SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks
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
- Missouri junior defensive end Shane Ray hasn't decided yet whether he'll enter the NFL draft, according to his mother.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he and athletic director Scott Stricklin hope to have a contract extension done soon and that he's not looking for another job.
- Should he stay or go? Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams is weighing whether to enter the NFL draft.
- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he's not looking for head coaching jobs but acknowledged it is part of the deal when you have success.
- Tennessee receiver Jason Croom will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl because a knee injury.
Saban: "Some little 10-year old boy came up to me after A-Day and asked if we had a quarterback other than Blake Sims."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) December 17, 2014
Best win: Arkansas’ 17-0 victory over LSU probably felt the best because it ended the Razorbacks’ 17-game SEC losing streak, came over a rival and ended with fans storming the field, but the most impressive win came the following week over then-No. 8 Ole Miss. The Hogs shut out the Rebels 30-0, became bowl-eligible and dominated a team that was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally at one point. The Razorbacks forced six turnovers and it was the first time they shut out a conference team in back-to-back weeks since joining the SEC in 1992. It's hard to go wrong with either, but we’ll go with the victory over the Rebels on Nov. 22.
Worst loss: Every Razorbacks loss came to a team that was ranked in the Top 25 at the time, so it’s hard to nitpick about any of them, but the defeat that looked the worst was a 45-32 loss to Georgia. As Arkansas kept knocking on the door of an SEC win, the Razorbacks were a popular upset pick against the Bulldogs on Oct. 18 in Little Rock, but Georgia quickly erased such thoughts by racing out to a 38-6 halftime lead. The Hogs tried to rally in the second half but never trimmed Georgia’s lead to single digits. They surrendered 202 rushing yards to freshman Nick Chubb.
Players of year: Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. It’s hard to pick just one, and because the Razorbacks named them both team MVPs, we’ll do the same. Flowers finished the year with 63 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, six pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries. Spaight led the SEC with 123 tackles and had 8.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one recovery, a sack and an interception. Both players were critical to the Razorbacks’ defensive success.
Breakout players: There are a couple good choices here: Darius Philon and A.J. Derby. Philon, who was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2013, collected 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries en route to AP All-SEC second team honors. Derby, who was a quarterback before this season, switched to tight end and did an admirable job, becoming the team’s No. 3 receiver with 22 receptions for 303 yards and three scores. He had his best games against Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia.
Play of year: There’s zero doubt about this one: It’s the “fat guy touchdown pass” from offensive guard Sebastian Tretola to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio on Oct. 25 vs. UAB. It was a thing of beauty for offensive linemen everywhere who only dream of getting the glory that’s usually reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The Razorbacks lined up in a swinging-gate formation on fourth-and-goal, but rather than shifting into traditional field goal formation, the Hogs snapped the ball to Tretola whose pass – while leaning back away from pressure -- was picture-perfect to D’Appollonio for the 6-yard touchdown. The Razorbacks put together a Heisman Trophy campaign video for Tretola after the fact and Bret Bielema said afterward: “Come to Arkansas ... if you’re [an offensive] lineman, we’ll make you famous.”
2015 outlook: Though the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC West, the future seems bright. They were within seven points or fewer in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri, so another year of development and experience could turn some of those close losses into victories. Arkansas ended its SEC losing streak and became bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons, generating strong momentum for the program as Bielema enters his third season. And he seems committed to hanging around; he was rumored to be connected to the Nebraska opening, but Bielema stated he’s “All Hog.” The Hogs will have to replace some key defensive pieces, particularly Flowers and Spaight, next season, but the returning players’ experience gained in Robb Smith’s scheme as he enters his second year as defensive coordinator will help. Most of the offense returns, led by the backfield duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who both surpassed 1,000 rushing yards this season.
We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.
Here's what we came up with:
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.
RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.
WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.
TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.
OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.
OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.
OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.
OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.
All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.
LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.
LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.
CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.
S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.
S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.
P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.
K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.
KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.
2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.
3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.
Around the SEC
" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.
" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.
" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.
Tweet of the day
Georgia vs. Louisville, Belk Bowl
Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham gets to face the team he was coaching with last year, and Georgia coach Mark Richt gets to see a few players who once lined up on his side. And let’s not forget the good versus bad storyline with Richt taking on former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, whose embarrassing motorcycle incident forced him out of the SEC. Soap opera storylines aside, this should be a fun football game, too. Hutson Mason is looking to redeem himself for that overtime interception against Georgia Tech, and it’s a chance for Georgia to get 10 wins for the ninth time under Richt.
Georgia vs. Louisville, Belk Bowl
This is a personal pick, just from having worked around the guys involved for a while. I’m intrigued by the matchup between Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and Cardinals defensive boss Todd Grantham. Those are two hyper-competitive guys who worked against each other in practice every day for the previous four seasons. It will be fun to see how Grantham’s defense -- which ranks sixth nationally in total defense at 293.3 ypg -- fares against a Georgia offense that is stocked with some impressive talent. Louisville hung with Florida State well into the second half before Jameis Winston & Co. made a late run to win.
Sam Khan Jr.
Texas A&M vs. West Virginia, AutoZone Liberty Bowl
The fascinating part about this game to me are the coaching relationships across the two staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen knows plenty of folks on the A&M staff from his two years at Houston as Kevin Sumlin's offensive coordinator (Sumlin brought several coaches and support staff members with him from UH). Likewise, Texas A&M offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital knows some Mountaineers from his time there and knows Holgorsen well, having worked with him for four seasons. And who doesn't like a little Air Raid? It'll be Air Raid everything on Dec. 29 as both teams' offenses are rooted in the principles of the famed offense that Hal Mumme and Mike Leach popularized.
Arkansas vs. Texas, AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
I know. Everybody wanted to see Texas and Texas A&M in this bowl game. Personally, I’m glad Arkansas got a decent matchup and didn’t stuck in the Birmingham Bowl or the Independence Bowl. The Razorbacks were fun to watch this year. Obviously, this isn’t an elite Texas team by any stretch, but it’s still Texas. And it’s an old Southwest Conference rivalry at that. Arkansas will be motivated. I expect both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins to break off some big runs, and it’s the last chance to see All-SEC defensive end Trey Flowers, one of the more underrated players in the conference. That's enough for me to want to tune in.
Auburn vs. Wisconsin, Outback Bowl
Though the game is technically on New Year's Day, the Outback Bowl is not among the coveted New Year's Six. But that's OK. Auburn and Wisconsin doesn't need a fancy designation to draw anyone in. When you've got one player who is a Heisman Trophy finalist (Melvin Gordon) and another that was in the running for the award earlier in the season (Nick Marshall), that's enough. In fact, it will be the last game either plays for their respective teams, adding further drama to the contest. Between the two, the over-under might be 500 yards rushing. Throw in the intrigue of Auburn operating without a defensive coordinator and Wisconsin losing its head coach, and you've got the right recipe for good television.
This game is the top one for obvious reasons, primarily, it’s the one bowl game involving the SEC that has real stakes -- the winner goes to the national championship game. If the College Football Playoff semifinal wasn’t strong enough for you, it matches two of the most well-known head coaches in the game right now, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Those two did battle before when Meyer was at Florida, so the reunion should be plenty compelling.
2. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU
This is the only other SEC bowl that matches up two top-10 teams. TCU was one of the teams left at the altar by the selection committee, so it’s probable that the Horned Frogs would like to stomp a highly-regarded SEC team to make a statement. Ole Miss has had an impressive season and can secure only its seventh 10-win campaign in school history and its third since 1971.
