Texas A&M Aggies: Tajh Boyd

SEC Week 14 primer

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
7:00
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Finally, a full slate of SEC games after a couple of weeks of scattered byes and FCS opponents. And what a slate it is.

Seven games remain after Thursday's Egg Bowl and Friday's Arkansas-LSU game, none bigger than No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. One of the best rivalries in college football has a lot more juice this year, as it's only the second time Alabama and Auburn will play when both are ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall, Gus Malzahn
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and Nick Marshall lead Auburn past No. 1 Alabama?
Hundreds of RVs started arriving on the Plains last week in anticipation of today's battle for SEC West supremacy and the right to represent the division in Atlanta for the SEC championship game next week. Coming off a bye week, the Tigers have a chance to cap their remarkable turnaround season with an upset many thought improbable before the season began.

And while it might be a victory for AU to simply be in a game of this magnitude after going Oh-for-the-SEC last season, try telling Gus Malzahn or QB Nick Marshall to settle for a consolation prize. Alabama's Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron, on the other hand, look to extend their already loaded legacies with another shot at postseason glory.

The next biggest game on today's slate will decide who represents the SEC East in Atlanta, as Missouri plays host to Texas A&M. These Tigers have a turnaround season of their own brewing, having gone 5-7 with a 2-6 conference record in their first shot at the SEC last year. What better way to complete the 180 and win a division crown than to face the team they came into the SEC with last season?

When the two met for the first time as SEC foes last year in College Station, Texas, Johnny Manziel was 32-of-44 passing for 372 yards and three TDs while running for 67 yards and two more scores. The Aggies cruised in a 59-29 romp that sealed Manziel's Heisman Trophy résumé. This season, Johnny Football is again vying for the Heisman, but he's coming off the worst loss of his career and coach Kevin Sumlin's brief tenure at A&M. The Aggies will have to prove they haven't lost their edge as this season's goals have dwindled. Mizzou, on the other hand, expects to be on a high with a sold-out, black-out-attired crowd urging on what would be one of the biggest wins in school history.

Waiting in the wings for Missouri to falter is South Carolina, which plays at home in its annual game against in-state rival Clemson. This Palmetto State showdown is a star-studded affair that features two top-10 teams, but the recent history is lopsided in the Gamecocks' favor. Clemson's record-breaking senior QB Tajh Boyd has never beaten South Carolina and will have to shake off the nightmares of last season's game when Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney set USC's school record for sacks in a game with 4.5. The Gamecocks have a chance to do something they've never done before in a series that began in 1896 -- win five games in a row.

Another SEC-ACC showdown looks far less competitive down in the Sunshine State, where sad-sack Florida has the daunting task of trying to end its epic six-game losing streak against the powerhouse No. 2 team in the nation, Florida State. Aside from an unbeaten season, the prospect of a BCS championship game berth and a Heisman Trophy for redshirt freshman sensation Jameis Winston on the line, the Seminoles have a score to settle after last season's 37-26 collapse against the Gators in Tallahassee. Always one of the more physical and intense rivalry games in the nation, Florida-Florida State this year feels more like a mismatch, as the Gators have suffered enough injuries and humiliation to last decades.

The other two SEC-ACC games are also somewhat subdued by recent events, as Georgia visits Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt plays host to Wake Forest. The Bulldogs are still reeling from the loss of star quarterback Aaron Murray, who suffered a torn ACL last week. He will be replaced by Hutson Mason, a fourth-year junior who has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. The taller task for Georgia today will be stopping the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack.

After beating three straight SEC East foes, Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin have already made history with a third consecutive season that will culminate in a bowl appearance. Facing the Demon Deacons simply provides another opportunity to extend an amazing streak of wins in the month of November. The Commodores haven't lost in November since 2011 and haven't lost to Wake since 2010, before Franklin arrived.

