SEC: Auburn Tigers

At first glance: SEC Week 9

October, 20, 2014
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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
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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
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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.

SEC morning links

October, 16, 2014
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Kentucky's turnaround has been one of the best stories in the SEC this season. What Mark Stoops and his staff has accomplished in Year 2 on the job is remarkable as the Wildcats (5-1) are one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. Much of the credit goes to the influx of talent from Stoops' recruiting but it's not only about the young guys. Stoops said the veterans on the Kentucky roster have played a big role, too. He's right. Players like quarterback Patrick Towles and defensive end Bud Dupree were already on campus when Stoops took over. The elder statesmen on the team say Stoops has gone out of his way to make sure they know how much he values his veterans. Senior fullback D.J. Warren even said he wishes he could stick around longer. "I tell myself all the time I wish I was a freshman right now," he said.

With Mike Slive announcing that this will be his final year as SEC commissioner, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. The odds-on favorite many have pointed to nationally is SEC executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer Greg Sankey. The praise from colleagues is effusive, from commissioners of other conferences to athletic directors within the SEC. Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said "Bottom line, I think he has the potential to be one of the truly great leaders in intercollegiate athletics." Sankey has strong credentials and his day-to-day handling of SEC operations while Slive worked on major projects in recent years certainly makes him a natural fit.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs are talking a lot about No. 1 these days since they hold the top spot in the national rankings. As Mullen and his quarterback, Dak Prescott discuss the situation, they're saying all the right things about staying focused, not paying attention to the noise, etc. What's more important than what they say is how they react to the spotlight. Handling success can be a challenge. I have no doubt that Mullen, who has been on a national championship team at Florida, knows how to navigate this and meet that challenge. It'll be fun to watch as the Bulldogs experience life on top.

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An examination of the current state of SEC defenses will tell you a couple of things.

Scoring and yardage are both down halfway through the season in head-to-head conference play compared to where the league was at this point last year. On paper, defenses appear to be on pace to look more like they did in 2012 than 2013.

But the numbers – and there were lots of them – aren’t too far off from last season, compared to the halfway point and the final totals.

With nine teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks – five underclassmen – I wanted to see if there would be a drastic difference in how defenses looked statistically.

(Note: The numbers used in this research came via ESPN Stats & Information’s statistical database.)

SEC defenses are allowing 358.6 yards per game and 402.3 yards per game in conference play. Seven defenses are ranked within the top 50 in total defense; six made the cut halfway through last year. At this point last year, defenses were allowing 376.3 yards per game and 423.5 yards per game in SEC play. In 2012, when defense was king, those numbers were down to 361.3 and 373.8 at the end of the season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertSEC defenses such as Mississippi State's are statistically a little more stout than they were in 2013.
Defenses are currently allowing 5.66 yards per play in league games and 3.28 offensive touchdowns per game. Last year, SEC defenses ended the season allowing 5.91 yards per play and 3.54 offensive touchdowns in conference play.

Those numbers aren’t too far off, but it’s interesting that at this point last year, defenses were allowing 3.68 offensive touchdowns per game and 6.14 yards per play in conference play. At the halfway point in 2012, those numbers were 2.75 touchdowns allowed in league play and 5.31 yards per play.

Those numbers dipped slightly in 2013, as eight teams finished in the top 50 in total defense, meaning SEC defenses got better as the year progressed in a league that featured a plethora of talented, veteran quarterbacks.

Scoring is down at the moment, as teams are averaging 1.92 points per drive in SEC play, down from 2.21 last year. Teams are also scoring touchdowns on 24.4 percent of drives after scoring on 27.7 percent last season. Overall, teams are scoring 21.6 points per game on SEC defenses, which is down from 24.2 through Week 7 of last year. The total scoring percentage in league play for offenses is the same as in 2012 (31.9), which is down from 36.9 percent last year.

While the numbers show that defenses are steadily improving, it’s important to note that prolific offenses appear here to stay in a conference built on stout defensive play. That becomes obvious when you look at the fact that teams are allowing just 21.2 less yards per game and almost the same amount of yards per play and touchdowns per game while facing a less-heralded group of quarterbacks.

With more offenses implementing some sort of variation of the spread, teams should continue to move the ball. The addition of more tempo around the league has helped teams, too.

“There has been a push to more athleticism and speed," LSU coach Les Miles said of the evolution of SEC offenses. "We’ve tried to make that adjustment.”

