NCF Nation: Alabama Crimson Tide

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 22, 2014
Nov 22
It was a relatively weak slate for the SEC, but we still learned a few things about the league as we head into the final week of the regular season:

    [+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
    Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsTrey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have been downright nasty the past two weeks, when they shut out LSU and Ole Miss, respectively.
  • If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
  • Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
  • Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
  • Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
  • Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
Saturday feels a little like the calm before the storm in the SEC. There are eight games on the docket, including a couple of intriguing matchups, and yet everybody is already talking about the rivalry games next week. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a preview of this Saturday’s slate. All times ET.

Noon Eastern Kentucky at Florida, SEC Network: It might be a bit strange to see Will Muschamp on the sideline Saturday considering he won’t be back at Florida next season, but he’s staying on to coach the team’s last two regular-season games. How will the players respond to a coach who’s on his way out? Based on Dante Fowler Jr.'s tweet this week, I'd expect them to come out and play hard for their coach. Also, the Gators become bowl eligible with a win.

South Alabama at South Carolina, ESPN3: Raise your hand if you had South Alabama becoming bowl eligible before South Carolina this season. If your hand is raised, you’re lying. Credit the job Joey Jones has done in his sixth season with the Jaguars, but don’t expect an upset on Saturday. The Gamecocks bounced back from that excruciating overtime loss to Tennessee with a solid, come-from-behind win in the Swamp last weekend.

Charleston Southern at No. 10 Georgia, SEC Network: If there was ever a week to give Nick Chubb a break, this would be it. With Todd Gurley out for the season, Chubb is once again the man in Georgia’s backfield, but fellow freshman Sony Michel is expected to return Saturday, and both he and Brendan Douglas should see plenty of carries. All three backs could be in for a big day against the Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss will have a tough matchup Saturday against an Arkansas defense fresh off a shutout win over LSU.
3:30 p.m. No. 8 Ole Miss at Arkansas, CBS: After last weekend, Ole Miss still has a chance to win the SEC West. Auburn knocking off Alabama isn’t likely, but crazier things have happened. First, though, the Rebels have to take care of business Saturday against an Arkansas team that is dangerous at home and confident after winning its first conference game in over two years. The Razorbacks allowed a total of 31 points to Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU this season. That doesn’t bode well for Bo Wallace, who will be without top target Laquon Treadwell. With rain in the forecast, points might be hard to come by in this one.

4 p.m. Western Carolina at No. 1 Alabama, SEC Network: The Alabama basketball team had trouble with the Catamounts earlier this week, but I don’t expect much of a struggle for the football team on Saturday. Western Carolina might be a “good little team,” as Nick Saban put it, but the Crimson Tide have dominated all three previous meetings and should do the same this season. If anything, it will give us another look at backup quarterback Jake Coker.

7 p.m. Samford at No. 14 Auburn, ESPNU: There are a lot of connections between these two in-state schools. Samford coach Pat Sullivan won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn back in 1971. Samford assistant coach Kodi Burns played and coached at Auburn. And Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent a year at Samford before joining Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. The game itself won’t be very entertaining, but it should get the Tigers back on track.

7:30 p.m. No. 20 Missouri at Tennessee, ESPN: Missouri has to lose, right? There’s no way the Tigers can get back to Atlanta for the second straight season. Consider this -- Gary Pinkel’s team has won 12 of its past 14 conference games and has won nine straight road games, including seven straight in the SEC. Maybe it’s time we start taking this team seriously. The Tigers are going to have their hands full Saturday against a Tennessee team on the rise. The Volunteers have won back-to-back games with Joshua Dobbs under center, and a win over Missouri would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Vanderbilt at No. 4 Mississippi State, SEC Network: Dan Mullen was a happy man Tuesday when the latest College Football Playoff rankings came out, as his Bulldogs were still among the four playoff teams despite losing to Alabama the week before. Now the question is: Can they stay in the top four and hold off teams such as TCU, Ohio State and Baylor? Mississippi State has two chances left to impress the committee, beginning with Saturday’s tilt against the Commodores. It’s important the Bulldogs not only win, but win big.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Their confidence never wavered.

Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the rest of the Mississippi State Bulldogs weren't defeated, even in defeat.

They walked off the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium last Saturday in pain. The dream of an undefeated season was over. Their No. 1 ranking would soon vanish. That terrible feeling in the pit of their stomachs? Their coach, Dan Mullen, said to embrace it. Feel it. Let it serve as motivation.

An hour after that 25-20 defeat to Alabama, they met with the media. They were somber, but more determined than ever.

"I still think we're one of the best four teams in the country," Prescott said. "We just played one of the other best four teams in the country. It's an early playoff game, in my mind."

