SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide

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
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. Earlier we looked at who could be the offensive X factors, and now we look at who could fill that role on defense on Jan. 1.

Alabama CB Tony Brown: Nick Saban and his coaching staff seem to find a way to make the most out of the extended bowl practices. Take last year, for example, when they brought along a true freshman by the name of Derrick Henry, who went on to obliterate Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. This time, don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie cornerback, Brown. He has seen the field his fair share this season, but been kept on a short leash because of his inexperience. Well, now the five-star talent has 13 games under his belt, and he could be the answer to Alabama’s struggles at cornerback.

Ohio State: LB Darron Lee: Considering that he’s only two years removed from playing quarterback and safety in high school, it’s pretty remarkable that the redshirt freshman was able to crack the starting rotation at linebacker so quickly for the Buckeyes. But Lee has done far more than just earn playing time this season, he’s rapidly developed into one of the team’s best playmakers and looks like a perfect fit in the mold left behind by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He may not be a finished product yet, but with the ability to cover the entire field thanks to his elite athleticism, Lee stuffed the stats sheet with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns during his first campaign as a starter. The Buckeyes may have bigger stars on the defense heading into the Sugar Bowl, but they’ll need Lee at his best to leave with a victory.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. So who could fill that role on offense on Jan. 1? Alex Scarbrough and Austin Ward take a look:

Alabama: WR Christion Jones: Chances are that Alabama will need a receiver not named Amari Cooper to make plays. With several weeks to prepare, it stands to reason that the Ohio State staff will find a way to bracket Alabama’s Heisman Trophy finalist and force quarterback Blake Sims to look elsewhere. So pay attention to Jones. The senior has the moves to make people miss in the open field and the speed to get behind the defense. At 13.9 yards per catch, he can make Ohio State pay for focusing too much on Cooper. And for good measure, don't miss Jones on kickoffs and punt returns. Though he hasn't struck paydirt with a touchdown on special teams yet this season, someone with his athleticism is due to break free at some point.

Ohio State: WR Devin Smith: A pretty straightforward formula has emerged during the senior wideout’s career, and it hasn’t failed yet. When Smith catches a touchdown, the Buckeyes win. They are 20-0 when Smith has a TD reception. Is that any good? But this season Smith has taken it even further -- when he’s at his best, Ohio State’s already high-powered offense becomes downright unstoppable. In the two biggest matchups of the season, on the road against Michigan State and in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Smith was a nightmare as a deep threat, unleashing his speed, incredible leaping ability and knack for making tough grabs all at once to kick the Buckeyes into their highest gear. He combined for 10 catches for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns in those wins, and Alabama’s secondary will have to account for him in New Orleans.
A'Shawn RobinsonBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start to the season, A'Shawn Robinson and the Alabama defensive line are finally living up their billing.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A'Shawn Robinson has been a man among boys from the minute he arrived on Alabama's campus as a true freshman. The 320-pound defensive lineman with his shaved head and gangly beard had a look that made some question his age. One senior said he thought he was looking at 30-year-old that first practice in the fall of 2013.

Opposing coaches and offensive linemen have wondered the same thing: How could this guy be that young? Robinson had old man strength before he was allowed to purchase an adult beverage. As a rookie, he played in all 13 games and made two starts. Leading the team with 5.5 sacks, the former four-star prospect became a consensus Freshman All-American.

But progress comes in peaks and valleys, and Robinson's growth spurt didn't extend into the beginning of his sophomore season. He was still plenty powerful, but in the season-opener against West Virginia he was noticeably absent on the stat sheet with zero tackles. Through his first six games, the First Team Preseason Coaches All-SEC choice had just 14 total tackles, 2.5 of which went for a loss.

Robinson's slow start was, in fact, a symptom of a larger issue. The entire Alabama defensive line wasn't living up to the hype. The unit billed as the best in the Nick Saban era wasn't getting the kind of pressure it was expected to. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't all-time great.

As it turns out, it was just a matter of time. Week 8 against Texas A&M, the defense got going in the right direction with six sacks and nine tackles for loss. The next time out against Tennessee, Alabama had seven more tackles for loss. And when it came time for the SEC Championship Game, the defensive line was stifling, limiting Missouri to 41 yards on 18 carries. Robinson & Co. freed up Xavier Dickson and Ryan Anderson to rush the passer, and the two outside linebackers combined for seven quarterback hurries.

