Texas A&M Aggies: Nick Saban
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."
Alabama was thought to be the SEC’s only hope to reach the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but while the Crimson Tide might have the best chance, don’t sleep on the team across the state.
Auburn moved up to No. 6 in the latest BCS standings after a dramatic come-from-behind victory against Georgia. The Tigers passed Stanford, which lost to USC on Saturday, but the bigger surprise was how close they are to No. 5 Oregon. They’re closing in on the Ducks, and a win in the Iron Bowl could solidify their spot as the best one-loss team in the nation.
Obviously, Auburn would still need some help even if Gus Malzahn’s bunch can find a way to upset Alabama, but crazier things have happened.
As for the Crimson Tide, they maintained the top spot in the BCS standings but their average dropped after a so-so performance on the road at Mississippi State. In fact, they are now tied with No. 2 Florida State in the computer rankings, though they still hold an advantage over the Seminoles in both the Harris poll and the coaches' poll.
Nick Saban shouldn’t be too concerned. His team still controls its own destiny in the BCS and is now three wins away from reaching its third consecutive national championship game.
Alabama and Auburn are joined in the top 10 by Missouri, but South Carolina dropped to No. 11 despite knocking off Florida in its final conference game. The reason for the slide was a result of Oklahoma State and its impressive performance against Texas. The Cowboys jumped two spots to No. 10, passing both South Carolina and Texas A&M along the way.
The SEC has a total of seven teams in the top 25 again this week. Georgia dropped out after the heartbreaking loss to Auburn, but the Bulldogs were replaced by an Ole Miss team that has won four straight games. The Rebels will host No. 8 Missouri on Saturday.
Ultimately, the one big thing still has to be Auburn’s turnaround this season. If Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor or Oregon falter this weekend, it could set up a top-five matchup in the Iron Bowl and give the Tigers even more to play for.
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
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.
- 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.
Our weekly look at Hot and Not in the SEC:
The who’s No. 1 debate: Florida State and Oregon both can make legitimate claims that they’re the No. 1 team in the country. Florida State (No. 2 BCS standings) owns lopsided wins over a pair of top 10 teams (Clemson and Miami), and Oregon (No. 3) has been a blur against everybody. The Ducks get their toughest test Thursday against No. 5 Stanford, and if they knock off the Cardinal, you can bet they will leap back into the No. 2 position in the BCS standings. But Alabama remains No. 1 and is a virtual lock until its first loss. If all three teams keep winning, the debate over which one is truly the best team will only heat up. But here’s the thing to keep in mind: If Alabama had to face Florida State or Oregon next week or with a week to prepare, it might be a stretch to pick the Crimson Tide in either one of those games. But with a month to prepare, which is the case leading up to the BCS National Championship Game, have we seen anything in the past that would lead us to believe that coach Nick Saban isn't going to get it done in that scenario?
Mississippi State’s ball security: Mississippi State had committed an SEC-low six turnovers entering Saturday’s game at South Carolina, but the bottom fell out in a 34-16 loss to the Gamecocks. The Bulldogs turned it over five times, leading to 20 of the Gamecocks' points. Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott was responsible for four of the turnovers, with three interceptions and a fumble. He had thrown just three picks going into the game. Making it even worse for Mississippi State was the fact South Carolina didn’t turn it over at all.
South Carolina at home: The Gamecocks have won 15 straight at home, tying the school record. The previous home loss came against Auburn during the fifth week of the 2011 season.
Tennessee on the road: The Vols have lost 12 in a row on the road after getting blown out 31-3 on Saturday at Missouri. Nine of those 12 losses have been by double digits. In four losses on the road this season, Tennessee has been outscored 114-17 in the first half.
