Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesBo Wallace has thrived as a leader for Ole Miss.
Eight weeks into the season, Ole Miss is one of four unbeaten teams. The Rebels’ defense has been impressive, allowing touchdowns on just 6.5 percent of opponent drives, lowest in the FBS this season and on pace to be the second-lowest touchdown percentage in the past 10 seasons behind Alabama in 2011.
On the other side of the field, senior quarterback Bo Wallace’s experience has paced the Rebels’ offense, especially in late-game situations. Entering the 2014 season, Wallace was the most experienced SEC quarterback, with 26 starts, 11 more than any other current SEC quarterback.
Wallace’s experience has paid dividends in the fourth quarter, during which the Rebels have outscored their opponents by an FBS-high 8.4 points per game. Wallace leads the SEC in fourth-quarter Total QBR (90.7) and has the best touchdown-to-interception differential in the nation during the fourth quarter.
Wallace also leads the nation in fourth-quarter yards per attempt (13.4) and touchdowns per pass attempt (23 percent). The FBS averages for those stats are 7.0 yards per attempt and a touchdown percentage of 5 percent.
Wallace displayed his fourth-quarter flair immediately. In the Rebels’ season-opening win against Boise State, they entered the fourth quarter with a one-point lead.
Wallace then led the Rebels to touchdowns on four straight drives to put the game away. In that quarter, Wallace completed 6-of-7 for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
Against Alabama, Ole Miss trailed by seven points entering the fourth quarter. Wallace then completed 6-of-9 for 105 yards and two touchdowns to defeat Alabama.
In addition to his play in the fourth quarter, Wallace has quieted the popular question about which Bo Wallace will show up: Good Bo or Bad Bo?
He has not turned the ball over in four of seven games this season, including his last three games, which is the longest streak of his career. In the second half, he has been nearly flawless, with one turnover and 10 touchdowns this season.
Ole Miss has exceeded the expectations of many, leading the FBS in strength of record and ranking fourth in game control. Read more about strength of record and game control here: Determining the 'most deserving' teams.
According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Ole Miss’ next two matchups -- at the LSU Tigers and at home against the Auburn Tigers -- are the Rebels’ two toughest matchups remaining before a possible conference championship game.
The Rebels have not beaten LSU when both teams were ranked in the AP poll since 1962, and they lost their only matchup with Auburn in 1972, when both teams were ranked. Nevertheless, they are projected to come away with a victory in both games.
Only six weeks of the regular season remain. And while the SEC has separated contender from pretender to this point, the jockeying for conference supremacy is far from over. The odds of anyone going undefeated are slim. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, there’s a 36 percent chance all seven teams in the West finish with two or more losses. With that backdrop in mind, let's take a look at which playoff hopefuls have the easiest and toughest roads ahead.
Georgia and Mississippi State have it relatively easy. According to ESPN Stats & Info, their remaining strength of schedule rank 43rd and 47th, respectively.
Georgia survived a tough early season game against Clemson, and despite falling on the road at South Carolina has gotten right back on track. With Florida down, Kentucky coming back down to earth and Georgia Tech fresh off back-to-back losses, the only real test remaining is a Nov. 15 showdown with Auburn -- and that game comes in Athens. Of all the contenders in the SEC, the Dawgs are the only ones with just one game against a ranked opponent remaining.
Between Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, it’s hard to say who has it worst. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Alabama has the weakest remaining strength of schedule of the three, but the Tide rank 21st nationally in that category. Auburn comes in at No. 16 and Ole Miss No. 14.
Anecdotally, it's hard to argue against Auburn having the most brutal remaining schedule in the SEC. The Tigers, having already played Kansas State, LSU and Mississippi State, get South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in the next three weeks. Then it's on to Georgia, and two weeks later there's a trip to Alabama. Of the five SEC teams still in playoff contention, Auburn is the only one with three ranked teams left to play.
Ole Miss doesn't have it much easier, though. The Rebs go to LSU on Saturday, which is never an easy task. And while Presbyterian and a bye week provide a breather, finishing in consecutive weeks with Arkansas and Mississippi State will be a physically taxing challenge.
Alabama will feel the Rebs' pain, though. The Tide travel to Tennessee this Saturday, followed by a much needed week off. But after that comes a trip to LSU and then a home date with Mississippi State. Two weeks later, it’s Auburn coming to town.
Where we’ll settle things
The final weekend in November could be utter mayhem. In a good way.
With all due respect to Georgia-Georgia Tech, that Saturday will be all about two rivalry games in the West. In the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, we could find out a) who will play in the SEC championship game in Atlanta and b) who will present their case to the selection committee as a non-title winning candidate.
It's conceivable Auburn beats Ole Miss and Mississippi State loses to Alabama. If that's the case and everyone is tied at one loss, then it becomes a matter of tiebreakers.