Another interesting note is that takeaways and sacks are up for defenses in 2014, yet offenses are responding well. Defenses have forced 81 turnovers with 48 interceptions. Midway through the 2013 season, defenses forced just 63 turnovers (34 interceptions). In 2012, teams forced 88 turnovers (45 interceptions).

As for sacks, teams have 91 this year after having 90 at this point last year and 123 in 2012, when teams were allowing just 198.85 passing yards per game halfway through the season.

Pressuring quarterbacks is up, but teams are still averaging 234.6 passing yards per game (nearly 10 fewer yards than last year at this time) in SEC play. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, spread offenses help counter the pressure.

"The ball is out of the quarterbacks' hands quickly," Muschamp said. "Pressure is a little overrated, in my opinion, depending on the type of passing game and the passing concepts they're using. You have to be able to play man-to-man. You gotta be able to deny the ball, mix zone with that. It certainly can expose you, as far as deficiencies in coverage and guys who can't tackle in space."

As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if defenses continue to trend up or if offenses heat up. Last year, numbers dropped as defenses adjusted to such good quarterback play. Last year's experience isn't there, but could quarterbacks -- and offenses -- catch up to defenses by the end of the year with teams working in space more?

“It’s a different style of football,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who runs the spread. “... It gives some people advantages that years ago they didn’t have.”

“The defense figures it out and the offense goes and finds something else."

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 15

October, 15, 2014
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Another week, another SEC playoff contender is gone. That’s the way it’s been this season, and it was no different this past Saturday. Texas A&M has dropped off the list after a humbling loss at home to Ole Miss. The Aggies have a chance to redeem themselves this weekend at Alabama, but time is running out.

Here’s a look at the remaining SEC contenders, including a new team at the top.

Mississippi State
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at Kentucky

Reason for optimism: After beating three straight top-10 teams and jumping last season’s BCS champion Florida State for the top spot in the polls, it’s good to be a Bulldog these days. They still have a couple of tough games ahead, but going 3-0 against LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn entering this Saturday’s open date was an impressive accomplishment.

Cause for concern: The defense is good, but it’s still prone to giving up chunks of yardage. The Bulldogs are 13th in the SEC in total defense (428.8 ypg) and last against the pass (308.3). State has controlled all three SEC games thus far, but it still needs to become more consistent defensively so Dak Prescott doesn’t have to carry the Bulldogs every game.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Tennessee over Ole Miss -- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After beating No. 3 Alabama at home, the Rebels went on the road and dismantled Texas A&M in a game that wasn’t even close as its 35-20 score showed. The defense has allowed six touchdowns, yet has scored four of its own. In three SEC games, Bo Wallace has seven touchdowns and zero turnovers.

Cause for concern: The West is still tough, and the Rebels have to go on the road to play LSU and Arkansas, two teams that are better than their records indicate, and still have Auburn and Mississippi State on the schedule. The Rebels rank 12th in the SEC and 85th nationally in rushing (146.5 yards per game and just 3.9 yards per carry).

Who they’re rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Alabama -- Edward Aschoff

Auburn
Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina

Reason for optimism: Take away the two interceptions, and Nick Marshall actually played a decent game against Mississippi State. He threw for over 200 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored two touchdowns. The defense also did its part, forcing four turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to just 10 points in the second half.

Cause for concern: It starts with the turnovers. Auburn cannot turn the ball over four times and expect to beat a good team. But maybe more troubling was how much the Tigers struggled when they got in the red zone. They came in as one of the top red-zone offenses in the country, but on three straight trips in the second quarter, they managed just six points.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Alabama. An Ole Miss loss would be nice, but Auburn will always root against its in-state rival. -- Greg Ostendorf

Alabama
Record: 5-1 (2-1 SEC)
AP rank: No. 7
Next big obstacle: Oct. 18 vs. Texas A&M

Reason for optimism: Alabama was fortunate to escape Arkansas with a win this past weekend, dodging a number of mistakes and turnovers to beat the Razorbacks by 1 point. Improvement is needed, but at 5-1, nothing is off the table for the Crimson Tide.

Cause for concern: It was bad enough to go on the road and lose at Ole Miss. But when Alabama followed that up with a lackluster performance at Arkansas, it signaled cause for concern. If the offense continues to stay in this current funk, the Tide are a very beatable football team.