Robinson, in particular, stood out in Atlanta, putting together a career night that featured nine tackles. He had 3.5 tackles for loss coming into the game and walked away with three more. Whenever Missouri tried to run the ball, big No. 86 was consistently there at the point of attack.

Lineman Jonathan Allen would say of Robinson that night, "He played amazing" and "He's one of the best players we have."

Alabama center Ryan Kelly would know. Between Robinson and the rest of the line, he has had his hands full.

"You look at Dalvin Tomlinson go in the three-technique, [Brandon Ivory], Jarran Reed, A'Shawn, [Darren] Lake, all those guys are huge dudes," he said. "We play against the best defensive front every day in practice, so it makes it easier to go out there in games."

It also makes it easier for the back end of the defense.

"It stars up front with the line," said safety Landon Collins. "They get penetration, and once you get penetration, I mean, it messes up the whole scheme of what the offense is trying to do."

If Alabama is going to be successful against Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it's going to come down to the battle of the trenches.

If the defensive line can take away the run and get in the face of the Buckeyes' rookie quarterback Cardale Jones, it could pay big dividends.

Robinson & Co. have the momentum. Now the question becomes whether they can maintain it.

SEC morning links

December, 18, 2014
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Plenty of recruiting news flying across the wire on Wednesday, which was signing day for midterm junior college prospects. Several SEC teams did well in inking JUCOs, led by Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn, three teams that were considered "winners" in Wednesday's junior college sweepstakes. Another SEC winner in recruiting on Wednesday was Texas A&M after it landed ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk, the No. 30 overall player in the ESPN 300. The Aggies have done well in the state of Arizona, where Kirk is from, recently, landing quarterback Kyle Allen (now the Aggies' starter) and defensive end Qualen Cunningham (who played as a true freshman) in the 2014 class. Kirk, who brings a strong skill set to College Station, Texas, will be able to join his good buddy Allen in the Aggies' offense next fall.

The Football Writers Association of America released its All-America team and there is plenty of SEC representation on it, including six members on the first team (Amari Cooper, Reese Dismukes, Shane Ray, Benardrick McKinney, Landon Collins and Senquez Golson. The SEC got seven total players on the two teams. On Tuesday, The Associated Press All-America teams were released and the SEC got 15 players across the three squads.

Kentucky had a void to fill at offensive coordinator when Neal Brown left the Wildcats to become the head coach at Troy and it looks like Mark Stoops has his man. Several reports point to West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson as Stoops' pick to replace Brown at the position. It ensures some continuity for the Wildcats, who ran the well-known Air Raid offense under Brown the last two seasons. Dawson is also an Air Raid disciple, having worked under Dana Holgorsen. At West Virginia, Holgorsen was the playcaller, but Dawson has been in the offense long enough to be well-versed in it so the transition to handling those duties at Kentucky should be smooth. West Virginia averaged 502 offensive yards per game (11th nationally) while Kentucky averaged 384.5 yards per game (75th).

Around the SEC
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban and Urban Meyer agree that players' families should get assistance to offset the cost of attending playoff games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the surface, there may not be all that much in common between the two rivals on top of the coaching game.

Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.

The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.

“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.

“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”

That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.

“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”

Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.

Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.

“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.

“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”

The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.
The Associated Press announced its three-team list of All-Americans for the 2014 season on Tuesday, and the SEC is represented by 15 players, including four on the first team.

A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.

All good there.

But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.

Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).

Four players for only three spots ...

Hey, there's always next season.

Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:

FIRST TEAM

Offense

WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn

Defense

CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama

SECOND TEAM

Offense

OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina

Defense

DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama

THIRD TEAM

Offense

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State

SEC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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New Florida coach Jim McElwain made his first staff hire on Tuesday when he tabbed Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins as the Gators' new man at that position. Nicknamed the "Minister of Mayhem," Collins will bring his "swag chalice" and aggressive style to Gainesville as the Gators begin a new era. It could provide some awkwardness leading up to the bowl game as some believed McElwain would retain interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who was Will Muschamp's defensive coordinator, while Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted that he wishes his coaches would leave for head coaching positions, not "lateral positions." Regardless, Collins guided Mississippi State to the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and No. 1 in red zone defense; now he'll have better access to high-level talent and the Florida recruiting base that could help him have even more success as he joins the Gators.

Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.

There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.

Around the SEC
The SEC is known for its defensive line talent, with dozens of NFL linemen having played for one of the conference’s 14 schools. But this was an uncommonly productive season for the league’s freshman pass-rushers, even by the SEC’s lofty standards.

Two true freshmen – Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett – earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league’s coaches and media, and several others enjoyed productive debut seasons in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Garrett set an SEC record for freshmen with 11 sacks this season, but Barnett might have been not just the conference’s best freshman defensive lineman -- he might have been the SEC’s best defensive lineman, period.

[+] EnlargeDerek Barnett
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee freshman Derek Barnett ranks third in the nation in tackles for loss.
Missouri’s Shane Ray won the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year awards from both the coaches and media, and he is the conference’s only player whose numbers stand up against Barnett's. Ray led the SEC with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 13 games, although six of his sacks and 9.5 of his tackles for loss came against Missouri’s weak nonconference opposition. Barnett made all 10 of his sacks against SEC opponents, as well as 18 of his 20.5 tackles for loss.

Barnett is the only freshman to rank among the national top 30 in tackles for loss (he’s third) and Ole Miss freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is the only freshman in the national top 50 in forced fumbles (he’s tied for 29th with three). Garrett (tied for sixth with 11), Barnett (tied for 16th with 10) and Haynes (tied for 43rd with 7.5) are three of the only four freshmen to rank in the national top 50 in sacks.

Haynes did not post the ridiculous numbers that Garrett and Barnett did, but he was the best pass-rusher on a powerful Ole Miss defense. He led the Rebels in sacks, quarterback hurries (eight), and forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with a host of teammates with one fumble recovery.

Those three were the headliners, but they are not the only freshman pass rushers who appear destined for SEC stardom. Here are three more freshmen who could strike fear into quarterbacks’ hearts next season:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Arguably the biggest recruit in Georgia’s 2014 class, Carter didn’t start for the first time until Game 9 against Kentucky. But he made the most of that opportunity wotj nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. The Freshman All-SEC honoree started the last four games and figures to become a major impact player in 2015.

OLB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Earning playing time as a freshman on Alabama’s talented front seven is difficult, but Evans contributed as a role player. He made 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack thanks to impressive speed and a high motor. Once he gets an opportunity to play more, he’s going to be a regular visitor into opponents’ backfields.

DE Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: The SEC’s coaches saw enough from Hand in limited action to name him to their Freshman All-SEC team. One of the nation’s most coveted recruits in 2014, Hand recorded just seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss as a reserve on Alabama’s deep defensive line. Rest assured, his time is coming.

 

Alabama season review

December, 15, 2014
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There were moments where it appeared as if the dynasty was dying. But Alabama wouldn't go down that easily. Thanks to an offensive coordinator no one wanted and a quarterback no one saw coming, the Crimson Tide steadied the ship in the second half of the season, won the SEC Championship and earned a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Best win: Though the game would wind up looking close with a final score of 25-20, which team would win never really felt in doubt. Instead, Alabama imposed its will on Mississippi State from the get-go and controlled the contest throughout. The then-No. 1 ranked Bulldogs couldn't do much of anything offensively. Their ground game, led by bowling ball running back Josh Robinson and Heisman Trophy contender QB Dak Prescott, had nowhere to go. And on the other side of the ball, the defense had no answer for QB Blake Sims, who led a 15-play drive that Saban would later call one of the best in school history.

Worst loss: The first half belonged to Alabama, but after intermission Ole Miss came on strong. Bo Wallace began knifing through the Tide defense, starting with a four-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to start the second half. And to make matters worse for Alabama, Sims and the offense went off the rails, starting with a drive that ended in a missed field goal. From then on, Alabama went field goal, punt, punt and interception. Ole Miss won and carried the goalposts out of the stadium to celebrate.

Player of the year: Only five receivers have ever earned a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Amari Cooper, who led the country in receptions and receiving yards, earned his spot as the sixth. The junior was everything to Alabama's offense this season as he accounted for more than half of Sims' 26 touchdown passes. Whatever the coverage, Cooper found a way to beat it, whether it was yards after the catch against the zone or long bombs over the top against man-to-man.