Auburn running back Tre Mason: In all of those conversations about the top running backs in the SEC this season, don’t forget about Mason. He was a battering ram for Auburn last week in its 35-17 win at Arkansas. He carried it a career-high 32 times for 168 yards and scored four touchdowns. Mason is third in the SEC in rushing with 921 yards and has a league-leading 13 touchdowns. Mason is also just 79 yards from his second straight 1,000-yard season (he rushed for 1,038 yards last season).
Arkansas’ bowl chances: The Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5 SEC) have lost six consecutive games, their longest losing streak since 1990, when they dropped seven in a row in what was Jack Crowe’s first season in Fayetteville. Unless they can win all three of their remaining games (at Ole Miss, Mississippi State in Little Rock and at LSU), they’ll miss the postseason for the second straight year.
Florida: Nobody expected the Gators to have four losses at this point, but nobody expected them to be this decimated by injuries. Still, the facts are this: They’re 4-4 and coming off their third straight loss to bitter rival Georgia, still have tough games remaining against ranked foes South Carolina and Florida State, and there is growing restlessness among the fans over the continued struggles on offense. That’s where third-year coach Will Muschamp has to get it fixed if he’s going to be in Gainesville long term, and he knows that as well as anybody.
The Gators are ranked 110th nationally in total offense. They’ve yet to finish higher than 103rd in total offense since Muschamp arrived in 2011. That’s almost unfathomable, when you think about all of the talented skill players the state of Florida produces each year. But the Gators also have to play better on the offensive line and find something they can hang their hat on. They've just never been able to develop any consistency offensively on Muschamp's watch. Despite some of the unrest in Gainesville, don’t look for Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley to pull the plug on Muschamp after just three seasons, especially after Muschamp squeezed out 11 wins a year ago with a killer schedule. But Muschamp almost certainly will have to make some changes on his offensive staff.
- Nick Saban has won three of the past four national championships with Alabama, but this season could be his best coaching job since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
- Injuries to Henry Josey and Russell Hansbrough might thrust Missouri running back Marcus Murphy into a bigger role this week against Tennessee.
- If Arkansas wants to upset Auburn on Saturday, it knows it has to keep up with the Tigers’ offense and score points.
- Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is ‘day-to-day’ with a shoulder injury, but the coaching staff is teaching him how to protect himself and avoid plays like the one that got him hurt last Saturday.
- Mike Evans has been one of the top wide receivers in college football this season, and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is puzzled why he’s not in the Heisman conversation.
- After playing nine weeks in a row, LSU finally gets a break this week but not without looking ahead and preparing for Alabama.
- Just like Connor Shaw, South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles played through injury Saturday at Missouri. After another strong performance, he’s proving to be the Gamecocks’ best defensive lineman.
- Freshman running back Kelvin Taylor is expected to start for Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville, the same city his father made a legacy in the NFL.
- Aaron Murray could have left early for the NFL after last season, and though it’s been difficult in 2013, the Georgia quarterback has no regrets about coming back.
- Mississippi State hung on to beat Kentucky last week, but head coach Dan Mullen still criticized his play- calling late in the game.
- As Alabama heads into its bye week, the Crimson Tide remain atop the BCS standings. However, the focus this week is on “maintaining discipline, improving our team,” Nick Saban says. They will host LSU in their first game back.
- It was a crushing defeat for Missouri on Saturday, and although the dream season might be over, there is still a lot to play for including the SEC East title.
- Starting quarterback Nick Marshall practiced Sunday, but there’s a chance that Auburn will have to turn to freshman Jeremy Johnson this weekend when the Tigers visit Arkansas.
- Saturday’s Texas A&M-Vanderbilt game featured the SEC’s top two wide receivers -- Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews. Although the Aggies won, 56-24, Matthews broke the league record for career receiving yards.
- After the win over Vanderbilt, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel spoke to the media and said he intended to play against Vanderbilt all week.
- LSU’s offense, which put up 672 yards on Saturday, was enough to hide some of the team’s flaws in a 48-16 win over Furman.
- Connor Shaw battled both a knee sprain and the flu to lead the Gamecocks past Missouri in double overtime. It was a legendary performance from the South Carolina quarterback.