Who they’ll be rooting for: Mississippi State did its job beating Auburn last weekend. Now Tennessee needs to find a way to knock off Ole Miss and trim the list of undefeated teams in the West to one. -- Alex Scarborough

Georgia
Record: 5-1 (3-1)
AP rank: No. 10
Next big obstacle: Oct. 18 at Arkansas (in Little Rock)

Reason for optimism: The defense has vastly improved as the season has gone on. Since giving up 401 yards and 32 points to Tennessee, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 233.5 yards in the last two games and shut out Missouri on the road. The East is Georgia’s to lose. Yes, Kentucky is 2-1 in SEC play, but the Bulldogs have a chance to be favored in their remaining SEC games.

Cause for concern: Even though Nick Chubb had the game of his life against Mizzou, Todd Gurley is arguably the best player in the country, and not having him reduces Georgia’s chances of making it into the playoff. Chubb is good, but he isn’t Gurley and he currently doesn’t have anyone to really spare him like he did for Gurley.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Missouri over Florida -- Edward Aschoff
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The winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to win or play for the national championship in each of the last five seasons, and this season was supposed to make it six. The November showdown in Tuscaloosa was thought to be a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff, a winner-take-all matchup similar to last year.

Through the first six games, there has been a slight hiccup by way of the Magnolia State, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama and Auburn aren't still a part of the conversation when it comes time to choose the top four teams in college football.

So we ask the question: Which team is in better shape today to reach the playoff?

Ostendorf: The team that showed up Saturday did not look like the Auburn team we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past year and a half, did it? Silly turnovers and struggles in the red zone took away from what actually wasn't a half-bad performance. You can't spot the other team 21 points and expect to come back and win.

Maybe Mississippi State is just that good, or maybe Auburn simply had an off day. Either way, I expect Gus Malzahn and his team to use the upcoming bye week to regroup and right the ship. Remember the last time the Tigers lost an SEC game? It was last September at LSU, and they proceeded to win nine straight games en route to the BCS title game.

Now, this isn't last year's team. Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Dee Ford are all gone. But I argue that the addition of D'haquille Williams, the team's leading wide receiver through the first six games, makes the passing game that much better, and the difference between last year's defense and this year's defense is night and day. Last year's group relied too much on getting pressure up front. This year, Auburn is getting quality play from the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary, and it has already forced 13 turnovers.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe winner of the past five Auburn-Alabama games has played for the national title. Will this year's winner make the College Football Playoff?
Also, it's not like Alabama's offense is off to a record-setting pace. The offseason hire of Lane Kiffin looked promising at the time, but after 227 yards and 14 points against Arkansas on Saturday, maybe it's time to admit that we were wrong about him. Maybe he's not the answer to all of the Tide's woes on offense.

Scarborough: While I'm not ready to say Kiffin isn't the right guy to lead Alabama's offense, he has struggled in pivotal moments late in each of the last two games. The offensive output against Arkansas -- fewer than 70 yards rushing, two touchdowns -- was about as bad as it gets. But I think with Ryan Kelly eventually sliding back in at center, some of those issues will be settled. It's hard to imagine that running game with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be kept down for long.

With that said, Blake Sims needs to play better. His confidence and decision-making in recent games have been lacking. The fact that Amari Cooper caught just two passes against Arkansas is inexcusable. He's arguably the best player on either side of the Iron Bowl rivalry.

The thing that should concern Alabama fans the most, though, is the execution from this team. If you didn't know it was Nick Saban on the sideline, you would wonder about the coaching. Mental errors, penalties and fumbles have been pervasive. The crisp play of Alabama teams in the past simply hasn't been there this season.

But for those very reasons, I see Alabama as having a higher ceiling than Auburn. The Tide's issues are fixable with practice and good coaching. The Tigers' problems, on the other hand, strike me as more personnel based, whether that's not enough quality players on the offensive line or playmakers on defense.

Ostendorf: Higher ceiling? Maybe. But this Alabama team will go only as far as Sims takes it, and if I'm picking a quarterback, it's not Sims. It's Nick Marshall. He might not be the best passer in the SEC, but he's the perfect fit for what Malzahn wants to do offensively. When Marshall gets going, Auburn is hard to stop. Say what you will about his passing, but he has thrown for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns in three of the last four games. He's much better than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for the Tide considering he accounted for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns in last year's game.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that winning last year's game will give Auburn more confidence heading into this year's game. This team now knows what it takes to beat Alabama, and it won't be afraid to play on the road in Tuscaloosa. If the Iron Bowl does become a play-in game for the playoff, I like the Tigers' chances.