Breakout player: With all due respect to the superb improvement from cornerback Cyrus Jones, there is no bigger surprise this season than Sims. The former running back/receiver wasn't even supposed to be Alabama's quarterback. That job was supposed to belong to Jake Coker, remember? But Sims beat the Florida State transfer out of fall camp and never relinquished his spot. The redshirt senior made the most of his one opportunity, breaking AJ McCarron's record for passing yards in a single season while also ranking second nationally in Adjusted QBR, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Play of the year: Alabama's hopes of reaching the playoff might have gone up in flames if not for Landon Collins' game-saving interception in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. If he misjudges the ball and allows Jonathan Williams to come down with it, there would have been no one on the back end of the defense to prevent a touchdown.

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2015 outlook: Prepare for the entire offense to change. Say goodbye to Sims and Cooper. Say so long to T.J. Yeldon, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Even offensive linemen Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd are moving on. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin worked wonders with that group this season, but he's in for an even bigger challenge in 2015. He'll have to find out one and for all whether Coker can quarterback the Tide. He'll also have to find more weapons at receiver, whether that's Chris Black or Robert Foster. The good news is there's plenty of talent to draw from as Saban and his staff have hauled in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class Insider in each of the past three years.
Now that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has strutted away with the Heisman Trophy in an utter landslide, it's time to look into the future to see who could be up for that bronze beauty next year.

What's that? We haven't gotten to bowl season? Santa hasn't even come to fill our stockings?

Pssssh! It's never too early for some prognostication that has nothing to do with the current season. And looking ahead to the Heisman is so much fun.

So who could be in the mix for a trip to Times Square next December? I think the SEC has a few candidates to keep an eye on. Too bad Todd Gurley isn't returning, because he would be at the top of this list. In fact, if he didn't deal with that NCAA suspension or lose his season to an ACL injury, Gurley might have won the Heisman over Mariota. But that's a story for another day.

Also, Heisman finalist Amari Cooper isn't on our list because he would be crazy not to bolt to the NFL.

Here's our very early list of possible SEC Heisman candidates in 2015:
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: This hinges on Prescott's NFL prospects. He is awaiting his draft grade, but if Prescott isn't projected to go in the first or second round, expect him to come back for his senior year. Prescott was an early Heisman front-runner in 2014, but his numbers fell in the final month of the season. Still, if he returns, he will be a favorite from the SEC after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014: total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9), touchdowns responsible for (37), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (2,996), passing yards per game (249.7), 200-yard passing games (11), passing touchdowns (24), passing efficiency (151.3) and rushing yards by a quarterback (939).
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: With Gurley sidelined for the second half of the season, Chubb took off. Already impressing everyone when he came in to relieve Gurley, Chubb finished the season with seven straight 100-yard games (all starts), was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged a league-high 6.9 yards per carry. Chubb is explosive and powerful with his runs, and his vision is incredible.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Another special sophomore-to-be to keep an eye on, Fournette needed some time to really get going. But when he did, he was usually the best player on the field. He finished the season with 891 yards and capped the season with 146 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a dominating performance against Texas A&M. Avert your eyes, Aggies! Fournette is a special talent who will be doing a lot more of this in the next couple of years.
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Before his season was cut short by a devastating ankle injury against Auburn, Treadwell was one of the SEC's best overall players. With Cooper most likely jetting for the NFL, Treadwell will return as the SEC's best receiver in 2015. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Treadwell, who has incredible athleticism, led the Rebels with 48 catches. He finished with 632 yards and five touchdowns.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Though he didn't have the season most -- including me -- expected, Henry is a freak of an athlete capable of having a special season. If he is the lead guy in Alabama's backfield next fall, he should compete for the title of best running back in the SEC and improve on the 895 yards and 10 touchdowns he had while splitting carries this fall.
  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The bowling ball had a fantastic season in Starkville, rushing for 1,128 yards (third in the SEC) and 11 touchdowns. Robinson was at the top of the SEC's rushing chart for most of the season and rushed for at least 100 yards four times. His numbers fell off during the final portion of the season, but Robinson is a big-play machine. Small in stature, he is a bull of a runner with a knack for tossing defenders off him or slipping out of their grasp for extra yards.
The NFL could claim these guys:
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: He leads Alabama with 932 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns, but he could take his game to the next level. He wasn't completely healthy this season, but his vision and ball security improved a lot in 2014.
  • D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: He missed two games but still led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Another top-tier athlete, Williams made a ton of clutch plays for Auburn this fall. But with his incredible athleticism and size, he's very much a candidate to leave early.
Keep an eye on:
  • Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M: He had only 559 receiving yards and five touchdowns, but when you are regularly making plays like this, people better be on the lookout for you. Noil is a supreme athlete who will grow with more time in the Aggies' offense.

