SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

videoSTARKVILLE, Miss. -- “You’re not going to Mississippi State unless you can tell me why,” Peggy Prescott said to her son late one night during his senior year of high school. Dak, her youngest, wanted to play college football in Starkville, but he was only 17 years old at the time. Because of that, he couldn’t sign his own letter of intent. Mom held the keys to his future and she wasn’t going down without a fight.

Raising three boys on her own in Louisiana, Peggy needed to be heard. Her whistle, how it cut through the crowd from the bleachers to the football field below, is still ringing in her sons’ ears today, 11 months after she passed away from a year-and-a-half-long bout with cancer.

She loved football and was there for every one of her sons’ games. Before she passed, she broke down and got her first tattoo: a football on her ankle with the number three written inside it for her boys.

“With the cannon going off on the football field and people yelling you could still hear my mom's sharp whistle over everybody,” Tad, her eldest, recalled. “She was not the mom that sat under a blanket and kept her mouth shut the entire game. You could hear her screaming, 'Hit him! Get your hands off him!’”

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesDak Prescott knows he has something to prove on Saturday against LSU.
It was how she felt about Mississippi State, too. Starkville wasn’t allowed to have Dak, she thought. The seven-and-a-half-hour drive across state lines was too much for her. The two-and-a-half hour trip to LSU felt much more reasonable.

Besides, it was LSU that recruited Peggy the hardest, 10 times harder than Dak, he said.

“They knew whatever Mom said was going to matter,” Dak said. “They battled her and battled her, but I wanted to be an honest guy, and when I give my word I’m committed.”

That decision didn’t come easily. Dak had to keep his mother up until 2 a.m. to finally convince her why Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen were the right choice.

“I didn’t want to go to a team that had already won a championship and had been in the top 10 every year,” Dak explained. “I wanted to help a team grow and be a part of something special, and I thought Mississippi State had the best chance at the time.”

LSU, he felt, was telling him what he wanted to hear. Mullen said redshirting his first year on campus was a possibility while Miles told him he wanted him to play right away, he said.

“I feel like I’m a smart guy and I can see through bull crap,” Dak said.

“I wanted to get to where LSU and all those other schools were and beat them.”

On Saturday, he’ll have that chance.

If only Peggy could be in Baton Rouge to see it.

For the first time in a long time, there’s hope among Mississippi State fans that beating LSU is a real possibility. The Tigers have won 14 consecutive times in the series, after all.

But the Bulldogs are 3-0 themselves, the defense is as deep as it’s ever been and Dak is quietly building a case for the Heisman Trophy. He’s an outsider at this point, but his numbers speak volumes: 43 of 72 passing for 696 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s rushed for 273 yards and two touchdowns. And for good measure, he’s also caught a touchdown pass.

Between his number (15) and his charismatic leadership, there have been comparisons to Tim Tebow. Mullen, after all, was Tebow’s offensive coordinator at Florida when he won the Heisman in 2007.

“He’s evolved,” said safety Jay Hughes, who hosted Dak and his mother on their official way back when. “Just his knowledge and understanding of the game have gone to another level.”

“I don’t even think he knows how good he can be,” he added.

But while putting up big numbers against LSU would surely catapult Dak into the Heisman conversation, Mullen doesn’t want him thinking that way.

“There will be plays he has to make to win the game for us, but not every play,” Mullen said. “Disperse the ball, get it to the playmakers, lead the offense, and then when there are plays to be made go make them.”

Dak insists he’s ready to do just that. He knows Tiger Stadium will be loud, but he’s excited for it. With more than 20 family members expected to be on hand, he knows, “All eyes will be on us and LSU this time.”

The same quarterback who turned down LSU and convinced his mother it was the right decision is now returning to his home state with hopes of an upset. Mississippi State is ready to break through, he thinks. Now is the time to prove it.

“There’s nothing like starting 1-0,” he said. “Starting off against a top-10 opponent would be a great chance to put ourselves ahead and let the nation know.”

And in some way, it would let Dak know, too.

A win would do more than lift Mississippi State in the SEC West. A win would do more than lift Dak’s Heisman chances.

A win would make Dak right about that 2 a.m. conversation so many years ago. A win would be the perfect way to say to his mother that leaving home and helping build something in Starkville was well worth it.