Rounding out the conference schedule is UK's annual tilt with Tennessee, two of the league's bottom-three teams. Had they upset Vanderbilt last week, Butch Jones' Vols could have been playing for a feel-good bowl berth, but the Dores pulled out a last-second comeback and ripped UT's heart out on a fake jump-pass quarterback keeper. Mark Stoops' Wildcats, on the other hand, would be thrilled with any kind of SEC win. Kentucky is 0-7 this season after going winless in league play last year and hasn't won a conference game in its last 15 tries.

  • Florida State at Florida, noon ET, ESPN
  • Wake Forest at Vanderbilt, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
  • Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS
  • Georgia at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m., ABC
  • Clemson at South Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
  • Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Texas A&M at Missouri, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
10:15
AM ET
Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

Move over Archie Griffin, Johnny Manziel is on his way to joining your elite club as the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.

Manziel's case is crystal clear, but if he isn't at or near the top of your Heisman list, you aren't watching the game correctly.

There just isn't a better, more exciting player to watch. Manziel has the wins, the stats, more stats and the swag to back it all up. But for some reason, Heisman talk has been pretty quiet surrounding Manziel. Sure, he won the award last year, and his in-your-face offseason created some Manziel fatigue, but you can't ignore Manziel's 2013 body of work.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel is playing better this year than he did in last year's Heisman Trophy season.
Through 10 games, Manziel leads the SEC and ranks third nationally with 3,313 passing yards. He's second nationally with a completion percentage of 73.0 and 31 passing touchdowns, and he is third with an efficiency rating of 186.9. He leads the SEC with 331.3 passing yards per game and is also 12th in the league with 611 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Manziel has thrown for more than 300 yards six times -- and in four of those he surpassed 400 yards -- and has thrown three or more touchdowns seven times.

He ranks fourth nationally with a QBR of 88.5.

At this point last year, Manziel had 2,780 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes. Yeah, he's thrown for 533 more yards and 13 more touchdowns this season.

No, Manziel isn't slicing up defenses with his feet like he did last year, but he's a much better passer and he's still capable of doing mind-blowing things like this.

This was supposed to be a season in which the fame and offseason gallivanting clouded Manziel's on-field vision. No way was he going to sniff duplicating his fantastic freshman campaign. His focus wouldn't be there, and he'd more than likely turn into a shell of his former self.

Well, Johnny Football only got better! He goes through his progressions, reads defenses and likes to throw first. Sure, he could carve up any defense at will, but he'd rather throw this year. He'd rather look at his second and third options before taking off. And when he does take off, good luck. The quarterback/ballerina can shimmy and shake his way past a drove of defenders with relative ease, but he has been more guarded this season, and that hasn't been a bad thing.

Manziel also is putting up Playstation numbers with his own defense collapsing around him. The Aggies' defense has been dreadful, giving up a league-high 454.4 yards per game and more than 30 points a contest. Manziel is trampling defenses in spite of his defense.

But Manziel has two losses, you'll shout! He has 11 interceptions, you howl. Yes and yes, but he also had two losses and nine interceptions last year, yet ran away with the Heisman.

Look at his numbers in losses. In the 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama, which ranks sixth nationally in total defense, he rallied his team back from a 35-14 deficit with 464 passing yards, five touchdowns and 98 rushing yards. In the 45-41 loss to Auburn, Manziel threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns, while adding 48 rushing yards and another score. What was even more impressive about his play was that he completed 10 passes for 102 yards and ran for a touchdown after an apparent shoulder injury.

Compare his numbers in losses to those of former Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota in Oregon's loss to Stanford, and it's not even a close race. Mariota threw for 250 yards and two scores against the Cardinal, but he ran for minus-16 and didn't lead the Ducks to a scoring drive until the fourth quarter. Manziel either gets in the end zone or leads his teams to scores while lighting up the stat sheet no matter the outcome.

Injuries don't faze him. You saw it against Auburn, and you saw it when his knee buckled during his 470 total-yard performance in the Aggies' 41-38 win over Ole Miss.