SEC morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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1. Sometimes you’re just at a loss of words. That’s how I felt when I found out that Auburn freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed early Sunday morning. I knew Mitchell well from when I covered recruiting, and I remember talking to him on signing day. He and high school teammate Stephen Roberts were excited to start their next chapter at Auburn. Now, as Jay G. Tate wrote, Mitchell is gone "far too soon." Tragedy has become all too familiar on the Plains as Mitchell becomes the latest casualty, joining former football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, who were shot and killed at the same apartment complex as Mitchell in 2012, and more recently Philip Lutzenkirchen, who died in a car accident before this season.

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2. On a lighter note, Auburn snagged Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator this weekend, making him the highest paid assistant coach in college football. Why pay so much for a defensive coach when the SEC, and football in general, is more about how many points you score? Because a good defense is still necessary to win a championship, and the price of playing good defense is going up. The thought of Muschamp teaming up with Gus Malzahn is scary for opposing SEC teams. It’s not so different from what Alabama did last offseason, hiring Lane Kiffin to join forces with Nick Saban. Look how that turned out. And how about next year’s Iron Bowl? Malzahn and Muschamp vs. Saban and Kiffin? Sign me up.

3. Amari Cooper might have finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting Saturday, but the Alabama wide receiver won over some fans with his humility and specifically the story he told about his childhood. His family didn’t have a car growing up, so they had to walk about three miles to the store to get groceries. From AL.com’s story:
Cooper remembered telling his mom he was too tired to make the walk there and back one day. When she returned, marks lined [her] arms where she carried all the bags a few miles home.

"It was just an example of how hard she worked, her getting off work so late or working so hard all ready," Cooper said. "She sacrificed for us. You want to know how much somebody loves you, just look at how much they sacrifice."

3a. And speaking of the Heisman Trophy, is it too early to start looking at the 2015 favorites? USA Today put out its top 10 contenders, which included two from the SEC -- Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Georgia running back Nick Chubb. Prescott, who might still leave early for the NFL, flirted with the Heisman this season, and Chubb earned Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC for his performance in place of Todd Gurley.

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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All-SEC team debates

December, 12, 2014
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Obviously when you take the opinions of six people -- in this case, our group of SEC writers -- we aren’t going to agree about everything. Such was the case this week when we assembled our picks for the SEC blog’s all-conference team.

Some picks were easy. For instance, Alabama’s Amari Cooper might have been the easiest choice for All-SEC wide receiver in history. Others, not so much.

Here are some of the places where we were split on a decision or where we made a somewhat surprising omission, plus a couple of guys who we feel confident will make our team in the future -- possibly as soon as next season:

Sims vs. Prescott at QB

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBlake Sims consistently stepped up in crucial moments for the Crimson Tide over the second half of the season.
Alex Scarborough: There’s little doubt in my mind that Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott is the more talented quarterback. He’s got the stronger arm and generally has more polish than Alabama’s Blake Sims. But that’s not the point. This isn’t the NFL. This is college football, where players like Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow can have stellar careers without possessing All-Pro tools.

With that in mind, my selection for All-SEC QB was simple. It was Sims over Prescott -- by a mile.

That’s no knock on Prescott. Personally, I love watching him play. But when his Heisman Trophy campaign waned after Mississippi State reached No. 1 in the polls, he went sideways. Throwing out games against FCS Tennessee-Martin and woefully pathetic Vanderbilt, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the second half of the season.