"We're never going to roll over," Robinson explained. "That's not us, it's not in our character.

"I'm pretty sure we're going to see [Alabama] in the playoffs. I don't know when, but we're going to see them."

It sounded unlikely at the time, another "We want Bama" sign in a pile of hundreds. From Ball State to Baton Rouge, everyone wants a piece of the Crimson Tide. Sometimes you'll hear fans chant it in the fourth quarter of blowouts.

But Mississippi State wanted Alabama -- again.

Something about the Bulldogs' 20-6 run and finishing only 5 points shy gave them confidence. In spite of losing the red zone battle, the field position battle and the turnover battle, they were right there at the end. As Mullen said, it wouldn't have taken a "Herculean effort" for them to win the game.

"Everybody felt like if we had five more minutes it would have been a different game," said linebacker Richie Brown. "So I know everybody wants a piece of them again."

If the season ended today, they would.

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Alabama No. 1 and Mississippi State No. 4. If everything holds, they'll meet in New Orleans for a playoff semifinal game.

"I didn't see the rankings," Robinson said on Wednesday.

Informed of the situation, his eyes lit up.

"That's fine with me," he said. "Karma, it'll come back to you now."


Mullen didn't watch the release of the committee's newest rankings, either.

"I didn't pay much attention to it because I knew we'd be in the mix anyway," he said. "We're 9-1 with wins over three top-10 teams and our only loss is a 5-point loss on the road to the No. 1 team in the country.

"Your vision is, ‘Hey, wherever they put you, you're still in the discussion.'"

Earlier this week, he told his players just that.

In a meeting with the team's leadership -- a group that consists of Prescott, Jay Hughes, Bernardrick McKinney, Richie Brown, Ryan Brown, Taveze Calhoun, Dillon Day, Malcolm Johnson and Kaleb Eulls -- Mullen set the tone.

He'd step up his leadership this week, he said, but he wanted the message to come from within, too.

"Hey, everything we want is still ahead of us," he told them. "The season didn't end on Saturday. We're 9-1 with two regular season games left with a lot of football left to be played by a lot of other schools.

"The minute you start worrying, you're going to end up 9-3 in a hurry."

In a nice bit of imagery, Mullen put it like this: "You hold that rope and you don't let go. Even if you got pulled across that line in tug-of-war, we're not going to let it go. Get your feet back in the ground and start pulling again."

As Mullen told them, "You get a chance to finish 11-1 and that's a whole different picture."

That starts Saturday against Vanderbilt. It will either culminate the following week against Ole Miss, or it will end with no shot of playing for an SEC title or reaching the playoff.

How the Bulldogs respond to their first loss of the season is up to them.

"I don't think you get over it as much as you move on," Mullen said.

If anything, it has made players more hungry.

"It's kind of a positive," said center Dillon Day. "A lot of people see it as motivation. ... That game opened our eyes that we can get beat if we don't play our A-game."

Which is why they want Bama again. They want to show what their best really looks like.

If only they had a few more minutes the first time around.

"Oh, the outcome would be different," Robinson said. "We just ran out of time."

It looks like maybe they'll get another chance to prove it.

But before there's any rematch, there's work to be done.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before the season started, we knew Alabama's defense would be good. There was simply too much talent and a coaching staff too well credentialed for it not to be.

Landon Collins would be an impact player at safety, Trey DePriest would be a stabilizing force at linebacker, and A'Shawn Robinson would lead a defensive line as deep and talented as any in recent memory.

We knew, given that he has been molding top defenses his entire coaching life, Nick Saban would be there to make everything fit into place.

But to what end?

It was what we didn't know that gave us pause. It was what we didn't know that made us wonder whether Alabama's defense could be not good but great.

After all, greatness was the standard we'd come to expect. Ever since 2008, Alabama finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

But would this be the year that changed?

[+] EnlargeAlabama
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJunior Reggie Ragland (19) leads Alabama in tackles a year after he couldn't crack the starting lineup.
Even Kirby Smart sounded skeptical. Speaking at the start of fall camp, the veteran coordinator wondered aloud about his cornerbacks, the youth of his linebackers and how the safety spot would look without long-time starters Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. He was optimistic, of course, but cautiously so.

"In terms of where we are right now, we've got a long way to go," he said. "But where we can go, I'm really enthused about the group we've got."

For those who heard creaks in the defense's foundation, the season opener against West Virginia suggested there might be some trouble. Bama's smaller cornerbacks were picked on, and its safeties weren't much help over the top. Rushel Shell popped off a few good runs, and Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards on 64 percent passing. If it hadn't been for a handful of drops, the Mountaineers might have made Alabama's 10-point win considerably closer.