To win the division, Alabama would have to beat Auburn and have Ole Miss lose to State. Auburn would need the opposite. State, on the other hand, would need to beat Ole Miss and have Alabama lose to Auburn. And just because it's only fair, Ole Miss would need the exact opposite scenario to play out.
The only thing that could make that better is if both games were played simultaneously.
The Alabama at Tennessee game on Saturday night will feature two teams who appear to be on very different paths. For Alabama, the No. 4-ranked team in the country, it's near the top both on the field and in recruiting. For Tennessee, the Volunteers are 0-3 in the SEC and 3-4 overall. At first glance it looks like this could be a blowout; after all the SEC West has had its way with the SEC East this year -- and it still might be -- but Tennessee’s focus isn’t necessarily about making the college football playoff this year but rather competing and building for the future.
Under second-year head coach Butch Jones, Tennessee is taking its lumps, but with a top-five recruiting class last year and working on another top-five class this year -- the Vols are heading in the right direction. There is a new energy around the Tennessee program and it all starts with recruiting.
With 21 commits, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300, Alabama is on pace for its fourth consecutive recruiting title. Tennessee, meanwhile, has 26 commitments, including eight ranked in the ESPN 300 and is hoping to bring in players who fill immediate needs and others who can add depth in key areas. The Vols lead the nation in true freshmen who have played with over 20 and several freshmen including Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr. and Derek Barnett have made significant contributions this year.
Alabama freshmen Cam Robinson and Tony Brown have also made an impact as freshmen, but with the depth Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the need for immediate impact players is far less necessary than what it is in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Instant impact recruit
There are 15 once-beaten teams in this week's AP Top 25, and eight or nine of them could probably make a legitimate claim to being No. 4. That number of one-loss teams is sure to dwindle in the next few weeks, but there's still a good chance that the selection committee will face the difficult decision of which two or three of those teams to put into the playoff.
Obviously, there's much more to any team's résumé than a single loss, but if the BCS era is an indicator, the nature of that loss could become a major topic of discussion when distinguishing among the once-beaten teams. Perhaps that's because in a sport where there is so little common ground on which to compare top teams, having exactly one loss is the trait they all share.
So, recognizing that this could be a factor in determining which teams get into the playoff, here are the best and worst losses by current Top 25 teams that have only one defeat. The losses are ranked by Game Score, which is a metric developed by ESPN Stats & Information that takes into account quality of the opponent, location of the game, flow of the game and final score. It's important to note that opponent quality adjusts as more games are played, so these Game Scores will also change from week-to-week. (All Game Scores can be seen by clicking team links on the FPI page.)
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Why Mississippi State wins big: Kentucky’s defense has already surrendered 282 rushing yards to South Carolina and 303 to LSU last week. That doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s game, when Mississippi State will bring the SEC’s top offense (and No. 2 rushing offense at 264.3 yards per game) to Lexington. The Wildcats are improving, but they don’t have the firepower to hang around in this one. Mississippi State 42, Kentucky 17 -- David Ching
Why Kentucky keeps it close: Mississippi State should be rested after having last week off, while Kentucky is still smarting from its 41-3 loss at LSU. The Bulldogs should roll, but it won't be easy. The Wildcats have been a different team at home and have the firepower at defensive end to keep Dak Prescott on his toes. Mark Stoops has instilled the right kind of pride in his team, which means the Wildcats will bounce back and make this a second-half game. Mississippi State 31, Kentucky 27 -- Chris Low
Why Ole Miss wins big: Anthony Jennings has struggled enough throwing the football for LSU, and he'll find it even more difficult against Ole Miss' vaunted secondary. If Jennings turns the ball over and makes Cam Cameron's game plan too one-dimensional, the Rebels will feast. Ole Miss 31, LSU 17 -- Alex Scarborough
Why LSU keeps it close: Ever since getting blown out by Auburn, the Tigers have steadily improved. From barely surviving a trip to Florida to handling upstart Kentucky, LSU's offense and defense have gotten better. Ole Miss' defense presents a supreme challenge, but with senior Terrence Magee and true freshman Leonard Fournette, LSU has the backs to establish a running game and battle the Rebels to the end. Ole Miss 23, LSU 20 -- Jeff Barlis