3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville
It’s the Grantham Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s current team (Louisville) takes on his previous team (Georgia). It’s a safe bet he’d like to have his unit excel en route to a Cardinal win. The Cardinal defense is sixth nationally in yards per game allowed (293.2) but it’ll get tested by the Georgia running game, led by freshman sensation Nick Chubb (1,281 yards), who leads Georgia’s 12th-ranked rushing attack (255 yards per game).
4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin
You have two of the nation’s top rushing teams as well as two pretty good running backs in this one. There’s the nation’s top individual rusher, Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards) against Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482) who leads the SEC. Wisconsin averages a whopping 314 rushing yards per game, third in the nation while Auburn posts a hefty 258.5 (11th).
5. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia
If you like scoring, you’ll enjoy this one. Both teams average more than 33 points per game and they each throw it around a lot, averaging more than 300 passing yards per game. There are familiar faces on the coaching staffs as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked for Kevin Sumlin for two seasons at Houston and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked for Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and West Virginia before going to A&M. It’s Air Raid everywhere.
6. Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech
He wasn’t a Heisman finalist but Dak Prescott was in the Heisman conversation for much of the season. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see Prescott and his partner-in-crime, running back Josh Robinson, who is aptly nicknamed “Bowling ball.” Georgia Tech is worth a watch for traditionalists, as the Yellow Jackets run the triple option well: just ask Georgia (who they beat in overtime) or Florida State (a team they stayed step-for-step with for much of the night).
7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas
Long live the Southwest Conference. This is a throwback battle if there ever was one. These teams are both in the top 30 nationally in defense, each allowing fewer than 350 yards per game. The job Bret Bielema has done to get the Razorbacks to a bowl this season is noteworthy, while Charlie Strong seems to be laying the foundation for future success at Texas. Also, Strong has history in Arkansas -- he was born in Batesville and played for Central Arkansas. He said Tuesday this will be the first time he’ll root against the Hogs.
8. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame
Considering the profile of these two programs, you wouldn’t expect this game to be this far down the list. While the two teams have strong histories, this season hasn’t been stellar for either. There’s plenty of intrigue, though, from getting to see LSU’s star freshmen (Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, etc.) to the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly has opened up competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. For what it’s worth, Les Miles said bowl prep will also be an important evaluation time for his quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
9. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota
This one may not have the sizzle on the surface but it matches two quality teams, both ranked in the Top 25. Missouri features two of the league’s best pass-rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Those two are worth watching alone, even if the Tigers’ offense isn’t always. Minnesota features one of the nation’s top rushers, running back David Cobb, who is ninth in rushing yards this season (1,548).
10. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina vs. Miami
This game could become a feeding frenzy for Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is 12th in the country in rushing yards (1,520). South Carolina allows 214.4 rushing yards per game, 107th nationally. But the Gamecocks can score plenty of points, they average 33.3. Keep an eye on Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic receiver and returner who can do it all, including pass, and has 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season.
11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa
Tennessee is thrilled to be in a bowl. You might even say they’re happy. It’s the first time in a bowl since 2010 for the Volunteers. There’s still a long way to go to get this proud program back to where it wants to be but they’re moving in the right direction. The Vols have a ton of talented freshmen on the roster who played key roles this season and sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who came on strong late in the season, seems to have a bright future in Knoxville.
12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina
Any time you go into a game with an interim coach, it’s not ideal. That’s what the Gators have to do after firing Will Muschamp. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach. For Florida fans, this is a chance to scout a future opponent -- the Gators and Pirates meet Sept. 12 next season. East Carolina brings a high-powered offense led by quarterback Shane Carden, who is second nationally in passing yards (4,309). That should be a good test for a talented Florida defense. The continued development of true freshman quarterback Treon Harris is also worth keeping an eye on.
Duck Commander Independence Bowl, Dec. 27
South Carolina vs. Miami
Initial thoughts: Before the season, nobody could’ve predicted South Carolina would end up in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks had aspirations of winning the SEC East and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll head to Shreveport, Louisiana, to face a Miami team that has lost three straight. It’s not the ideal destination for the Head Ball Coach, but at least it’s a bowl game.
