Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban, left, and Urban Meyer will meet Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
When Urban Meyer took his mini-sabbatical from coaching following the 2010 season, there were a couple of givens.

One, he wasn’t going to stay away for long.

Two, his and Nick Saban’s paths were sure to cross again on a big stage.

It’s taken four years, but here we are, and it’s only fitting that they would meet up again in such a historical setting -- the first-ever College Football Playoff.

In this era of college coaching, Meyer vs. Saban might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Borg vs. McEnroe, Bird vs. Magic.

They are the two preeminent coaches in the college football ranks and have combined to win six of the last 11 national championships.

As the Jan. 1 Alabama-Ohio State showdown in New Orleans has approached, they’ve both done their best to downplay what their roles will be in the game. Granted, as a rule, we probably all make too much of individual coaching matchups.

But in this case, who didn’t want to see Meyer and Saban match wits one more time?

Meyer has a keen understanding of what coaching in the SEC pressure cooker is all about. He was right in the middle of it at Florida and led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008. But it also got the best of him, and realizing that he had to make changes to his lifestyle, Meyer walked away from Florida for good at the end of the 2010 season. He tried to do it after the 2009 season but changed his mind and hung around for another season.

What Meyer has accomplished at Ohio State is staggering. The Buckeyes have won 36 of 39 games on his watch and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game since he’s been in Columbus. As a recruiter, few are better than Meyer, and he’s brought the SEC’s no-holds-barred style of recruiting to Ohio State.

As good a recruiter as Meyer is, he’s even better at assembling a staff. He has an eye for talent, period, both coaches and players.

Anybody who doesn’t truly appreciate the mark Meyer has made on college football has had his head in the sand for the last decade or so.

But it’s also true that Meyer’s last two meetings with Saban have ended badly. Alabama thrashed Florida 31-6 in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, one of the first signs that season that things might be getting away from Meyer in Gainesville.

Less than a year earlier, he’d ended up in the emergency room after losing to Saban and Tide 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game, the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the teams in as many years. The morning after that loss, Meyer experienced chest pains.

Like so many coaches, he had placed football before his health and it caught up with him. He resigned a few weeks later to address his health problems and spend more time with his family, but he couldn’t stay away and came back for one final ill-fated season at Florida before resigning for good and spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth.

Not lost on anybody (Meyer included) is the perception that the rigors of the SEC, and more specifically Saban getting the best of him those last two meetings, was what ultimately drove him to the Big Ten.

How true that really is probably depends on whether you look at things through SEC glasses or Big Ten glasses. Either way, it’s not like coaching at Ohio State is akin to coaching the Sunday School youth league in kickball.

In fact, in a lot of ways, Ohio State is a Midwestern version of Florida. And Meyer has held up just fine.

But to genuinely erase that stigma that the SEC and Saban sent him packing for easier football pastures, Meyer could do himself some serious favors by beating Saban on this stage. He’s done it before when Florida beat Alabama 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game, but that was in Saban’s second season at Alabama and before he’d won the first of three national titles in Tide Town.

The fact that Ohio State is even here is a testament to the job Meyer did this season. He lost his star quarterback, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, in the preseason to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and was shaky early, but ended the season as one of the most dynamic players in the country.

The only problem was that Barrett went down with a season-ending injury just before the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes didn’t blink. They slid Cardale Jones in at quarterback and blasted Wisconsin 59-0 to secure their spot in the playoff.

Much like Meyer, Saban has also done some of his best work this season.

Alabama got here with a quarterback, Blake Sims, who nobody gave a chance to even be the starter, much less set an Alabama record for passing yards in a season. And beyond the uncertainty at quarterback, there were some serious questions about the Crimson Tide this year, particularly on the offensive line and at cornerback.

So as we embark on this unprecedented playoff era in college football, something says this won’t be the last time we see Meyer and Saban going up against each other in a playoff game.

The real question: How many times over the next few years will we see a playoff that either Meyer or Saban won’t be on the sidelines?

It’s the coaching matchup we all want to see.
Sugar BowlUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and Nick Saban squared off only three times when in the SEC.

Although we were privileged to three bouts of Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer during Meyer’s short stint at Florida, the SEC missed out on something that should have been special.

When these two first met in 2008, we saw a game for the ages in the SEC championship game, before Alabama took complete control in the next two matchups. Still, when you look at the talent and smarts these two have as coaches, Meyer’s year-long leave of absence from coaching ended a great rivalry between two elite coaches and programs.

So when No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) faces No. 4 Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of what we missed.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.”

These two were the best at what they did in the SEC, and they had a mutual respect and friendship that probably fueled their competition and success.

“We always used to sit next to each other in the SEC meetings,” Meyer said of Saban.

The brief return of such a competitive chess match is a delight for college football enthusiasts. You have the offensive-minded, psychological master that is Meyer facing the defensive-minded, meticulous planner that is Saban. You have 151 combined wins at Florida and Alabama and six total national championships (including Saban’s one at LSU).

We love Saban versus Les Miles, Hugh Freeze-Dan Mullen has been fun, and the back-and-forth between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema has been tantalizing, but for two years, the SEC lived and breathed Meyer versus Saban.

But we still have our memories.

It all started with No. 1 Alabama facing No. 2 Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game. The winner headed to the BCS title game. Undefeated Alabama rolled in with power and a suffocating defense, while the Gators carried transcendent quarterback Tim Tebow and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

In his second year at Alabama, Saban was trying to imitate Meyer by winning a national championship in Year 2 with the Tide. But Alabama’s 20-17 lead entering the fourth quarter was erased by a gutsy two-sided performance by the Gators. Tebow’s powerful runs and clutch throws guided the offense to 14 points, and that hard-nosed, dominant defense pitched a shutout.

A 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with 2:50 left was Florida’s final dagger in a 31-20 win, which sent the Gators to a BCS title game they eventually won. Heading into the game, Alabama had allowed 28 total points in its previous four games.

“The 2008 game was just one of the great games in college football history, in my opinion, where evenly matched teams were going back and forth, back and forth,” Meyer said. “And obviously we ... scored right at the end to take a twoscore lead.”

