SEC: Auburn Tigers

SEC viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
AM ET
A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

UAB at Arkansas, SEC Network: Bret Bielema will have to wait at least one more week before notching that first SEC victory, but after three straight losses, this Arkansas team needs a win in the worst way. It’s not like the Razorbacks are playing poorly. Even Saturday, after falling apart in the first half, they didn’t give up. They responded in the second half and outplayed Georgia the final 30 minutes. That first conference win is coming. In the meantime, Arkansas can’t afford to overlook UAB. The Blazers put up 34 points on No. 1 Mississippi State earlier in the season, so they’re at least capable of getting in the end zone.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDak Prescott threw for 268 yards and ran for 33 last season in a 28-22 home victory over Kentucky.
3:30 p.m.

No. 1 Mississippi State at Kentucky, CBS: What happened to Kentucky? This game was shaping up to be one of the biggest games in program history – a top-25 matchup, a chance to take down the No. 1 team in the country – and then it all fell apart at LSU on Saturday. Losing close is one thing, but the Wildcats were dominated in Death Valley. The good news is that they can still take down No. 1 this weekend as this will be Mississippi State’s first game since taking over the top spot. For the Bulldogs, it’s a chance to prove they’re worthy of No. 1 and it’s another opportunity for Dak Prescott to shine in front of a national audience.

4 p.m.

Vanderbilt at Missouri, SEC Network: A week after everybody left Missouri for dead, the Tigers are back in the SEC East race and rolling after a 42-13 win at Florida. The defense feasted on the Gators’ offense, forcing six turnovers and taking two back for touchdowns. That’s bad news for Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary, who will be making his first start for the Commodores. In his first action since the season opener, McCrary went 10-of-16 for 169 yards with one touchdown and one interception Saturday against Charleston Southern. But that was Charleston Southern. This is Missouri. Good luck Mr. McCrary.

7:15 p.m.

No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU, ESPN: Don’t assume that Ole Miss is going to just go to Baton Rouge and handle its business. Yes, the Rebels have arguably the top defense in the SEC. And yes, they’re ranked No. 3 for a reason. But winning on the road at LSU is no easy task. Just ask Les Miles, who is 45-4 as LSU coach in night games at Tiger Stadium. There’s something special about when the sun sets over Death Valley. So don’t be surprised if this game is close in the fourth quarter, and it’s up to Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to make a play. Wallace did account for more than 350 yards and four touchdowns at LSU two years ago.

7:30 p.m.

No. 4 Alabama at Tennessee, ESPN2: Thank you, Lane Kiffin, for infusing a little life back into this rivalry. He made it interesting back in 2009 when his Tennessee team nearly knocked off the eventual national champs, and he’s doing it again this year with his return to Knoxville as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. You can bet the fans will be a little more rowdy in welcoming Kiffin back to Neyland Stadium on Saturday. But despite all the hoopla surrounding Kiffin, there’s still a game to be played. Alabama comes in as a heavy favorite, and the Vols could be in trouble if quarterback Justin Worley isn’t able to play.

South Carolina at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Gus Malzahn admitted this week that he wears a visor every game because of Steve Spurrier. That’s how much respect and admiration he has for the Head Ball Coach. On Saturday, Malzahn will face Spurrier for the first time as a head coach in a game that Auburn has to win for its playoff hopes. The Tigers are coming off a loss to Mississippi State, and this is their first of four SEC games in four weeks. Meanwhile, South Carolina has not delivered on the preseason hype. A top-10 team before the season, the Gamecocks are barely above water at 4-3.

How the SEC West became so dominant

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:30
AM ET
The SEC West has been the center of power in the conference for several years now, but never has the gap been greater than now. By placing a historic four teams in the top five of the AP poll, the West is stronger than ever. That's due in large part to the rise of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, while the likes of Alabama and Auburn remain strong. How has it gotten to this point? Here are five key decisions -- coaching hires, recruiting classes and more -- that made the SEC West what it is today.

Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn
Auburn fans might blame Gene Chizik for the program’s collapse in 2012, but give him credit for what he accomplished. And more importantly, give him credit for hiring Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2009. If not for that hire, Malzahn would likely not be the Tigers' coach today. In turn, the Tigers wouldn’t have executed one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history last season, nearly winning a national championship, and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be top five in the polls this fall. People questioned athletic director Jay Jacobs when he brought Malzahn back to Auburn, but the former high school coach has always been a winner. He’s proving that now. -- Greg Ostendorf

Mullen builds up Mississippi State
He wasn't kind or understanding about the low expectations and the low sense of worth he felt around Mississippi State. Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida, took over as the head coach in Starkville, Mississippi, determined to break down that imaginary wall separating State from becoming a contender.