Key for South Carolina offense: Stay balanced. The Gamecocks have been unstoppable on offense at times this season. Dylan Thompson leads the SEC with 3,280 passing yards, and Pharoh Cooper is second only to Amari Cooper with 966 receiving yards. Those two will hook up early and often, but it’s important to get Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the ground game going. Their backfield is too talented not to.
Key for South Carolina defense: It won’t be easy, considering they haven’t stopped anybody all season, but the Gamecocks have to find a way to stop Duke Johnson. The Miami running back has 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards the last two games, so he’ll be primed to turn that trend around and finish the season on a high note. If he gets going, this one could quickly turn into a shootout.
What a win would mean: Looking back, most people won’t remember if South Carolina won or lost this game. The coaches will probably tell you the extra practice time is just as important as, if not more important than, the game itself. Still, it’d be nice to send Thompson off with a win in his final game.
AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas
Initial thoughts: Everybody was hoping to see Texas vs. Texas A&M in this game, and it almost happened, but Arkansas is not a bad consolation prize. The two teams were longtime rivals in the Southwest Conference, and this will be the 78th meeting between them. It brings you back to the days when Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal were manning opposite sidelines. Now we get Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong, two coaches rebuilding their respective programs.
Key for Arkansas offense: The Razorbacks got away from the run a little bit in the second half against Missouri, and it cost them. Expect Bielema to go right back to it in this one, using his tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins early and often against the Longhorns. Health will also be a factor. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be 100 percent, and he’ll get tight end AJ Derby back for this game.
Key for Arkansas defense: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, if not the nation. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon have 24 tackles for loss between them, and linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles on the season. Needless to say, the Razorbacks should be able to wreak havoc in the backfield and keep Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes contained. The key will be not letting Swoopes beat them deep.
What a win would mean: It’s the next step in the rebuilding process. Arkansas proved it was competitive with every team in the SEC West, and back-to-back wins over LSU and Ole Miss validated this team. Now the Razorbacks have a chance to win their bowl game and gain some momentum heading into next season.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1
Missouri vs. Minnesota
Initial thoughts: Raise your hand if you had this Citrus Bowl matchup pegged before the season. No hands? Exactly. Missouri made it all the way to the SEC championship game, and after a loss to Alabama, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Tigers get snubbed again. Not this year. Instead, they were rewarded for a terrific season. The matchup might not be sexy, but the Citrus Bowl is the top SEC bowl game after the New Year’s Six. And it’s in Florida.
Key for Missouri offense: Is Maty Mauk just not the quarterback everybody thought he was? At times, he looks great. But more times than not, he’s been erratic and inconsistent this season. The running game has stepped up behind Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, but Mauk has to play better. He’s only a sophomore, and this is a perfect opportunity to play well and get his confidence back before next season.
Key for Missouri defense: Shane Ray will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Missouri defensive end still has one game left with the Tigers -- and don’t think he won’t be motivated after getting ejected in the first half against Alabama. It’s also the final game for fellow defensive end Markus Golden, and it’s the last chance we get to see the two together. Sacks, however, will be hard to come by against the Gophers, who are primarily a running team.
What a win would mean: All Missouri wants is a little respect. After all, this team has won the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, a win over Minnesota will do little to help that, but it would look much better than a loss. The Tigers typically play well in the postseason, winning four of their last six bowl games.
TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa
Initial thoughts: Most people thought Tennessee would stay in state and play in either the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the SEC rewarded the Volunteers by sending them down to Florida for their bowl game. And why not? They finished the season on a high note, winning three of their last four games to become bowl eligible. It’s no surprise head coach Butch Jones was given a contract extension and raise earlier this week.