Then came 2009 and a second straight No. 1 versus No. 2 game that had a completely different outcome. Even with two teams that looked similar to the ones from 2008, No. 2 Alabama ruined the Gators’ title hopes with a commanding 32-13 win. A year after getting run down, the Tide ran over Florida, thanks to 251 rushing yards (the most allowed by an Meyer-coached Florida team) and a stifling defense that held Florida’s running game to fewer than 100 yards for the first and only time all season.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram clinched the Heisman Trophy with 183 total yards and three touchdowns. There was a beautiful tip-toeing first-down run by quarterback Greg McElroy, and there was no hint of a national title contender on the other sideline.

“I think maybe the two best teams might have been playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2009,” Saban said. “We played a phenomenal game. So it was a playoff game in a sense, and they won one [in 2008], and we won one.”

The 2010 game was utter domination by the Tide and another thorn in Meyer’s side, but those first two matchups were special on the national landscape. Yes, the second one was a blowout, but the amount of talent on both sides was something special and something those two incredibly gifted coaches constructed.

“I have a hard time remembering our address or phone number, but I could tell you every play in those games,” Meyer said. “It was classic -- 2008 was a classic game.

“But what was it, 2009 Alabama team, arguably the best team I can remember going against or getting ready to prepare, very well balanced, very well coached. ... When you face a team like any of these four teams, you're going to see all three phases. You have to be on point. When you get to this level of competition, whether it's a punt team, whether it's a punt block or obviously offense and defense, you'd better be on it.”

We don’t know what would have happened had Meyer stayed after 2010, but the Sugar Bowl could present a good glimpse of what the SEC might have missed the past four years.
Amari Cooper and Marcus MariotaGetty Images, AP PhotoRoughly two-thirds of the coaches in the country believe Amari Cooper and Alabama will meet Marcus Mariota and Oregon in the championship game.

No. 1 Alabama was the overwhelming favorite to win the College Football Playoff in ESPN’s weekly poll of the FBS head coaches, #1QFor128.

Also, nearly one-third of the coaches who voted believed the selection committee did not pick the best four teams for the inaugural playoff.

Of the 128 FBS head coaches, 107 participated in the poll, conducted by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.

Alabama was picked by 60 percent of the coaches to win the playoff, followed by No. 2 Oregon (28 percent). No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State each received 6 percent of the votes to win the national title.

In the semifinal matchups, Alabama was chosen over Ohio State by a 90-10 percent margin in the Sugar Bowl, while Oregon was selected over Florida State by 73-27 percent margin.

Of the possible title matchups in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12, Alabama-Oregon was picked by 67 percent of the coaches, followed by Alabama-Florida State (24 percent), Oregon-Ohio State (5 percent) and Florida State-Ohio State (4 percent).

The coaches who voted believed the selection committee correctly picked the best four teams (69 percent yes, 31 percent no).

The voting among the coaches from the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences were fairly similar for the most part.

Despite Big 12 co-champion TCU falling from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final ranking, a higher percentage of Power 5 coaches believed the selection committee picked the correct four teams (72 percent yes, 28 percent no) compared to the Group of 5 coaches (67 percent yes, 33 percent no).

The biggest discrepancy was picking the Oregon-Florida State semifinal winner. Only 67 percent of the coaches from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) who voted chose Oregon to beat FSU, compared to 77 percent of the coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt).

Another significant difference between the Power 5 and Group of 5 coaches was picking the national champion. Alabama was picked to win by more of the Group of 5 coaches (62 percent) than the Power 5 coaches (58 percent). Oregon had a higher percentage of Power 5 coaches (32 percent) picking the Ducks than the Group of 5 coaches (24 percent).

Also among the Group of 5 coaches, No. 4 Ohio State (8 percent) actually received more votes to win the title than No. 3 Florida State (6 percent). Of the Power 5 coaches, 7 percent picked Ohio State to win the title and 3 percent Florida State.

Vote breakdown

Did the selection committee pick the best four teams?
Yes: 69 percent
No: 31 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Yes: 72 percent
No: 28 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Yes: 67 percent
No: 33 percent

Who will win the College Football Playoff?
Alabama: 60 percent
Oregon: 28 percent
Florida State: 6 percent
Ohio State: 6 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 58 percent
Oregon: 32 percent
Florida State: 7 percent
Ohio State: 3 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 62 percent
Oregon: 24 percent
Ohio State: 8 percent
Florida State: 6 percent

Who will win the Rose Bowl semifinal?
Oregon: 73 percent
Florida State: 27 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Oregon: 67 percent
Florida State: 33 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Oregon: 77 percent
Florida State: 23 percent

Who will win the Sugar Bowl semifinal?
Alabama: 90 percent
Ohio State: 10 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 91 percent
Ohio State: 9 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 89 percent
Ohio State: 11 percent

Who will meet in the College Football Playoff final?
Alabama-Oregon: 67 percent
Alabama-Florida State: 24 percent
Oregon-Ohio State: 5 percent
Ohio State-Florida State: 4 percent

Top sleeper commits: SEC 

December, 19, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent it takes more than just those top-rated prospects to have success. Rosters are built largely with prospects which enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key. Every year we see prospects that flew under the radar but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we've come across many players who show promise and are great additions based on their upside for development and/or scheme fit.

Here are five commitments in the SEC that we feel are unheralded, but great additions worth keeping an eye on.

Vanderbilt season review

December, 19, 2014
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This was not the start to his Vanderbilt tenure that Derek Mason wanted or envisioned. A year removed from a second straight nine-win season and three straight bowl games -- both firsts in school history -- the Commodores went 0-8 in SEC games and started the season with an ugly 37-7 loss to Temple at home.

Vandy finished the year with just three wins and ranked near the bottom of the league in every major offensive category. The Commodores also spent most of the year shuffling quarterbacks around, which stunted the offense's growth. Getting outscored 283-102 in SEC play just isn't close to being good enough, and Mason knows that. That's why he made staff changes after the season, including firing offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski.

Mason has said that he likes the direction of the program, but the Commodores have a long way to go before returning to being truly competitive in the SEC.