It started with simply reaching bowl games, but after six seasons, it's turned into championship aspirations. Mullen and his staff have developed overlooked talents into NFL prospects. If you don't think so, just look at QB Dak Prescott or linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Neither was highly sought after in high school, but now they're among the best in the country. -- Alex Scarborough

Hugh Freeze and his 2013 recruiting class
The hire of Hugh Freeze didn’t exactly set off fireworks in Oxford, Mississippi, but he made waves throughout the conference when he took an Ole Miss team that had lost 16 consecutive SEC games to two consecutive bowl wins. But what really had people buzzing was that historic 2013 recruiting class. Freeze signed the No. 1 player in the country, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and receiver (Laquon Treadwell).

That class put the Rebels on the map in early February of 2013, and its on-field contribution has been tremendous, with those three becoming stars in the SEC and tight end Evan Engram transforming into one of the league’s best at his position. As a result, Ole Miss is 7-0 and looking for a playoff berth. -- Edward Aschoff

Dominance on the recruiting trail
Alabama’s run over the past four years has been nothing short of amazing. The Crimson Tide are on pace for their fourth consecutive recruiting title and currently have 21 2015 commitments, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300. The reputation of the SEC West alone is a compelling recruiting pitch to the top prospects in the country, and Alabama is at the forefront of the dominant division. LSU and Auburn have also done very well, and Mississippi and Mississippi State have made huge strides under Freeze and Mullen, respectively. -- Derek Tyson

Texas A&M joins as Manziel, Sumlin enter
Many felt Texas A&M would take it on the chin upon entering the conference in 2012. The Aggies didn't exactly light it up in their final Big 12 season (7-6), and there were a ton of question marks. Enter Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin. Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, Sumlin leveraged the team's success to consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, and the Aggies went 20-6 in their first two SEC seasons, including an 11-2 debut in 2012 that included a win over eventual champion Alabama. Some of the struggles expected in Year 1 seem to be surfacing now, though, as the Aggies endure a three-game losing streak. -- Sam Khan Jr.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
9:00
AM ET
video
There are again some big games around the SEC this weekend. The Ole Miss at LSU game looks to be loaded with big-time visitors. Tennessee is sure to bring in several high-profile recruits for its game against rival Alabama and Auburn is hoping to reel in a few top prospects for its game against South Carolina. Here’s a closer look at some of the top visitors in the SEC this weekend.

Alabama at Tennessee

SEC morning links

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:00
AM ET
1. Who is the best one-loss team in the country? That is the most intriguing debate in college football right now. With four teams in the top 5, it has to be somebody from the SEC, right? Well, the rest of the nation might disagree and claim SEC bias. On Thursday, ESPN Insider Brad Edwards used a metric called Game Score to rank the losses of each playoff contender. The best loss, with a score of 72, was Alabama's loss at Ole Miss. The worst (27) was Ohio State losing at home to Virginia Tech. That seems fair. What I don't agree with is putting Auburn's loss to Mississippi State among the worst losses with a score of 46. Sure, the Tigers lost by double digits, but it was on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. And they overcame a 21-0 deficit to make it a one-score game in the second half.

1a. On the same scale, Notre Dame's recent loss to Florida State was among the best losses, but it still might have cost the Fighting Irish a shot at the playoff according to Gregg Doyel. The new Indianapolis Star columnist writes that while it was a good loss, the Irish are lacking any good wins. I tend to agree. I figured SEC fans would, too. Read the full piece here.

2. So I was going to call out Texas A&M for backing out of its home-and-home series with Oregon in 2018 and 2019, but then the Aggies went and scheduled a home-and-home with Clemson those same years. Now personally, I would have loved to have seen the Aggies and the Ducks and all the points that would have ensued. But who knows where those two programs will be in four years? All I know is that there are some enticing non-conference matchups on the slate for 2019. Check these games out:
  • Texas A&M at Clemson
  • Notre Dame at Georgia
  • LSU at Texas
  • Kansas State at Mississippi State
  • Michigan at Arkansas

Even that last game could be intriguing assuming Michigan has hired a new coach and that Bret Bielema has the Razorbacks among the SEC contenders by then. And they haven't yet, but you can go ahead and count on both Alabama and Auburn scheduling a quality non-conference that year.