Ultimately, though, West Virginia proved to be the prelude to Alabama's return as a defensive power, rather than the beginning of some long, strange eulogy.

A group of four players who looked shaky the first week of the season grew solid and dependable. In doing so, they bucked a trend that under Saban's watch goes something like this: If you haven't produced in your first two years on campus, chances are you never will.

But Cyrus Jones and Nick Perry proved they weren't busts like John Fulton or Burton Scott. Meanwhile, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson showed they wouldn't wind up flops like LaMichael Fanning or Tana Patrick.

The four longtime reserves stepped out of the shadows to anchor a defense that now ranks sixth nationally in yards per game (290.5) and yards per play (4.35). It has allowed the second fewest touchdowns (12) and the third lowest red zone efficiency (38.5 percent) in the country.

Who would have thought we'd be asking where the secondary would be without Jones and Perry?

Jones, a receiver turned cornerback, was routinely picked on by larger targets last season. Perry, on the other hand, came off the bench in two games before he was lost for the year with an injury.

Today, Jones has developed into the team's most reliable corner. The junior is still on the small side, at 5-foot-10, but he's been locked up with bigger receivers and more than held his own. Thanks in large part to Jones, Mississippi State's 6-foot-5 De'Runnya Wilson was held without a touchdown and was unsuccessfully targeted six times Saturday.

Neither Marquez North, Laquon Treadwell, Travin Dural nor Demarcus Robinson had more than 60 receiving yards against Alabama. Among them, they found the end zone only once.

"[Jones] has done a really good job all year long for us," Saban said. "I think he has certainly been our best cover corner."

Perry, whom Saban called a "very bright guy," has been a part of that success, too. The senior has not just been serviceable alongside Collins at safety -- he's been a perfect compliment.

With Jones and Perry playing well, the rest of the secondary has come together nicely.

"Early on, we had guys hurt, different combinations in the lineup that sort of affected us," Saban said, noting how true freshman Tony Brown was forced into action. He later added, "Our secondary has improved through the course of the year."

In fact, every phase of the defense has gotten better.

Who would have thought we'd be saying Ragland and Dickson are Alabama's most productive linebackers?

Neither started a game as sophomores in 2013, and together they combined for only one sack.

Now Ragland's a Butkus Award semifinalist who leads the team in tackles (79) and is third in tackles for loss (7.5). He's recovered a team-best two fumbles and has defended four passes, including one interception.

Dickson, on the other hand, ranks sixth in the SEC with seven sacks. His 9.5 tackles for loss are the most of any Alabama defender.

If anyone tells you they knew that kind of success was coming from Dickson, they're most likely lying. The same goes for any weighty predictions regarding Jones, Perry or Ragland.

At Alabama, it's more often the case that veterans are passed by recent blue-chip recruits than that they find their way and mature into impact players as upperclassmen.

But the opposite has happened this season, and without their contributions, it's difficult to imagine where the defense would be. It most certainly wouldn't be ranked first in the SEC.

They were good all along, said Perry, the elder statesman of the defense. All it took was a little confidence.

"Saban recruited all of us," he said. "We all knew that we're great players. When we're out there, you just have to play with confidence and basically play like you belong out there."

SEC playoff tracker: Nov. 19

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
The SEC had to be happy with the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Alabama jumped all the way to No. 1; Mississippi State remained among the top four despite Saturday’s loss to the Tide; and both Ole Miss and Georgia are hanging around in the top 10. It was clear the committee still thinks highly of the conference as a whole.

Here’s a look at where all four SEC playoff contenders stand heading into Week 13.

Record: 9-1 (6-1)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 29 vs. Auburn

Reason for optimism: It's all there for the taking. Thanks to Saturday's win over then-No. 1 Mississippi State, Bama is in the driver's seat to win the West and reach the playoff. With this weekend's game against FCS Western Carolina, the Crimson Tide get a chance to rest up for the following week's Iron Bowl against Auburn.

Cause for concern: Play-in scenarios can be tricky, especially when you're staring down a regular-season finale against your rival. If Alabama loses to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, all bets are off. Either Mississippi State or Ole Miss would then win the West and Alabama would be left out in the cold.

Who they’ll be rooting for: Boston College over Florida State

-- Alex Scarborough

Mississippi State
Record: 9-1 (5-1)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 29 at Ole Miss

Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs didn’t fall that far in the polls -- dropping from No. 1 to 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings -- after losing their first game of the season Saturday against Alabama. Mississippi State still has two conference games remaining in the regular season, and beating one in particular -- No. 8 Ole Miss on Nov. 29 -- would strengthen its case as a playoff contender.