- Tennessee’s performance at Alabama wasn’t pretty, but the goal of reaching a bowl game is still very much in play for the Volunteers.
- Florida and Georgia have both been dealt their fair share of injuries this season, but after South Carolina’s win on Saturday, they’re both still very much in contention for the SEC East.
- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze rested multiple starters in Saturday’s win over Idaho as the Rebels head into a the bye week looking to get healthy. They return to SEC play Nov. 9 against Arkansas.
Before we tucked college football in and kissed it goodnight on Saturday, the SEC watched as five of its ranked teams fell by the sword of their own conference mates.
"If you watch how these games go, you have to play every week," LSU coach Les Miles said.
"I'm just letting you know that you better be ready to play."
Miles knows all too well the feeling of being upset on any given Saturday. He watched as his sixth-ranked Tigers fell 27-24 Saturday to an Ole Miss team riding a three-game losing streak. LSU was fresh off of a 17-6 win over Florida and was once again being viewed as both an SEC contender and BCS title contender.
Now, the Tigers' BCS and SEC chances are distant memories, as the Rebels bounced back to post their fourth win of the season.
Just before the Tigers fell victim in Oxford, No. 7 Texas A&M lost to 24th-ranked Auburn, while No. 11 South Carolina and No. 15 Georgia lost on the road to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, respectively. That marked four major upsets, and ended title hopes for LSU and A&M. It also paved the way for teams perceived to be either middle-of-the-road types or bottom feeders to flex their muscles.
Heading into the weekend, six SEC teams are listed in the BCS standings, and 12 of the SEC's 14 teams have four wins or more, including Auburn (6-1) and Tennessee (4-3), which have new head coaches. Nine of them have at least two conference wins. Ten teams are also averaging more than 400 yards and 30 points per game this year.
While injuries have certainly played a part in top teams falling, you can't dismiss the fact that programs such as Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee, who combined to go 15-22 last year, are getting better each week and could all make bowl games.
"It speaks to the very good coaching, very good programs, that we have from top to bottom in this league that everybody you play has the capabilities of beating you because of the quality of players as well as the quality of the coaching and programs that we have in this league," Alabama coach Nick Saban told members of the media earlier this week.
Alabama is still the cream of the conference, sitting undefeated (7-0, 4-0 SEC) and No. 1 in the BCS standings. However, an end-of-the-season date with No. 11 Auburn on the Plains could decide the Tide's postseason fate.
Then there's Missouri. The Tigers literally limped through a 5-7 SEC debut last season, only to start this year 7-0 (3-0 SEC) and rise to No. 5 in the BCS standings after a 36-17 win over Florida. A week earlier, the Tigers upset Georgia in Athens 41-26. A win over South Carolina this week, and the Tigers essentially will clinch the SEC Eastern Division.
The perceived heavyweights are learning that the assumed off weeks in this league are dwindling. It's a case of a little changing of the guard in the SEC, and that's not a bad thing. The usual top teams have owned this conference, as only four teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU -- have been a part of the league's seven straight national championships. Now, the bottom and middle are fighting back.
Mizzou has a legitimate shot at a national championship berth, while Auburn is ranked 11th in the BCS standings. Tennessee is two wins away from a bowl game for the first time since 2010, Ole Miss is building off last year's seven-win season, and Vandy could make three straight bowl trips for the first time.
It doesn't look like this parity will end anytime soon, either. Excellent recruiting jobs by Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt should have them even better in the future. Also, who knows what will happen if Mark Stoops' solid 2014 class (No. 16 by ESPN RecruitingNation) at Kentucky pans out? The Wildcats could have plenty of help on the way, which could make them competitive again in the SEC East.
And those nagging injuries plaguing Florida and Georgia shouldn't be around next year, meaning the conference could be even stronger ... just in time for the College Football Playoff.