Key for Tennessee offense: How will the offensive line hold up against Iowa? It’s been the Achilles’ heel all season, but it’s a group that’s improved every game. It’s important they create room for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs off his back. And speaking of Dobbs, he’s one to keep an eye on. He’s struggled his last two games, but he has the talent to have a big day against the Hawkeyes.
Key for Tennessee defense: Third down for what? Inspired by the Lil’ Jon song, the Vols’ defense has been very good on third down this season, allowing a 35 percent conversion rate to opponents. As a whole, this unit is best when it’s getting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the secondary. Tennessee is among the SEC leaders in sacks (35) and interceptions (15), which is bad news for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.
What a win would mean: The goal this season was to play in a bowl game. This Tennessee team reached that goal. For most of the players, it will be their first bowl game, but they’re not satisfied with just playing in one. They want to win. There’s already talk of the Volunteers making a run at the SEC East next season. It starts Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.
2. With the playoff news and bowl selections, Jim McElwain’s introductory press conference at Florida got lost in the news Sunday, but here’s a look back. He was charming, funny, and while he doesn’t have a nickname for his offense just yet, he did say that “it will be a blast.” That should be music to the ears of Florida fans. Some might be a little skeptical, but others believe he’s the SEC's next superstar coach and the right fit in Gainesville. The Gators will play in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3, and though McElwain isn’t allowed to coach the team, he plans to be there for the game and watch bowl practices to evaluate the players. He’s also keeping busy on the recruiting trail, putting together what could be a significant first class.
3. The Associated Press released its All-SEC team on Monday. A couple things stood out. First, I was a tad surprised Dak Prescott edged out Blake Sims as the first-team quarterback. Both had sensational seasons, but I just felt like Sims played better in bigger games, especially down the stretch. Also, the only three unanimous selections were Cooper, Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson and Alabama safety Landon Collins. Those three names didn’t surprise me, but I thought there’d be more than three unanimous picks. As for the numbers, Alabama led the way with nine players making the list, including six on the first team. Ole Miss, who had five first-team selections, was second with six All-SEC players in all.
Around the SEC
- Bret Bielema earned a $50K bowl bonus for leading Arkansas to the postseason.
- Georgia safety J.J. Green is transferring to Georgia Tech so he can play offense again.
- Tennessee committed to Butch Jones, giving him a big raise, contract extension.
- Derek Mason fired his friend and mentor, Vandy defensive coordinator David Kotulski.
There's always next year #kaser4heisman— Drew Kaser (@drewkaser) December 9, 2014
DEC. 29, 9 P.M. ET, NRG STADIUM, HOUSTON (ESPN)
Season highlights: The Razorbacks finally handed Bret Bielema his first SEC win on Nov. 15 when they shut out LSU 17-0, ending the program’s 17-game conference losing streak. As soon as the game ended, Arkansas players rushed across the field en masse to hoist the Golden Boot trophy that goes to the LSU-Arkansas winner. It was a moment of pure bliss for a program that desperately wanted to prove it was moving in the right direction under its second-year coach.
Season lowlights: Arkansas kept suffering near-misses early in the season, falling in overtime against Texas A&M, being beaten 14-13 by Alabama and losing by a touchdown to Mississippi State. The Razorbacks’ one awful performance during the season came against Georgia, when they trailed 38-6 at halftime before eventually falling 45-32.
Player to watch: Jonathan Williams. Teaming with Alex Collins to give Arkansas one of the SEC’s best rushing attacks, Williams led the team with 1,085 rushing yards and ran for 11 touchdowns. Collins isn’t far behind with 1,024 rushing yards and 12 scores. Between that duo and a tough offensive line, the Razorbacks have a ground game that is difficult for any opponent to stop.
Motivation factor: Arkansas was 3-4 after the Georgia loss and had games remaining against UAB, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri. That didn’t look like a positive sign, as the Razorbacks needed three more wins to play in a bowl game. They finally broke through by shutting out both LSU and Ole Miss, with the second of those wins achieving bowl eligibility and Arkansas’ first postseason appearance since 2011.