Best win: There weren’t many, but the best of the three had to be the Commodores’ 42-28 win over Old Dominion to open the month of November. Forget who the opponent was, this was the most complete performance of the season for the Commodores. The offense, rolled up a season-high 524 yards of offense and the defense allowed 336 yards, second fewest on the season. We got to see some growth from freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary, who threw for a season-high 281 yards and five touchdowns, and freshman running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for a season-high 166 yards with one touchdown.

Worst loss: The Commodores got blown out in a couple of SEC games this season, but that opening loss to Temple was just unacceptable. The Owls were coming off a 2-10 season, only to walk out of Nashville with a commanding 37-7 win. Vandy was totally inept on offense, registering 278 yards, scoring zero offensive points and turning it over seven times. Three Vandy quarterbacks combined to throw for 224 yards and three interceptions. What’s worse is that players and coaches later said they just weren’t prepared enough for the game -- the first game of the Mason era.

Player of year: The biggest bright spot on offense for the Commodores was Webb, who finished the season ranking 11th in the league in rushing with 907 yards. He was the Commodores’ most consistent offensive player. He rushed for 90-plus yards in four games this season but scored only four touchdowns.

Breakout player: We might be hearing the name Nigel Bowden for a few years. The freshman linebacker was arguably the Commodores’ best defender this season. He led Vandy with 78 total tackles and became the first freshman to lead the team in tackles since since 1998. Bowden, who also led all SEC freshmen in tackles, registered at least five tackles in nine games.

Play of year: The game was well in hand and the Commodores weren’t coming back, but McCrary’s 41-yard pass to David Dudchock in Vandy’s loss to Florida was great. McCray had to dodge a couple of Florida defenders to even get the pass off and then Dudchock went all Odell Beckham Jr. by snatching the pass out of the air with one hand. It wasn’t a play that changed the game or ignited a rally, but it’s one that will make Vandy highlight reels for years. The athleticism, timing and concentration that play took were amazing.

video 2015 outlook: We don’t really know what to expect from the Commodores in 2015. With a handful of coaches leaving, including both coordinators, Mason is kind of starting over. Now, after the season Vandy just had, that could be a good thing. He and that team need a fresh start. Mason has to settle on one quarterback, and McCrary has all the tools needed to be the guy. The defense has some young, solid talent returning, but the offense has to find playmakers at receiver. Bringing some quality talent in this next recruiting class is key, and developing current guys and motivating them will be crucial to future success.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Fullback is a disappearing position in the NFL. Connor Neighbors understands this reality.

That's why LSU's senior fullback is less concerned about his positioning for the NFL draft than he is about finding a pro team that still uses players with his skillset in this era of wide-open offensive schemes.

[+] EnlargeConnor Neighbors
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisLSU's Connor Neighbors is hoping a trip to the Senior Bowl in his home state of Alabama can help match him with an NFL team in need of a fullback.
"I don't really care about the draft," Neighbors said. "If I get drafted, that's fine. I just want to have a chance to play on a team. And I'm a football player, too. I can play special teams. I can do all that stuff. So as long as I have a chance and I seize the opportunity and make a team, that's all I really care about."

His recently accepted invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game shows that scouts believe Neighbors has the makings of a pro fullback. But Neighbors is smart to hedge his bets on becoming an actual draft pick.

Since 2007, when a whopping nine fullbacks came off the board in the draft, the number of players drafted from Neighbors' position has dwindled. In each of the last three drafts, only three fullbacks have been selected. And in the last five years, a total of 16 fullbacks came off the board.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and NFLDraftScout.com both rate Neighbors as the No. 5 fullback prospect in the upcoming draft, which indicates that becoming a late-round pick or undrafted free agent might be Neighbors' most likely path to an NFL roster.

If he goes the undrafted free agent route, Neighbors will have to find a club that makes use of his position -- and he admits he has been paying attention to where he might be a good fit.

"Ever since I moved to the position, when I've watched football, I've seen that," Neighbors said. "I know that a lot of teams, they have a package for [fullbacks]. Not everyone, NFL teams, they don't really use it that often. ...

"Tennessee uses one. [Former LSU quarterback and current Titans rookie Zach Mettenberger is] trying to get me to go there. He's like, 'How awesome would it be?' if I was there. That would be tight," Neighbors continued. "I know Atlanta uses one. Green Bay, they use one -- and they give him the ball -- so that would be tight if I went there. I try not to worry about that stuff, though, because I can't determine the outcome except with my play."

His performances in the Senior Bowl practices can help. Scouts flock to observe the game-week practices each year in order to see many of the nation's top senior prospects go head to head. For a player with three career carries for 6 yards and 11 career receptions for 119 yards, this is a good chance for Neighbors to show them that he can handle the ball, as well as block and cover kicks.

"I heard it's a pretty intense week, so we'll see what happens," Neighbors said.

Neighbors has a first-hand source who can attest to that intensity. His dad, Wes, played in the Senior Bowl in 1987 after an All-SEC career at Alabama. His late grandfather Billy, a College Football Hall of Famer, was an All-American at Alabama and played in the game in 1962.

Since the Senior Bowl is played in Neighbors' home state of Alabama -- in Mobile -- friends and family won't have far to travel to see him become the third Neighbors to compete in the game. And Neighbors expects plenty of them to show up for his final college game.

"That's what my dad said," Neighbors said, "so I've got to play good so I don't embarrass anybody."
Butch JonesStacy Revere/Getty ImagesIn addition to their on-field gains, Butch Jones' Vols had 46 players this fall with a 3.0 GPA or higher.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It’s a week before Christmas, and Tennessee’s sparkling new Anderson Training Center is bustling with activity and even more energy.

Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams gestures to a TaxSlayer Bowl display on the wall just outside the team locker room and then gazes across the indoor field turf as his teammates wrap up practice at one of the true Taj Mahals of college football complexes.

"There’s a lot of excitement right now," Williams said. "I’ve never even been in Knoxville this far into December. Usually, I’m on my way home or already home. This is huge for the program to be going to a bowl game, huge for the seniors to go out this way, and huge for where all these guys coming back are going to take this program.