3. I've done a couple stories this season on SEC players showing support for cancer patients, so naturally it caught my attention when I saw a similar piece on Patrick Towles. The Kentucky quarterback has lent support to high school freshman Brady Walz, the nephew of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz, and even invited him to attend the Wildcats' win over Vanderbilt last month. No, it's not the Iron Bowl, but the Kentucky-Louisville can get pretty heated in the Bluegrass State. This seems to be a growing trend in college football, and there are probably more stories like this that never get told. Kudos to you Mr. Towles. Kentucky hosts No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday.

Tweet of the day

 
video
Only six weeks of the regular season remain. And while the SEC has separated contender from pretender to this point, the jockeying for conference supremacy is far from over. The odds of anyone going undefeated are slim. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, there’s a 36 percent chance all seven teams in the West finish with two or more losses. With that backdrop in mind, let's take a look at which playoff hopefuls have the easiest and toughest roads ahead.

Smoothest sailing

Georgia and Mississippi State have it relatively easy. According to ESPN Stats & Info, their remaining strength of schedule rank 43rd and 47th, respectively.

Georgia survived a tough early season game against Clemson, and despite falling on the road at South Carolina has gotten right back on track. With Florida down, Kentucky coming back down to earth and Georgia Tech fresh off back-to-back losses, the only real test remaining is a Nov. 15 showdown with Auburn -- and that game comes in Athens. Of all the contenders in the SEC, the Dawgs are the only ones with just one game against a ranked opponent remaining.

[+] EnlargeThompson Mississippi
Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesThe remainder of Mississippi State's schedule ranks as relatively easy compared to the rest of the SEC.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, is on a good track after beating a slew of ranked teams in LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Now comes a bit of a breather with Arkansas followed by UT Martin. There's a road date with Alabama on Nov. 15, but then it's on to lowly Vanderbilt the week before the Egg Bowl versus rival Ole Miss.

Roughest waters

Between Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, it’s hard to say who has it worst. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Alabama has the weakest remaining strength of schedule of the three, but the Tide rank 21st nationally in that category. Auburn comes in at No. 16 and Ole Miss No. 14.

Anecdotally, it's hard to argue against Auburn having the most brutal remaining schedule in the SEC. The Tigers, having already played Kansas State, LSU and Mississippi State, get South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in the next three weeks. Then it's on to Georgia, and two weeks later there's a trip to Alabama. Of the five SEC teams still in playoff contention, Auburn is the only one with three ranked teams left to play.

Ole Miss doesn't have it much easier, though. The Rebs go to LSU on Saturday, which is never an easy task. And while Presbyterian and a bye week provide a breather, finishing in consecutive weeks with Arkansas and Mississippi State will be a physically taxing challenge.

Alabama will feel the Rebs' pain, though. The Tide travel to Tennessee this Saturday, followed by a much needed week off. But after that comes a trip to LSU and then a home date with Mississippi State. Two weeks later, it’s Auburn coming to town.

Where we’ll settle things

The final weekend in November could be utter mayhem. In a good way.

With all due respect to Georgia-Georgia Tech, that Saturday will be all about two rivalry games in the West. In the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, we could find out a) who will play in the SEC championship game in Atlanta and b) who will present their case to the selection committee as a non-title winning candidate.

It's conceivable Auburn beats Ole Miss and Mississippi State loses to Alabama. If that's the case and everyone is tied at one loss, then it becomes a matter of tiebreakers.

To win the division, Alabama would have to beat Auburn and have Ole Miss lose to State. Auburn would need the opposite. State, on the other hand, would need to beat Ole Miss and have Alabama lose to Auburn. And just because it's only fair, Ole Miss would need the exact opposite scenario to play out.

The only thing that could make that better is if both games were played simultaneously.

SEC morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
8:00
AM ET
1. How do you stop Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott? "You're going to have to get to the next guy to find that one out," LSU coach Les Miles said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. Prescott accounted for over 350 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers earlier this season. On Saturday, Kentucky will try its luck in stopping or maybe slowing down the Heisman Trophy candidate. Good luck. And speaking of the Heisman Trophy, Prescott told Bleacher Report that his late mother Peggy used to introduce him to people as her Heisman Trophy winner. Watch the full video profile. How can you not root for a guy with his back story to win college football's most prestigious award?