Scarborough: That's great and all. I'm sure we'll see the replay of Chris Davis' 100-plus-yard kick return hundreds of times before the Iron Bowl, as if we had somehow forgotten how that game ended. But while I don't doubt that Auburn's confidence should be high, I'm not sure how much it will matter by that point in the season. The Tigers' schedule is brutal with games against South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia -- in consecutive weeks. After what they have already gone through (Kansas State, Mississippi State), I'm not sure there will be enough gas in the tank come late November.

The Tide's schedule, on the other hand, isn't nearly as daunting. There's this weekend's game against Texas A&M, but after that it's a pair of unranked teams in Tennessee and LSU. Mississippi State will be an enormous challenge, but that game is at home. As is the Iron Bowl. Alabama's home-field advantage could prove to be the difference in both games.

SEC morning links

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
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If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you already know that SEC commissioner Mike Slive, 74, announced on Tuesday that he is retiring next summer. Let's devote this space to the man who transformed the SEC into college football's greatest juggernaut.

There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.

Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.

Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.

The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).

Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!

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SEC releases 2015 football schedule

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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Remember all the complaining we did in September about the drop-off in intrigue between the SEC’s opening-week schedule and the bonanza of nonconference snoozers the following Saturday?

That won’t be an issue in 2015, with the usual slate of SEC-versus-Power Five opponent openers -- including Alabama-Wisconsin, Auburn-Louisville, Texas A&M-Arizona State and the Thursday night opener between South Carolina and North Carolina -- followed by three conference games and Oklahoma-Tennessee in Week 2.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier and South Carolina will be test in 2015, as the Gamecocks play two Power-5 opponents along with eight SEC games.
The SEC released its full 2015 slate on Tuesday night, and those are only a few of the interesting details that fans are sure to obsess over now that their teams’ schedules are official.

After taking a quick glance at the schedules, here are a few more highlights and abnormalities:

  • Georgia’s non-conference slate is nothing special (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, at Georgia Tech), but Mark Richt’s Bulldogs might have drawn the toughest cross-division slates with dates against Alabama and Auburn. Kentucky drawing a Thursday-night matchup against Auburn and a trip to Mississippi State isn’t much of a favor to Mark Stoops, either.
  • UGA-Alabama is one of the most interesting cross-division games on the list. The two programs haven’t met in the regular season since the Crimson Tide spoiled preseason No. 1 Georgia’s 2008 “Blackout” game at Sanford Stadium by jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. A few others of interest are Florida-Ole Miss (Oct. 3), Florida-LSU (Oct. 17), Alabama-Tennessee (Oct. 24), Georgia-Auburn (Nov. 14) and a Thursday-night game between Missouri and Mississippi State (Nov. 5).
    2015 SEC cross-divisional games: Alabama (Oct. 3 at Georgia, Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee), Arkansas (Oct. 3 at Tennessee, Nov. 28 vs. Missouri), Auburn (Thursday, Oct. 15 at Kentucky, Nov. 14 vs. Georgia), Florida (Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17 at LSU), Georgia (Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 14 at Auburn), Kentucky (Thursday, Oct. 15 vs. Auburn, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State), LSU (Oct. 10 at South Carolina, Oct. 17 vs. Florida), Ole Miss (Sept. 26 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 3 at Florida), Mississippi State (Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky, Thursday, Nov. 5 at Missouri), Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 28 at Arkansas), South Carolina (Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 at Texas A&M), Tennessee (Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 24 at Alabama), Texas A&M (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt), Vanderbilt (Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M).
  • As usual, opening weekend is when most of the SEC-versus-Power Five games will occur, but there are others sprinkled throughout the schedule. Four SEC teams aren’t scheduled to play a Power Five nonconference game, while South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson) is the only SEC team set to play two.
  • We'll give Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks the early nod as the SEC team with the toughest nonconference schedule. In addition to the neutral-site game with UNC and home game against Clemson, South Carolina will host Central Florida and The Citadel.
    2015 SEC-versus-Power Five: Alabama (Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin in Dallas), Arkansas (Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech), Auburn (Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta), Florida (Nov. 28 vs. Florida State), Georgia (Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Nov. 28 vs. Louisville), LSU (Sept. 26 at Syracuse), Ole Miss (None), Mississippi State (None), Missouri (None), South Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Nov. 28 vs. Clemson), Tennessee (Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma), Texas A&M (Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State in Houston), Vanderbilt (None).