"Right now, this is our college playoff. We’re playing this game trying to get a jump on next season. This is the whole reason I came here, to leave this program better than I found it."

There is an old saying that a bowl game is a reward for a college football team. For the Vols, it was more of a breakthrough, tangible evidence in Year 2 under Butch Jones that he is well on his way to making this once-proud program whole again, and doing it with one of the youngest teams in the country.

Tennessee played an FBS-high 23 true freshmen this season and had 44 combined starts by true freshmen. For perspective, the next closest in the SEC was Georgia with 22 combined starts by true freshmen. The Vols also had a handful of other key starters who were true sophomores, including quarterback Josh Dobbs, receiver Marquez North, defensive end Corey Vereen, linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton.

"This was a step that we needed to make," said Jones, whose 2015 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN after reeling in a top-5 class a year ago. "I met with the freshman class this week and we talked about the standard here, and what they all told me was the same thing they said when we recruited them, that they wanted to be the class that laid the foundation of getting Tennessee back to where Tennessee should be.

"They understand the expectations and that the more you win, the more people expect. But that’s what you want to happen."

From afar, the Vols’ steps may look more like baby steps. They have managed just five SEC wins the past two seasons under Jones, and only one of those was against a team that finished the regular season with a winning record.

But to truly appreciate the gains the Vols have made under Jones, it’s only fair to go back and look at where the program was when he arrived. For all intents and purposes, he gutted it and started over. He admits now that the undertaking was more daunting than he ever imagined.

"In every aspect it was, from building the culture, to building the foundation, and not only on the field, but off the field," Jones said. "We had to do it in our style of play, our team chemistry, our family, our academics, everything. That’s what has made this year very, very rewarding, getting back to a bowl game and having the most successful semester in the history of Tennessee football."

The Vols had an overall GPA of 2.72 and boasted 46 players this fall with a 3.0 GPA or higher. They will take on Iowa on Jan. 2 in the TaxSlayer Bowl with 18 college graduates, but not a single player on their roster who has ever played in a bowl game.

Ironically, this will be the 50th bowl appearance in Tennessee’s history.

"It’s our tradition, to be going to bowl games, winning bowl games and winning championships, and we’re going to get it back," said freshman safety Todd Kelly, Jr., whose father also played at Tennessee and then later in the NFL.

"We have the best facilities in the country, the best fans, great tradition and a fantastic stadium. We’re set up for success. All we need to do is go out and make it happen."

Kelly’s classmates have already made their presence felt, one of the reasons there is so much optimism on Rocky Top that Tennessee is poised to re-join college football’s upper crust. Defensive end Derek Barnett was a freshman All-American with 20.5 tackles for loss, the most by a Tennessee player since Outland Trophy winner John Henderson had 21 in 2000, and Barnett also racked up 10 sacks. He is the kind of finisher off the edge the Vols haven’t had in some time.

On offense, freshman running back Jalen Hurd had 994 all-purpose yards and gave the Vols a legitimate difference-maker in the backfield. The Vols scored 66 more points, ran 100 more plays and collected 26 more first downs this season than they did a year ago.

"A lot of us came from winning programs in high school," Barnett said. "We know what the expectation is here, to get rings. Going to a bowl game is just the first step. When we win big ball games, we don’t want it to be, 'Oh my gosh, they won.' We want it to be expected. That’s where we’re trying to get back to."

Williams’ move inside to play tackle in his first full season as a starter has been one of the keys to the Vols’ defensive improvement this season. It’s also reflective of the sacrifice players have made on this team, and their unwavering belief that they were going to get to the postseason no matter what.

"These young guys have bought in quick," Williams said. "I’m just jealous that I’m not a freshman and won’t be around for some of the things that we’re going to do here."
It might be time for Texas A&M to retire -- at least for a few days -- the hashtag Aggies often used on social media this year in relation to recruiting: #WRTS.

“We Run This State”? Not today.

Texas won a critical head-to-head recruiting battle over Texas A&M on Friday morning when a pair of Mesquite (Texas) Poteet High teammates, ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal, announced that they’re Austin-bound.

[+] EnlargeMalik Jefferson
Max Olson/ESPNNot having a defensive coordinator put A&M at a disadvantage is the race to woo Malik Jefferson.
It’s impossible to win them all, but this was one Kevin Sumlin and his staff needed to win.

Jefferson, the No. 35 player in the country, was a priority recruit for the Aggies, while landing McNeal -- who would have likely projected to receiver, a talent-rich position at A&M -- would have been a bonus. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jefferson was the one that Sumlin and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have spent nearly two years developing a relationship with and pinning their hopes on as a game-changer at a position of need: linebacker.

The Aggies offered Jefferson a scholarship 632 days ago. Over that time, as Texas A&M’s defense struggled and Jefferson’s profile rose, the need to land him increased. What’s worse for A&M is that the Aggies seemed in prime position to do so only to lose momentum in the final days of the recruitment for myriad reasons, but none more glaring than the fact that Sumlin has yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mark Snyder, whom he fired on Nov. 28. Jefferson stated as much in talking about the final weeks of his recruitment.

The famed maroon helicopter Sumlin once touted as “undefeated”? No more.

Sumlin took said helicopter to Rockwall, Texas, to watch Jefferson and McNeal on Sept. 25 when they played Rockwall-Heath High. It was that night that he became sold enough on McNeal to later offer the versatile, 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect and at the time, it seemed to be a safe bet that Jefferson was leaning toward A&M.

The Aggies were quietly confident they’d land Jefferson after his official visit to Texas A&M the weekend of their Nov. 15 loss to Missouri, which Jefferson attended. The nation's third-ranked outside linebacker was wowed during his time there. He also was impressed on visits to Texas and UCLA, but ultimately, Sumlin was confident.

Sumlin’s pitch to Jefferson? He’s the missing piece the Aggies need on defense to pair with star-in-the-making freshman defensive end Myles Garrett. The need for quality linebacker depth was clear when Texas A&M’s two true freshmen starters at the position -- Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker -- suffered injuries in that loss. That night, the Aggies promptly saw their run defense go to hell in a handbasket, as the Tigers rolled up 202 rushing yards in the third quarter alone with Alaka and Walker sidelined en route to a 34-27 Missouri win. A&M made the decision midseason to move Alaka and Walker into starting linebacker spots after ineffectiveness from their predecessors in the season’s first half.