Cause for concern: Ohio State is among the programs lurking right behind the Bulldogs in the rankings. At this point, it doesn’t appear that the Bulldogs will play in the SEC championship game while other contenders like the Buckeyes or UCLA might. If those teams win out -- same with Big 12 juggernauts TCU and Baylor -- it might be difficult for State to hold on to one of the top four spots.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Indiana over Ohio State, Oklahoma State over Baylor, Boston College over Florida State

-- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 8-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 8
Next big obstacle: Saturday at Arkansas

Reason for optimism: The weekend couldn’t have gone better for Ole Miss. The Rebels got to sit home, rest up and watch as Alabama beat Mississippi State and Georgia beat Auburn, keeping the door open for them to win the SEC West. If they win out and Auburn upsets Alabama in the Iron Bowl, they’re headed to Atlanta for the conference championship game. And with that could come a spot in the playoff.

Cause for concern: We still haven’t seen this Ole Miss team in a meaningful game without its star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. How will the offense look? Can Bo Wallace keep playing at a high level sans his favorite target? The Rebels also have to avoid losing Saturday’s trap game at Arkansas. The Razorbacks are confident, coming off their first SEC win, and will be a dangerous opponent at home.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Oklahoma State over Baylor

-- Greg Ostendorf

Record: 8-2 (6-2)
Rank: No. 10
Next big obstacle: Nov. 29 vs. Georgia Tech

Reason for optimism: Blowing out Auburn at home has restored faith in the playoff committee. The Bulldogs are back to playing like they should and if they win out, which would include making it to and winning the SEC championship game in Atlanta, there's a chance they'll make it in. Georgia is almost guaranteed to play a top-4 team in Atlanta, so a win would make it tough to keep the Dawgs out.

Cause for concern: Losses to South Carolina and Florida aren't great. They've combined to lose nine SEC games, and Florida is parting ways with coach Will Muschamp. The Bulldogs need help, though. There are a lot of teams in front of them that would need to lose. TCU, Baylor and Ohio State pose the biggest threats, but don't exactly have the most challenging schedules remaining. Georgia would have to win out and take the SEC.

Who they'll be rooting for this week: Tennessee over Missouri

-- Edward Aschoff

SEC bowl projections: Week 12

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
How important is earning the top overall seed in the College Football Playoff? For Alabama, it's very important. It would allow the Tide to play a virtual home game in the Sugar Bowl as opposed to going out West to possibly face Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

That's why Nick Saban and his team have to be ecstatic with their No. 1 ranking in the latest playoff rankings. As long as they win out and win the SEC title, they're headed to New Orleans for the first semifinal game.

Meanwhile, if everything plays out as it should -- and it never does -- the Tide's opponent in the Sugar Bowl would be none other than Mississippi State. That's right. The Bulldogs only dropped to No. 4 after Saturday's loss to Alabama, and that means they're still in good shape for the playoff if they can take care of business against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.

The next two weeks should also be interesting for the rest of the conference as a number of teams are fighting for that sixth win and bowl eligibility. Both Florida and South Carolina should get there this Saturday as they play Eastern Kentucky and South Alabama, respectively. It won't be as easy, though, for teams like of Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

We predict a total of 12 SEC teams becoming bowl eligible by season's end.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Alabama
College Football Playoff semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Florida
Outback Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare 100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Tennessee
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Go back six weeks to the first Sunday in October. Back when the AP poll had Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in its top 15. Back when all five SEC West teams were undefeated and in position to make the College Football Playoff. Back when we knew the division would eventually cannibalize itself, only we didn’t know how.

Go back and think of the possibilities, and then recall the weekend that followed, the first of those handful of unbeaten teams that fell. The one the coaches’ poll had ranked No. 1. It was in Oxford, Mississippi. Afternoon turned to night, Ole Miss came back late, the goal posts were carried out of the stadium and Alabama’s playoff hopes were seemingly extinguished. Nick Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was declared by some to be over.

We have come a long way these past six weeks.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsT.J. Yeldon and Alabama control their destiny again after beating No. 1-ranked Mississippi State.
During that time, Alabama reminded everyone that projections don’t always come true. The fickle nature of college football’s week-to-week evaluation process wouldn’t keep the Crimson Tide down long as they went on winning while the rest of the SEC fell by the wayside. And that one undefeated team remaining, No. 1 Mississippi State? On Saturday, Alabama took care of that matter itself, beating the Bulldogs, 25-20, at home in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Now there are no perfect teams in the SEC. There is only Alabama leading the race to Atlanta.

"Anytime you beat the No. 1 team in the country, that’s a significant accomplishment," Saban said on Saturday. He later added, "This is a really good football team that we played today. They’re really hard to stop."