  • Texas A&M will actually leave the state of Texas only once in the first 11 weeks of the season (Oct. 24 at Ole Miss). Prior to its Nov. 21 visit to Vanderbilt, A&M will play seven home games and neutral-site games against Arizona State (in Houston) and Arkansas (in Arlington). The Aggies close the season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at LSU, not on Thanksgiving like this season’s finale with the Tigers.
  • With SEC teams getting just one open date apiece in 2015, Ole Miss’ schedule looks like a considerable challenge. The Rebels will play for 10 straight weeks -- including road dates at Alabama, Florida and Auburn -- before taking the weekend off on Nov. 14. They will close the season with a Nov. 21 home game with LSU and the Nov. 28 Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.

Those are just a few of the details that jump out after taking a look at the SEC’s 2015 schedule. Check out the SEC’s official site to see each team’s individual schedule and a week-by-week slate for next fall.

Midseason All-SEC team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The many members of the Greatest Show on Turf who were honored at halftime. OK, so maybe we weren't perfect with our preseason All-SEC team, but how can you blame us? There are always surprises, and at the midway point, this season has been no different. Just look at which teams are leading the conference. Who saw that coming?

So we at the SEC blog came together and updated our all-conference team. There were some carry-overs from the initial list, but there are also some new names, some names that might have gone under the radar before the season.

Without further ado, here's your midseason All-SEC team:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
No quarterback has been better in the SEC. Prescott has 2,089 total yards with 23 touchdowns and has taken down three straight top-10 opponents.
Preseason pick: Nick Marshall, Auburn

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDak Prescott has passed for 1,478 yards with 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions for the top-ranked Bulldogs. He's rushed for 576 yards and 8 scores and also has 35 receiving yards with a TD.
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
Suspension aside, Gurley has been the nation's best player. He still leads the SEC in yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and rushing touchdowns (eight).
Preseason pick: Gurley

RB: Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
Once known as the “Bowling Ball,” he's a certified wrecking ball with his bruising style. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Preseason pick: Mike Davis, South Carolina

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
There's been no more dominant wideout in the SEC than Alabama's junior from South Florida. More than half of Tide QB Blake Sims' completions have ended up in Cooper's hands.
Preseason pick: Cooper

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn
We all knew he was going to be good, but this good? The junior college transfer leads Auburn in receptions (31), yards (493) and touchdowns (five).
Preseason pick: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Engram didn't receive as much preseason publicity as some SEC tight ends, but has been the league's best so far with 18 receptions for 264 yards.
Preseason pick: O.J. Howard, Alabama

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
The senior has been solid, though not perfect, in his transition from right tackle to left tackle. He has done an overall fine job protecting Kenny Hill's blind side.
Preseason pick: Ogbuehi

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
South Carolina's season hasn't gone as planned but Cann, a fifth-year senior, has been a consistent force from his left guard spot.
Preseason pick: Cann

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
There's been a lot of shuffling up front, but Dismukes has been the constant. The senior has started 43 of Auburn's last 44 games, including all six this season.
Preseason pick: Dismukes

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State
One of the driving forces in State's running game, the former walk-on has started 18 straight games and filled in for suspended center Dillon Day against Texas A&M.
Preseason pick: Vadal Alexander, LSU

OT: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Bo Wallace has been Good Bo, not Bad Bo, because of his O-line. Tunsil has kept watch of Wallace's blind side and helped the Rebs to the second-best passing game in the SEC.
Preseason pick: La'el Collins, LSU

DEFENSE

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State
At one point, Smith was named the SEC's defensive lineman of the week for three straight weeks. He does it all for the Bulldogs' stout defensive front.
Preseason pick: Chris Jones, Mississippi State

[+] EnlargeSenquez Golson
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesSenquez Golson leads the SEC and is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri
Ranked second nationally in tackles for loss and third in sacks, Ray has been consistent. He has at least one TFL in every game and only one sackless game.
Preseason pick: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
The true freshman is living up to the hype that defined his recruitment. His 7.5 sacks are a school freshman record and only a half-sack behind the SEC freshman record.
Preseason pick: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
The statistics don't tell the story of the sophomore, who has been a disruptive force for the Rebels. Example: the pressure he put on Kenny Hill on Saturday to force a pick-six.
Preseason pick: Nkemdiche

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Try to find a better linebacker who can blitz, clog the run, cover and play sideline-to-sideline as well as McKinney. He has a team-high 41 tackles with three sacks.
Preseason pick: McKinney

LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
With four sacks, the Bulldogs' chief pass-rusher hasn't had a truly dominant game yet, but he typically draws the most attention among UGA's pack of sack artists.
Preseason pick: Floyd

