SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State did a lot of good things on defense this season under Geoff Collins, who left prior to the Orange Bowl to take the defensive coordinator's position at Florida. The Bulldogs were outstanding in the red zone and on third down, racked up 36 sacks and intercepted 16 passes. But where they struggled was stopping the big plays, particularly in the passing game.

That last line of defense wasn't nearly as dependable as it needed to be, whether it was making key tackles that could have prevented big gains or preventing opposing receivers from getting behind the coverage.

Position to improve: Safety

Why it was a problem: The Bulldogs were 114th nationally in passing defense, giving up 272.8 yards per game. It's true that their pressure style put the defensive backs in some tough spots, but too many times big gains turned into backbreaking gains or even touchdowns. In losing three of their last four games, the Bulldogs allowed 13 plays of 30 yards or longer in those three losses. Nine of the 13 were passing plays. Even in the loss to run-heavy Georgia Tech in the bowl game, the Bulldogs gave up a 41-yard touchdown pass to go down 14-0 and were later burned on a 69-yard touchdown run. Losing junior safety Kendrick Market to a torn Achilles in the first quarter against Ole Miss didn't help matters, and Justin Cox never developed into the kind of difference-maker the Bulldogs thought he would be when he came over from junior college. What's more, senior safety Jay Hughes was coming back from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the final 12 games of the 2013 season.

How it can be fixed: The outlook overall in the secondary is better than some might think. In fact, the Bulldogs should be fairly strong at cornerback, which will only help as they sort out matters at safety. Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond both return for their senior seasons at cornerback, and Redmond was playing as well as any of the Mississippi State defensive backs when the season ended. The Bulldogs will also get back Cedric Jiles, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury. He's the kind of speedy athlete who will find his way onto the field somewhere in the secondary. Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman will both be juniors. They both played some this season, but will be counted on to move into bigger roles.

Early 2015 outlook: Manny Diaz is back as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. He headed up the Bulldogs' defense in 2010 and was renowned for the way he attacked offenses with an array of different blitzes. To play that way, you're obviously vulnerable in the secondary at times, which means solidifying the safety spots will be critical. Market, coming off his torn Achilles, probably won't be fully recovered for the start of the season. It's a big offseason for redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant. The Bulldogs almost pulled his redshirt this past season. He has a nose for the ball and anticipates well. Evans and Coman will also factor prominently into the rotation, and one of the biggest names on the recruiting board is Jamal Peters, the No. 2 safety prospect in the country and a Mississippi State commitment. Several other schools are still in hot pursuit. The 6-3, 200-pound Peters is a big-time tackler and could help the Bulldogs immediately.
It was a memorable season for Mississippi State on several fronts. The Bulldogs surged to No. 1 in the polls for five weeks and won 10 games in the regular season for the first time in school history. The downer was that they lost their last two games, including the regular-season finale to rival Ole Miss, snuffing out any chance they had of making the College Football Playoff.

Offense: B-plus. Quarterback Dak Prescott enjoyed a tremendous junior season and was a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate much of the way. He led the SEC in total offense, averaging 341.2 yards per game, and tied for fifth nationally in touchdowns accounted for (42). Balance was the name of the game for the Bulldogs, who were the only team in the SEC to rush for more than 200 yards per game and pass for more than 250 yards per game in league contests. The only thing that keeps this from being an A is that the Bulldogs hit the skids toward the end of the season. In three of their last four SEC games, they were held to 20 points or fewer, and two of those were losses. They still averaged 33.8 points per game against SEC competition.

Defense: C-plus. This is a tough one to grade because the Bulldogs were disruptive in their front seven and did a lot of the things you need to do defensively to have a big season. They led the country in red zone defense, giving up just 19 touchdowns in 44 red zone possessions. And in SEC games, they were first in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 32.8 percent of the time. However, the Bulldogs also gave up way too many big plays in the passing game and finished last in the league in passing defense (272.8 yards per game) and 12th in total defense (424.4 yards per game). They were ultra-aggressive on defense, and at times, it cost them. They gave up more than 30 points five times, including their last two losses.

Special teams: B. Mississippi State kicked the ball well and covered kicks well. Christian Holmes even returned an onside kick 61 yards for a touchdown to seal the 45-31 win over Kentucky. The Bulldogs also blocked four kicks. Sophomore place-kicker Evan Sobiesk was 12-of-14 on field goals, while junior punter Devon Bell finished fifth in the SEC in punting with a 43.2-yard average and had 18 downed inside the 20. The only real blip was that the Bulldogs missed an SEC-high four extra points.