"I feel like the SEC is the best conference in college football," Auburn running back Tre Mason said.
"A lot of crazy things are happening."
Expect that craziness to continue this year and beyond.
- With zero SEC wins and a 3-3 record, Mississippi State calls tonight's game against Kentucky a "must win" game.
- It hasn't been an easy season in new head coach Mark Stoops' first year, as the Wildcats are 1-5, but even with the struggles, Kentucky is playing with a winning attitude.
- One byproduct of a blowout win such as the one Alabama had last week over Arkansas is empty seats in the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Head coach Nick Saban's message to fans: Stay the whole game or give the tickets to someone who will.
- Missouri's offensive line has been stellar this season. The secret? Staying healthy … and ice cream, oreos and other assorted junk food from running back Henry Josey.
- The zone read has been an effective weapon for the Auburn offense and quarterback Nick Marshall has been critical to that success.
- LSU fullback J.C. Copeland will likely miss Saturday's game against Furman because of a concussion.
- Texas A&M only committed five penalties last Saturday against Auburn, but some of them came at critical times. They're still trying to limit their infractions.
- What will Dylan Thompson's start at quarterback in place of the injured Connor Shaw mean for Shaw, the incumbent starter, on Saturday?
- Tennessee's improvement on the defensive line must continue.
- Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt, who had a key interception against LSU last week, is becoming a leader on the Rebels' defense.
- Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said no decision has been made about his starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Texas A&M and hasn't ruled out Austyn Carta-Samuels, but he praised Patton Robinette's play in relief last week.
- He was asked time and time again this week whether his undefeated, top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide would overlook unranked Arkansas at home. Well Nick Saban answered definitively in the negative last night.
- Auburn cornerback Chris Davis sees Saturday's game against the Aggies as a challenge. He already thinks of himself as one of the best defenders in the SEC and he knows Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans is one of the best at his position in the conference, too.
- Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long steps into a prestigious position leading the College Football Playoff as its committee chairman.
- Tennessee has had its ups and downs this season, but its starting tailback Rajion Neal has continued to improve.
- Why star rapper Wale was on Ole Miss' campus is still something of a mystery. But he was there and Hugh Freeze got to talk about it.
- Normally stout against the run, Florida got gashed up the middle by LSU and Jeremy Hill.
- How healthy is LSU at this point? Considering it's been seven weeks, Les Miles says the Tigers are in a good place.
- What's the sound? That's opportunity knocking for Missouri's Maty Mauk.
After picking against the Dawgs two weeks ago and taking Ole Miss last week, I'm leading him by just one game. The bad news is that Chris has some momentum. The good news is that I'm still in the lead, and that's all that matters.
We both went 6-1 and I didn't gain any ground. I missed on Ole Miss, while Chris lost out on Vanderbilt. On the season, I'm sitting at 53-5 (.914) and Chris has a record of 52-6 (.897).
Chris has refrained from talking any sort of smack, which is nice, but I'm young and live the life of a single man in Atlanta whose biggest responsibility is a cat. I take chances. I put myself out there and I show off my swag (just check out my awesome glasses). I hold Inman Park down and I have a rep to maintain. But hey, Chris coaches little league baseball and I hear he's in the market for a classic old-timer vehicle: the Pontiac Trans Sport. Just an absolute beauty ...