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
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Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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SEC Heisman watch: Week 3

September, 16, 2014
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Despite Saturday's loss to South Carolina, Todd Gurley is still among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy this season.

Georgia's stud running back did just about everything he could have to win that game Saturday. He broke through tackles, changed the field on a dime during a wild 17-yard gain, drug Gamecocks -- likely kicking and screaming -- on his back and legs, and flattened guys in his way inside Williams-Brice Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley did everything he could do to get Georgia a big road victory at South Carolina. Although the Bulldogs lost, he's still a top Heisman candidate.
Call this hyperbole if you want, but it wouldn't shock me if the lightning that delayed Saturday's game and the thunder heard in the distance that day wasn't linked to Gurley's presence in Columbia.

Still, it wasn't enough, but who knows what would have happened if he'd been given the ball on that first-and-goal from South Carolina's 4-yard line with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter. I know Bulldogs fans are wondering how the Dawgs went away from their workhorse back at such a critical moment ...

Through two games, Gurley is second in the SEC with 329 rushing yards on 35 attempts. He's averaging a whopping 9.4 yards per carry and has four rushing touchdowns. He also has a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Gurley is your leader in the Heisman clubhouse nationally and the unquestioned one when it comes to SEC candidates. He has that special, rare blend of power, speed and agility that Playstation footballers wish they could compute.

But we already knew all that. So today, I thought we'd talk a little bit about the quarterbacks.

We can't have 10 legitimate Heisman candidates in the SEC. It's just not logical. But we can talk about a handful of guys who could throw themselves into the mix as the season goes on.

  • Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: Obviously, he's the leader out of the quarterback gate. He leads the SEC with 1,094 passing yards and has 11 passing touchdowns with zero interceptions. It doesn't matter who he's played since that phenomenal performance at South Carolina, the kid deserves Heisman love.
  • Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He's the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback with his 696 passing yards and 273 rushing yards. Prescott has accounted for 11 touchdowns and looks much sharper as a passer in the pocket. The next step is seeing how he performs in SEC play. Oh, hello road trip to LSU.
  • Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: OK, so we never really know which Wallace we'll get in games, but when he's on, he's not too shabby. He's second in the SEC with 1,023 yards and has nine touchdowns to four interceptions (three in the opener). With his 316 yards in a blowout win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Wallace tied Eli Manning's mark of 10 300-yard passing games at Ole Miss, which is a school record. Wallace will break that record soon enough.
  • Maty Mauk, Missouri: It's pretty obvious that the Tigers are just fine at quarterback with Mauk. All he's done as the full-time starter is throw for 647 yards and a league-high 12 touchdowns. Mauk can run if he needs to, and has really improved his pocket footwork, but he'd rather just stand and throw down field, which he does really well.

Now, will all of these guys be in the Heisman discussion in November? No. In fact, there's a good chance that by October most of this list will be eliminated from serious contention. But at this early part of the season, it was necessary to mention what these guys had done so far.

Here are a couple of other players to watch when it comes to SEC Heisman chances:

  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Still the best receiver around. Leads the SEC and the nation with 33 receptions and has a conference-leading 454 yards with two touchdowns.
  • Arkansas RBs: Alex Collins leads the SEC 411 rushing yards and has five touchdowns. Jonathan Williams is third with 322 yards and leads the league with six rushing touchdowns. Honestly, just take your pick with either back because they are both averaging more than 8 yards per carry.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: He was off this weekend, but is still fourth in the SEC with 289 rushing yards and has four touchdowns.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: He was finally kept out of the end zone against Louisiana-Monroe, but is still second in the SEC with 370 receiving yards and has a league-leading four touchdowns.
  • Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: Through two games, he has 21 receptions for 339 yards and three touchdowns. If he's not on the field, Florida doesn't beat Kentucky Saturday.

At first glance: SEC Week 4

September, 15, 2014
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What do we know about the SEC right now? Not as much as we thought we did on Friday, before Kentucky put a triple-overtime scare into Florida, South Carolina toppled Georgia and other conference teams gave us reason to doubt previous assumptions about the SEC hierarchy.