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesMississippi State's Dak Prescott, who had little trouble with Les Miles' LSU, will look to enhance his Heisman chances against Kentucky next.
2. Only Les Miles could turn a question on College GameDay's guest picker into a jab at ESPN's own Kirk Herbstreit. It's been seven years since Herbstreit predicted Miles would leave LSU and take the Michigan job, and the LSU coach has not forgotten. He made that clear Wednesday. He also claimed that he could take Shaquille O'Neal one-on-one in the same response. Only Les. Coincidentally, there are rumblings that the Michigan job could come open again after this season, but the SEC coach whose name keeps coming isn't Miles. It's Dan Mullen. But it doesn't sound like the Mississippi State coach is in a hurry to leave. On Wednesday, he was talking about recruiting and the certain type of recruits he looks for to build a program.

3. Have you heard? Lane Kiffin is returning to Tennessee on Saturday. OK, you're probably tired of hearing about it, but if you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and go read Jon Solomon's piece on the Alabama offensive coordinator. In it, Kiffin's mother Robin says she's "scared to death" for her son's safety and wishes he would coach from the press box against the Volunteers. Even athletic director Mike Hamilton says he wishes Kiffin's first game against Tennessee would have been in Tuscaloosa, not Knoxville. It's certainly an intriguing storyline and one to keep an eye on this weekend, but don't expect more than the normal heckling from Vols fans. I'm more interested to see how Kiffin's offense fares on the road.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:45
AM ET
video
The SEC has an impressive 89 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. While the SEC West has been dominant on the field, 13 of the 14 SEC schools are ranked in the top 40 of the RecruitingNation class rankings. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 22

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:30
AM ET
There were no major changes made to this week’s playoff tracker. Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia all proved why they are contenders with big wins this past Saturday while Mississippi State and Auburn enjoyed the week off.

Here’s a look at where the five remaining SEC contenders stand heading into Week 9.

Mississippi State
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Arkansas

Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape in coming off a bye week and facing Kentucky, which fell back to Earth with a 41-3 loss to LSU on Saturday. Mississippi State should cruise to a win that would help its remaining Western Division games against Arkansas, Alabama and Ole Miss grow increasingly important in the divisional and national title pictures.

Cause for concern: If their record remains spotless and their Western Division title hopes hinge on a win against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs will have to win that pivotal game on the road. Mississippi State has a 1-6 record in Oxford in the 2000s. The Bulldogs’ lone win came in 2010, when No. 25 MSU edged Ole Miss 31-23.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Ole Miss.

-- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 7-0 (4-0)
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at LSU

Reason for optimism: The Rebels are on an absolute role right now. They’re second in the SEC in total defense (290.6 yards allowed per game) and have held opponents under 200 yards three times this season. Quarterback Bo Wallace is averaging 271 yards per game and has thrown 17 touchdowns to six interceptions.

Cause for concern: The Rebels are still in the SEC West, and road trips to LSU and Arkansas loom. Oh, and Ole Miss ends the season at home with No. 1 Mississippi State. The running game hasn’t been very explosive at all this season, ranking 11th in the league (151.3 yards per game).

Who they’re rooting for this week: Kentucky over Mississippi State.

-- Edward Aschoff

Alabama
Record: 6-1 (3-1 SEC)
AP rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After hearing all week how they were slipping following a loss to Ole Miss and a narrow win at Arkansas, the Crimson Tide came out Saturday on fire, throttling Texas A&M 59-0. It was a complete performance that said Alabama is right in the thick of the playoff conversation.

Cause for concern: Consistency is going to be the biggest challenge for this young Alabama team. Playing well at home is good, but now it must prove it can take the show on the road. First up its a trip to Tennessee and two weeks later it's on to Death Valley and LSU.

Who they’ll be rooting for: It's a bit of a double-edged sword for Alabama seeing as you never want to face an LSU team with growing confidence, but it would do the Tide some good to see the Bayou Bengals upset Ole Miss this weekend.

-- Alex Scarborough

Auburn
Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina

Reason for optimism: Despite losing to Mississippi State its last time out, Auburn is still the No. 1 team in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). The Tigers will enter the second half refreshed after having this past weekend off, and they also get back safety Jermaine Whitehead who was reinstated to the team Tuesday.

Cause for concern: We won’t know if the bye week fixed all of Auburn’s problems until we see the Tigers in action this Saturday, but they need to play much better than they did against Mississippi State if they expect to win out. The other bad news is that winning out might be their only option for making the playoff.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Auburn would love to see LSU take Ole Miss down a notch before it travels to Oxford a week from Saturday.

