West team all season, and this might be its best chance. Nobody knows the status of Todd Gurley, but this Georgia team used his absence as motivation in last Saturday’s 34-0 win at Missouri. It was the most complete performance by Mark Richt’s team all season. Another shutout is unlikely against a much-improved Arkansas team, but if the Bulldogs play like they did last week, they’ll be hard to beat. Georgia 31, Arkansas 21 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Arkansas wins: Call it a gut feeling, but I sense an upset. Georgia, no matter how good it looked against Missouri, isn't the same without Todd Gurley in the backfield. And Arkansas, already with tough losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, has to break through at some point. Arkansas 27, Georgia 24 -- Alex Scarborough
Why LSU wins: Kentucky got off to a 5-1 start by beating South Carolina and nearly upsetting Florida in the Swamp, but this is Saturday night at Tiger Stadium. LSU is not the imposing team it typically has been under Les Miles, yet programs far better than Kentucky’s have been confident prior to a visit to Baton Rouge and still limped home. LSU 28, Kentucky 21 -- David Ching
Why Kentucky wins: These Wildcats are on a roll. They’ve scored more than 40 points in each of their last two games, QB Patrick Towles has been great and they have a new toy to play with: the Wildcat formation. Running back Jojo Kemp has run it to perfection. Defensively, they’ve also been good (18.7 points per game allowed), they get after opposing QBs and they turn teams over (plus-8 turnover margin). Kentucky 28, LSU 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Ole Miss wins big: One of these days, Butch Jones’ Tennessee team is going to take down a ranked opponent. To date, all the Vols have to show are a near-miss at Georgia and a moral victory at Oklahoma. That landmark win won’t come Saturday at Ole Miss, though. The Rebels will overwhelm the Vols along the line of scrimmage and could win comfortably. Ole Miss 35, Tennessee 17 -- David Ching
How Tennessee can keep it close: Ole Miss is riding high after two huge wins against Alabama and Texas A&M. With a trip to LSU next week, Saturday's home contest against an SEC East bottom-feeder represents your classic trap game. If the Rebels let their guard down, they could easily find themselves in a defensive slugfest with the improving Vols, who have the SEC's second-best pass defense and are giving up just 160.2 yards a game. Ole Miss 24, Tennessee 13 -- Jeff Barlis
More unanimous picks:
Florida over Missouri: The Gators are reeling, but they know a win over Mizzou can turn things around. Being at home and having quarterback Treon Harris back should give Florida enough of a spark to make some plays on a beaten-down Mizzou defense. Florida 24, Missouri 17 -- Edward Aschoff
South Carolina over Furman: After back-to-back crushing losses in the East Division, the Gamecocks have to believe their SEC-worst defense will get well against the FCS Furman Paladins. South Carolina 38, Furman 0 -- Jeff Barlis
Edward Aschoff 54-9
Jeff Barlis 54-9
Chris Low 54-9
Greg Ostendorf 54-9
David Ching 52-11
Alex Scarborough 52-11
Sam Khan Jr. 50-13
The most powerful job in intercollegiate athletics will open next summer, when Mike Slive ends his reign as Southeastern Conference commissioner. In his 12 years running the league, all Slive has done is create a dominant competitor, endow a financial behemoth and instill a conscience in his member schools.
Not only do they actually read the NCAA manual these days, they also erased the "Whites Only" stain from the football coaches' offices. During Slive's tenure, SEC schools have hired five African-American head coaches.
All of which is to say it will take a unique candidate to replace him. The SEC needs a personality like Slive, someone with the force, the gravitas and the magnetism to convince 14 institutions to fall in step. The SEC needs a captain whose presence will project a vision to the nation, in and out of the NCAA. The SEC needs a leader who can do all of the above and not need to fake an intimacy with the passion and allure of intercollegiate athletics.
Come home, Condi.
Come home, Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native who grew up near the current site of the Southeastern Conference office.
