NCF Nation: Alabama Crimson Tide

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Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.

Early Offer: Hogs beef up defensive line 

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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Arkansas needs all the talent it can get at defensive tackle, and the Hogs landed a key defender Thursday. Chris Petersen continues to uncover sleepers at Washington, but can he attract enough talent to win in the Pac-12?

video In advance of the All-American battle between Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, we’re breaking down what makes each player special. Click here for Edward Aschoff's take on Florida’s star cornerback.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is sizing you up. He might not say much, but Alabama’s star receiver is seeing exactly where you stand.

Could you have envisioned the start you’ve had?

“Yeah,” he said, not caring to elaborate.

You talked in the spring about Lane Kiffin and how you’d seen Marqise Lee and you were looking forward to that. Is that why you anticipated this?

“Yeah, that’s the exact reason,” he said, again letting you fill in the blanks.

It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s just who he is.

Cooper isn’t one to make bold statements. His former high school coach in Miami, Billy Rolle, drove him to and from school. “The three years I had him,” Rolle said. “I haven’t heard 50 words out of the kid.”

Cooper lets his play do the talking. Through three games, the junior leads the nation in receptions (33) and yards after catch (245).

So if he isn't going to open up, we allowed those who know him best to break down what makes him arguably the best receiver in the country.

At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest. At 210 pounds, he’s not the most physically imposing, either. And while he does possess good speed, almost every defensive back in the SEC runs well.

Instead, it’s the little things that set Cooper apart: his footwork, his ability to read defenses and his tireless work ethic.

video FOOTWORK

Alabama safety Landon Collins is still trying to figure him out.

Collins likes to read a receiver's steps, guess the route and make a play on the football. But with Cooper, the guessing game doesn’t work. The All-SEC defensive back is helpless.

Collins: “His footwork is confusing. If you look at his feet and try to stick him at the line, you’ll get lost.”

Jarrick Williams, Alabama cornerback: “His footwork, how quick he gets around you, how explosive he is. He’s amazing.”

Cooper: “It’s definitely something I pride myself on. Playing as much backyard football as I did as a kid, it’s something that’s instinct now.”

video READING THE DEFENSE

Take, for instance, the SEC championship game in 2012. It was late in the fourth quarter and Alabama was trailing Georgia 28-25. The play called for Cooper to go inside on his release, but he saw the defender shading that way.

Collins: “He was too far inside, so I jumped outside instinctively.”

To his credit, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann didn’t bite on the play-action fake. Instead, he fell for Cooper’s move toward the middle of the field. Cooper swung his hips back toward the sideline. Swann was caught flat-footed and completely turned around. Cooper was so wide open, he stopped running. He sped up just in time to catch the 45-yard game-winning touchdown that sent Alabama to the BCS National Championship Game.

Cooper: “It’s a thing you can sense. As soon as you start releasing off the line, you can feel he’s leaning toward one way and then you go the other way. It’s a very unique thing.”

But that wasn’t Cooper’s favorite instance of toying with a defensive back. It also took place in the 2012 season, against Ole Miss.

Cooper: “It was third down and I had a slant route. I’d been watching film of this guy because he’s from Miami and I knew him personally. He was really quick. But I was watching film and I noticed he’s really patient at the line. So I used one of my better releases to get open.”

Rolle: “He thrives on reading defenses and knowing how to get open and not just running by people. He liked to run the slant pattern, the hookups, the outs. He was even more dangerous if he got the ball right away and in open space.”

video WORK ETHIC

Former USC coach Lane Kiffin marveled at Cooper’s practice habits, too. When he became Alabama’s offensive coordinator in January, he quickly noticed how much work Cooper puts into his craft.

Kiffin: “Amari sometimes would work out two hours before the workout started. I thought it was a really hard workout we were doing -- the Fourth Quarter program that we do here -- but he worked out two hours before that.”