On to the picks:
BOWLING GREEN AT MISSISSIPPI STATE
Chris Low: The fourth quarter hasn’t been kind to Mississippi State this season in the Bulldogs’ three losses. They jump out of conference this week against a team that’s won three in a row and playing with a lot of confidence. It won’t be easy, but the Bulldogs will prevail at home. Mississippi State 34, Bowling Green 24
Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs get to regroup against a confident 5-1 Bowling Green team with an offense averaging nearly 500 yards a game. We saw a lot of fight from Mississippi State against LSU and the Bulldogs will prevail this week. Mississippi State 31, Bowling Green 21
WESTERN CAROLINA AT AUBURN
Chris Low: Coming off a key win last week against Ole Miss, Auburn finally gets a breather after a tough stretch of games. The Tigers are making a bid as the SEC’s most improved team and will mark the midway point of the season this weekend with their fifth win. Auburn 42, Western Carolina 6
Edward Aschoff: Auburn's win over Ole Miss was big, and now the Tigers get a delicious cupcake to feast on this weekend. We should see more throwing from Nick Marshall. Auburn 41, Western Carolina 14
ALABAMA AT KENTUCKY
Chris Low: It’s the kind of thing Nick Saban hates hearing, but there’s not a team on Alabama’s schedule this month that ought to come within two or three touchdowns of the Crimson Tide. Alabama 35, Kentucky 7
Edward Aschoff: Alabama played its most complete game of the season in a blowout win over Georgia State. Kentucky improved against South Carolina, but not enough to challenge the Tide. Alabama 41, Kentucky 7
SOUTH CAROLINA AT ARKANSAS
Chris Low: South Carolina has played some real stinkers at Arkansas over the years, and the Hogs are hungry for a win after losing each of the last three weeks. Look for a second-half game, but look for the Gamecocks to survive thanks to another big effort from Mike Davis. South Carolina 28, Arkansas 24
Edward Aschoff: The Gamecocks haven't won here since 2005 and Jadeveon Clowney is nursing a rib injury. Both have great running games, but something tells me that Alex Collins will be able to pull off some big runs late to help the Hogs pull the upset. Arkansas 28, South Carolina 24
TEXAS A&M AT OLE MISS
Chris Low: Settle in for a wild one at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Texas A&M’s defense hasn’t been able to stop much this season. But then again, nobody has come close to stopping Johnny Manziel and that Texas A&M offense. Texas A&M 41, Ole Miss 31
Edward Aschoff: Last season the Rebels actually had a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in their loss to the Aggies. Now the Rebels have dropped two straight and the Aggies are rested after the bye week. The question is if Ole Miss' offense can keep pace with Johnny Football. The Rebels just aren't built to right now. Texas A&M 41, Ole Miss 35
MISSOURI AT GEORGIA
Chris Low: The injuries just keep mounting for Georgia, but the Dawgs just keep winning. They’ve given up 30 or more points in four of their five games this season and face a Missouri team that’s also lighting up scoreboards. Fortunately for the Dawgs, they have Aaron Murray. Georgia 31, Missouri 27
Edward Aschoff: I've picked against the Bulldogs twice in Athens. Twice, I've been wrong. The Bulldogs aren't healthy, Todd Gurley is "doubtful" and Mizzou's offense is red-hot. Everything points to me picking the Tigers. Georgia fans want me to pick Mizzou. Well, you had me at injuries and a struggling defense. Missouri 31, Georgia 27
FLORIDA AT LSU
Chris Low: LSU has been one of the country’s top scoring offenses at 45.5 points per game. Florida has been one of the country’s top scoring defenses at 12.2 points per game. Something’s gotta give. It’s hard to pick against Tiger Stadium in this one. LSU 27, Florida 21
Edward Aschoff: This one should be very interesting. The Gators look like the the East's most balanced team right now, but the offense hasn't exactly played any intimidating defenses. LSU is giving up points and yards left and right, but its offense has been tremendous. LSU will find a way to score on this defense and force turnovers. LSU 24, Florida 20
1. Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC; last week: 1): Alabama did everything it was supposed to do in its tuneup against a very overmatched Georgia State team. Nick Saban wanted to get a chunk of his youngsters into the game and 70 players saw action. After its most complete game of the season, Alabama travels to Kentucky for another chance to work on execution.
2. Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bulldogs won a wild one against Tennessee Saturday, but they lost three key players on offense. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are both out for the year with season-ending knee injuries, and receiver Michael Bennett will miss Saturday's game with a knee injury. Aaron Murray has been superb, but now it's time for this defense to step up and make crucial improvements if Georgia is going to make it back to Atlanta.
3. Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Aggies were off over the weekend, which gave this team a chance to rest and work on everything concerning its defense. Texas A&M still owns the SEC's worst defense (476.8 yards allowed per game), but when you have Johnny Manziel making play after play, it takes some pressure off everyone else. Still, this defense will have to be on point against Ole Miss' high-powered offense in Oxford.
4. LSU (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 4): Well, the Tigers offense just looks terrific right now. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should all be in contention for the title of "best at their position" in the SEC. The Tigers have churned out more than 400 yards in every game and more than 500 in two. The defense still has its issues, especially stopping the run, but this offense is deadly.
5. Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 6): Believe it or not, the Gators are looking more and more like the most balanced team in the SEC East. Florida owns the SEC's best defense (217 yards allowed per game) and the offense has amassed 400 yards of offense three times this season. In Florida's blowout win over Arkansas on Saturday, new quarterback Tyler Murphy threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns. With this defense and an improving offense, are the Gators turning into a legit contender in the SEC?
6. South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 5): No, the Gamecocks didn't lose to Kentucky over the weekend, but this team just doesn't look focused right now, especially on defense. In their past three games, the Gamecocks have blown a 28-point lead to Vanderbilt, an 18-point lead to UCF and a 21-point lead to Kentucky. The good news is that South Carolina has gone 3-0 during that span, but that sort of sloppy play will catch up to you in this league.
7. Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 8): Don't look now, but here come the midwestern Tigers! Mizzou is turning into quite the unit, especially on offense, after blowing out Vanderbilt in Nashville. With its trail mix of offensive talent, the Tigers dropped 51 on the Commodores and found themselves back in the Top 25. Mizzou is second to only Texas A&M in offense in the SEC and has registered more than 500 yards three times, including against Vandy.
8. Auburn (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 9): These Tigers tried to give away a 27-9 lead in the third quarter against Ole Miss, but held on for a huge 30-22 win. One thing that really helped out Auburn was the play of its defensive line, as the Rebels only had 124 rushing yards Saturday. On offense, Auburn knows it's going to have to rely heavily on its running game, which churned out 282 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.
9. Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2 SEC; LW: 7): This team has now lost two in a row after such a hot start. The offense was shut out against Alabama and then couldn't run on Auburn's defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace made some bad decisions in Saturday's loss and this team just became way too one-dimensional on the Plains. Who's next? Oh, that would be Johnny Football.
10. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC; LW: 10): The Commodores need a lot of help on defense. It's clear that there are holes all over and if Vandy is going to continue its upward progression, the defense has to improve. Vandy's defense has given up more than 500 yards twice and more than 360 yards four times.
11. Arkansas (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 11): When Florida forced Arkansas to throw the ball, the Razorbacks just couldn't get anything going. Brandon Allen completed only 17 of his 41 pass attempts, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and registered a QBR of 9.8. For the second time this season, the Hogs had no spark on offense when the running game got stuffed.
12. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 13): What a fight by Tennessee in that heartbreaking loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs did sustain some serious injuries, but Justin Worley delivered some big-time throws and wide receiver Pig Howard is turning into a real playmaker, except for that goal-line fumble. This defense still has a long way to go, but Saturday showed that this team truly has heart.
13. Mississippi State (2-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): This defense was impressive in the Bulldogs' two victories over lesser competition, but in three losses, Mississippi State has given up more than 400 yards each time. LSU racked up 59 points and more than 500 yards of offense Saturday. The Bulldogs kept things close for most of the night against the Tigers, but were totally overmatched in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 28-0.
14. Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats put up quite the fight against South Carolina and almost pulled off a huge upset at home. You could see some improvement and development on the offensive side against the Gamecocks, and it's important that it carry over going forward. This team just doesn't have the horses right now to really compete in the SEC.