I know, this idea isn't exactly original. Last month, in the wake of Roger Goodell's mishandling of the Ray Rice case, an editorial in The Washington Post described an NFL "in dire need" of the former Secretary of State as commissioner.
She once said that her dream job would be running the NFL. But if this year has proven nothing else, it has proven that Goodell's job is not the gravy train he made it appear to be. The job of NFL commissioner is longer on trappings than on actual power.
Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from last Saturday:
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did: With Heisman Trophy frontrunner Todd Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel injured, Georgia turned to Chubb to carry the load in the backfield, and he exceeded all reasonable expectations. Chubb carried the ball a whopping 38 times for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 34-0 win over Missouri and also caught four passes for 31 yards.
What it means: Gurley’s status remains unclear and it doesn’t look like Marshall or Michel will be available Saturday against Arkansas, so Chubb and Brendan Douglas need to be ready for another heavy workload. As good as they were against Mizzou, the Bulldogs will be much better off when their backfield depth gets back closer to normal.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
What he did: Fournette had previously split carries pretty evenly with LSU’s three other tailbacks, but he got by far the most touches while making his first college start against Florida. Fournette ran 27 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators, the most rushing yards in a game by an LSU true freshman since 2003. He also had 85 yards on kickoff returns.
What it means: We’ll see whether this was a one-game thing or whether Fournette will now be LSU’s feature back. This was easily his best game as a Tiger after a relatively quiet first half of the season – even if he has led LSU in rushing in six straight games and ranks third in the SEC in all-purpose yards at 136.9 ypg.
RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky
What he did: Sure, the competition wasn’t outstanding, but Williams was one of the stars of the Wildcats’ 48-14 win against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and also returned a kickoff for a 75-yard gain.
What it means: The exciting freshman showed once again how many ways he can affect a game. He has made big plays for the Wildcats already on the ground, in the passing game and as a return man, making him one of Kentucky’s players to watch when it visits LSU for a key conference game on Saturday night.
P J.K. Scott, Alabama
What he did: Scott punted a career-high eight times against Arkansas and landed seven inside the Razorbacks’ 20-yard line -- all of which were downed inside the Arkansas 15. Scott netted 44.2 yards per punt to raise his season net punting average to 43.1, which ranks fourth nationally. Scott was named Ray Guy Award Player of the Week on Monday for his play against the Razorbacks.
What it means: Specialists usually don’t get enough attention on lists like this, but Scott has been outstanding all season for Alabama. He leads the SEC with an average of 46.7 ypp, with eight of his 19 punts going for 50-plus yards and 12 landing inside the 20. Alabama has had its problems on special teams, but Scott and the SEC’s leading punt coverage team -- the Crimson Tide leads the league with a 43.1 net punting average -- have been outstanding.
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
What he did: There wasn’t much for the Aggies to brag about in their home loss to Ole Miss, but Noil continues to impress with his playmaking ability. He caught 11 passes for 105 yards against the Rebels and also returned three kickoffs for 68 yards and two punts for 19 yards.
What it means: Like Kentucky’s Williams, Noil is quickly emerging as one of the SEC’s top all-purpose performers. He ranks seventh in the league with 121.2 all-purpose ypg and has picked up his receiving production in recent weeks. The Aggies have plenty of strong options in the passing game, but Noil is becoming one of the best.
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Recorded three tackles and a sack for a 12-yard loss in a loss to Ole Miss.
DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss: Recorded two sacks for 26 yards in negative yardage in a win against Texas A&M.
RB Dallas Rivers, Vanderbilt: Ran 11 times for 47 yards and a touchdown and returned two kickoffs for 30 yards in a win against Charleston Southern.
RB Derrell Scott, Tennessee: Played for the first time this season and led Tennessee with 42 rushing yards on nine carries in a win over Chattanooga.
CB Jalen Tabor, Florida: Posted seven tackles, including a sack for a seven-yard loss, and broke up a pass in a loss to LSU.