Christion Jones, Alabama receiver: “Have you seen him? It’s nothing fake. He goes hard every day, every practice. No matter what it is, he’s going to go full tilt.”

Cyrus Jones, Alabama cornerback: “His potential has been evident since the first time he stepped on the campus and on the field. You progress each year as a player and you can definitely say he’s reached another level this year.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is a game-changing talent at receiver. His ability to catch the football, make one guy miss and take it the distance is uncanny. His yards-after-catch numbers are gaudy. As of Monday, he leads the country with 33 receptions and is third overall with 454 yards receiving. And that’s not counting the passes he hauls in behind the line of scrimmage, of which he has three “carries” for 29 yards. But those are just the cherries on top.

Cooper is arguably the best receiver in the country. But for Alabama's offense to be successful, he can’t continue to do it alone.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAmari Cooper has accounted for just over half of Alabama's receiving yards this season.
It’s fine that Cooper is the focal point of the offense, but he can’t be the entire playbook on a weekly basis. Teams like Florida won’t allow it. Cornerbacks like Vernon Hargreaves III and safeties like Jabari Gorman will get in the way of an Amari Cooper-centric attack. Florida's Will Muschamp didn’t look great coaching against Kentucky last weekend, but the man knows defense and understands how to double- and triple-team a receiver.

Take last season for instance. Despite the mess that it was for Florida, the defense held down LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Neither receiver had more than 60 yards receiving or a single touchdown. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri’s most talented receiver last season, was held to 52 yards and no touchdowns, too.

Receivers are reliant. Quarterbacks are not. Blake Sims, despite all the good work he’s done in winning the starting job, must get the ball to his other weapons on Saturday against the Gators.

So far, Cooper has accounted for 48.5 percent of all of Alabama's receptions and 50.8 percent of all passing yards. He’s been targeted 43 times. The next closest is Christion Jones, who has been thrown to only 14 times. Chris Black, who has started in place of DeAndrew White, has three total receptions. Starting tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard have combined for just one reception.

While there’s been a lot to like about Sims and the new life Lane Kiffin has breathed into the offense, there’s still a lot of uncharted territory to be discovered. Kenyan Drake has shown flashes of Reggie Bush-like ability, Jalston Fowler has caught the ball a few times in his versatile H-back role and even young ArDarius Stewart has gotten somewhat involved. But none have been truly featured.

Howard, who has the ability to be a mismatch against any defense, simply hasn’t gotten the football. We’re waiting on an APB to be sent out on the All-America talent. He’s been thrown to once all season and it resulted in an interception. You could say he’s not worked to get himself open, but that’s a faulty argument because good coordinators find a way to get their best players the football in space. Sometimes that means setting a pick, dump it off into the flat or dialing up a screen pass. Howard is fast and athletic enough for any of those options.

Before Saturday’s win over Southern Miss, Saban insisted that Howard needed to be more involved in the offense. That obviously didn’t happen. Following Alabama’s 52-12 beat down, Saban reiterated the need for more playmakers to emerge.

“We need to get more people involved offensively,” he said. “Coop has had a great start, but we have other guys that are capable players. Chris Black dropped the ball tonight. He’s a capable playmaker. We need those guys to play and get confidence. Getting DeAndrew White back will help us. Christion Jones had four catches tonight. We need to get more guys involved.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You can see it in his body language; Blake Sims has settled down. His head isn’t on a swivel any more. His eyes aren’t feverishly bouncing from side to side. His feet have suddenly stopped dancing around inside the pocket. Everything he does on the football field he’s now doing more confidently, and it’s paying off.

Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.

Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Blake Sims has a higher QBR than Jameis Winston three games into the season.
But more importantly, the former running back/receiver has executed Lane Kiffin’s offense with near-perfect precision, while his chief competition, Jake Coker, has struggled to call the right play and make the right decisions. Too many times Nick Saban has had to pat the former Florida State transfer on the behind and walk him through what he did wrong.

Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?

Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.

But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.

In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.

“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.

Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.

“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”

Now Sims is a new man.

“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”

His teammates do, too.

Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.

“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.

“He’s really matured over these last three games.”

Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.

“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.

Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.

“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”

But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?

“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”

"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”

If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.

Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.

“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.

“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”

Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.

SEC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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We're creeping closer and closer to the meat of conference season in the SEC. That just means things will get a little clearer in the bowl picture for the league.

We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: South Carolina
Capital One Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Georgia
Belk Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Mississippi State
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Florida
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama 52, Southern Miss 12

September, 13, 2014
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Quarterback Blake Sims recorded three touchdowns as No. 3 Alabama cruised to a 52-12 win over Southern Miss on Saturday.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.


What do you do when you want to propose to your girlfriend and make it really special?

You hide inside Nick Saban's office and pop the question there, of course.

That's what one man did, according to a report from Al.com.

Back in May, Drew Clayton wanted to surprise his girlfriend, Kayla Posey, who was finishing up graduate school at the University of Alabama at the time. So Clayton came up with a brilliant, albeit absurd, plan: while Saban was out of town, he'd swap out the 2012 BCS National Championship ring on Saban's coffee table for his own diamond. He'd wait for Posey, who gave tours of the football facility, in of all places, Saban's private bathroom.

"For 30 minutes, my stomach is churning and I'm waiting on Kayla to get back," Clayton told Al.com. "It was a very well-kept bathroom, as we should expect from such a perfect coach."

When Clayton did emerge from the bathroom -- after taking one of Saban's oatmeal cream pies, of course -- he bent down on one knee and asked Posey to marry him. She said yes.

Imagine if she hadn't, though. How awkward would the video have been then?
Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
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It wasn't much of an eventful week in the SEC with so many teams playing weaker opponents and only one conference game, with Ole Miss routing Vanderbilt. As a result, there are no major shakeups in this week's bowl projections from last week's. Georgia had the weekend off, so it is still riding its impressive Week 1 victory to sit atop the list. We are still projecting only one SEC team in the College Football Playoff at the moment, though that could change down the road.

We are still projecting 11 SEC teams to make the postseason. Noting that these projections will fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season, here's our best guess after Week 2:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Georgia
Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Missouri
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee

Playoff picture: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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Technically, USC athletic director Pat Haden didn’t break any rules as a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee.

And yet he should’ve been the one flagged in Saturday’s game against No. 13 Stanford.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian, Pat Haden
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesPat Haden might have been happy after USC's win over Stanford, but his actions during the game were a red flag toward his status on the College Football Playoff committee.
Haden drew even more scrutiny upon himself in the third quarter when he decided to leave his seat in the press box, jog across the field and give the officials an earful. Not only was it out of character for the distinguished alumnus, but it was also a bad call both as an athletic director and as one of 13 committee members tasked with determining the top four teams in the country.

Haden, clearly frustrated by the unsportsmanlike penalty call on coach Steve Sarkisian, let his emotions get the best of him.

He can’t do that when it’s time to vote.

Haden is recused from voting for USC -- all five sitting athletic directors on the committee have been recused from voting for their respective schools -- but he can vote for (or against) Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12. One of the biggest concerns about the playoff has been how to eliminate bias from the selection committee (it’s impossible), and Haden’s actions Saturday were a real-time snapshot of just how deep allegiances can run. Fans and coaches must have confidence in the committee members and trust that they put their jobs ahead of their loyalties.

The image of Haden shaking his head at the officials with his hands on his hips was unprofessional, but it was also a lesson for the committee in the first year of the playoff. Haden was a Rhodes scholar. He knows he made a mistake.

So does the rest of the college football world. That's an even bigger penalty than the one that brought him onto the field.

B1G-time struggles

Even in victory, the Big Ten looked defeated.