But stop them they did, and in doing so Alabama looked dominant once again.

After the game, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen seemed disappointed but unsurprised by the outcome. He guessed that Alabama had upward of 35 future NFL players on its roster, and how could you expect to beat that?

Though it’s true that talent has propelled them, the Crimson Tide’s bevy of four- and five-star recruits haven’t blossomed overnight. Like the team’s climb back atop the SEC, it’s been a slow and steady process of getting here.

Quarterback Blake Sims hasn’t always been great throwing the football, but he has consistently come through with clutch drives. The offensive line has gotten progressively better, running back T.J. Yeldon has played through pain, and the defense has gone from shaky to stout over the course of the season.

Does that make Alabama the best team in the country? Who knows.

"We beat No. 1," said safety Landon Collins. "Do we feel like we’re No. 1? Maybe."

Center Ryan Kelly answered the question more directly.

"Absolutely," he said. "That’s what we want to be every year. Every week we’re going to keep fighting to get there."

As Collins said, "It’s all up to us. We control our future."

Alabama rallied back from that devastating loss at Ole Miss in early October. So how will it handle being on top once again?

Saturday’s game against FCS opponent Western Carolina should be a breeze, but a week later it will be the Iron Bowl and Auburn coming to town. After that, there is the possibility of an SEC Championship Game.

Alabama survived that first loss, but it would be risking a lot if it suffered another.

"We got tough games coming up," Saban said. "We’re just like being in the playoffs now. We can’t afford to lose, so every game is a big game."

Mississippi State fans are no doubt beside themselves today. After watching their beloved Bulldogs' perfect season come to an end with a 25-20 loss to Alabama on Saturday, the dream of running the table is no longer a reality in Starkville.

But you know what is? That's right, SEC fans, the conference is still alive to land two teams in the College Football Playoff. Actually, its chances are higher than ever now with two one-loss teams sporting very impressive resumes with two weeks left before conference championship weekend.

Fear not, Bulldogs fans, you're not out of the playoff. You'll need some help, but you and the SEC are sitting pretty this Monday morning when it comes to getting two of the four teams in the playoff.

Clearly, both Alabama and Mississippi State have to win out, giving Alabama the SEC championship. Without that, this scenario is dead. Now, there is the off chance that a Georgia SEC title (if UGA wins the East over Missouri) could get two SEC teams in, but that's a trickier situation and one that requires a lot more help for the league, because Georgia has two losses.

So if on Dec. 7 Alabama is sitting there with yet another SEC championship and Mississippi State is 11-1 with an Egg Bowl win over rival Ole Miss, the SEC could be in good shape. Alabama would be a lock, but Mississippi State would be an interesting team for the selection committee to study.

[+] EnlargeChristian Holmes
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDon't hang your head yet, Mississippi State. All is not lost in the playoff race.
To this point, the Bulldogs have been the consistent No. 1 team in the country since the CFP rankings debuted a couple weeks ago. Their loss to Alabama dropped them only to fourth in the AP poll, so there's still a good chance they could find themselves in the top four when this week's playoff rankings are announced Tuesday night.

If they are, it's likely win out and Mississippi State is in with the Tide. If not, the Bulldogs will need outside help.

With Vanderbilt and Ole Miss left on the schedule, the Bulldogs' remaining strength of schedule ranks 44th nationally, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. While not great, that's actually higher than Baylor, Ohio State and TCU, all teams the Bulldogs will likely be fighting off for that last playoff spot.

As much as it might pain the Bulldogs to do it, they'll need to root for Ole Miss to win at Arkansas this weekend so they have a chance to have wins over at least three teams ranked in the top 25 at season's end. Now, that's assuming LSU wins out and Auburn doesn't fall out if it loses in the Iron Bowl to Alabama.

Remember, for as good as those three straight wins over top-10 teams looked earlier this season, the playoff committee is more concerned with how teams have done against current top-25 teams.

Which brings us to overall strength of schedule. Where the Bulldogs will be penalized is their bad nonconference slate. Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT Martin will do the Bulldogs no favors in the eyes of the committee. The committee has been very generous to SEC West teams to this point because they've all faced each other in the sport's toughest division, so that's Mississippi State's only saving grace right now.

The good news is that Baylor, Ohio State and TCU can't really say much when it comes to their nonconference schedules, especially Ohio State, which lost to a bad Virginia Tech team.

So if the Bulldogs are outside the top four this week, they'll likely need one of those teams to lose again. TCU looks vulnerable after that scare from Kansas and with Texas up next, Baylor finishes the season against ranked Kansas State, and Ohio State will still potentially have to play in the Big Ten championship game. You also can't rule out losses by Florida State (probably unlikely) and Oregon (still has conference championship game). If one or both lose, the Bulldogs would really be sitting pretty.