There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.
Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.
Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.
The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).
Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!
Around the SEC
- The league released the 2015 schedules for all 14 teams. It's 13 weeks long, which means only one bye week next year.
- Georgia RB Todd Gurley is still practicing, but coach Mark Richt says he has no idea when Gurley will play again. Sophomore J.J. Green has moved back to tailback this week.
- Tennessee hasn't beaten an SEC West team since 2010. Ole Miss is hosting the Volunteers on Saturday, and Tennessee native Bo Wallace isn't planning to take it easy on his childhood favorite.
- Missouri QB Maty Mauk had his worst start last week with five turnovers, but Tigers coach Gary Pinkel says, "He's our guy."
- It's official: Alabama coach Nick Saban is an automobile dealer. Of course they're luxury cars.
Spurrier on autograph signing: "I guess what happened with Manziel, these guys say, 'Well, the worst I am going to get is half a game.'"— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) October 14, 2014
That won’t be an issue in 2015, with the usual slate of SEC-versus-Power Five opponent openers -- including Alabama-Wisconsin, Auburn-Louisville, Texas A&M-Arizona State and the Thursday night opener between South Carolina and North Carolina -- followed by three conference games and Oklahoma-Tennessee in Week 2.
After taking a quick glance at the schedules, here are a few more highlights and abnormalities:
- Georgia’s non-conference slate is nothing special (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, at Georgia Tech), but Mark Richt’s Bulldogs might have drawn the toughest cross-division slates with dates against Alabama and Auburn. Kentucky drawing a Thursday-night matchup against Auburn and a trip to Mississippi State isn’t much of a favor to Mark Stoops, either.
- UGA-Alabama is one of the most interesting cross-division games on the list. The two programs haven’t met in the regular season since the Crimson Tide spoiled preseason No. 1 Georgia’s 2008 “Blackout” game at Sanford Stadium by jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. A few others of interest are Florida-Ole Miss (Oct. 3), Florida-LSU (Oct. 17), Alabama-Tennessee (Oct. 24), Georgia-Auburn (Nov. 14) and a Thursday-night game between Missouri and Mississippi State (Nov. 5).
2015 SEC cross-divisional games: Alabama (Oct. 3 at Georgia, Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee), Arkansas (Oct. 3 at Tennessee, Nov. 28 vs. Missouri), Auburn (Thursday, Oct. 15 at Kentucky, Nov. 14 vs. Georgia), Florida (Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17 at LSU), Georgia (Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 14 at Auburn), Kentucky (Thursday, Oct. 15 vs. Auburn, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State), LSU (Oct. 10 at South Carolina, Oct. 17 vs. Florida), Ole Miss (Sept. 26 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 3 at Florida), Mississippi State (Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky, Thursday, Nov. 5 at Missouri), Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 28 at Arkansas), South Carolina (Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 at Texas A&M), Tennessee (Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 24 at Alabama), Texas A&M (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt), Vanderbilt (Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M).
- As usual, opening weekend is when most of the SEC-versus-Power Five games will occur, but there are others sprinkled throughout the schedule. Four SEC teams aren’t scheduled to play a Power Five nonconference game, while South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson) is the only SEC team set to play two.
- We'll give Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks the early nod as the SEC team with the toughest nonconference schedule. In addition to the neutral-site game with UNC and home game against Clemson, South Carolina will host Central Florida and The Citadel.
2015 SEC-versus-Power Five: Alabama (Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin in Dallas), Arkansas (Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech), Auburn (Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta), Florida (Nov. 28 vs. Florida State), Georgia (Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Nov. 28 vs. Louisville), LSU (Sept. 26 at Syracuse), Ole Miss (None), Mississippi State (None), Missouri (None), South Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Nov. 28 vs. Clemson), Tennessee (Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma), Texas A&M (Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State in Houston), Vanderbilt (None).