-- David Ching
Season highlights: Charlie Strong never promised a playoff contender in Year 1. He did promise Texas would play some defense. He turned the Longhorns' D into a top-15 unit nationally in yards per play, pass defense, sacks and goal-line stops. The Horns developed one of the nation’s top linemen, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, and assembled a defense that was responsible for allowing 23.4 points per game in Big 12 play. During a three-game win streak to clinch bowl eligibility, Texas finally put it all together and emerged as a physical, tough-to-beat squad.
Season lowlights: It’s been a rocky road. Texas lost quarterback David Ash to a career-ending concussion. Center Dominic Espinosa and nose tackle Desmond Jackson were lost for the season in nonconference play. Expected starting offensive tackles Desmond Harrison (suspension) and Kennedy Estelle (dismissal) were gone too. Their absences set Texas up to fail early and lose five of its first eight games. Close calls against UCLA and Oklahoma were encouraging. Blowout losses to BYU, Baylor and Kansas State were embarrassing. So was Texas’ 48-10 implosion against TCU on Thanksgiving.
Player to watch: Is Tyrone Swoopes playing for his job in the bowl? Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson won’t say that, but they have repeatedly said they need more competition at the quarterback position. They will find some this offseason, and Swoopes will be challenged to take a big step in the spring. Can he bounce back from his five-turnover performance against TCU and end an up-and-down first season as a starter on a positive note?
Motivation factor: Significant, especially for the future. Giving star seniors like Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, Cedric Reed and John Harris a win on the way out would be great. They have endured plenty at UT through all the coaching changes. But Texas also has another shot to do what it couldn’t against the Horned Frogs. A big win means momentum for offseason workouts, recruiting and further affirmation that Strong has Texas heading in the right direction.
-- Max Olson
We knew the SEC would get one team into the inaugural College Football Playoff when Alabama beat Missouri on Saturday. Nailing down the destinations for the conference's other 11 bowl-eligible teams is much more difficult.
Here are our best guesses in the final hours before we will know for sure:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Arkansas
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Georgia
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina
How the game was won: Can we stop saying Missouri doesn't belong in the SEC? That game-winning touchdown drive was vintage SEC football. The Tigers drove 85 yards on 12 plays, 11 running plays, and ate up more than six minutes of clock. The offensive line manhandled Arkansas up front, and running backs Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy did the rest. After rushing for just 1 yard in the first quarter, Missouri finished the game with 158 rushing yards. When it mattered most, it beat Arkansas at its own game.
Game ball goes to: The offensive line was terrific down the stretch, but Missouri wouldn't have been in position to win the East without Markus Golden, and they wouldn't have won Saturday's game without him, either. Golden, the reigning SEC defensive player of the week, finished with three tackles, two for a loss, a forced fumble and recovered a fumble on the Razorbacks' final drive to seal the victory.
What it means: The same Missouri team that lost to Indiana and was blown out by Georgia is headed back to the SEC championship game. Credit the Tigers, though. They did what they had to do, winning six consecutive conference games, and now they await either No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Mississippi State.
Playoff implication: Missouri's win pretty much sealed Georgia's fate in the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs likely needed to win the East and win the SEC championship game to have any chance at moving into the top four. And no, the Tigers aren't making the playoff, either. Missouri has yet to beat a team that's currently ranked in the top 25.
Best play: Murphy's go-ahead touchdown run was pretty sweet, but how about the two-point conversion to tie the game? Murphy took a direct snap, tossed it to Bud Sasser on a reverse, and Sasser threw it to Darius White in the end zone for the conversion.
What's next: Missouri, in its third season in the SEC, will represent the East in the Atlanta next Saturday for the second straight season. Arkansas (6-6) will still go to a bowl game for the first time in three years.