Monday must hurt for Bulldogs fans, but all is not lost. There's still plenty of time for Mississippi State to make the top four and give the SEC a double dose of playoff participation.
ESPN 300 receiver Tyron Johnson said he’s “80 percent” sure of where he’s going but things could change dramatically if LSU steps up its pursuit. The battle to land Nick Brossette will be one of the biggest storylines heading into the final months of recruiting.

SEC plays of the week: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
Another interesting week in the SEC and plenty of great plays league-wide. Let's take a look at our five favorites from Week 12:

Chubb train coming through
This was originally ruled a touchdown but later overturned (correctly) but that doesn’t make the play any less spectacular because Georgia freshman running back Nick Chubb's broken tackle is what makes it. Chubb powers through Auburn’s Jonathon Mincy to stay on his feet and if not for his right foot stepping on the out of bounds, he would have been in for six. As it is, it winds up as a nice 27-yard gain on a screen pass from Hutson Mason

video Heard’s timely block
Florida held a 17-10 lead with less than a minute left and that’s when South Carolina came up with a huge special-teams play. Receiver Carlton Heard sprinted up the middle and got his hands on the Kyle Christy punt, giving South Carolina possession in a prime area for the eventual game-tying score.

video Mizzou magic
Missouri had much success on third down in its win over Texas A&M but this was perhaps the best conversion of the night. On third-and-5, Maty Mauk found himself under pressure, backing up almost 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage before firing a strike to Darius White, who hauled in the pass one-handed for a 21-yard gain and a first down.

video Extra effort
Tennessee is enjoying offensive success since Joshua Dobbs took over as the quarterback. Saturday was a nice day as he threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns and one of them came courtesy of some extra effort by Von Pearson. On this play, Pearson is met by a Kentucky defender near the goal line but Pearson simply continues churning his legs and forcing his way into the end zone for six.

video Cooper’s catch
Amari Cooper is quite simply one of college football’s best receivers and he shows us weekly why he has that status. On Saturday in Alabama’s win over Mississippi State, he caught eight passes for 88 yards but none prettier than his 50-yard reception from Blake Sims in which Cooper high-pointed the ball on a leap in between two Bulldogs defenders. The catch set up a 1-yard Derrick Henry touchdown run that gave Alabama a 19-0 lead.
(No video, CBS game)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Mississippi State hung around.

For 60 minutes, the Bulldogs did everything they could to stay in the game against Alabama. It wasn’t until the clock finally struck zeroes that the dream season ended. The undefeated record was wiped out and the loss of that coveted No. 1 ranking would soon follow.

And, in the end, Mississippi State had no one to blame but itself.

No. 5 Alabama was the better team on Saturday night, but the Crimson Tide never really dropped the hammer. The door was always open for the Bulldogs to make a comeback, but missed opportunities and turnovers kept that from happening. The one player they could rely on all season to make plays, quarterback Dak Prescott, ultimately folded in the game’s key moments.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThree Dak Prescott interceptions proved costly for the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
“To win football games, there are simple plans to win,” said State coach Dan Mullen after his team’s 25-20 loss in Tuscaloosa. “You have to play great defense, and I thought we did that. We had almost a hundred more yards of offense than they did tonight. Our guys played really good defense, got off the field when they needed to get off of the field.

“But the MVP of the game is probably Alabama’s punter.”

Yes, a punter. Alabama's lanky specialist JK Scott, who pinned Mississippi State inside the 20-yard line five times.

It was that kind of night.

Mississippi State had more passing yards, rushing yards and first downs than Alabama. But field position and red zone offense ultimately doomed the Bulldogs. Six times their offense got inside Alabama’s 20-yard line and twice it came away with touchdowns. As Mullen said, “That’s potentially 42 points ... it wouldn’t have been a close game.”

“It was very disappointing,” said Prescott, who threw three interceptions and was held to less than three touchdowns for the first time all season. On third down, he had a season-low Total QBR of 3.1. “We squandered a lot of points. We lost focus out in the game. You have to win in the red zone, but we squandered our chances."

Even the defense, which played one of its best games of the season, eventually wore down late. When Prescott threw a touchdown pass to Fred Brown early in the fourth quarter to get the game to within six points, Alabama got the ball back on offense and promptly drove the field. It took 15 plays and three third-down conversions, but the Tide went 76 yards for a touchdown, their only points of the second half.

State responded and marched 54 yards in 3 minutes, but fell apart on the 20-yard line as Prescott threw his third interception of the night.