The Aggies struggled getting (or keeping) quality linebackers on campus since Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart graduated after the 2012 season. In their 2013 recruiting class, they seemed to find a future star in Darian Claiborne, but dismissed him from the team after multiple arrests. Injuries affected 2013 recruits Shaan Washington and A.J. Hilliard this season and other linebacker prospects from that class either played sparingly or haven't been effective.

The 2014 linebacker haul included Alaka and Walker, but ESPN 300 linebacker Hoza Scott -- once ranked the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation -- was a nonqualifier and thus wasn't signed, never made it to campus and the Aggies weren’t able to land other ESPN 300 linebackers they targeted in the class like Kenny Young or Zach Whitley Jr. Add Jefferson to the list of “what ifs” should he stick with Texas until classes begin in January, as he is a midyear enrollee.

Jefferson would have been a key piece to the defensive puzzle, one the Aggies sorely needed. Could a splash defensive coordinator make enough of a difference to flip Jefferson? Possible, but unlikely. Jefferson took great time and care in this decision and it will be difficult to reverse, especially with his family's support in him choosing Texas.


The lack of a defensive coordinator was key here, but regardless of recruiting, Sumlin has to get that hire right. After two seasons of atrocious defense and a sixth-place finish in the SEC West this season, the pressure is on to get someone who will produce elite results and help the Aggies turn into contenders in the nation’s most talked-about conference. Sumlin and the Aggies are about to enter Year 4 in the SEC and it’s time to see results of the recruiting the Aggies have been talking about producing.

The Aggies still have a top-10 recruiting class (they’re ranked sixth in the ESPN Class Rankings currently) and there are still big targets on the board that they’re strongly in the mix for, like five-star cornerback Kendall Sheffield. But with the news of ESPN 300 defensive tackle Daylon Mack's decommitment breaking mere hours after Jefferson's decision, it's clear Texas A&M has to finish strong.

No matter the reasoning, two days after landing the nation's No. 30 player, ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk and three junior college prospects, Friday goes down as a loss for the Aggies and a win for the Longhorns. Sumlin said Thursday that missing a defensive coordinator or receivers coach hadn’t affected recruiting yet.

On Friday, it did.

The Longhorns ran the state on Friday morning. The Aggies have work to do in the final seven weeks of the 2014 recruiting cycle.
Stats don't lie, but they can be deceiving. Like the average number of rushing yards to the right side of the defense on night games in the month of October, some pieces of information simply don't matter.

That's why we're here.

In order to help preview the Allstate Sugar Bowl, ESPN's Austin Ward and Alex Scarborough teamed up to bring you three stats that matter most to Alabama and Ohio State as they prepare for their semifinal showdown in New Orleans.

Alabama stats that matter

-1: Of the top 10 teams in the FBS in winning percentage, only three are negative in their turnover margin. One is Marshall, one is Florida State and the other is Alabama. That's what we like to call living on the edge. The last time Alabama finished the season on the wrong side of the turnover battle, Nick Saban wasn't the head coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, is plus-nine in turnovers and has created a whopping 118 points off of turnovers. It goes without saying that giving up free points isn't conducive to winning football games.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's offense could be in danger of becoming too one-dimensional with Amari Cooper responsible for 42.9 percent of the receptions this season.
42.9: The inequality of Alabama's passing game is dizzying. Amari Cooper not only has 42.9 percent of all catches this season, he has 45.3 percent of all receiving yards. He has 28 total receptions on third- and fourth-down plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown, compared to 14 from the next two closest receivers combined. While spotlighting your best weapon on offense is fine, there's something to be said for being too one-dimensional. Ohio State will have had roughly a month to prepare for Cooper come Jan. 1. If Urban Meyer and his coaching staff are able to divide a plan to slow him down, Alabama needs to have more options in the passing game to turn to.

4: Thanks to Blake Sims' swift feet and the offensive line's stellar blocking, Alabama has allowed only four sacks in its last four games. Against the vaunted pass rush of Missouri, the Crimson Tide more than held their own. But Ohio State is not Missouri, and chances are it won't lose its best defensive end to ejection the way Shane Ray was tossed in Atlanta. No, the Buckeyes have a superb defensive line themselves, led by everyone's All-American, Joey Bosa. In Ohio State's last four games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, Bosa and the Buckeyes defense have racked up 15 sacks.

-- Scarborough

Ohio State stats that matter

21: Picked on by opposing offenses during games and then ripped apart in press conferences by Urban Meyer a year ago, a rebuilt Ohio State secondary has gone from the team's biggest weakness to one of the most aggressive, successful units in the nation. Only three teams have nabbed more interceptions than the Buckeyes' 21 this season, with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash having done a remarkable job getting the secondary to challenge receivers, break on balls and play without fear of being beat in the back end. It's hard to argue with the results, particularly since the Buckeyes aren't gambling for turnovers at the expense of yardage, ranking No. 17 in total passing yards allowed this year.

81.2: For a team that didn't have its starter play a single snap this season and had to turn to two different guys without any previous first-team experience at the most important position on the field, Ohio State finishing second in the nation in raw QBR behind only Oregon without Braxton Miller is nothing short of remarkable. J.T. Barrett, of course, did the heavy lifting by starting every game in the regular season before breaking his ankle against Michigan, but Cardale Jones actually boosted the rating in his debut against one of the nation's best defenses in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, posting a sparkling 90.3 to clinch the spot in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It certainly seems as if Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman know how to develop more that just one passer at a time.

51.5: The Buckeyes can dial up the tempo and push the ball down the field in a hurry if they want to, but what makes them truly dangerous and perhaps unpredictable is their effectiveness at shifting gears and methodically moving the chains if need be. Only three teams in the country were more successful on third downs than Ohio State, which converted 85 of 165 chances -- or 51.5 percent -- to extend drives on those crucial snaps. The Buckeyes only played four games all season where their conversion percentage dropped lower than 50 percent, including the first two of the year with so many inexperienced players getting their feet wet -- and Jones' first start in the Big Ten title game, when it hardly made a difference in a 59-0 blowout.