Coaching: B-plus. In his sixth season, Dan Mullen did one of his better coaching jobs and had been building toward this with a veteran team. Yes, his critics will point to the fact that he lost to both Alabama and Ole Miss, but it’s not every day that the Bulldogs ascend to No. 1 in the country and win 10 games in the regular season. Mississippi State’s offensive ineptitude in the red zone against Alabama was a killer, and while Geoff Collins’ defense really came after people and held SEC foes to an average of 22.5 points per game, the Bulldogs gave up too many explosive plays to be a championship defense.

Overall: B-plus. In the grand scheme of things, this was probably an "A" season for the Bulldogs. They weren’t even a top 25 team when the season began and spent five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country. They beat Auburn, beat LSU and lost by five points at Alabama. Unfortunately, they also lost three of their last four games, and in the season-ending losses to Ole Miss and then Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, gave up a total of 80 points and 1,109 total yards. Being outplayed in those last two games blurred what was an otherwise special season. But the mere fact that Mississippi State was even in the College Football Playoff conversation in late November speaks to what kind of season it was in Starkville.
HOOVER, Ala. – It started with a dream, the dream to play Division I football. Next Wednesday, four high school teammates will become one step closer to turning that goal into a reality when they sign with their respective schools.

The only catch? The quartet from Hoover High School will be choosing four different colleges.

“It was kind of a dream that we’d play together,” ESPN 300 linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I still think that would be cool if we could all four go to the same school, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where’s best for you.”

In four years at Hoover, they won three state championships and finished with a record of 42-3. But now Williams (Auburn), Christian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin) and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) are on to the next chapter, and each is paving his own way.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Williams
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNDarrell Williams grew up an Alabama fan, but Auburn turned out to be a better fit for him.
The pretty boy

Off the field, that’s what teammates call Williams -- he’s always fixing his hair, he’s the last to leave the locker room after the game, you get the idea -- but on the field, it’s a different story. He still likes to look good, but he likes to look good making plays.

At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Williams has a rare combination of size and speed, and the scary part is he’s not done filling out his frame.

“He can cover a lot of grass,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s a great blitzer, but he’s a great dropper. He can play inside or outside. But he brings something to the table with length and athleticism that you don’t normally see out of a lot of kids.”

Williams grew up an Alabama fan. He always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. But when it came time to make his college decision, Alabama wasn’t ready to accept his commitment. The coaches wanted to see him in camp first. That didn’t sit well with Williams, especially after seeing one of his teammates commit in April, around the same time he was ready to make a decision.

Two weeks later, Williams gave his verbal pledge to Auburn.

He developed a bond with the Auburn coaches that got stronger with every visit. Though the last two months have been a whirlwind with all the coaching changes, he remains firm to Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.

Finally, he can say he’s 100 percent committed.

“It feels good,” Williams said recently after his official visit to Auburn. “It’s kind of a relief because this whole process has been kind of stressful.”

The freak

Bell is the type of player quarterbacks have nightmares about. He’s 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has a quick first step and when he gets around the edge, look out.

He’s also the teammate who committed to Alabama in April when the staff told Williams to hold off. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is more talented, but maybe he’s a better fit for Nick Saban’s defense. Or maybe the coaches saw a certain edge about him, an attitude that leads to his intense and aggressive demeanor on the field.

His teammates, who have been with him since middle school, still have trouble describing him.

“Christian is Christian,” one said.

“I don’t know what word can describe Christian,” another said.

Shaw probably said it best.

“He’s the freak,” Shaw said. “In practice, he’ll give the offensive lineman a move and just do whatever he wants. He manhandles people.”

Surprisingly, Alabama wasn’t always the choice for Bell. He, too, weighed his options before making his commitment and admits that Mississippi State and UCLA were very much in the mix at that time. Both schools offered a better chance at early playing time.

But that’s not what Bell was interested in. He understands he’s just another name in Alabama’s star-studded recruiting class, and that’s the way he likes it.

“We haven’t really talked about playing time because if they say I’m going to start, I don’t really want to know that,” Bell said. “I want to just go in there and work.”

The quiet one

[+] EnlargeChristian Bell, Bradrick Shaw, Justin Johnson
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNChristian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin), and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) will join Darrell Williams as Hoover (Ala.) players headed to FBS schools.
A week ago, Shaw was the only uncommitted member of the Hoover quartet. The four-star running back didn’t have the luxury of staying in state with both Alabama and Auburn loaded at his position.

“They’re in state, but I guess they got the players who they wanted,” Shaw said. “I can’t do anything about it.”

Instead, his choice came down to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. Many predicted that he would sign with the Commodores given the proximity to home and the opportunity to play in the SEC. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shaw chose the road less traveled.