The kid is a machine, and he's darn near impossible to stop.

As the clock winds down on college football season, we finally can get into the nitty gritty of the Heisman race. At this point, it's all about Johnny Football and Florida State freshman quarterback phenom Jameis Winston, who trails Manziel by 1,106 total offensive yards and nine touchdowns.

Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd are mere afterthoughts, while AJ McCarron and Bryce Petty are making runs that likely will fall short late, but not after a nice good job, good effort.

Famous Jameis is great. He's the future of the sport, and the future looks radiant. But he just doesn't put on the show that Manziel does.

In what could be Manziel's final collegiate year, he has turned in a wonderful final act that's more than worthy of that classy bronze statue.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
10:15
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Ready or not, it's here. The start of the college football season is upon us with all of its promise and potential.

Throughout the SEC, there's a sense of new beginnings, of hope, of the fresh start so many programs have been longing for. Gus Malzahn will lead Auburn for the first time as its head coach, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones will coach their first games in the SEC at Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, and Mark Stoops will take the first steps in rebuilding a Kentucky program that's struggled historically.

Everyone is on an even keel today, but that all changes when the lines are painted and the football is teed up for the start of the season. So as you get ready for all that Week 1 has to offer, keep an eye on these few things:

1. Return of the champs: Alabama has all the ingredients to make another run at a national title. AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon are Heisman Trophy contenders, and the defense is once again littered with potential All-Americans. With a league-best 16 players chosen to the Coaches' Preseason All-SEC Team, there's no doubting the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But can Nick Saban fend off complacency again and help his team meet its full potential? That remains to be seen, though a season opener against Virginia Tech is a good place to start. The Hokies are a three-touchdown underdog that Alabama could easily overlook with a bye week and Texas A&M to follow. Will overconfidence get the best of the Tide? If UA comes out with anything less than 100 percent effort, that could signal trouble for the road ahead.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray will aim to lead Georgia past Clemson in the Bulldogs' opener.
2. An early title test for Georgia: Mark Richt's Bulldogs won't get a chance to test the waters before jumping in headlong this season, as Clemson awaits in Game 1. Never mind letting Aaron Murray and his talented tandem of tailbacks get their bearings, and never mind allowing the revamped defense to find its stride; Georgia will encounter its first obstacle on the road to the national championship right away. Tajh Boyd and the Tigers offense are prolific -- and dangerous -- averaging 512 yards per game a season ago, which was good enough for ninth in the country. And while there's no doubting Georgia's ability on offense, there are some serious questions on the other side of the ball. After all, 10 of the 22 players listed on Georgia's two-deep depth chart have never played a down of FBS football.

3. Can LSU's offense turn the corner?: There have been glimpses of potential, but LSU's offense has never reached its full potential under Les Miles. The defense has been great, sure, but when it's come to scoring points, the Tigers left something to be desired. Not having the right quarterback had something to do with that, though, but this season, that excuse and all others won't be enough as Zach Mettenberger enters his senior season under center and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron takes control. LSU will still line up and play power football, which it has always done well. The passing game, though, could use some spark, and Miles hopes Cameron is the guy to light that fire, starting with the season opener against TCU. Just because the Horned Frogs come from the defensively challenged Big 12 doesn't mean coach Gary Patterson's squad can't play ball. TCU has long been SEC-like on defense with playmakers like defensive lineman Devonte Fields and cornerback Jason Verrett. They'll get after Mettenberger and give LSU fans an early look at what the Tigers' offense is truly capable of.

4. Florida seeking playmakers: The Gators' woes on offense have been well documented. After all, Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver in almost a decade. Since Tim Tebow left, there hasn't been a lot of chomp to the Gators' bite. For all of Jeff Driskel's faults as a young quarterback, it was hard to figure out exactly who he was supposed to get the football to last season. There was no Percy Harvin to be found. While there doesn't appear to be an All-American brewing at wide receiver now, this season should be better. Losing Matt Jones for the season opener hurts, but it should give other players a chance to step up and make plays. With a date with in-state rival Miami looming, coming out with a bang against Toledo could serve as the springboard to bigger and better things in 2013.