The beleaguered conference went 8-5 in its nonconference games, but none of it mattered after Michigan State lost to Oregon, Michigan got clobbered by Notre Dame and Ohio State lost at home to an unranked Virginia Tech team. Not since Sept. 17, 1988, did those three programs all lose on the same day.

It was ugly. All of it.

Nebraska made McNeese State look like Florida State. The Buckeyes lost at home for the first time under Urban Meyer. Michigan’s series with Notre Dame ended in the first half, when the Fighting Irish jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Purdue lost to Central Michigan, and Northwestern lost to Northern Illinois. South Florida had a lead over Maryland, and Ball State was beating Iowa before both Big Ten teams pulled ahead. Overall, the Big Ten went 0-4 against teams ranked in the top 50 of ESPN's Football Power Index, with its best win coming from Minnesota over No. 73 Middle Tennessee.

This was the week for the conference to assert itself in the playoff conversation and silence critics with a marquee win over a top-five team. Instead, the Big Ten looked like the first Power 5 conference that should be left out of the four-team playoff. Even if Michigan State runs the table, its strength of schedule will be called into question if the rest of the league continues to underwhelm -- if it hasn’t already.

QB questions remain for Alabama

Alabama’s quarterbacks remain a storyline, as Blake Sims and Jake Coker each threw for at least 200 yards in a 41-0 win over Florida Atlantic. Sims completed 11 of 13 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns, but he had a fumble near the goal line. Coker completed 15 of 24 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown in his most extensive playing time so far.

They’ve been good enough to beat West Virginia and Florida Atlantic, but which one can beat Florida? Auburn? LSU? And that Texas A&M team that’s not a one-trick pony?

The good news for Alabama is that whoever winds up as the full-time starter has Amari Cooper to throw to, and he can make just about anyone look good.

One of them will have to be great, though, to get to the playoff.

Morning musings: Will UCLA ever put together a complete game? ... Virginia Tech is now the team to beat in the ACC Coastal Division. ... The SEC West made the most improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. ... If serious, FSU’s injuries on the defensive line will be a problem. ... Good grief, Michigan. ... Did Mack Brown cringe or smile? ... Red zone, Stanford, red zone! ... It’s easy to rip the Big Ten, but the ACC hardly looked like a world-beater. (Lookin’ at you, UNC and NC State.)

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
9:00
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OK, so the competition wasn’t the best in the SEC this weekend. But players play, they don’t make the schedule.

Here’s a look at the top performances from Week 2:
  • Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: Granted, he didn’t have to do much. But Allen made the most of every pass attempt he had in the 73-7 win over Nicholls State. The junior who entered this season battling for his starting job was sharp, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. There may have been some quarterbacks in the SEC with better overall numbers, but none was more efficient than Allen.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: Maybe it’s Gus Malzahn’s system. Or maybe Artis-Payne is the same caliber running back as his predecessor, Tre Mason. However you draw it up, Artis-Payne sure looked like an All-SEC back in the 59-13 win over San Jose State, racking up three touchdowns and 100 yards -- in the first half. It’s scary to think what he could have done if he had carried the ball more than twice in the final two quarters.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: It didn’t matter who was throwing him the football, Cooper was going to make a play in the Crimson Tide's 41-0 win. Of the 26 Alabama receptions on passes from Blake Sims and Jake Coker against Florida Atlantic, Cooper caught half of them. His 189 receiving yards pulled him within 15 yards of Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's career record at Alabama.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: Jarvis Landry is where now? And Odell Beckham? No matter. LSU seems to have found its playmaking receiver in Dural, who was third fiddle to Beckham and Landry last season. After a solid season opener against Wisconsin, Dural followed it up in the 56-0 victory over Sam Houston State, catching three passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a 94-yard bomb.
  • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: Mauk single-handedly carried the Missouri offense against Toledo, accounting for six of the Tigers’ seven total touchdowns. The sophomore threw for a whopping 325 yards and five touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing in the 49-24 win. He also ran the ball 12 times for 36 yards and a score.
  • Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator, Florida: We don’t often hand out helmet stickers to coaches, but this felt like the exception to the rule. I mean, just look at how bad -- and stagnant -- Florida’s offense was last season. Now look at how efficient and explosive it was Saturday. Even if it was Eastern Michigan, you have to tip your cap to Roper, who helped UF to 655 total yards of offense in the 65-0 victory. He checked all the marks: quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for nearly 250 yards, three running backs ran for 50 yards or more and 11 different players had a reception.
You really can't take a lot from a week that featured more cupcakes on the slate than your neighborhood bakery, but we did learn a little more about SEC teams Saturday:

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
John Raoux/Associated PressDemarcus Robinson was a key cog in Florida's explosive offense on Saturday.
1. Florida's offense is better: OK, so it was against Eastern Michigan, but there's no question Florida's offense looked better during the Gators' 65-0 route of the Eagles than it has since Tim Tebow was running things in Gainesville in 2009. The Gators outgained an incredibly outmatched EMU team 655-125 and averaged 7.6 yards per play. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returned from last year's season-ending injury to throw for 248 yards and a touchdown on 31 completions. Running backs Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Brandon Powell combined to rush for 215 yards and four touchdowns, while backup quarterback Treon Harris threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns on two passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida posted the most points (65), yards (655) and 30-yard plays (six) in any game under coach Will Muschamp. This isn't what Florida's offense will look like every week, and its opponent wasn't much competition at all, but it was the exact dress rehearsal Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wanted -- and needed. Roper had the Gators' offense moving with that tempo, as Florida ran 86 plays and had run 49 plays on EMU's side of the field by the early part of the fourth quarter. Driskel looked comfortable throwing downfield, as he went through his progressions and his receivers were actually finding space and making plays. Keep an eye on sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson, who caught six passes for 123 yards and a 70-yard touchdown.

2. New Vanderbilt looks more like old Vanderbilt: After three great years with James Franklin manning Vandy's ship, the anchor appears to have dropped on this program. Through two weeks, the Commodores have been absolutely embarrassed in their home city by Temple (37-7) last week and Ole Miss on Saturday (41-3). Vandy is without an offensive touchdown and averaging just 222.5 yards of offense per game. This team looks nothing like the three that went to three consecutive bowl games and had back-to-back nine-win seasons. The body language was bad, and there just didn't seem to be much rhythm among the players or between the players and the coaches. Quarterback Stephen Rivers finished Saturday's game completing 6 of 25 passes for 60 yards and an interception. Vandy's defense surrendered 547 yards of offense to the Rebels, who moved up and down the field at will and never punted. Vandy is the only team in the SEC without a win, and it appears next week's game against UMass is far from a given for the 'Dores. Oh, and this.

3. Alabama's quarterback competition is ... complicated: We finally saw extensive work from Jake Coker, but we also saw a very efficient Blake Sims in Alabama's 41-0 win over FAU. So now what? Well, as my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough said earlier, it's complicated. Sims finished the day with 214 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-13 passing. Coker threw for 202 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-24 passing. Sims did everything he was asked to do, but where Coker clearly has the advantage is throwing downfield. He has a cannon for an arm and might be the best solution down the road when it comes to facing better defenses, but he still struggled with directing the offense and failed to score close to the goal line just before halftime. He hasn't earned the starting job, and Sims is clearly ahead right now. Still, Coker will have every chance to win the job. Both get one more tuneup in Southern Miss before they host Florida.

4. Mississippi State's defense has some fine-tuning to do: For all the positive talk about a very talented -- and deep -- defense coming back in Starkville, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the pass defense in the Bulldogs' 47-34 win over UAB was "embarrassing." And he was right. Mississippi State, which allowed just 205 passing yards per game this past season, surrendered 435 passing yards and touchdowns of -- wait for it -- 75, 81 and 88 yards Saturday. The Blazers averaged 27.2 yards per completion. UAB's offense exposed Mississippi State's secondary and its pass rush. The good news for the Bulldogs is they get cream puff South Alabama next.