Why Alabama wins big: This game screams blowout. Alabama’s defense is on fire and the offense just exploded, hanging nearly 60 on Texas A&M. Tennessee hasn’t hit 400 yards since the end of September. Hey, Lane Kiffin is back in Knoxville, so I can only imagine what he has cooked up for Tennessee’s defense -- and those Vols fans. I bet there are more anti-Kiffin signs than Tennessee points in Knoxville on Saturday. Alabama 41, Tennessee 10 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Tennessee keeps it close: Lane Kiffin would love nothing more than to put up a big number on his former team, but this Alabama offense has struggled on the road this season. In their two road games, the Tide have failed to break 20 points. They might reach that number Saturday, but it won’t be easy against a Vols defense that looked inspired in the first half last week. Alabama 24, Tennessee 14 -- Greg Ostendorf
More unanimous picks:
Auburn over South Carolina: Auburn is 12-0 at home under Gus Malzahn and won those by an average of more than 23 points per game. Interesting side note: South Carolina hasn't beaten Auburn since 1933 (though the teams didn't play each other again until 1996); Auburn is 7-0 since then. Auburn 42, South Carolina 21 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Arkansas over UAB: UAB can move the ball (had 548 yards against Mississippi State and kept it close at the half), but slowing down the Razorbacks' elite rushing attack is a tall task. Arkansas 45, UAB 20 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Missouri over Vanderbilt: Mizzou has actually been better on the road than at home, but Vanderbilt has yet to win away from home or an SEC game, period. The Tigers' defense and special teams are coming off great performances at Florida. The offense will join in on the fun Saturday. Missouri 41, Vanderbilt 10 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Edward Aschoff: 59-10
Greg Ostendorf: 59-10
Jeff Barlis: 58-11
Chris Low: 58-11
David Ching: 57-12
Alex Scarborough: 56-13
Sam Khan Jr.: 52-17
3. Have you heard? Lane Kiffin is returning to Tennessee on Saturday. OK, you're probably tired of hearing about it, but if you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and go read Jon Solomon's piece on the Alabama offensive coordinator. In it, Kiffin's mother Robin says she's "scared to death" for her son's safety and wishes he would coach from the press box against the Volunteers. Even athletic director Mike Hamilton says he wishes Kiffin's first game against Tennessee would have been in Tuscaloosa, not Knoxville. It's certainly an intriguing storyline and one to keep an eye on this weekend, but don't expect more than the normal heckling from Vols fans. I'm more interested to see how Kiffin's offense fares on the road.
Around the SEC
- The Alabama players don't mind the hecklers. They've heard it all before.
- Gus Malzahn, Steve Spurrier meet in a matchup of offensive innovators.
- Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary to make first career start at Missouri.
#UGA coach Mark Richt told me he's optimistic on Todd Gurley's reinstatement and "hopefully we'll know sooner rather than later"— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) October 22, 2014
For a program long built on its play in the trenches, there were a few alarming statistics emerging during those two games in the month of October.
- Yards per rush: 3.08
- Longest rush: 22 yards
- Percent of rushes for zero or negative yards: 22.4
- Rushes for 10 or more yards: 4
- Average yards per rush before contact: 1.74
Nick Saban may not have known those numbers off the top of his head, but he could see the offensive line’s struggles play out on the game film. It didn’t make any sense. Other than center Ryan Kelly being out, it was the same guys up who had done well earlier in the season. Saban thought to himself, “We can do it again.”
So Saban gathered the offensive line last week for what he called a “little gathering.”
It wasn’t heated, said senior guard Arie Kouandjio, just “straight forward” about “how he felt.”
“Look, guys, you guys are starting to feel pressure and you’re being criticized,” Saban said he told his linemen. “You’re not being the sergeant-at-arms that we need you to be in terms of how you control the line of scrimmage and how you dominate the line of scrimmage. Really, our guys aren’t going to make plays unless you do that. I believe in you and I trust in you.”
A few days later against Texas A&M, they delivered. Those same damning statistics were turned on their ear.
- Yards per rush: 6.62
- Longest rush: 43 yards
- Percent of rushes for zero or negative yards: 6.7
- Rushes for 10 or more yards: 8
- Average yards per rush before contact: 3.33
“We used that as motivation,” Kouandjio said of the criticism the line faced, “and I feel like we’re back on track.”
Said Saban: “I’m really proud of the way they did that today.”
So was Blake Sims, Alabama’s starting quarterback.
Like the line in front of him, Sims had struggled the previous two games at Ole Miss and Arkansas. But against A&M, he found his rhythm and threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. He also scrambled and scored on a spectacular 43-yard run.
Following Saban’s lead, Sims encouraged his linemen heading into the game against A&M, telling them, “Stay hungry and stay wanting to work hard.”
“I think the guys were hungry and wanted to play hard and wanted to let everyone know, ‘Hey, talk about the skill guys but forget about the offensive line because we some dogs down there,’” Sims told reporters after the game.
If the line continues playing with that same kind of intensity, then Alabama’s offense will be fine.
But it remains to be seen whether that will happen. Because there’s a common thread between the line’s struggles against Ole Miss and Arkansas: both games were on the road.
After enjoying some home cooking against Texas A&M, how will the line respond against Tennessee with “Rocky Top” ringing in its ears?