The uncertainty is part of what makes following the league fun, though. With a couple more SEC teams jumping into conference play this week, we should soon gain a better understanding of where things actually stand within the conference. But for now -- with a couple of key SEC games and a huge nonconference matchup on Thursday ahead -- let’s celebrate how many SEC fan bases truly believe their teams have a legitimate chance to make it to Atlanta in December.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Florida at Alabama
Little did we know before the season that Florida’s first major challenge of the fall would come from Kentucky and not from Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Tuscaloosa. Will Muschamp’s team (2-0, 1-0 SEC) needed an all-star performance from receiver Demarcus Robinson (15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns) and an assist from the back judge who was minding the play clock on a key fourth-down play to beat the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) in overtime. The Gators need to make a lot of progress in a little time if they’re to have a chance against No. 3 Alabama (3-0), despite the Crimson Tide’s over reliance on dump-off passes to Amari Cooper and occasionally shoddy pass defense. Florida has the ability to make this a competitive game, but it must look a lot more like the team that destroyed Eastern Michigan, 65-0, two weeks ago than the one that easily could have lost to Kentucky.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Mississippi State’s quarterback has been great against three overmatched teams so far (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama). When they visit No. 8 LSU this weekend, Prescott and the Bulldogs will gain their first real opportunity to prove they’ll be more than a middle-of-the-pack program in the SEC West this season. LSU hasn’t allowed a single point in nine quarters and has outscored opponents 108-0 since falling behind Wisconsin, 24-7, early in the second half of the opener. The Tigers traditionally win comfortably in this series, so the pressure is on Prescott to keep the Bulldogs afloat against by far the best team they will have faced to date.

Coaches under the microscope: Georgia coordinators Mike Bobo and Jeremy Pruitt
A longtime Mark Richt assistant, Bobo has fielded some of the most productive offenses in school history in recent seasons, but he has taken plenty of heat for not handing the ball to Todd Gurley on Saturday with Georgia knocking at the South Carolina goal line with the chance to take a late lead. That decision blew up in Bobo’s face when the drive sputtered and normally solid kicker Marshall Morgan missed a chip-shot field goal. Meanwhile, newcomer Pruitt’s defense was atrocious, surrendering 447 yards of total offense following a solid debut two weeks ago against Clemson. This Saturday’s matchup against Troy shouldn’t provide a major challenge for the Bulldogs, but it will be their next opportunity to get bad tastes out of their mouths.

Storyline to watch: Auburn’s travel schedule
Playing a Thursday night game halfway across the country can’t help but be disruptive for Gus Malzahn’s No. 5 Auburn Tigers (2-0, 1-0). It might be a competitive challenge, too, as the 1,000-mile trip to Manhattan, Kansas, will culminate with Malzahn’s team facing No. 20 Kansas State (2-0). The sunny side of the unusual trip is that Auburn was off last weekend, so it will not play on short rest. Plus the Tigers will have nine days until they host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 27, so they have extra recovery time built into the back end of this trip and a relatively easy nonconference game between K-State and a huge SEC matchup with LSU on Oct. 4. Nonetheless, this odd piece of scheduling will probably create a couple of headaches for Malzahn and his staff.

Intriguing matchup: Arkansas running game against Northern Illinois defense
Fresh off a 438-yard outing in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech, Arkansas’ impressive rushing attack seems to rank among the nation’s best. Jonathan Williams (22 carries, 145 yards, four TDs against Texas Tech) and Alex Collins (27-212, 2 TDs) might be the best tandem in the SEC and the Razorbacks’ offensive line is doing fine work. Let’s see how they fare on Saturday against a Northern Illinois defense that ranks 13th nationally against the run, surrendering 81 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. The Huskies posted those numbers in wins against Presbyterian, Northwestern and UNLV, so they certainly haven’t seen the likes of Arkansas’ running game yet. It seems highly likely NIU’s opponent averages might rise a bit after Saturday’s game.

LSU 'D' dominating as SEC play arrives

September, 15, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles asked attendees at his postgame news conference Saturday whether anyone in the room was alive the last time LSU posted back-to-back shutouts at Tiger Stadium.

While some of those media members were firmly in middle age, nobody there had been alive since October 1941, a couple of months before the Pearl Harbor invasion pulled the United States into World War II, when the Tigers tied Mississippi State 0-0 and beat Rice 27-0 on consecutive weekends.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoCan Jalen Mills and LSU's defense shut out their third straight opponent when the Tigers take on Mississippi State in Week 4?
Junior safety Jalen Mills is one of the veterans on the Tigers' roster, but joked that he "wasn't even thought of" yet by his parents in 1985, the last time LSU notched consecutive shutouts of any sort, when the Tigers won 10-0 against Kentucky at home and beat Ole Miss 14-0 in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, that piece of history came a full nine years before Mills was born.