LB Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
It has taken him four years, but Dickson is finally having that breakthrough season. The senior leads Alabama with seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
Preseason pick: Ramik Wilson, Georgia

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Tied for second in the SEC with six pass breakups, Hargreaves is rarely tested due to his terrific instincts, great range and solid tackling ability.
Preseason pick: Hargreaves

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
One of the SEC's best cover corners with an SEC-leading five interceptions (second nationally). He's tied for first in the SEC with eight passes defended.
Preseason pick: Tre'Davious White, LSU

S: Landon Collins, Alabama
It's hard to imagine where Bama's defense would be without Collins, who sealed Saturday's win with an interception. The talented junior leads the Tide in tackles and passes defended.
Preseason pick: Collins

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
He may not lead his team in interceptions, but Prewitt is possibly the Rebs best defensive player. The veteran safety has 3.5 tackles for loss, two picks and 32 total tackles.
Preseason pick: Prewitt

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
Fry leads the SEC with 10 field goals made and a conversion rate over 90 percent. The sophomore has a long of 45 yards and is perfect on 25 PATs.
Preseason pick: Marshall Morgan, Georgia

P: JK Scott, Alabama
Looking for Alabama's first-half MVP? Look no further than Scott, a lanky true freshman with a big leg. Forget leading the SEC, Scott ranks sixth in the country in yards per punt (46.7).
Preseason pick: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

KR/PR: Quan Bray, Auburn
The senior might not have lived up to his potential as a wide receiver, but he's making an impact in the return game. Bray leads the SEC, averaging 25 yards per punt return.
Preseason pick: Christion Jones, Alabama

SEC midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:30
AM ET
The Magnolia State has turned the college football world upside down.

Yes, the emergence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, two schools that can count their trips to Atlanta for the SEC championship game on exactly one finger, is currently the face of the sport. After becoming just the fifth team in AP poll history to defeat three straight top-10 opponents, Mississippi State is the nation's No. 1 team, its highest ranking ever. After wins against Alabama and Texas A&M, the Rebels rank third.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesAuburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams earns ESPN's newcomer of the year award at the midseason mark for the SEC.
There's a chance that the Egg Bowl could mean more at season's end than the Iron Bowl. There's still a lot of football left, but as things stand now, the road to Atlanta -- and maybe the playoff -- goes through Mississippi.

That isn't to say other teams don't have a chance to detour that trip. Alabama still hosts Mississippi State, and Ole Miss still has to host Auburn and travel to LSU and Arkansas, two teams that are better than you think.

Then there's the East, well, there's Georgia. Before you throw that side of the conference into an active volcano, realize that Georgia is quietly gaining steam after a 34-0 win at Missouri without Todd Gurley, arguably the nation's best player. He's currently suspended for possible violations of NCAA rules, but this team can win the East without him. Just imagine what could happen if he returns.

Let's check out our SEC midseason awards:

Offensive MVP: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
There hasn't been a better, more consistent quarterback in the SEC. Prescott has 2,089 total yards of offense with 23 touchdowns and has taken down three straight top-10 opponents. He's passed for 200 yards and rushed for 100 yards in four of his past five games. -- Edward Aschoff

Defensive MVP: Preston Smith, DE, Mississippi State
He's made a major impact in every game this season for the Bulldogs. He has 19 tackles, including a team-high 6.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. Smith also has two interceptions, three passes defended, nine quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and blocked two kicks. -- Edward Aschoff

Biggest surprise: Kentucky
Mark Stoops' recruiting success made it clear that the future was becoming brighter in Lexington, but it would be hard to say we expected the Wildcats to be 5-1 right now. They've performed well beyond preseason expectations and are poised to become bowl-bound for the first time since the 2010 season. -- Sam Khan

Biggest disappointment: South Carolina
After winning 11 games in three straight seasons and opening 2014 with a No. 9 national ranking, it all came crashing down quickly for the Gamecocks. Kenny Hill and Texas A&M routed South Carolina in the opener, and the Gamecocks have since lost their last two to Missouri and Kentucky. -- David Ching

Newcomer of the year: D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
In his first game, Williams hauled in nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. He hasn't looked back since. The junior college transfer has quickly become the favorite target for Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, leading the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. At this rate, he might only be on the Plains for one season. -- Greg Ostendorf