There are games with playoff implications, division implications and bowl implications to choose from. There's even a Friday afternoon game to get you through to the weekend.
The SEC's regular season has been crazy so far. Now it's time to see whether it ends with a flourish.
Friday, Nov. 28
Arkansas at No. 17 Missouri, CBS: All right, Missouri, you've been doubted all season. You've been knocked as soft on defense and woefully inconsistent on offense. You were laughed out of the room when you lost to Indiana. But here you are a win away from claiming the Eastern Division crown for a second straight season. The only thing standing in your way is Arkansas, which has won back-to-back SEC games in convincing fashion.
Saturday, Nov. 29
Kentucky at No. 22 Louisville, ESPN2: If Mark Stoops' Kentucky Wildcats are going to reach a bowl game ahead of schedule, it's not going to be easy. It would mean breaking a five-game losing streak on the road at Louisville, which would easily be their most impressive win of the season. The problem is the Cardinals boast one of the best defenses in the country.
South Carolina at No. 21 Clemson, ESPN: There's not a lot on the line for either team other than pride, which is good because there's plenty of it in this rivalry. The back-and-forth between Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney the past few years has been worth the price of admission, and on Saturday we'll find out whether the Head Ball Coach can extend his winning streak over Clemson and Swinney to six games.
No. 16 Georgia Tech at No. 9 Georgia, SEC Network: If Missouri somehow loses to Arkansas and gives Georgia the Eastern Division title, that's not the end of the story. Because if the Bulldogs want to somehow sneak back into the playoff conversation, it will take more than backing into Atlanta. It will take beating Georgia Tech convincingly, and that won't be easy seeing as the Yellow Jackets average 327.9 yards per game rushing and have won four games in a row.
No. 4 Mississippi State at No. 19 Ole Miss, CBS: Talk about two teams going in opposite directions. On the one hand, there's Ole Miss, which fell deeper into the dumps last week by losing at Arkansas 30-0. On the other hand, there's Mississippi State, which redeemed itself after a tough loss at Alabama by beating Vanderbilt 51-0. With the Bulldogs playing for a spot in the playoff and the Rebs playing for pride, it's clear which team has the greater inspiration to win the Egg Bowl.
Florida at No. 3 Florida State, ESPN: Speaking of inspiration, it will be interesting to see how Florida comes out for coach Will Muschamp's final time leading the Gators. Will his end be Ron Zookian? Or will it be one final, unceremonious note? While that's unclear, one thing is certain: Florida State likes to make things interesting. The Seminoles have struggled against teams they were supposed to blow out before. Could we be looking at a repeat?
Tennessee at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: Not a lot of people thought Tennessee would make a bowl game this year. Not with a schedule that included tough nonconference games against Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma. But lo and behold, the Vols are one game away from bowl eligibility, and the only opponent left is Vanderbilt. Easy, right? It should be, seeing as the Commodores haven't won an SEC game all season.
No. 15 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama, ESPN: The best Auburn can hope for is to play the role of spoiler, to crush Alabama's dreams of an SEC title and a playoff berth with one final regular-season swing. And in a rivalry as intense as the Iron Bowl, that might be enough. But the fact of the matter is Auburn just isn't playing good football these days. Alabama has won huge games against LSU and Mississippi State in recent weeks, while Auburn has fallen woefully flat with losses to Texas A&M and Georgia.
2. Tired of the “kick-six” yet? I promise this will be the last link. But if you haven’t already, I suggest you go and read Jon Solomon’s piece on how the effects of one of the wildest finishes in college football history are still being felt. It will be worth your time. The Iron Bowl rivalry itself is known for the passion and animosity felt between the two fan bases, but it’s not always that way. Earlier this season, I wrote a story on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and how he wore a bracelet in support of Kayla Perry, an Auburn student with a rare form of pediatric cancer. Well now, Perry and an Alabama student who has a similar condition will attend Saturday’s game thanks to Kristi Malzahn, wife of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Kristi surprised the two girls by inviting them to attend the game with her. Watch their story here.