-- Ward

Texas A&M season review

December, 19, 2014
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Texas A&M had a hot start (5-0) and a not-so-hot ending (losing five of their final seven) to wind up 7-5. It was a year of change, for sure, with a midseason quarterback switch, shuffling at key positions such as linebacker, receiver and offensive line and a defensive coordinator firing at the end of the season. There is plenty to digest before the Aggies meet West Virginia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29 to close out 2014. Let us look back at the regular season:

Best win: When the Aggies traveled to Auburn on Nov. 8, they did so as 23-point underdogs, with few convinced they could leave Jordan-Hare Stadium with a victory. They had barely beaten Louisiana-Monroe at home the previous week and that came after an ugly, three-game losing streak. Freshman quarterback Kyle Allen was on fire early, the Aggies blocked a field goal return and returned it for a touchdown to end the first half and hung on in the second half for a 41-38 victory. It required some good fortune (two lost Auburn fumbles in the final three minutes and three overall) but it served as the signature win for Texas A&M this season.

Worst loss: Texas A&M’s first road game at Alabama in 2012 was the stuff dreams are made of for the Aggies; this year it was an unequivocal nightmare. The Aggies were whipped six ways to Sunday by the Crimson Tide, 59-0. Texas A&M was never competitive in the game. The Aggies allowed 602 yards, only managed 172 yards itself and it was the program’s worst loss since the 77-0 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in 2003. It was a jarring loss -- it prompted personnel changes soon after and began raising questions about where exactly this program was headed, three years into SEC membership.

Player of year: Myles Garrett. It’s strange to see a true freshman in this spot, but he was the team’s best player this season in terms of production. He led the Aggies with 11 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and was a second-team All-SEC selection. Even when he wasn’t sacking quarterbacks, he was wreaking havoc (ask Auburn’s Shon Coleman) and Garrett’s presence was missed when he sat out the Missouri game because of a concussion. He had nine quarterback hurries, a blocked kick that was huge in the victory over Auburn, a pass breakup and 50 total tackles.

Breakout player: Josh Reynolds was one of the least-heralded recruits in the Aggies’ 2014 recruiting class, but he turned out to be a gamer. The former Tyler (Texas) Junior College player tied the school’s single-season record for touchdown receptions with 12, led the team with 762 receiving yards and was second on the team in catches with 47. A player few were talking about coming into the season -- much of the preseason hype at receiver centered around Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil andMalcome Kennedy -- turned out to be one of the most productive for Texas A&M in 2014.

Play of year: It's Garrett's blocked field goal against Auburn, which Deshazor Everett returned for a key touchdown in the Aggies’ upset of Auburn. But the most “wow-worthy" play has to be the one Noil made in the Aggies’ loss at Mississippi State. In a ridiculous display of athleticism, Noil leaped to catch the ball near the sideline over a defender, got two feet down while falling out of bounds and made sure to reach over the goal line. The true freshman showed why he was a five-star recruit.

video 2015 outlook: This season was one of growing pains; next season is one the Aggies must take a big step forward. They’ll return most of their starting skill-position players on offense and most of the front seven on defense. Allen, who ended the regular season as the starting quarterback, should be better with some experience under his belt (so should Kenny Hill, if by chance he returns to the starting job) and how the defense performs will hinge on who is in charge of it, as Kevin Sumlin has yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mark Snyder. The schedule starts with a big game early (against Arizona State at Houston’s NRG Stadium) but it’s favorable because the Aggies don’t have to leave the state until October. With another top-10 recruiting class on the way, the Aggies should show improvement.

SEC bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
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Bowl season is almost upon us. Alabama's still playing for a national title, while plenty of other SEC teams still have lots to prove. So let's get right to the picks.

Duck Commander Independence Bowl
December 27, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Why Miami wins: My question is: How motivated will this South Carolina team be? The same can be said for Miami, but the Hurricanes have Duke Johnson, arguably the best player on the field. Miami is 6-1 when it rushes for more than 125 yards. Don’t be surprised if Johnson reaches that number on his own. Miami 34, South Carolina 24 -- Greg Ostendorf

Why South Carolina wins: So the Gamecocks have one of the SEC’s worst defenses and let Clemson walk over them to end the season? Steve Spurrier and his crew are getting a few weeks to regroup and forget such a bad regular season. Plus, Miami lost five of its six games by 10 or more points, so just do the math. South Carolina 27, Miami 24 -- Edward Aschoff

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
December 29, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why West Virginia wins: Call me crazy, but I don't see bowl practice yielding a dramatic turnaround for Texas A&M. While I expect Kyle Allen and the offense to be fine, I don't know how that defense gets any better -- especially without a coordinator in place. In the end, Dana Holgorsen and Clint Trickett light up the Aggies' secondary and win. West Virginia 45, Texas A&M 35 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Texas A&M wins: Texas A&M was hard to figure this season. The Aggies were all over the place, pretty good one game and pretty bad the next. West Virginia likes to play hurry-up offense the way Texas A&M does, so get ready for a shootout. The Aggies still haven't proved that they're ready for prime time defensively, but will score enough points in this one that it won't matter. Texas A&M 45, West Virginia 38 -- Chris Low

AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
December 29, 9 p.m., ESPN

Why Arkansas wins big: Which team led the SEC in points allowed per game for the month of November? Alabama? Ole Miss? Missouri? None of the above. It was the Razorbacks, who allowed an FBS-best 9.5 points per game. I just can’t see Tyrone Swoopes and the Longhorns bucking that trend in this one. Arkansas 28, Texas 10 -- Greg Ostendorf

Why Texas keeps it close: This is a matchup of two teams that played better down the stretch. Texas won four of its last six games to reach bowl eligibility and played some decent defense along the way. I’m still going with Arkansas because of the way the Hogs finished the season, but I think Texas will make it interesting. Arkansas 21, Texas 14 -- David Ching