-- Greg Ostendorf

Georgia
Record: 6-1 (4-1)
AP rank: No. 9
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)

Reason for optimism: Well, there really doesn’t seem to be a true competitor in the East. The Dawgs embarrassed Missouri in Columbia and Kentucky got trounced in Baton Rouge. Nick Chubb has been an absolute star in place of Todd Gurley, rushing for 345 yards and three touchdowns as the starter in the last two games.

Cause for concern: Chubb has been great, but you still have to wonder how durable the freshman really can be if he keeps carrying the ball as much as he has (68 carries in two games) with Gurley still sidelined. Also, the East is just bad, so what happens when the Dawgs face a team from the West? Hello, Auburn on Nov. 15.

Who they’re rooting for this week: South Carolina over Auburn

-- Edward Aschoff

SEC morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
8:00
AM ET
1. On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Ostendorf wrote about how Auburn freshman Roc Thomas is primed for a big second half to the season. Watching Thomas from afar, I'd have to agree. While he's not as fast as Corey Grant or as powerful as Cameron Artis-Payne, he's probably Gus Malzahn's most explosive running back when it comes to consistently picking up large chunks of yards. But Ostendorf's piece got me thinking: Who are some other potential second-half stars in the SEC? Here are four that come to mind:
  • Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama: A big body at linebacker who is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. He'll be an integral part of stopping the run against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Too obvious? The longer Todd Gurley is sidelined, the faster the freshman back's star rises.
  • AJ Derby, TE, Arkansas: Bret Bielema told me this spring that the former QB had NFL talent as a tight end. We're starting to see more and more of that lately.
  • Brandon Holloway, RB, Mississippi State: A shifty running back with blinding speed that can catch the ball out of the backfield, Holloway is the perfect change of pace to the bruising style of Josh Robinson.

2. The Head Ball Coach took the Florida question in stride. Steve Spurrier says he's not leaving South Carolina for The Swamp to replace Will Muschamp. "No," Spurrier told reporters on Tuesday. "I tell everybody my next move is going to be to Crescent Beach, Fla." It was fun to imagine Spurrier roaming the Florida sideline again, but at 69 years old you knew it wasn't likely, if not altogether impossible. He's comfortable at South Carolina. Things might not be perfect there right now, but the work pales in comparison to what must be done at Florida. The Gators, should they choose to part ways with Muschamp, need a long-term solution, not a splashy stop-gap they'd have to replace sooner than later.

3. Texas A&M is going back to the drawing board. Even the QB position is up for grabs, said coordinator Jake Spavital. But that's not what caught my attention on Tuesday. What piqued my interest was coach Kevin Sumlin's comments about how Saturday's loss at Alabama was an "eye-opener." He said, "This program was founded on three things -- play hard, play smart, be physical." Texas A&M has done none of those things recently. It started with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but it ended with Alabama breaking its will. There was no aggressiveness from the Aggies' sideline, no fire to show in the second half they're better than the score indicated. They gave up. They wanted to go home. And if you're a coach, that's the worst possible thing you can see. What we're seeing from A&M is that you can't survive in this league on talent alone. You have to have those three things Sumlin discussed, but you have to have them in more than name only.

Tweet of the day

It was midway through the first quarter, and Auburn found itself in a 21-0 hole on the road against Mississippi State. The Tigers needed a spark in the worst way, and so head coach Gus Malzahn called on freshman running back Roc Thomas.

It didn't matter that the only carries in his career had been in the fourth quarter with Auburn well ahead of its opponent. It didn't matter that the kid who had yet to play a true road game was facing the most hostile atmosphere in college football that day. All that mattered was when his number was called, he was ready.

[+] EnlargeRoc Thomas
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsFreshman running back Roc Thomas provided a lift on three consecutive carries for the Tigers' offense in a tough divisional game at Mississippi State.
Thomas ran three straight times and picked up 11, 8 and 18 yards in succession. The drive would ultimately end with a missed field goal, but his appearance provided a lift to the Auburn sideline. It provided an extra hitch in the Tigers' step.

"I've just been trying to prepare myself the same way every week," Thomas said after the game. "Just trying to be patient and trying to wait until my name gets called."

The freshman finished with six carries for 42 yards, a stat line that would not typically stick out in a box score, but his performance not only swung the momentum, it also showed the coaches he's capable of playing a bigger role, regardless of the situation.

"I was proud of him," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I thought he looked fast. I thought he looked fresh. I thought he looked confident. He protected the football. He ran hard. When he was in there in protections, he knew what to do on the road, in a hostile environment.