Sims, meanwhile, was stellar in the biggest moments of the second half, whether it was the overtime affair in Death Valley, his 15-play drive against Mississippi State that Nick Saban ranked as one of the best in school history, or the end the regular season where he bounced back from three interceptions against Auburn to lead five consecutive touchdown drives.

If you need production, consider this: Sims ranks first or second in the SEC in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. His Adjusted QBR (88.4) ranks second in the country, trailing only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. With 3,250 yards passing, he surpassed AJ McCarron for the school record in a single season.

David Ching: Let’s use a fancy-pants baseball statistic here: Wins Above Replacement Player. That stat assigns a number value to a player, reflecting the wins he individually added to his team’s total compared to what an average player would add in the same circumstances.

For instance, Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw led MLB this season with an 8.0 WARP, meaning that simply having Kershaw on the team gave the Los Angeles Dodgers eight wins more than they would have had with a replacement-level player (like a minor leaguer).

I’ll get to the point. If there was such a thing as WARP in college football, Prescott would be a mile ahead of Sims. There isn’t even much of a debate in my mind.

Sims had a good season, and was even great at times, but he also plays for a team that is stocked with future NFL talent. By far the biggest reason that Mississippi State was in the playoff conversation until the end of the season was that Prescott is the Bulldogs’ quarterback.

This is a guy who’s probably going to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 once bowl season is over, plus he’s already thrown 24 touchdowns, caught one scoring pass and run for 13 more. I’m eminently confident that if the two players switched teams, Alabama would still be where it is in the national hierarchy. Could State say the same? I don’t think so.

Where’s Cedric Ogbuehi? Texas A&M’s 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle has a strong chance to be a first-round pick. In fact, he’s currently No. 11 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board Insider and considering his athleticism, it seems to be a safe bet he’ll perform well at the NFL scouting combine and improve his draft stock. However, 2014 wasn’t quite the home run that many were expecting from Ogbuehi when he made the move from right tackle in 2013 to left tackle this season.

Ogbuehi was inconsistent at times and didn’t always appear comfortable at left tackle. It’s a position he didn’t play in college before this season, so some transition was to be expected, especially with footwork when switching from the right side to the left as an offensive lineman. He had his moments when he looked the part, but others, like this one vs. Robert Nkemdiche or this one vs. Kwon Alexander where he didn’t.

He moved back to right tackle for a few games as the Aggies tried to manage without starting right tackle Germain Ifedi, who missed time because of an injury and Ogbuehi looked more comfortable there, though even at that position, Missouri’s Markus Golden gave Ogbuehi all he could handle when the Tigers came to town. Overall, it just didn’t feel like a first-team All-SEC season for the future pro. (Sam Khan Jr.)

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette didn't have the Heisman-worthy season some were projecting, but expect him to be in the conversation in 2015.
Wait until next year, offense: Prior to the season, Leonard Fournette was generating Heisman Trophy buzz before he had even played a single down in college. Our bet is that the LSU freshman is a much bigger factor in that conversation next year. This season, he had some quiet games, as most freshmen do, but he also carried the Tigers’ offense in narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. It hasn’t been a Heisman-caliber season by any means, but Fournette can still post a 1,000-yard season if he rushes for 109 yards against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. That would still be a heck of a debut season, and more than enough reason to expect big things from Fournette next fall. (David Ching)

Wait until next year, defense: Myles Garrett is a star. There’s no doubt about that. In most leagues, he probably makes first-team all-conference with the season he put together. But this is the SEC, with a lot of great defensive linemen, so Garrett -- while excellent this season -- must wait. The Texas A&M true freshman defensive end had 11 sacks this year, which ties him for second in the conference with Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt, but Garret compiled eight of those against the following opponents: Lamar, Rice and Louisiana-Monroe. The sacks still count, but they aren’t as impressive as they would have been if more had come during SEC play. Garrett did pick up a sack against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, all teams with quality offensive lines, so that is noteworthy. And had he not got injured against Auburn after being yanked to the ground by Shon Coleman, Garrett might have had a stronger finish (he missed the Missouri game because of the injury, though he did return to play against LSU). Garrett earned deserved honors by making it onto both the Associated Press and coaches All-SEC second teams and if he continues to improve at his current rate, you can bet he’ll be a first-teamer across the board at this time next season. (Sam Khan Jr.)

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