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
December 30, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why LSU wins big: Notre Dame has quarterback issues and LSU has a secondary that is one of the best nationally at defending the pass. If Leonard Fournette & Co. can run the ball the way they did on Thanksgiving against Texas A&M against Notre Dame's banged-up D, the Tigers should be able to cruise to a win. LSU 27, Notre Dame 17 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Why Notre Dame keeps it close: With the exception of Kentucky, LSU hasn’t blown out a Power 5 team all season. This team simply is not built for that. As bad as Notre Dame’s defense has played down the stretch -- and they have been bad -- the Fighting Irish will hang around. If only LSU had a quarterback. LSU 24, Notre Dame 21 -- Greg Ostendorf

Belk Bowl
December 30, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why Louisville wins: Oh, the fun we’ll have with Todd Grantham facing his old team. Both Grantham and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo want a shot at each other, which means this one will be back-and-forth and plenty fun. Something tells me Bobby Petrino’s offense proves to be too much in the fourth, and a late Georgia turnover seals it. Louisville 27, Georgia 23 -- Edward Aschoff

Why Georgia wins: Sure, Todd Grantham knows this team well, but Mark Richt knows Grantham well, too. And if Georgia blocks up front as well as it has and Nick Chubb runs like he has been running, that's not easy to defend. The Bulldogs average 41 points per game for a reason; I suspect they're headed that way again. Georgia 41, Louisville 31 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
December 31, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why TCU wins big: TCU hasn’t seen anything like Ole Miss’ defense, which leads the nation by allowing 13.8 points per game. But I don’t think the Rebels will be able to shut down (or keep up with) Trevone Boykin and an explosive TCU offense that averages 46.8 ppg. Not without injured receiver Laquon Treadwell. TCU 40, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching

Why Ole Miss keeps it close: The popular storyline for the Peach Bowl is TCU's high-powered offense versus Ole Miss' talented Landshark defense. But let's not forget about Bo Wallace and the Rebels' offense. Even without Laquon Treadwell, I expect Ole Miss to put up enough points to make it a ballgame. TCU 42, Ole Miss 38 -- Alex Scarborough

Capital One Orange Bowl
December 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why Georgia Tech wins: Georgia Tech's option offense is never a lot of fun to prepare for. The Bulldogs have had some extra time to get ready during the bowl practices, but will be without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left to take the Florida defensive coordinator job. The Yellow Jackets were an offensive machine the last month of the season, and that won't change in Miami. Georgia Tech 31, Mississippi State 30 -- Chris Low

Why Mississippi State wins: Generally when opponents have time to practice for Georgia Tech’s option offense, they fare well. Paul Johnson is 1-5 in bowl games since arriving at Tech in 2008. Although they’ll have to function without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, the Bulldogs will still get the job done. Mississippi State 28, Georgia Tech 21 -- David Ching

Outback Bowl
January 1, Noon ET, ESPN2

Why Auburn wins big: Wisconsin's strength is running the ball. While Auburn's defense leaves much to be desired, that's one area where they're decent, ranking 46th nationally in rushing yardage allowed. And though Barry Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach, I'll take Gus Malzahn over someone coaching his second game in eight years. Auburn 45, Wisconsin 28 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Why Wisconsin keeps it close: Something tells me Melvin Gordon is going to go out with a bang. And, frankly, nothing I've seen from Auburn makes me believe it will be able to stop him. While the Tigers ultimately should win, Gordon and the Badgers will have enough success running the football to keep things close. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 30 -- Alex Scarborough

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
January 1, 1 p.m. ET, ABC

Why Missouri wins big: Forget the SEC championship game; there's still something about Missouri. Like last season, the Tigers continued to find ways to win. And when they lost in Atlanta in 2013, they went out and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. I expect more of the same this time around. Missouri 24, Minnesota 14 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Minnesota keeps it close: Weird things always happen during bowl season, and while Minnesota doesn’t exactly wow me, I think this game will be much closer than it should be. The Tigers still have an offense that can drag, while the Gophers are trying to win their first bowl game since 2004, which incidentally came against another SEC team (Alabama). I have a feeling this one will hurt our eyes at times. Missouri 23, Minnesota 21 -- Edward Aschoff

Allstate Sugar Bowl
College Football Playoff semifinal
January 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why Alabama wins big: The last thing we remember is Ohio State blowing out Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, and Cardale Jones doing his best Troy Smith impersonation. I’m not sold. I think the young quarterback struggles against this stout Alabama defense. And good luck shutting out the Crimson Tide. That’s not happening with Lane Kiffin calling plays. Alabama has too many playmakers. Alabama 31, Ohio State 7 -- Greg Ostendorf

Why Ohio State keeps it close: The Buckeyes didn't get here by being an average team. This is a really good team. Urban Meyer knows what to expect from a Saban-coached team thanks to his days in the SEC. Cardale Jones showed he can throw the ball well, and that's one thing Alabama had trouble defending in the Iron Bowl. Alabama 31, Ohio State 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.

TaxSlayer Bowl
January 2, 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why Tennessee wins: On one sideline, you have Tennessee, which won three of its last four games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in years. On the other side, Iowa lost three of its last four. Iowa is better than its record, but I’m putting some faith in Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. Tennessee 23, Iowa 21 -- David Ching

Why Iowa wins: Butch Jones really appears to have Tennessee moving in the right direction. The Vols probably could -- and should -- have won a couple more games in 2014, but that's why Jones is building. And while there’s absolutely nothing flashy about anything that Iowa does on offense, I think the grinding nature of the Hawkeyes will eventually wear Tennessee’s line down. Expect a couple of costly turnovers from the Vols as well. Iowa 21, Tennessee 17 -- Edward Aschoff

Birmingham Bowl
January 3, Noon ET, ESPN

Why Florida wins: East Carolina is great at throwing the ball -- the Pirates are second nationally with 367.3 passing yards per game -- but Florida is equipped to defend that style of offense pretty effectively. It’s hard to know what to expect from a team playing with an interim coach, but I’ll give the Gators a slight edge. Florida 17, East Carolina 14 -- David Ching