Both of those streaks are history thanks to what Mills and the other members of LSU's defense accomplished over the past two Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, first shutting out Sam Houston State 56-0 and then taking down Louisiana-Monroe 31-0.

"They were not getting yards," Miles said after Saturday's win against ULM. "They handed the ball off, they weren't getting yards, and [LSU's defensive backs] were covering. In short throws, they were covering. So I think the defense is playing dominant football."

Both shutouts were impressive. Even when it's an FCS squad such as Sam Houston State or a lower-division team such as ULM, preventing an opponent from scoring a single point is an accomplishment -- and in ULM's case, the Warhawks didn't even generate 100 yards of total offense (they had 93 yards, the fewest by an LSU opponent since 2007).

Now we'll see whether these achievements mean something or whether they'll become historical footnotes that in a few years will interest only those who dig stats out of old media guides.

We'll probably learn which option it's going to be over the next couple of weeks, beginning with Saturday's game against Mississippi State. LSU was supposed to dominate its past two opponents and it did. Neither of those offenses had a player like Dak Prescott at quarterback or weapons like De'Runnya Wilson, Jameon Lewis or Josh Robinson at his disposal.

Prescott (91 rushing yards per game, 232 ypg passing, 12 total touchdowns) is not a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at this point, but that would change quickly if he runs wild next weekend and the Bulldogs improve to 4-0 in the SEC opener for both teams.

"He's a very mobile guy," Mills said. "He's at best when he is being mobile -- so [LSU's defense must] just try to contain the pocket, try to contain him, try to get the timing on him and his receivers' routes off a little bit."

Prescott and State were giving LSU fits last season until the Tigers got it together late in the third quarter and closed the game on a 31-0 run to earn a 59-26 victory. The defense ignited that win-clinching run by forcing two turnovers and a turnover on downs in State's final three possessions -- mirroring a trend in the Tigers' recent run of defensive success.

They have been finishers. Finishing drives with third-down stops to force punts (ULM had seven three-and-outs in 12 possessions Saturday). Finishing possessions by forcing turnovers (LSU has six takeaways and two turnovers on downs since the start of the fourth quarter in the opener against Wisconsin). Finishing plays with hard hits on quarterbacks and gang tackles on opposing ball carriers.

LSU's defense needs to keep playing that way or its SEC West chances might quickly be finished.

Like some of Les Miles' best Tiger teams, this is not a team built to win shootouts against prolific offenses such as Auburn's or Texas A&M's. Last season's LSU club was more comfortable playing that style of game because of its wealth of NFL-ready skill talent, but this team seems to be cut more from the traditional LSU cloth. Challenge the opponent's manhood with a physical brand of offense. Limit risks and mistakes. Then let John Chavis' defense put away wins by overwhelming opponents with aggression and athleticism.

We're about to discover whether the Tigers have the pieces to duplicate the massive success that previous Miles teams enjoyed while abiding by that basic philosophy.

Will the interior defensive line be good enough to slow down the power running games ahead on the schedule? Will the pass rush be effective enough to force some mistakes? Are the linebackers going to be effective against high-level skill talent? It's too early to respond with a definitive "yes" to any of those questions, but aside from a rocky first half against Wisconsin, things look good for Chavis' bunch so far.

If they stifle Mississippi State's offense on Saturday the way they suffocated two overmatched nonconference opponents the past two weekends, LSU fans will have good reason to ratchet up their excitement level another few notches.

SEC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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We're creeping closer and closer to the meat of conference season in the SEC. That just means things will get a little clearer in the bowl picture for the league.