- Texas A&M will actually leave the state of Texas only once in the first 11 weeks of the season (Oct. 24 at Ole Miss). Prior to its Nov. 21 visit to Vanderbilt, A&M will play seven home games and neutral-site games against Arizona State (in Houston) and Arkansas (in Arlington). The Aggies close the season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at LSU, not on Thanksgiving like this season’s finale with the Tigers.
- With SEC teams getting just one open date apiece in 2015, Ole Miss’ schedule looks like a considerable challenge. The Rebels will play for 10 straight weeks -- including road dates at Alabama, Florida and Auburn -- before taking the weekend off on Nov. 14. They will close the season with a Nov. 21 home game with LSU and the Nov. 28 Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.
Those are just a few of the details that jump out after taking a look at the SEC’s 2015 schedule. Check out the SEC’s official site to see each team’s individual schedule and a week-by-week slate for next fall.
Ole Miss observed the old “there is a first time for everything” adage while holding Texas A&M scoreless in the first two quarters of a 35-20 win over the Aggies at Kyle Field. It was the first time a team coached by Sumlin, who is in his seventh season as a head coach, had zero points at halftime.
It served as a microcosm of what the last two weeks have been like for a usually high-powered offense.
“There were a number of times today where we just got whipped,” Sumlin said flatly after Saturday’s game. “It's kind of hard to fix that.”
There have been a myriad of reasons for the struggles, from wide receiver drops to inaccurate throws to an ineffective running game. Offensive line play doesn't seem to be what it was the last two seasons, either. Turnovers have been a large part of the problem as well, as the Aggies have committed six in their two losses. On Saturday, two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns by Ole Miss -- one interception and one fumble return.
“That's my fault,” quarterback Kenny Hill said Saturday. “I had three turnovers [vs. Ole Miss] and two of them went for touchdowns. We can't win like that. That's on me.”
Hill is correct, but he isn’t the sole culprit. The interception that Cody Prewitt returned for a touchdown saw Hill feeling pressure courtesy of Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who had beaten left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to get in Hill’s face just as he released the football. Hill felt harassment against Mississippi State and Arkansas as well.
Dropped passes were a serious issue against Mississippi State the previous week. The Aggies had nine, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the most by a Power 5 team in four seasons, but Sumlin and his staff were harsher in his grading of that game, giving the Aggies 11. Drops didn’t creep up as a major issue vs. Ole Miss but were a concern against Arkansas, too.
“It's a number that we aren't proud of,” said senior receiver Malcome Kennedy, who missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. “[Receivers coach David Beaty] always says 'One dropped ball is too many,’ and it makes perfect sense, that is too many.”
The absence of Kennedy hasn’t helped matters. He suffered a separated shoulder late against Arkansas, sat out briefly and returned to finish the game with a game-winning touchdown reception in overtime but has been unable to go the last two weeks after testing the shoulder in warmups.
That has disrupted the flow of the offense because Kennedy was leading the team in receptions at the time of his injury. He is a vocal leader and Hill, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have indicated that Kennedy means an immense amount to the offense.
The Aggies tried to get their running game going early against Ole Miss, but the Rebels were having none of it. A&M finished with 54 yards on 35 carries, a measly 1.5-yards per carry average.
So what do the Aggies do?
"You're always analyzing where you are,” Sumlin said. “When things are going good you're analyzing and you're analyzing when things are going bad and not the way you want them to, [too]. So that's kind of where we are right now.
“As a team, you're always looking to get better and fix problems. Sometimes when you're winning those things are glossed over, but as a coach, you have to be honest with your schemes and honest with yourself. Really, that was the message to players and coaches. Right now is a time where you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and look for and be honest with the deficiencies that have been presented and then be able to fix those during the week or adjust during the week.”