"He didn't look like the moment was too big for him. That's what you look for as coaches. If you feel like they had a little bit then you're ready to give them more."

Before the season, Thomas was buried on the depth chart behind Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. The talent was there -- he was ranked No. 28 in the ESPN 300 -- but he would have to wait his turn.

As Auburn enters the second half of the season, his turn might be now.

"We do have a strategic plan for the second half," Malzahn said Tuesday. "And Roc will have a bigger role."

Don't expect the freshman to unseat Artis-Payne, who is fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, but he might be used more to spell Artis-Payne down the stretch, similar to what he did against Mississippi State the last time out.

"We want to keep our running backs fresh," Lashlee said. "He's a true freshman, but things are slowing down and the talent he has is obvious. We just think that it's time to really start fusing him into things and trying to keep Cameron fresh throughout the game. It also adds that extra dimension to what we're trying to do."

Next up for Auburn is a home date with South Carolina this Saturday. The coaches have had an extra week to prepare, and Thomas has had an extra week to catch his breath and get that much more acclimated to the offense.

There's no telling how much he'll play against the Gamecocks, but he'll be ready when the coaches call on him.

"It's just a matter of being patient and waiting until my name gets called," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to play my part in the offense."

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
9:00
AM ET
video
The Auburn Tigers, who are still licking their wounds from their 38-23 loss to Mississippi State, couldn't have picked a better opponent coming out of their bye week.

Ranked fifth in the nation and sporting a 5-1 record (2-1 SEC) that still has a playoff feel to it, the Tigers come off their week of rest to face an underachieving South Carolina team that has to be extremely disappointed with how 2014 has gone.

Yes, the Gamecocks (4-3, 2-3) are coming off of a much-needed 41-10 win over Furman, but they have found themselves in the back of the SEC East race and with no playoff hopes. They will be looking to salvage part of their season, while they ruin Auburn's.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher at 664 yards, could have a big night against South Carolina's defense.
Exactly what the Tigers need.

Auburn got time to rest before its showdown with South Carolina, which just so happens to precede next week's trip to Oxford, Mississippi, to face the third-ranked Ole Miss Rebels. There will be no looking ahead for the Tigers, which is great, because it would be easy to do that with the Rebels looming.

The Tigers know how important Saturday is, and they know that their opponent is desperate. The Gamecocks want some dignity back, and the easiest way to do that is to upset Auburn and torch its playoff hopes. That alone will keep the Tigers on their toes when the Gamecocks visit the Plains Saturday.

Talent-wise and statistically, this game points right at the Tigers with neon arrows. Auburn ranks in the top four of the SEC in scoring (38.8 points per game), rushing (262 yards per game) and total offense (487.8). On the flip side, South Carolina sports one of the SEC's worst defenses, ranking 12th or worse in all four major defensive categories.

The Gamecocks have actually given up a league-worst 6.21 yards per play this season and have allowed opponents to average more than 6.7 yards in five of seven games this season.

Auburn should be fine with that, as the Tigers are cranking out 6.64 yards per play.

What the Tigers need to do is keep that running game churning in the second half of the season. That's when the offense is at its best because it opens up things for quarterback Nick Marshall. What made this offense so special last season was its ability to wear down defenses with its explosive, yet powerful running game. While there is no Tre Mason to carry the load, Auburn has rushed for more than 230 yards in every game but the Kansas State game this season.

Cameron Artis-Payne has taken the title of lead back and has 664 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Marshall is next with 492 and four touchdowns. The next running back on the list is Corey Grant, who has 254 yards and two scores. But the longest run of the season for the Tigers is just 49 yards by Marshall.

This is a chance to really get some of that explosion back in the running game, with the Gamecocks giving up a 181.7 rush yards per game and an SEC-high 15 rushing touchdowns.

You wanna energize that running game even more and break off some bigger plays? Run early and often against the Gamecocks. Artis-Payne has been solid this year (110.7 yards per game), so create some space for him. The Gamecocks have had holes on defense all year, so the Tigers should be able to exploit that.
With no game this past weekend, the Auburn coaches gave the players Friday and Saturday off. Some went home. Others stayed around campus, enjoying the two-day break. Sammie Coates did neither. The wide receiver made the two-hour trip to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham to spend Friday with Kenzie Ray, a 12-year-old girl with leukemia.

The two spent hours playing video games. When she got stuck on a level, Coates helped her get through it. He went to dinner with Kenzie’s family before going back to the hospital, where he stayed with her until almost 9 p.m.