We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:

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

What we learned in the SEC: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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Triple overtime in the Swamp? An upset in Columbia that was literally decided by inches? What more could you ask for? And it was only Week 3 in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonQuarterback Maty Mauk showed his mettle in Missouri's win over Central Florida on Saturday.
1. The SEC East race is wide-open: Had the ball been spotted an inch the other way, Georgia would’ve had good field position and one last chance to tie or win its game against South Carolina. It wasn’t meant to be. With the 38-35 loss, the Bulldogs are no longer the top team in the SEC. They’re not even the top team in their division right now. Technically, that spot belongs to Florida. The Gators are 1-0 in conference play after Saturday’s thrilling win over Kentucky, but they didn’t play like the East’s top team. Maybe it’s Missouri, which rolled over Central Florida at home. The Tigers are 3-0, and Maty Mauk might be the SEC’s best quarterback. Or maybe South Carolina is back after that much-needed win over Georgia. What happens if the Gamecocks run the table? At this point, nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s why you play the games.

2. Gurley is still a beast and a Heisman front-runner: All week, everybody talked about Todd Gurley and how he’s the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and how he was going to run all over South Carolina. Well, he delivered. The junior rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.6 yards per carry in the loss. Those numbers might seem pedestrian for Gurley’s standards, but it was the broken tackles and yards after contact that were so impressive. Although Georgia lost the game, Gurley is the SEC’s top candidate to win the Heisman. The real head-scratcher came in the fourth quarter, when Georgia had the ball on first-and-goal from the South Carolina 4-yard line and tried to pass. Why not give it to Gurley? The star back should pad his stats in a favorable matchup at home against Troy next week.

3. Either Kentucky is much-improved or Florida is in trouble: The game wasn’t even over, and there were people already calling for Will Muschamp’s head. Florida obviously hung on for a 36-30 win, saving Muschamp's job for now. But what does the outcome say about the two teams? For starters, Kentucky is not the same team it was a season ago. The Wildcats came in confident, their defense played lights-out in the first half, and they were a play or two away from snapping their 27-game losing streak to the Gators. Don’t be surprised if Mark Stoops’ bunch ends up in a bowl game this season. With that said, it still didn’t look pretty for Florida. The Gators survived against Kentucky, but what happens when they travel to Alabama next week or when they have to play LSU and Missouri in back-to-back weeks in October?

4. Bielema isn’t going to change, nor does he have to: It was classic ground-and-pound football for Arkansas on Saturday, and Bret Bielema loved it. The Razorbacks flat-out dominated Texas Tech up front while Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams proved why they might be the best running back tandem in the SEC. Collins rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns, Williams had 145 yards and four touchdowns, and as a team, Arkansas racked up 439 yards on the ground in its 49-28 victory. That’s a lot of yards regardless of the opponent. And no, Texas Tech is not an SEC defense, but Arkansas did the same thing in the first half against Auburn before falling behind by two touchdowns in the third quarter. This is Bielema’s identity. He’s going to run the ball until it works or until he gets fired.

5. Don’t sleep on the two Mississippi schools: Quietly, Ole Miss and Mississippi State keep winning games, and still nobody is talking about them. It was easy pickings Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama, respectively, but both Magnolia State schools handled their business. Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns in Ole Miss' 56-15 victory, and since the first half against Boise State, he is now 58-of-72 for 857 yards and eight touchdowns. Mississippi State's Dak Prescott threw for 201 yards, rushed for 139 yards and scored twice in Saturday’s 35-3 win. Don’t worry, we’ll find out soon about these two teams. The Bulldogs travel to LSU next weekend, and Ole Miss hosts Alabama in three weeks.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
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UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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video
There are much better games on tap this weekend in the SEC than last. Without question the top game this weekend happens on Saturday when the Georgia Bulldogs head to Columbia, South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks. There will be many recruits taking unofficial visits and even a few taking a few official visits. Here is a closer look at some top expected visitors.

Georgia at South Carolina

With 27 verbal commits South Carolina is pretty much full for its 2015 class except for maybe a few remaining spots. One big unofficial visitor this weekend will be Roquan Smith, the No. 2-ranked outside linebacker in the ESPN 300. Georgia is one of his top teams, so he could just be going to see the Bulldogs, but any chance a school gets to have a top recruit on campus, there is always a possibility he could be impressed by what he sees. With their 2015 class almost full, South Carolina will turn to their 2016 class. Three junior prospects, all ranked in the top 50 of the ESPN Junior 300, are expected to be in attendance. The trio consists of quarterback Brandon McIlwain, tight end Isaac Nauta and athlete Mecole Hardman.