Why East Carolina wins: The big question in this one: How genuinely excited is Florida to be in this game? East Carolina, on the other hand, would love to take home an SEC pelt and has the kind of high-scoring offense that could give the Gators' smothering defense trouble. Better days are ahead for Florida's program, but this won't be one of them. East Carolina 27, Florida 21 -- Chris Low

Standings
Greg Ostendorf: 89-23
Edward Aschoff: 87-25
David Ching: 86-26
Chris Low: 86-26
Sam Khan Jr.: 84-28
Alex Scarborough: 83-29

SEC morning links

December, 19, 2014
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1. After freshman running back Jalen Hurd was arrested by citation for underage drinking earlier this month, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that Hurd was disciplined internally. According to a police report, police found a car with its lights on in a university dorm parking garage with an unconscious male inside. The man wasn't identified. It was a dumb mistake by a young player, and it sounds like Jones and his staff have or will take care of the up-and-coming standout for the Vols. Whether he'll miss any time in the Taxslayer Bowl against Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida, is unknown, but Jones did say that Hurd's arrest won't affect his status with the team.

2. Ole Miss will say goodbye to one of the school's most accomplished quarterbacks after the Rebels' Peach Bowl clash with No. 6 TCU in Atlanta on New Year's Eve. That quarterback is Bo Wallace, who as embattled as he has been has a chance to pass Eli Manning on the all-time wins list at Ole Miss, and he could be the first quarterback in school history to start and win three bowl games. That means that the Rebels will break in a new quarterback in 2015. You have three relatively inexperienced and inconsistent quarterbacks in Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade and Jeremy Liggins. They'll all compete for that starting spot this spring, but they now have solid competition coming in junior college national champion Chad Kelly, who started his career at Clemson. The arrival of Kelly has ignited a little bit of a fire under those young quarterbacks during bowl prep week. Competition breeds excellence, right?

3. Texas A&M is still looking for a new defensive coordinator and will also be looking for a new offensive line coach. Coach Kevin Sumlin announced Thursday that offensive line coach B.J. Anderson won't return and won’t coach against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29. A line that was mostly dominant through the first two years of the Aggies' move to the SEC fell off considerably in 2014. Not having as talented a quarterback as Johnny Manziel under center didn't help, but the Aggies gave up 25 sacks and 61 tackles for loss. Also, don't forget that wide receivers coach David Beaty took the head-coaching job at Kansas. That leaves three openings for Sumlin to fill, but he said he's closer to making a decision on his next defensive coordinator and that the process has "picked up speed." So let the rumors fly! At least we know Will Muschamp won't be taking his talent to College Station ... well, not as wearing Aggies colors.

Watch: Arkansas DE shows off incredible athleticism

December, 18, 2014
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Tennessee season review

December, 18, 2014
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The excitement is back at Tennessee, and an invitation to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl was the icing on the cake. As offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian put it, you’re doing something right if you have the opportunity to play in January.

After narrowly missing the postseason last season, the Volunteers won three of their last four games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. The next step will be learning how to finish and win some of those close games, but this program is clearly headed in the right direction under head coach Butch Jones.

Best win: Trailing 42-28 with five minutes to go at South Carolina, Tennessee’s season hung in the balance. A loss would cripple the chance of making a bowl game. With the odds stacked against them, the Volunteers rallied back to tie it in the final seconds of regulation, thanks to an 9-yard touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs to Jason Croom, and freshman Aaron Medley won it in overtime with a 32-yard field goal. It was a turning point for Tennessee, and it was also a coming out party for Dobbs. The sophomore quarterback threw for 301 yards, rushed for 166 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Worst loss: Tennessee wasn’t expected to beat Florida, but when the Volunteers dominated that game for three quarters only to give up a 9-0 lead in the final 15 minutes, it felt like the better team lost. Time and time again, Tennessee had opportunities to put the Gators away but failed to do it. Then Florida brought in Treon Harris at quarterback, and it provided just enough of a spark to squeak past the Vols. It was an ugly game and a crushing defeat.

Player of the year: Of the 11 ESPN 300 signees in the 2014 class, Derek Barnett would not have been the first choice as a player of the year candidate, but the freshman was dominant this season. He was second in the SEC in tackles for loss (20.5), trailing only Missouri’s Shane Ray who had 21. He finished with 69 total tackles, 10 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries. And he played his best against the top competition, recording 18 tackles for loss and all 10 sacks in Tennessee’s eight SEC games. He will be a force for years to come.

Breakout player: Barnett fits this category, too, but he was just one of many breakout players on this team. The next best option is running back Jalen Hurd, who started from Day 1 and finished with 777 yards rushing, 217 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Freshmen typically hit a wall late in the season, but not Hurd. He seemed to get better as the season went on, and two of his best games came down the stretch. He rushed for a career-best 125 yards in the win against South Carolina and followed that up with 118 yards the next week vs. Kentucky.

Play of the year: Tennessee would have never been in position to tie the game at South Carolina if not for an incredible fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter. The Vols trailed by 14 at the time, and on 4th-and-6, Hurd caught a short pass from Dobbs, spun away from a tackle, juked another defender and sprinted into the end zone.

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2015 outlook: It’s hard not to get excited about this team in 2015. Tennessee played 23 true freshmen this season, more than any other FBS team. The Volunteers return all but one starter on offense, and potentially eight starters on the defense. They also have another top 10 recruiting class coming in next year, with nine ESPN 300 recruits already committed. With the SEC East down, it’s not out of the question to say that Tennessee could make a run at the division and possibly reach Atlanta for the conference championship game. The schedule won’t be easy with road trips to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but this team is tested. This season, they won at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt and nearly upset Georgia on the road. The Vols are on their way back to the top. Next year might be the year.

SEC dominates Scouts Inc. top underclassmen list

December, 18, 2014
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Want to know why Hugh Freeze stuck around at Ole Miss? Take a look at the Scouts Inc. list of top 25 underclassmen (those not eligible for the NFL draft). The Rebels lead the way with five players, led by No. 1 prospect OT Laremy Tunsil. In all, the SEC has 13 of the top 25 players. Vernon Hargreaves, A'Shawn Robinson and Laquon Treadwell were among the conference's top players on the list following Tunsil.

Click here Insider for the entire story and player breakdown.

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