5. Which Johnny Football will it be?: It's only Rice, but Johnny Manziel needs to come out and set the tone right away for what kind of season he hopes to have. The Aggies’ success depends on it. After an offseason filled with turmoil, it's time for all of College Station to turn the page. We've heard time and time again that it will get better when Manziel can put aside the distractions and focus solely on football. Now, he has to prove it. If he really is tired of the college life and ready to move on to the NFL, he'll have to show he's capable of handling the spotlight and performing on the football field. Veterans like Luke Luke Joeckel, Ryan Swope and Damontre Moore are gone. For better or worse, it's Manziel's team, and the pressure is on him now more than ever.
We almost had quite the quarterback matchup on our hands this fall.

According to ESPN's Brett McMurphy, Texas A&M and Louisville were in discussions to open the 2013 season at Houston's Reliant Stadium. That would have given us Johnny Manziel vs. Teddy Bridgewater. Or, Johnny Football vs. Teddy Ballgame.

Unfortunately, things just didn't get worked out between the two parties, so we're left with the Aggies taking on Rice at home on Aug. 31. It just won't be the same as seeing the Aggies take on what should be another talented Charlie Strong-led Louisville squad. And after what the Cardinals did to Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Louisville is a hot ticket and qualifies as must-see TV.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel and the Aggies will face Rice instead of Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville on Aug. 31.
Oh, the early Heisman talk that would come out of that game, too.

"It would have been a great experience to play against last year's Heisman Trophy winner and arguably the best player in college football," Bridgewater said. "He lays it on the line like I do. It would have been a great matchup."

Louisville is clearly looking to sit at the big boys' table, because the Cards not only tried to play the Aggies, but they also wanted a neutral-site game with the defending champs ... and almost got it.

According to McMurphy's report, Louisville almost played Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. Virginia Tech, which will face Alabama on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m. ET inside the Georgia Dome instead, was ready to back out of the game if quarterback Logan Thomas made an early jump to the NFL. If Logan had skipped his senior year, the Cardinals would have replaced the Hokies in Atlanta.

However, Thomas opted to stay, so Alabama will start the season against Virginia Tech, which isn't a bad matchup at all.

We might get to watch Johnny Football take on Teddy Ballgame, but there are some pretty exciting nonconference games that SEC teams are involved in this fall. Here are five (outside of Alabama-Virginia Tech) that I'm most excited about:

LSU vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas), Aug. 31: The Tigers did just fine last time they were in this building, but after losing a chunk of defensive talent, LSU has to face a TCU team that returns nine offensive starters and will be less than 20 miles from campus.

Georgia at Clemson, Aug. 31: The Bulldogs will be without 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense in 2012. Clemson, led by quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, should provide problems with its offense. However, Georgia should like its offensive matchup with a Tigers defense that surrendered nearly 400 yards a game last season.

Mississippi State vs. Oklahoma State (Houston), Aug. 31: Mississippi State's defense has a lot of questions to answer up front and in the secondary, and its first test comes against the Big 12's top scoring offense from a season ago. Seven OSU starters return on an offense that averaged 547 yards last season.

Florida at Miami, Sept. 7: Miami isn't close to the power it once was, but taking an offense that has a lot of questions surrounding it on the road early will make this quite the test for the Gators. The good news for Florida is that Miami returns nine starters on a defense that was last in the ACC in total defense, passing defense and rushing defense in 2012.

Ole Miss at Texas, Sept. 14: Players in Oxford are already talking revenge after getting blown out by 35 against the Longhorns at home last season. Both sides of the ball should be improved for the Rebels this fall, and even though the jury is still out on Texas, the Horns return 19 total starters.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
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Saturday, 1/3
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Monday, 1/12