SEC morning links

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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Nothing like a little fun in the middle of football season. While Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was sitting in for head football coach Will Muschamp on a weekly radio spot, Muschamp called into the show under the name "Bill from Gainesville." Muschamp proceeded to talk about how much better Foley was than Muschamp on the air, suggesting he replace Muschamp for the rest of the season on the show and talked about the last-place Boston Red Sox. You can listen to the full audio here.

I missed this earlier this week but couldn't resist posting it. Any time Nick Saban says something you don't necessarily expect to hear, it's interesting. This time, it was Saban using the words "beast mode" in a press conference. This isn't the first time Saban has used "beast" (he used it after motivational speaker Eric Thomas visited Alabama) but this is the first time I can recall he has used "beast mode" in this setting and he was referencing his players and Thomas' words, saying "everybody wants to be a beast."

And in case you missed it, the parents of Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill are working on trademarking the nickname "Kenny Trill" which blew up last week after the sophomore quarterback said he liked the nickname. I get the sense that this is as much about protecting Hill and keeping others from profiting off of it (someone else filed for it before Hill's parents did) than it is the Hills trying to profit off of their son's name down the road. Even so, I find it interesting, and maybe even puzzling, that fans, media and others in between feel it necessary that Hill has a nickname. Just because his predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had a cool nickname "Johnny Football," doesn't mean Hill needs one, especially after only two starts. For what it's worth, I like the nickname as a lifelong Houston resident (Houston rapper Bun B, who originally hails from Port Arthur, Texas, popularized the word "Trill," which is a hybrid of "true" and "real"), but if Bun B says Hill has to earn it first, then I'm on team Bun. To Hill's credit, he said he doesn't care too much about the nickname, but his teammates love it.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough. That’s when the SEC mandate for at least one Power 5 nonconference game will go into effect. But how will the SEC fare when that day does arrive? Exactly how good is the conference outside its own borders? And how does its scheduling practices match up with others?

Bowls are only one thing

The SEC went 7-3 in bowl games last season. Since 2000, the league is a robust 26 games above .500 in bowl games, which is a better win-loss differential than the ACC (minus-5), Big 12 (even), Big Ten (minus-23) and Pac-12 (plus-5).

Go ahead, fans of the SEC: Thump your chest at that.

But don’t go too far. Because bowls are only one piece of the puzzle, and it might not be all that significant in the first place. Given the long delay between the end of the regular season and the start of bowl season, coupled with the lack of motivation to play for a better tomorrow, is it really a fair sample to draw from?

If you think so, don’t try telling that to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who said it was a challenge to get his team to “try to play a consolation game” against Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Besides, the real test of scheduling isn't who you were selected to play, but who you decided to play of your own free will.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Butch DillDan Mullen and Mississippi State are among the teams that schedules a lot of FCS opponents historically. But that only tells part of the story.
Last Saturday was horrific for fans

Saturday came and went without a single game of consequence in the SEC.

A week after scheduling nonconference games even Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops would qualify as “toughies” -- West Virginia, Wisconsin, Boise State, Clemson -- the SEC reverted to form and ordered up a bunch of cupcakes.

Alabama dominated Florida Atlantic, LSU trounced Sam Houston State and South Carolina survived East Carolina. Kentucky walloped Ohio and Missouri thumped Toledo. Florida saw Eastern Michigan’s troublesome cinder block wall and launched the Eagles right through it. All told, SEC teams outscored opponents by a cannon-wide margin of 462 points.

It certainly helped that none of those opponents were from Power 5 conferences. Sadly, one wasn’t even an FBS-level program, which we’ll have to get used to as teams pay for the right to beat teams like Western Carolina and Chattanooga.

Since 2004, SEC teams have scheduled 121 FCS opponents. Only four times have they lost. The average margin of victory: 31.5 points per game.

The top five worst offenders at scheduling games against teams outside the major conferences since 2004: Mississippi State (35), Ole miss (33), Arkansas (30), Alabama (30) and Tennessee (30). Outside of SEC newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri, Georgia had the fewest such games with 21.

During the regular season, the SEC is still king

It’s easy to poke fun at the SEC scheduling. When you’re on top, criticism comes with the territory.

But when it comes to scheduling nonconference games against Power 5 opponents, the SEC isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, contrary to the buzz outside the Southeast.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, the SEC has played 111 total regular-season games against Power 5 schools since 2004. Its 69-42 record is the best of the all Power 5 conferences, ahead of the Pac-12 (53-42), the Big 12 (42-42) and the Big Ten (36-45).