Best coach: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
It was a slow and steady rise. Mullen had to change everything from the culture to the coaching. It took five years, but he's absolutely changed the perception of Mississippi State football. Ranked No. 1 with a solid defense and a Heisman Trophy contender at QB, Mullen has built a program no one thought possible. -- Alex Scarborough

Game of the year: Bama-Ole Miss
The goal posts left the building. Hotty Toddy did it. Not only did Ole Miss finally beat Alabama, it did so on the biggest stage. Bo Wallace played his best late, Senquez Golson sealed the win with an interception and Oxford partied like it never had before. Katy Perry wasn't surprised -- she was impressed. -- Alex Scarborough

Biggest games of the second half
Mississippi State-Ole Miss
Auburn-Alabama
Auburn-Georgia
Mississippi State-Alabama
Auburn-Ole Miss

SEC morning links

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
8:00
AM ET
1. This is what Alabama football has come to -- fans losing their minds over a one-point win against Arkansas last Saturday. ESPN analyst Joey Galloway stoked the flames with his take:



Quick, someone check if Phyllis from Mulga is still breathing. Nick Saban isn't about to hear it from those crazed fans, though. He blew his top in yet another press conference eruption on Monday, saying, "It really sorta, if you want to know the truth about it, pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they're disappointed that we only won the game, 14-13, and in the way we played." The frustration Saban speaks of is obvious. But as Steve Spurrier found out when he built Florida into a powerhouse in the 1990s, out-of-control fan expectations come with the turf.

2. Speaking of crazed fans, a Tennessee supporter hoping to help his Volunteers in their game at No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday posted a Snapchat photo taken in August of Rebels star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche smoking from a bong. What started as a message board post on Sunday night naturally spread to social media. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze acknowledged it during his Monday press conference, saying, "I'm very aware of the picture and also when it was taken and where it was taken." He also said he is "super confident" the school's drug policies are being enforced properly.

3. From the "It was bound to happen" file: Some Florida fans have created websites called HireDanMullen.com and WeWantDan.com in hopes of persuading athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire coach Will Muschamp and hire Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. One of the sites even links to Foley's email address. If Muschamp is truly on his way out, Mullen does make a lot of sense with his success at MSU and as the offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer before that. In fact, the Gators offense hasn't done much since Mullen left. These new sites aren't much to look at, but they are reminiscent of the classic FireRonZook site, which has morphed into an anti-Muschamp site, by the way.

Around the SEC
Gus Malzahn deserved time-and-a-half from the magician’s union for all the tricks he had to pull in order to get Auburn into last season’s BCS championship game.

The 2014 Tigers might have a slightly greater margin for error thanks to the existence of the four-team College Football Playoff, but their path to the postseason is once again fraught with peril.

“We’ve got a great challenge ahead of us,” defensive lineman Angelo Blackson admitted.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisNick Marshall and the Tigers rebounded from a loss last season with a similarly nightmarish schedule to the one that lies ahead.
Auburn doesn’t have much experience losing under Malzahn, but last season’s rally from an early loss at LSU created the blueprint for what the No. 6 Tigers (5-1, 2-1) must do now after falling 38-23 to newly minted No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday. Not that Malzahn has any interest in discussing how Auburn can crack the playoff field just yet.

“I’m not thinking anything about a playoff. I’m thinking about we just got beat by one of the better teams in the country,” Malzahn said. “We didn’t play our best. We’re still one of the better teams. I feel strongly about that. We’ll get better.

“We’ve got an off week. It’s good,” added Malzahn, whose team next hosts South Carolina (3-3, 2-3) on Oct. 25. “We’ve got to heal up a little bit, we’ve got to fix a few things and have a plan for this second part of the season.”

Oh, what a minefield that second half that is going to be -- much like last season, when the Tigers bounced back from their Sept. 21 loss at LSU by winning nine consecutive games. Along their path to an SEC title, the Tigers defeated No. 24 Ole Miss, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 25 Georgia, No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri before facing Florida State in the title game.

These Tigers aren’t even halfway through their conference schedule and they still have road dates against No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 10 Georgia and No. 7 Alabama remaining, along with a home game against No. 21 Texas A&M.

With that many tough opponents left, it will require more Malzahn magic for Auburn to win the SEC West, much less earn a playoff bid. But the good news for Auburn fans is that it didn’t appear after the game that the Tigers’ confidence had waned after Saturday’s loss.

“I definitely feel like we’re one of the top two, three teams in the country, so I definitely feel like we’re a playoff team,” running back Cameron Artis-Payne said.