The Aggies’ season-opening win at South Carolina -- which looked much better that day than it does now, knowing what we know about the Gamecocks -- caused many to believe that the Aggies wouldn’t miss a beat after the departure of three of the best offensive players in the program’s history: Quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
What these last two weeks have illustrated is that it is difficult to replace players of that caliber, especially with the type of youth the Aggies are operating with. For all the hype he received early on, it’s easy to forget that Hill just made his seventh career start. The same applies for others such as receivers Speedy Noil or Ricky Seals-Jones, two key members of the talented but young group of receivers.
It might take time to fix some of the issues that have crept up, but that’s something the Aggies don’t have much of currently, because a trip to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama looms on Saturday. If the Aggies want any chance of repeating the success they had in their last trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium, their offensive woes will have to be cured quickly.
As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There were a few big commitments, key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.
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Merely weeks ago, the Aggies were riding high with a top-10 national ranking, spotless record and national buzz about being a College Football Playoff contender. For Aggies that feared the prospect of life post-Johnny Manziel, it was a dream land, the program flexing its muscle and showing it was more than just one player and long-term success in the SEC was here to stay.
Seven games into 2014 -- the most recent two being convincing losses to the Magnolia State squads -- many are left wondering what to think of this Texas A&M team. Clearly, the Aggies aren't what many perceived them to be after their season debut, nor does it seem likely they are as bad as they've looked the previous two Saturdays, when they've taken beatings from two teams currently ranked in the top three nationally.
What we're seeing is a team in transition, which is what many expected before Texas A&M went to Columbia, South Carolina and blew the doors off the Gamecocks, 52-28, on Aug. 28.
Preseason expectations of the Aggies weren't high from most pundits and outsiders. After saying goodbye to three NFL first-round draft picks, Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, it was natural to assume some growing pains in coach Kevin Sumlin's third year. A first-time starter at quarterback and a still mostly-young defense which had an awful 2013 were the primary reasons for a skeptical eye.
When Kenny Hill and the Aggies went to Williams-Brice Stadium and snapped South Carolina's 18-game home-winning streak in emphatic fashion, it suddenly recalibrated expectations and gave the Aggies a look of a team with its foot on the gas pedal, expectations be damned.
As weeks have passed, it became evident the Aggies' big win wasn't as telling as initially thought. These Gamecocks don't resemble the group that won 11 games each of the past three seasons and are now fifth in the SEC East. The national rankings boost and buzz that followed Texas A&M in the aftermath turned out to be based on unfulfilled expectations of what South Carolina really was.
It seems the Aggies' overtime win against Arkansas, in which they had to scratch and claw out of a two-touchdown deficit late, is more revealing into what this current group is: a young team that is both talented and flawed, showing flashes of both brilliance and frustrating inconsistency at different times.
The overreaction to the South Carolina win, talks of Heisman Trophy contention and "Kenny Trill" made it easy to forget the sophomore is still a first-year starter. The Aggies' 35-20 loss to Ole Miss was Hill's seventh career start. In addition, he's accompanied by a talented but young group of receivers. Of the nine listed on the Texas A&M depth chart, seven are freshmen or sophomores.
In an offense like Texas A&M's, which is predicated on timing, precision and chemistry, the ills that come with playing a young quarterback or young receivers can be disruptive, unless you're fortunate enough to have a transcendent player running the show, like the Aggies did Manziel the past two seasons, who kept defenses off balance with his scrambling ability. After Hill and his receivers played stellar ball in the Aggies' first four games, the last three have seen Hill throw three interceptions, the receivers drop 15 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the overall effectiveness of the passing game has dwindled.
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner and a top-10 pick at receiver isn't supposed to be smooth.
Defensively, the Aggies have made progress from the SEC-worst unit that existed a season ago, but there is still a long way to go. Linebacker depth is lacking. Secondary play has been inconsistent. The defensive line is talented and has held its own but, like the Aggies' receivers, has a lot of youth, with seven of the 10 players on the depth chart being freshmen or sophomores. In a league like the SEC, built on strong line play, that can make life challenging.