Over that time, the SEC has gone 42-23 against the ACC, 12-7 against the Pac-12, 9-8 against the Big 12 and 6-4 against the Big Ten.

Simple math says the SEC hasn’t shied away from playing its Power 5 brethren. The ACC leads the way with its 117 such nonconference games, but the Pac-12 (95), the Big 12 (84) and the Big Ten (81) all lag behind the SEC’s 111 total Power 5 matchups.

It’s going to get better -- sort of

Mark your calendars. Clear out your entire day on Sept. 3, 2016.

College football will (hopefully) be reborn on that day. Why? Because all the talk about improving strength of schedule will finally come to fruition. Alabama will play USC, UCLA will take on Texas A&M and Notre Dame will go to Texas. And those are just the games inside the Lone Star State. LSU and Wisconsin will do battle at Lambeau Field, and Clemson and Auburn will kick off in Atlanta.

It’s going to be a great day for college football fans. Just don’t expect it to last all season. Because while teams are beginning to go all in on premier nonconference games, it’s important to remember that it’s in the singular sense of the word. As in, only one per regular season.

According to FBSchedules.com, the week after Alabama plays USC, it hosts Western Kentucky. LSU, in the six weeks after playing Wisconsin, is set to welcome Southern Miss, Jacksonville State and South Alabama to Baton Rouge. And Auburn? It will be so exhausted with Clemson that it has to play Arkansas State in Week 2.

Unless something changes between now and the opening week of the 2016 season, Mississippi State will start out against South Alabama while Florida hosts the mighty UMass Minutemen. In Week 2, the Gators get the North Texas Mean Green.

Unusual road date for Mississippi State

September, 11, 2014
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The average SEC football fan might have done a double take when reviewing this week’s conference schedule and noticing Mississippi State’s matchup.

The Bulldogs (2-0) will face South Alabama (1-0). Nothing strange there. The Jaguars are a Sun Belt Conference team that will also face South Carolina and Navy this season.

It’s the location of the game that might come as a surprise.

Mississippi State will play at South Alabama at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile on Saturday afternoon – the product of a two-for-one agreement between the schools that includes games in Starkville, Mississippi, in 2012 and 2016. The Bulldogs have struck similar deals with Troy and Louisiana Tech, so while it might look strange, the scheduling philosophy has actually worked well for MSU and its fans.

[+] EnlargeJoey Jones
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJoey Jones' South Alabama program will host an SEC team for the first time Saturday.
“I’ve never heard a coach say we’ve lost a kid or a recruit over something like that,” Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “I do think our fans appreciate the fact that we’re putting road games in locations where we have fans that can get there. We’re playing in Mobile and we have a lot of fans on the Gulf Coast, a lot of alumni down there between Pensacola over to New Orleans in that space.”

Many major conference schools are unwilling to play such road games, but doing so makes it easier for Mississippi State to meet its goal of playing seven home games per season – and to do it without paying out huge guarantees. Adding that third game to a home-and-home deal typically reduces Mississippi State’s payout to the opponent, Stricklin said.

“If you’re playing seven home games, that means you’re playing three nonconference home games a year and we wanted to be as efficient as possible with our guarantee money to try and get those games as cheaply as possible,” Stricklin said. “And so the two-for-one kind of became something that helped us accomplish those goals – helped us get seven home games and saved us money in doing so.

“I’ll be honest, a lot of SEC schools from a financial standpoint don’t have to do that, and there’s probably some that from an ego standpoint wouldn’t want to do it,” Stricklin added. “We just thought it made sense for where we were and what we were trying to accomplish.”

Mississippi State played at Troy in 2012 and scheduled home games with the Trojans for 2013 and 2015. The Bulldogs will host Louisiana Tech in 2015 and 2017 and will play at Lousiana Tech’s Joe Aillet Stadium – a venue that holds roughly 30,000 fans – in 2016.

That’s a huge difference from many of the monstrous stadiums where State competes during SEC play, but Stricklin said it does not create logistical problems for his program.

“The stadiums are smaller, but other than that, as far as getting tickets and the way we’re treated, everybody bends over backwards,” Stricklin said. “Those are good programs. Troy’s had a lot of success and Louisiana Tech’s had some success. Those are programs that their stadium may not be as big, but the way that they run and operate is college athletics. They do a good job.”