"Alabama is a great team," he said. "They did a good job (with defensive) scheming. I think it was on us.”

“We just beat ourselves,” said State running back Josh Robinson, who got his team in a hole early as he was tackled in the end zone for a safety. “We made a lot of mental mistakes.”

Looking forward, Robinson said, “We’re going to fix those mistakes and do what we do.”

But even that might not be enough.

Mississippi State is by no means out of the playoff hunt, but it no longer controls its own destiny. Now the Bulldogs’ only hope of reaching the SEC title game is to win out against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, and for Alabama to lose to Auburn on the final day of the regular season.

It could happen, but if it doesn’t it will come back to what happened in Tuscaloosa. The mistakes they made. The chances they didn’t capitalize on.

“Those are two of the best teams in the country out there battling and there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Mullen said.

But as he gave Alabama credit for "making the plays they needed to win,” there was a flip side to that: his team didn’t.

Alabama deserves the credit for winning, but Mississippi State also deserves the blame.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
Week 12 in the SEC featured everything from last-minute comebacks to bitter rivalries to the fall of No. 1. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to hand out the helmet stickers from the weekend that was. Here are the five we think are most deserving.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: The return of Todd Gurley didn’t get in the way of Chubb doing what he’s been doing the past four weeks. Gurley rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown in his first game back from suspension, but he was overshadowed by the freshman Chubb, who finished with 144 yards rushing, 48 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Georgia’s 34-7 win over Auburn. The two form one of the top backfield duos in college football, though depending on the severity of Gurley’s knee injury, Chubb might be carrying the load on his own again next week.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: The South Carolina game was no fluke: Dobbs is the real deal, and he has the Volunteers rolling. On Saturday, Dobbs went 19 of 27 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions to lead Tennessee past Kentucky, 50-16. He also rushed for 48 yards and a score. The sophomore quarterback has now accounted for 1,079 total yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three games, and the Volunteers are one win away from becoming bowl eligible with Missouri and Vanderbilt left on the schedule.

Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri: Coming off maybe his worst career performance last week against Kentucky, Hansbrough rushed for a career-high 199 yards Saturday at Texas A&M. He had back-to-back long touchdown runs (45, 49) in the third quarter to first tie the game and then take the lead, a lead the Tigers never relinquished in their 34-27 win over the Aggies. As a team, Missouri rushed for 335 yards, but Hansbrough was the star. He now leads the Tigers with 591 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season.

Nick Perry, DB, Alabama: The entire Alabama defense deserves a helmet sticker for its performance against Dak Prescott and No. 1 Mississippi State, but if we’re giving it to one guy, it has to be Perry. The senior led the team with 12 tackles, and he also pulled down one of three Crimson Tide interceptions on the day. Though Jameon Lewis caught a touchdown for the Bulldogs, it was Perry who helped keep him in check for most of the game. At the end of the day, Alabama has its defense to thank for Saturday’s 25-20 win over the top-ranked Bulldogs.

Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas: Two defensive players on this list? That must be what happens when the temperature drops and teams start playing defense in the SEC. It’s also a credit to Spaight, who was the best player on the field Saturday in the Razorbacks’ 17-0 shutout win over LSU. The senior linebacker finished with 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry to lead this much-improved Arkansas defense against the Tigers. Spaight now has a team-high 97 tackles on the season with two games left to play.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 15, 2014
Nov 15
We’re getting close to resolution in the SEC’s division races after another wild weekend of conference play.

Here are five things we learned after the conclusion of Saturday’s games:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Butch DillWith their win over Mississippi State, Amari Cooper and Alabama are on track to play for the SEC title.
Georgia-Alabama?: We went through all of that to get to this? After beating No. 1 Mississippi State 25-20 on Saturday, Alabama is back in the driver’s seat in the SEC West, as many prognosticators expected before the season. Meanwhile, Georgia (9-2, 6-2 SEC) destroyed Auburn 34-7 in its final SEC game of the season, which put the pressure on Missouri to win out if it wants to win the SEC East. Otherwise, it’ll be Alabama-Georgia in the SEC championship game, which seemed the most likely outcome before the Mississippi schools and Missouri made unexpected title pushes. Mizzou (8-2, 5-1) still leads the way in the East, though, with games remaining at Tennessee and versus Arkansas. The Tigers can still spoil the Bulldogs’ title hopes, and Georgia tailback Todd Gurley's injury status will also have a bearing on the Bulldogs' prospects moving forward.