Against Ole Miss, the Aggies struggled to stop the Rebels in the first quarter but forced five consecutive punts after that. Against Mississippi State, they seemed to have few answers for Dak Prescott & Co. Against Arkansas, early struggles against the run were followed by clutch stops in the fourth quarter and overtime, including one that sealed victory on fourth-and-1.
The Aggies have recruited at a high level in the Sumlin era, turning in back-to-back top-10 classes and are on track for a third straight in this cycle, but not every player is a Myles Garrett or a Speedy Noil, who can make the type of instant impact that those two have. The up-and-down nature of the Aggies' recent play is one byproduct of the amount of youth lining up weekly for them in college football's deepest, toughest conference.
In reality, the Aggies are likely at least a year away from being true SEC West title contenders. Sumlin, whose name was rumored as a candidate for the USC job or NFL jobs last offseason, didn't pass on those other opportunities for what awaited Texas A&M in the immediate future of 2014. He doubled-down in Aggieland because of what he believes the future holds in 2015 and 2016 as talent continues to stockpile and facilities continue to improve (well, that and a hefty $5 million-per-season contract, which runs through 2019).
Much like its home, Kyle Field, the Aggies are a team in transition and the finished product is still at least a year away.
A Texas football Saturday in October, from start to finish. That was the mission.
In the morning, one of the sport's great rivalry games: Texas vs. No. 11 Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Afternoon brought No. 9 TCU vs. No. 5 Baylor in Waco, a series played 109 times without both teams ever being ranked at the same time until now. Then for the nightcap, a new SEC West rivalry, No. 3 Ole Miss vs. No. 14 Texas A&M in College Station.
Three of the nation's best college football games, all within 200 miles in a neat line from north to south. A challenge just too good to pass up.
So we boarded the ESPN DIRECTV bus and made the nearly 16-hour voyage from game to game to game. The following is a diary of the sights and the sounds, the atmosphere and the action.
Dallas: Texas-OU, corn dogs and turkey legs
8:30 a.m.: The day begins the only way it can: with a warm corn dog in hand.
David Dixon, a 60-year-old Sooner living in Dallas, has figured this out in his 30-plus years of visiting the State Fair of Texas: You must strike early when the oil's hottest. "You've gotta get the one with the first grease," Dixon said. "That's the best corny dog." Dixon's uncle, the late Tommy Gray Jr., played halfback on OU's 1950 national title team. This isn't his first Red River rodeo. "This is the greatest experience in the world," he proclaims.
9:05: Texas' team bus rolls up to the Cotton Bowl behind a three-motorcycle escort, under overcast skies. Strength coach Pat Moorer, easily the scariest of the Longhorns coaches, is the first off the bus. Each Longhorns player, dressed in their mandatory blazers, khaki pants and burnt orange ties, fist-bumps Mark Evans as they step onto the fairground. It's his first year as the Longhorns' bus driver, and his first foray into the fair was a smooth one. "The team was quiet," Evans said. "Focused. All business."
After the past couple of weeks, maybe that question should be: Can the state of Mississippi get two teams into the playoff?
The Bulldogs and Rebels have been that good. MSU jumped over Florida State and into the No. 1 spot in both polls, while Ole Miss remained in the No. 3 spot in the rankings.
These are heady times in the Magnolia State. But the Egg Bowl looms large and is late enough in the season that it's certain to bloody the loser's résumé.
With all of the parity in college football, all of the chaos and the fact that the SEC West still has a lot more self-destruction to come, let's not put two SEC teams into the playoff just yet.
Here is our full list of conference bowl teams entering the eighth week of the season:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: Alabama
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Arkansas
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Kentucky
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Top Aggies Commit Looking Around?
12:00 PM ET UAB Arkansas 3:30 PM ET 1 Mississippi State Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt Missouri 7:15 PM ET 3 Ole Miss 24 LSU 7:30 PM ET South Carolina 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 4 Alabama Tennessee