"She just gets happy [around Coates]," Kenzie’s mother, Keisha Ray, said. "It’s just like when her family comes up. She gets a little more rambunctious when her brothers are here or her daddy is here. It’s the same thing.

[+] EnlargeCoates
@sammiecoates/ InstagramSammie Coates spent time playing video games with his friend, 12-year-old leukemia patient Kenzie Ray.
"I think to start with, she kind of looked at Sammie as something bigger. He did make her feel special and that sort of thing, and he still does. But I think it’s grown into something bigger. He’s my family. I feel like he’s one of mine when he’s here."

The relationship began in September 2013, when Kenzie attended the Auburn-Mississippi State game. She was invited by a family friend to meet Auburn offensive tackle and cancer survivor Shon Coleman, and the two talked after the game. But Coleman wasn’t the only player she met that night.

Not knowing who Kenzie was, Coates walked up after the game and began talking with her. The two exchanged wristbands; he gave her a shoutout on Twitter; she sent him a friend request. Now there’s nothing that can separate them.

More than a year later, they don’t go even a day without at least texting one another. Most of the time, they are talking on the phone or through Facetime.

"When I met Kenzie, I thought she was my role model because I look up to her and how strong she is and how she fights," Coates said after the Louisiana Tech game in late September. "That makes me fight harder. It makes me become a better person every day. It’s just a blessing to have her in my life."

With Coates, it’s about more than football. He led Auburn with 42 receptions, 902 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, but he will be the first to tell you that it doesn’t matter how many catches or yards he has. It doesn’t even matter who wins or loses. He just wants to use his abilities to help other people, people like Kenzie.

"Sammie’s got a big heart," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "Obviously he loves football, loves to compete, but he’s got a big heart for things outside of football.

"Usually if you’re around Sammie and he doesn’t have a big smile or he seems down, it’s because one of those kids that he’s gotten close to is struggling. It gets him in a funk, and that’s how close he gets to them."

Recently, Coates did receive some bad news about Kenzie. The family discovered that despite getting a bone marrow transplant in August, she still has leukemia.

As soon as Coates got the news, he sent Kenzie a text message. They talked briefly, and the same girl who was crying just five minutes earlier came out, told her mom Coates had sent her a message, and said: "I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep fighting."

"I don’t really know what he said," her mother said later. "But he just keeps her fired up. He’s a huge source of inspiration for her."

That’s why when Coates finally got some time away from the football field, he didn’t waste any time, and went to see Kenzie. After all, she’s his source of inspiration, too.

"You can’t get down when you see people like that, that fight every day of their life," Coates said. "That’s one thing I take out there and try to tell my teammates to do. Play this game like you’re happy to play it. Don’t be down about little stuff, like a nick or a bruise. You’ve got people out there fighting for their life every day.

"That’s the attitude you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be happy for every opportunity you get. That’s what I take from [Kenzie]. She means a lot to me."

At first glance: SEC Week 9

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
12:00
PM ET
Well, here we are once again after an entire Saturday of lopsided games. What did we learn that we didn't already know? If anything the league revealed itself to be more firmly divided between contenders and pretenders.

We'll just have to look forward to Week 9 for some better SEC entertainment.

Game of the week: No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU
Now this should be fun. Night games at Tiger Stadium usually are. Two straight wins have LSU feeling good and back in the rankings. The Tigers are also back on the fringes of the SEC West race and could throw a giant wrench into the Magnolia State love-fest by upsetting the Rebels. The jury is still out on LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, who didn't have to do much to beat Florida (110 yards passing) or Kentucky (120 yards passing). The Ole Miss defense, however, promises to give the Tigers their toughest test of the season. This unit is operating at peak performance at just the right time for a visit to Baton Rouge. The Rebs allowed zero rushing yards -- ZERO! -- to Tennessee last Saturday and have given up just six touchdowns in seven games this season. It should be a brawl in the Bayou.

Player under pressure: Maty Mauk, Missouri
The Tigers' gunslinging quarterback has been humbled and harnessed in his last two games -- a disastrous 34-0 home loss to Georgia in which he had five turnovers, and a goofy 42-13 win at Florida in which he was 6-of-18 passing for 20 yards and an interception. Mauk's and Missouri's seasons are nearing a crossroads. After playing what he called the worst game of his life against UGA, Mauk overcame a shaky start at Florida and played in control while the Gators self-destructed. The good news for the Tigers offense is that Mauk & Co. will have a solid chance to work out their issues against Vanderbilt, which will bring one of the worst defenses in the SEC (allowing 415.9 yards a game) to Columbia, Mo.