It tolls for thee, Muschamp: Maybe there was a way for Will Muschamp to save his job after Florida shocked Georgia a couple weeks ago. But the way the Gators blew a late lead and fell 23-20 in overtime against South Carolina on Saturday -- getting two kicks blocked in the last 3:30 -- probably removed any doubt. The Gators are now 5-4 and can become bowl eligible with a win against Eastern Kentucky next week, but this has to be the end for Muschamp. The Gators should have won this game but imploded at home in the closing minutes.

A breakthrough for Arkansas: It was a long time coming, but Bret Bielema finally got the first league win of his Arkansas tenure when the Razorbacks shut out LSU 17-0 on Saturday. Oddly enough, the win ended a 17-game SEC losing streak. The Hogs came close against several teams this season -- most notably Alabama and Mississippi State -- but they controlled the night against LSU. They even handed the Tigers their first shutout loss since they fell 21-0 to Alabama in the BCS title game to end the 2011 season. Clearly, it meant something to the Razorbacks’ fans, though. They rushed the field to celebrate the win.

Gus Bus hits a speed bump: Saturday’s loss was by far the worst for No. 9 Auburn since Gus Malzahn became head coach last season. The Tigers scored seven points in a loss to Georgia -- well below their previous scoring low (20 points in a win against Kansas State earlier this season) under Malzahn. Auburn came in averaging 506.9 yards and 38.7 points per game and mustered just 292 yards and seven points against a UGA defense that got dominated by lowly Florida two weeks ago. The Tigers also lost for the second straight week and fell out of the SEC West and playoff conversations.

Look out for the Vols: They lost their first four games in SEC play, but here come the Tennessee Volunteers (5-5, 2-4). With quarterback Josh Dobbs leading the charge, the Vols blasted Kentucky 50-16 on Saturday after beating South Carolina in overtime two weeks ago. Dobbs passed for 297 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday and ran for 48 yards and another score. They’ll host Missouri on Saturday with a chance to spoil the Tigers’ hopes of winning the SEC East.

Alabama is back in the SEC driver’s seat.

Dak Prescott and No. 1 Mississippi State (9-1, 5-1 SEC) showed resilience in rallying from a huge early deficit at No. 5 Alabama (9-1, 6-1) on Saturday, but the Bulldogs still suffered their first loss of the season 25-20.

In the process, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide claimed the lead in the SEC West race and took over as the conference’s top College Football Playoff contender.

Let’s recap how the Tide returned to the top of the SEC heap:

How the game was won: Mississippi State rallied from a 19-0 deficit to make it 19-13 in the fourth quarter, but Alabama put away the win with a 15-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that ate six minutes off the clock. The Tide made the lead stand up by picking off Prescott for a third time and recovering a late onside kick.

Game ball goes to: Blake Sims. Like last week against LSU, Alabama’s offense was stagnant for long periods. The Tide was 2-for-10 on third down prior to their decisive drive, but they went 3-for-3 on that possession. Alabama’s quarterback completed an 8-yard pass to T.J. Yeldon for the first conversion, and he followed with runs of 10 and 11 yards to keep the chains moving.

What it means: Considering this was No. 1 versus No. 5, there were enormous College Football Playoff implications, plus Alabama now holds the edge in the SEC West race. Both teams still have huge games left (Alabama versus Auburn, Mississippi State at Ole Miss), but the West is now Alabama’s to lose.

Playoff implication: Alabama fans figured they would move into the top 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings after last Saturday’s comeback win at LSU. The Tide will definitely crack the top four after handing Mississippi State its first loss. It will be interesting to see how far State falls after Saturday’s defeat.

What's next: Alabama has a gimme next week against Western Carolina before hosting rival Auburn on Nov. 29. Mississippi State will host Vanderbilt, which is winless in the SEC, next Saturday before visiting rival Ole Miss on Nov. 29.
Alabama was voted as the school that has the best resources to win a national title in ESPN's weekly college football poll of the FBS head coaches #1QFor128.

The Crimson Tide were the overwhelming top choice in the poll, conducted by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.

Alabama received 46 percent of the votes, followed by Texas (27 percent), Ohio State (13 percent), Oregon (8 percent) and Notre Dame (3 percent).

Florida State, LSU and Oklahoma also received votes. In all, eight schools received votes for which school has the best resources (infrastructure, budget, fan support, etc.) to win a national title.

Alabama received a bigger percentage of the vote from the Power 5 conference coaches. More than one-half of the coaches from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) who voted chose Alabama (51 percent), followed by Texas (26 percent), Ohio State (11 percent), Oregon and Notre Dame (6 percent each).

The coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt) voted Alabama (42 percent) as the top choice. The next most popular choices were Texas (27 percent), Ohio State (15 percent) and Oregon (8 percent).

Of the 128 FBS coaches, 93 participated in this week's poll.