Not only did the Tigers’ confidence seem to remain intact, but they also didn’t get caught up in pointing fingers, which easily could have happened after turnovers on their first two offensive plays helped Mississippi State jump out to a quick 14-0 lead. The Bulldogs actually led by as many as 21 points before Auburn twice cut their lead to eight points, although Auburn never managed to get any closer.

“Every year, every team has a game that you can tell a lot about their team. I feel like this game told us a lot about ourselves. No matter what, we’re never going to give up,” linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said. “I believe this is the game that clicks us all together and brings us to a good understanding that when we’re 100 percent, we can do whatever we want to do.”

McKinzy had a point. Despite its horrendous start, and despite its disappointment over a couple of pass interference calls that went Mississippi State’s way, and despite State’s deafening home-field advantage -- accentuated by thousands of clanging cowbells -- Auburn had a chance to catch up to the nation’s No. 1 team on Saturday. The Tigers simply blew a couple of prime opportunities and as a result lost a regular-season game for just the second time under Malzahn.

They were bound to lose at some point. Every SEC team is, based on the strength of the conference. For example, ESPN’s Football Power Index rates Georgia and Ole Miss as the favorites to win the SEC East and West, respectively. However, the FPI gives 5-1 Georgia just an 8.6 percent chance of winning out this season and gives 6-0 Ole Miss an even smaller chance of remaining unbeaten at 5.2 percent.

In other words, Auburn isn’t out of anything yet. Their odds aren’t great based on the difficulty of their remaining schedule, but the Tigers have a locker room full of players who overcame worse situations a season ago.

“We’ve got a strong team. We’re always going to be together. Lose, win, it dooen’t matter,” wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We lost last year to LSU and we ended up in the national championship. You never know what’s going to happen in this league.”

Especially when a Malzahn-coached Auburn team is involved.

SEC morning links

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
8:00
AM ET
1. Mississippi State became the first team in the 78-year history of the Associated Press college football poll to go from unranked to No. 1 in the span of five weeks. It's also the first time in the Bulldogs' history that they are ranked No. 1 in either the AP or the coaches poll. It's pretty much pandemonium in Starkville these days, but Heisman candidate (and new frontrunner?) Dak Prescott wasn't all that impressed with his own performance in upending Auburn, saying "It was one of my worst games." After beating three consecutive top-10 opponents, Mississippi State has more than earned a week off. The Bulldogs be back in Week 9 at Kentucky with a massive target on their backs. Every week is huge when you're No. 1.

2. After a promising three-game nonconference winning streak, Arkansas (3-3) has dropped consecutive SEC games and is riding a 15-game conference losing streak after losing to Alabama 14-13 in the kind of game that is typically called a moral victory for a downtrodden program. The Razorbacks played well yet again, but came up short. Coach Bret Bielema called it "a broken record." Quarterback Brandon Allen said, "We're so close." The Hogs get their third straight top-10 foe on Saturday in visiting Georgia, which climbed the rankings after crushing Missouri on the road. Wouldn't it just be so typical of the SEC East to see the division leader lose against the cellar-dweller of the West? Georgia has been warned.

3. Confusion reigned throughout the Swamp late in Saturday's drama-filled 30-27 victory by LSU over Florida. Was Les Miles, that notorious Mad Hatter, guilty of poor clock management again when his Tigers ran the ball with no timeouts? It appeared there was plenty of time to spike the ball and kick the game-winner, but the clock ticked down to three seconds when the referees intervened. The game clock was reset to 10 seconds because Florida players were deliberately sitting on the pile and shoving LSU players in a desperate attempt to get to overtime. After the game, Will Muschamp said he would call the SEC head of officials for an explanation. It appears an explanation is not necessary.

Around the SEC
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SEC bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
8:00
PM ET
It's one of those topics of discussion that lurks on the periphery of college football: Can the SEC get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

After the past couple of weeks, maybe that question should be: Can the state of Mississippi get two teams into the playoff?

The Bulldogs and Rebels have been that good. MSU jumped over Florida State and into the No. 1 spot in both polls, while Ole Miss remained in the No. 3 spot in the rankings.

These are heady times in the Magnolia State. But the Egg Bowl looms large and is late enough in the season that it's certain to bloody the loser's résumé.

With all of the parity in college football, all of the chaos and the fact that the SEC West still has a lot more self-destruction to come, let's not put two SEC teams into the playoff just yet.

Here is our full list of conference bowl teams entering the eighth week of the season:

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

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