State’s visit to South Alabama’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium has also been met with enthusiasm in Mobile.

It’s the first time an SEC team will play a game at South Alabama, and earlier this week, the school announced that all 40,000 tickets for the game have been sold – the first sellout in the program’s six seasons. To date, South Alabama’s largest home crowd came when 26,783 fans watched the Jaguars face Hargrave Military Academy on Sept. 5, 2009, the first game in program history.

“Five or six years ago, when I took the job, who knew what was going to happen?” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said at his Monday news conference, according to AL.com. “I had some ideas, but I didn't know we were going to be here six years later. But here we are, playing a SEC team here in Mobile, Alabama, and it's a big deal. To have a SEC team come to Mobile and play and have that atmosphere and to be sold out, the excitement around town, that's why you play football.”

Because of the SEC’s new rule that requires its teams to play at least one nonconference game per year (starting in 2016) against an opponent from a Power 5 conference, Stricklin isn’t sure whether his two-for-one scheduling philosophy has a future.

He set up future home-and-home series against N.C. State (away in 2020 and home in 2021) and Arizona (away in 2022 and home in 2023) over the summer and struck a deal with Kansas State athletic director John Currie for a series (away in 2018 and home in 2019) via Twitter in July.

But if he can make the dates and payouts work, Stricklin is not opposed to striking more two-for-ones with schools such as South Alabama, Troy or Louisiana Tech in the future.

“It’s like any other scheduling relationship: You’ve got to find a willing partner and the years and the dates have got to match up and all that kind of stuff. But we’re certainly open to it,” Stricklin said.

“If we do fewer two-for-ones, what it’s going to mean is we’re going to have to pay out more straight guarantee games to get the seven home games every year. I’d love to minimize that from a financial standpoint, but we’ll end up wherever we need to end up based on trying to fit it into what our priorities are.”

SEC morning links

September, 10, 2014
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Everybody’s talking about the Ray Rice incident, and though I don’t plan to share my two cents -- I’ll leave that to the NFL writers -- I thought what South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told the media Tuesday was very poignant and well said. When asked about Rice and what happened, Spurrier simply said, “if you ever hit a girl, you are not going to play on our team, you are finished.” Spurrier has dismissed two players during his career for the violation of that rule. He went on to say, “I can’t understand why every coach doesn’t have that rule and every company doesn’t have that rule for their employees ... It’s amazing that America has sort of put up with it or compromised. That's just something that should never happen." Credit Spurrier for speaking up and giving his opinion. Watch the video here.

In other news, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops still has no love for the SEC. As his Sooners prepare for Saturday’s matchup with Tennessee, Stoops was asked about the belief that the SEC has better athletes. “I don’t know,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case in our experience. Whenever we’ve played, that hasn’t been much of a difference.” Point taken. Oklahoma most recently beat Alabama in last year’s Sugar Bowl, but Stoops had lost three straight against the SEC before that game. He's 4-4 against the league all time. Monday’s press conference was actually toned down for the Sooners coach, who has been much more vocal about his feelings in the past.

As soon as June Jones resigned from his head coaching position at SMU this week, rumors started circulating around Jake Spavital as a potential replacement. The Texas A&M offensive coordinator addressed the rumors Tuesday, calling it “an honor” to be mentioned, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a lot of football to be played this season. That got me thinking, though. Who are some of the other young, up-and-coming coordinators in the SEC? I’ve lost count of all the jobs Kirby Smart has been linked to. Both Jeremy Pruitt and Kurt Roper are new to the SEC this year, but it might not be long before they’re both head coaches. And Rhett Lashlee isn’t much different than Spavital -- a bright, young offensive mind.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
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It wasn't much of an eventful week in the SEC with so many teams playing weaker opponents and only one conference game, with Ole Miss routing Vanderbilt. As a result, there are no major shakeups in this week's bowl projections from last week's. Georgia had the weekend off, so it is still riding its impressive Week 1 victory to sit atop the list. We are still projecting only one SEC team in the College Football Playoff at the moment, though that could change down the road.

We are still projecting 11 SEC teams to make the postseason. Noting that these projections will fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season, here's our best guess after Week 2:

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

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