3. Arkansas and Missouri might be cross-division foes that will meet every season unless the SEC changes its schedule. They might have a huge game this Friday with SEC title hopes on the line. But they’re not rivals, not yet at least. The two sides haven’t played in the regular season since 1963, and they have only met five times ever. Give it time, though. It’s already catching on with some of the players. “Arkansas, they have the word Kansas in it, so it’s got to be a rival,” said Missouri center Evan Boehm. One team who will be directed by Friday’s game is Georgia. If Missouri loses, the Bulldogs are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship. However, Mark Richt is not planning any Arkansas-Missouri viewing parties for his team.
Around the SEC
- Corey Grant gets his last crack at the Tide three years after leaving Alabama for Auburn.
- Gators’ Jeff Driskel returns to Florida State as the last quarterback to beat the Seminoles.
- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has a new name for rival Tennessee: “the team out east.”
Congrats to @15_DakP on being named a finalist for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien awards. Couldn't have happened to a better young man!— Brian Johnson (@BDJohnson3) November 26, 2014
I'm talking about little ol' Arkansas vs. Missouri, a game with all brash and no flash. Playoff implications? Eh, maybe, but it really is a long shot if the Tigers win Friday and then top the West Division champion in Atlanta.
But right now, who cares about that? This is the game no one was talking about in August and hardly registered on anyone's radar as recently as Halloween.
In a season that has been so much fun to watch -- even through some of the bad play -- and so nail-biting, this game shows you just how little we really knew about this conference during fall camp and how competitive the SEC has been from top to bottom.
With the schedule Arkansas had, it was hard seeing the Razorbacks make a bowl game. Sure, this team was better mentally and physically, but no way Arkansas was making it through the SEC West gauntlet with a bowl berth. There were just too many questions across the board, and those running backs couldn't do it all.
And while we could see the pieces slowly falling into place for the Hogs, the wins just weren't coming. Somehow, Bret Bielema kept his guys going. It would have been so easy for the Hogs to get down on themselves and just embrace that snake-bitten mentality, the goal-line stands and the turnovers in the end zone.
Instead, this team has become the SEC's most dangerous squad heading into the final week of the regular season. Arkansas turned things around and became bowl eligible with a 17-0 win over LSU and then a 30-0 beatdown of Ole Miss. Both teams were ranked, and both left Fayetteville absolutely stunned. It's not like those were bad teams. Were they at 100 percent? No. But they weren't overrated or undeserving of their place in the polls.
They were beaten by a team getting better and better, a team that now has a chance to send another squad into a disappointing funk. The Hogs have nothing to lose Friday in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of making a bowl game has been accomplished, so there's no pressure. This team should be loose, carefree and ready to roll.
But the team lining up on the other side has been quietly rolling to its own methodical tune the last five games. After getting thrashed 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight by grinding games out thanks to a fantastic coaching job by Gary Pinkel. He has rallied a team that lost to Indiana, for crying out loud!
Last season, we admired the Tigers' explosive offense and dominating defense. This year, we're just wondering how the cardiac cats continue to win. The offense isn't exciting, but that defense has been spectacular in conference play. Missouri's games can weigh heavy on your eyelids, but winning ugly is still winning, folks.
Missouri is 9-2 in its third season in the SEC. Last year, the new kids on the block tortured SEC traditionalists with their trip to Atlanta. Now, they've broken them with the potential of back-to-back trips. The majority of SEC followers looked down on Mizzou when it first arrived. Well, now the Tigers are looking down on the rest of the league and smirking with an emphatic Hi, hater!
Someone's magic will die out Friday, but to see these two teams actually be in this position is fascinating. Relatively little star power has propelled both squads into what's turned into a huge game for the SEC.
This game doesn't have the vitriol or popularity of the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, but this season it deserves the respect.
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State