Coach under the microscope: Lane Kiffin, Alabama
The Tide's offensive coordinator might not have circled the third Saturday in October on his calendar, but you can bet 100,000 ticket-holding Volunteers fans sure did. In 2009 Kiffin coached his one and only season at Tennessee. He was full of promises, bravado and hot air. Other than some solid recruiting, the highlights of his 7-6 season were wins over Georgia and South Carolina and a near-miss at Alabama. Who can forget Bama's Terrance "Mount" Cody swatting away two Tennessee field goals in a 12-10 victory? Well, other than Kiffin? Now that he's back in the SEC, patrolling the Alabama sideline and steering its inconsistent offense, the vitriol is sure to reach a fever pitch on Saturday. Hundreds of students rioted when news broke of Kiffin's sudden departure in 2009. How are they going to treat his return?

Storyline to watch: Division dominance
The SEC West is a powerhouse. The East is a house of cards. So the story goes, and it doesn't seem likely to deviate with No. 1 Mississippi State visiting Kentucky and South Carolina traveling to No. 5 Auburn. The East has lost six of seven cross-division games so far this season, most of them with lopsided results. The much-improved Wildcats were riding high at 5-1 before being thrashed by LSU. Now they'll have to contend with Dak Prescott and his steamrolling MSU offense. South Carolina has the worst defense in the SEC and might need a miracle on the Plains to keep up with Auburn's offense. Don't look for the division script to flip this week.

Intriguing matchup: LSU offense vs. Ole Miss defense
As previously described in our game of the week entry, LSU can't expect much from its quarterback in Saturday's matchup against the fearsome Rebels defense. It gives Ole Miss a tremendous advantage to be able to stack the box against the run, but LSU has the horses to give the Rebel defense its toughest test of the season. Tigers senior RB Terrance Magee is coming off a career game with 220 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He makes a fine pairing with freshman stud Leonard Fournette, LSU's leading rusher with 544 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. If the Tigers can establish the run against Ole Miss it could open up some play-action passing or at least give Jennings a chance to take some shots with the very capable Travin Dural, a sophomore wide receiver with 26 catches, 665 yards and seven touchdowns. It all starts in the trenches.

SEC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
PM ET
The SEC’s ability to get two teams into the College Football Playoff field is what should and will generate the most headlines as we push toward the final month of the season.

Each highly ranked team that loses -- hello, Baylor, Notre Dame and Oklahoma -- makes it seem like more of a possibility, but we’re not yet ready to project that half of the playoff teams will come from the SEC.

We’ll stick with top-ranked Mississippi State as the SEC's playoff pick for now, but Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia remain in the middle of the discussion as well. Those teams still have several key games ahead that will determine the top half of the SEC’s postseason pecking order.

Meanwhile, the bottom half of the pecking order should also become a source of late-season drama. After their losses on Saturday, we’re dropping Arkansas (3-4) and Florida (3-3) from this week’s bowl projections and adding Tennessee (3-4), although none of those teams is a sure bet at this point. Kentucky (5-2) gets to stay in, but the Wildcats are coming off a 41-3 loss at LSU and will face a challenging second half of the schedule where earning another victory (and achieving bowl eligibility) might be tough.

At any rate, there is assuredly plenty of movement ahead in these projections, but here is where we are entering the ninth week of the regular season:

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

SEC owns top 5 of AP poll

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
3:40
PM ET
video
The SEC has been historically dominant this season. Just look at the most recent Associated Press poll where it became the first league to ever boast four teams in the top five.

Look even further, though, and you'll see that all four of those teams hail from the West: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Auburn's Gus Malzahn said it a few weeks ago and other coaches have echoed the statement since: "It's the best division in college football."

This might be the point where you feel sorry for Texas A&M.

The Aggies were the toast of college football for the first month or so of the season. They they went through three-quarters of the West wringer, losing games to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama -- in consecutive weeks.

How anyone will survive the West unscathed is beyond comprehension.

Already, Alabama has lost to Ole Miss and Auburn has lost to Mississippi State. But we're not through with the jockeying for position. Auburn goes to Ole Miss on Nov. 1 and Mississippi State travels to Alabama on Nov. 15. And lest we forget, the top four might not be decided until the final week of the regular season when the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl are played.

The SEC is a bear this season. The West just happens to pack the most heat.

It's crazy to consider how we've arrived here, but it's even crazier to look ahead at what's to come.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 10/25