5. The SEC West worked out some kinks: Remember that saying about teams making the biggest jumps from Week 1 to Week 2? Well, that can be said about the SEC West. After contenders Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss all had their struggles, they bounced back royally Saturday. Yes, Bama and LSU were playing overmatched, nonconference opponents, and this certainly isn't the Vandy we've seen the past couple of years, but all three played exactly like they should. Alabama's secondary made vast improvements against FAU, while LSU ran, threw and stuffed Sam Houston State. Ole Miss went from ugly in Week 1 to a swan with its rout of Vandy, with Bo Wallace throwing for 320 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions. Auburn made quick work of San Jose State, and Arkansas ran for 495 yards and scored 73 points in their route of Nicholls State. Texas A&M manhandled Lamar 73-3 and didn't allow a touchdown. Mississippi State was the only West team to take a step back, but the offense still registered 516 yards.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The game was never about the final score, which happened to be a perfectly lopsided 41-0 in favor of No. 2-ranked Alabama. It wasn’t about the opponent, either. Florida Atlantic just happened to be there for the second phase of the Crimson Tide’s quarterback competition between Blake Sims and Jake Coker.

Sims' hot start

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Alabama’s opening drive was Sims at his very best. He was decisive, accurate and made smart decisions with the football. Lane Kiffin drew up one quick pass after another, and Sims put the ball right where it needed to be. Amari Cooper and Chris Black took it from there, picking up good yards after the catch and moving the chains. But on 3rd-and-5, Sims had to take the game into his own hands, and rather than force a pass to a covered receiver, he tucked the ball and scrambled 7 yards, diving into the end zone for the game’s first score.

"Going fast helps me out a lot," Sims said of running Alabama's new-look up-tempo offense. "It gives us a chance to get the defense off-balance, because they’re not very used to us doing that. When you think of Alabama, you don’t think of a fast-paced team.

"It gives you the chance for the players to get open quick. ... When you have playmakers like Amari Cooper and Chris Black, they do the job for you."

Coker gains confidence

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How would he respond? That was the question facing Coker after a terrible end to the first half in which he took a sack with time expiring, prompting Nick Saban to throw his headset in disgust. But Coker showed some moxie in his first series of the second half. On his first pass attempt, he found Cooper for 20 yards. After another pass to Cooper for 6 yards, Coker decided to take a shot downfield. With a defender bearing down on him, Coker zeroed in on ArDarius Stewart, letting go of the ball right as he was hit in the back. Still, the pass was on target and Stewart picked up 40 yards, moving the ball inside the red zone. Kenyan Drake would do the rest, carrying the ball twice before scoring a touchdown.

"Jake played just as well in the second half as he did the first," Saban said. "He played a little better as time went on.

"Missing the guy in the flat down in the red zone wide open, nobody feels worse about that than him. He’ll definitely get better because of it."

What it means

Coker has some work to do if he wants to stay in this race. Sims was just too sharp, completing 11 of 13 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Barring an epic meltdown next week, there hasn’t been anything he has done to surrender the starting quarterback job heading into Alabama’s SEC opener against Florida. Sims been accurate with the football and managed the offense well.

Coker, meanwhile, has struggled in both areas. Against FAU, he was 15-of-24 for 202 yards and one touchdown. But it was his mental mistakes that set him back most, failing to get the offense in the right alignment and struggling to manage the play clock.

A lot was made during the offseason about the talent disparity between Sims and Coker, and maybe some of that is true. But the ability to execute is the most important thing to Saban and his coaching staff. And, frankly, with the skill players Alabama has at receiver and running back, it doesn’t need a herculean effort from its quarterback.

Just look at what Cooper can do. All you have to do is get him the ball in space, and he will handle the rest.


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