The SEC has an impressive 89 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. While the SEC West has been dominant on the field, 13 of the 14 SEC schools are ranked in the top 40 of the RecruitingNation class rankings. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.
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Here’s a look at where the five remaining SEC contenders stand heading into Week 9.
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Arkansas
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape in coming off a bye week and facing Kentucky, which fell back to Earth with a 41-3 loss to LSU on Saturday. Mississippi State should cruise to a win that would help its remaining Western Division games against Arkansas, Alabama and Ole Miss grow increasingly important in the divisional and national title pictures.
Cause for concern: If their record remains spotless and their Western Division title hopes hinge on a win against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs will have to win that pivotal game on the road. Mississippi State has a 1-6 record in Oxford in the 2000s. The Bulldogs’ lone win came in 2010, when No. 25 MSU edged Ole Miss 31-23.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Ole Miss.
-- David Ching Ole Miss
Record: 7-0 (4-0)
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at LSU
Reason for optimism: The Rebels are on an absolute role right now. They’re second in the SEC in total defense (290.6 yards allowed per game) and have held opponents under 200 yards three times this season. Quarterback Bo Wallace is averaging 271 yards per game and has thrown 17 touchdowns to six interceptions.
Cause for concern: The Rebels are still in the SEC West, and road trips to LSU and Arkansas loom. Oh, and Ole Miss ends the season at home with No. 1 Mississippi State. The running game hasn’t been very explosive at all this season, ranking 11th in the league (151.3 yards per game).
Who they’re rooting for this week: Kentucky over Mississippi State.
-- Edward Aschoff Alabama
Record: 6-1 (3-1 SEC)
AP rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU
Reason for optimism: After hearing all week how they were slipping following a loss to Ole Miss and a narrow win at Arkansas, the Crimson Tide came out Saturday on fire, throttling Texas A&M 59-0. It was a complete performance that said Alabama is right in the thick of the playoff conversation.
Cause for concern: Consistency is going to be the biggest challenge for this young Alabama team. Playing well at home is good, but now it must prove it can take the show on the road. First up its a trip to Tennessee and two weeks later it's on to Death Valley and LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for: It's a bit of a double-edged sword for Alabama seeing as you never want to face an LSU team with growing confidence, but it would do the Tide some good to see the Bayou Bengals upset Ole Miss this weekend.
-- Alex Scarborough Auburn
Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina
Reason for optimism: Despite losing to Mississippi State its last time out, Auburn is still the No. 1 team in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). The Tigers will enter the second half refreshed after having this past weekend off, and they also get back safety Jermaine Whitehead who was reinstated to the team Tuesday.
Cause for concern: We won’t know if the bye week fixed all of Auburn’s problems until we see the Tigers in action this Saturday, but they need to play much better than they did against Mississippi State if they expect to win out. The other bad news is that winning out might be their only option for making the playoff.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Auburn would love to see LSU take Ole Miss down a notch before it travels to Oxford a week from Saturday.
-- Greg Ostendorf Georgia
Record: 6-1 (4-1)
AP rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
Reason for optimism: Well, there really doesn’t seem to be a true competitor in the East. The Dawgs embarrassed Missouri in Columbia and Kentucky got trounced in Baton Rouge. Nick Chubb has been an absolute star in place of Todd Gurley, rushing for 345 yards and three touchdowns as the starter in the last two games.
Cause for concern: Chubb has been great, but you still have to wonder how durable the freshman really can be if he keeps carrying the ball as much as he has (68 carries in two games) with Gurley still sidelined. Also, the East is just bad, so what happens when the Dawgs face a team from the West? Hello, Auburn on Nov. 15.
Who they’re rooting for this week: South Carolina over Auburn
-- Edward Aschoff
It's often the surprising losses -- the trap games -- that derail promising seasons. Just ask Oklahoma State (Iowa State) in 2011 or USC (Oregon State) in 2008.
As for 2014, here are the most perilous traps remaining down the stretch for the top six in the AP poll. That includes Mississippi State, FSU and Ole Miss, the three remaining undefeated Power 5 teams.
1. Ole Miss
Trap game: at Arkansas (Nov. 22)
When they go to Fayetteville, the Rebels will essentially be coming off two open dates (they play Presbyterian on Nov. 8). But Arkansas still presents a classic look-ahead scenario, because Ole Miss has the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State the following week. The "biggest Egg Bowl ever" chatter is buzzing now; just imagine what it will be like a week before the game. If the Rebels' focus is waning, Arkansas is good enough to punish them for it. Mark it down: The Razorbacks are going to end their 16-game SEC losing streak this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in an impactful game. Mississippi State (Nov. 1) also should be on high alert. Arkansas will slow down the game. Even if Ole Miss isn't running as much up-tempo this season, pace is still something the Rebs want to dictate. The timing and matchup are as dangerous as it gets.
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Kiffin's Return To Knoxville
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