“I’m OK to go out of the SEC,” he said. “The Big Ten is nice, too. They produce great running backs every year. Of course, Ohio State won this year. It’s elite talent just competing. SEC is one of the best conferences, but the Big Ten is pretty nice, too.”

It fits his personality. Go to a school where nobody knows you, keep your head down, work hard, and maybe become the next Melvin Gordon.

It’s the same attitude that helped Shaw get on the field at Hoover as a freshman. It’s what made him better every season and what ultimately turned him into a star. But you would never hear that from him.

“I’m not quiet,” Shaw said. “But I’m kind of like the most normal guy. All the other guys are crazy.”

The underdog

There was a time when Johnson didn’t know if he’d be part of the group. He didn’t know if he’d have the same opportunity as the others. They all had received Division I scholarship offers by the beginning of last year, but he was still waiting on his.

“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Thinking about it really does upset me sometimes, but you get over it. You don’t realize it, but it makes you go harder.”

“Of course everybody wants to be ranked high and stuff like that. That’s every kid’s dream. Sometimes things just don’t work out as you expect they would. I’m not upset about it or anything. It’s just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head and drives you.”

Eventually, the offers came. The three-star wide receiver was offered by Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a handful of smaller schools.

When it was time to make a decision, the choice was easy. Johnson committed to Mississippi State because it’s a program that reflects his attitude. Since Dan Mullen arrived, they have exceeded expectations just like he has done throughout his career at Hoover and just like he plans to do when he arrives in Starkville.

“I see that underdog mentality,” he said. “You never know what to expect.”

Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit and Josh Robinson a two-star prospect who both became stars with the Bulldogs. Johnson is hoping to become the latest in that line of under-the-radar stars.
You learn pretty quickly in the realm of college football to never say never.

So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.

And that’s bad news for the SEC.

When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama had to survive a challenging SEC schedule to earn a playoff berth.
After all, this was the big, bad SEC, which had won seven straight BCS national championships (with four different teams) and had played in eight straight BCS title games.

But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.

The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.

Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.

Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.

Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?

That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.

The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.

The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.

At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.

Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.

What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.

What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.

The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.

With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.

I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.

They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.

Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.

The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.

But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.

And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
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This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.

Top SEC players: Next five in

January, 23, 2015
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Picking the best 25 players in the SEC wasn’t easy.

Once you get past the top 5 and the top 10, things become muddied. You start comparing first halves of seasons versus second halves and the value of play during conference games against overall numbers.

Inevitably, someone deserving is going to be left out.

To help remedy the inherent shortcomings of such lists, here’s a look at who might have been worthy of the next five in:

Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss
A first-team coaches All-SEC selection, Prewitt was the heartbeat of the Ole Miss defense. Though he didn’t come up with nearly as many interceptions as last season, his three picks and 59 total tackles were impressive for a safety.

Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State
Though his numbers dipped late in the season, it’s hard to deny the way Robinson produced. The self-described “bowling ball” was the perfect compliment to quarterback Dak Prescott, bouncing between the tackles and catching passes on the outside on his way to 1,500 total yards and 12 touchdowns.

JK Scott, P, Alabama
Punters generally don’t make top-25 lists. But they don’t generally have as big of an impact on games as Scott, who led the country in yards per punt (48.0) and tied for first in the SEC in punts downed inside the red zone (30) -- albeit on 25 fewer attempts than the man he was tied with.

Dylan Thompson, QB, South Carolina
Prescott didn’t lead the league in yards passing. Neither did Blake Sims, Bo Wallace or Nick Marshall. No, it was Dylan Thompson, whose 3,564 yards passing and 30 total touchdowns were overshadowed by his team’s poor win-loss record.

Duke Williams, WR, Auburn
He missed three games, but Williams still managed to amass 730 yards and five touchdowns. But the most impressive trait that defined the former juco transfer was his ability to show up in big games, whether it was 154 yards in his debut against Arkansas, 110 yards on the road at Kansas State, or 121 yards in the Iron Bowl against Alabama.

Season's best SEC players: Nos. 1-5

January, 23, 2015
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We've reached the end of the line in this week's SEC player ranker. Today we recap the conference's top five players from the 2014 season:

1. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
He was already a star, but Cooper shot into the stratosphere during an incredible 2014, smashing the SEC's single-season receptions record with 124 catches. Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wide receiver -- the first Alabama player to win the award -- and was a Heisman Trophy finalist while totaling 1,727 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. He entered the NFL draft after that standout junior season and figures to be selected early in the first round.

2. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Ray needed just one season as a starter to prove he has legitimate NFL star potential. Ray's blazing speed off the edge helped him emerge as one of the nation's top pass-rushers, and his 14.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss only back up that notion. Ray led the SEC in both of those statistical categories en route to SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and he looks like a surefire bet to become a first-round NFL draft pick in a couple of months.

3. Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Another player who made the most of his first season as a full-time starter, Collins was easily one of the top defensive backs in the SEC. He led Alabama's defense with 103 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions, becoming a unanimous All-American in the process. Once Collins decided to enter the draft after his strong junior season, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both listed him as the top safety prospect and in the top 10 overall.

4. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
Prescott was once thought of as the possible Heisman front-runner, but his star faded down the stretch as the Bulldogs lost three of their last four games. With the SEC's most dynamic dual-threat quarterback returning for 2015, Mississippi State's offense will once again cause opposing defensive coordinators to lose sleep. It's awfully difficult to prepare for a player like Prescott, who can not only run (986 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014) but can also be an effective passer, as his 3,449 passing yards and 27 touchdown throws prove.

5. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
The other names in the top five were not big surprises, but if you had told a Georgia fan before the season that Chubb -- not Todd Gurley -- would occupy this spot, they would have certainly been shocked. This was supposed to be a season when Chubb and Sony Michel learned on the job behind the nation's best running back, but Gurley's off-the-field issues (and later, injury) thrust Chubb into the spotlight. Wow, did he ever respond. Chubb registered 30-plus carries in each of his first two starts (road wins over Missouri and Arkansas) and was nearly unstoppable in the second half of the season. He rushed for at least 100 yards in all eight games after entering the starting lineup and capped an unbelievable freshman season by rushing for 266 and two scores in a bowl win against Louisville.

SEC morning links

January, 23, 2015
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1. The offseason coaching carousel is spinning at full speed, and SEC schools figured into a couple of Thursday's headlines. Perhaps the biggest story was that Central Michigan head coach -- let me type that again … HEAD COACH -- Dan Enos was leaving his post to replace Jim Chaney as Arkansas' offensive coordinator. Don't see that kind of move too often, but multiple writers were quick to point out on Thursday that Enos will actually make more money even with a lesser job title. He made $360,000 at Central Michigan, but ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported that Arkansas will pay him $550,000 per year. In other SEC coordinator news, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has left the Volunteers to become quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's a big opening for Butch Jones to fill with less than two weeks left until national signing day. One other move worth mentioning: Texas A&M officially announced that Virginia Tech receivers coach -- and former NFL receiver -- Aaron Moorehead had accepted the same job with the Aggies.

2. Speaking of national signing day, two SEC programs learned on Thursday that they're still in the running for ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2015, Byron Cowart (Seffner, Fla./Armwood). Cowart revealed that his decision will come down to Auburn and Florida -- both programs that could use his pass-rushing presence at defensive end. Cowart received visiting coaches from Florida State only Wednesday and had a visit scheduled with the Seminoles (Insider) next weekend. Certainly there are no guarantees in the recruiting game, but it appears as though the five-star prospect will be in the SEC come fall.

3. Dak Prescott made a wise decision by returning to Mississippi State for his senior season. So says Greg Gabriel, who served as an NFL scout for decades and now writes for the National Football Post. The Bulldogs star "wasn't even close to being ready," Gabriel told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, noting that another college season will help the raw quarterback prospect refine his skills. Prescott likely would have been drafted -- passing for 3,449 yards and rushing for 986 in the SEC certainly proves that Prescott possesses exceptional athleticism -- but Gabriel points out that the passing windows in the NFL are much smaller. Prescott needs to improve his passing accuracy if he is to become an impact player in the pros.

Around the SEC

" Athlon is grading each of the new FBS head coaching hires thus far, including Florida's Jim McElwain (he got an A-minus) and several former SEC assistants.

" Ole Miss' Trae Elston and Damore'ea Stringfellow were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct early Thursday.

" All-star game season has given several former Georgia players the opportunity to improve their draft stock.

" A Louisiana family is suing their son's former powerlifting coach Curtis Tsuruda -- who once worked on the strength and conditioning staffs at Tulane and LSU -- for allegedly tricking the teen into using steroids and disguising the doses as protein pills.

Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

January, 22, 2015
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1. Despite some coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and rumors swirling about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin bolting back into the NFL, Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't exactly rushing to figure out his coaching staff. I'm sure Saban would love to immediately fill the coaching holes left by Kevin Steele (LSU) and Lance Thompson (Auburn), but with the final weeks of recruiting here, Saban just doesn't have the time to do the proper scouting or interviewing. I mean, when you're Nick Saban and Alabama, I think you can get by with not having a couple of coaching positions filled, even at this point in the year.

2. After losing linebackers coach Randy Shannon to Florida, Bret Bielema just plucked an accomplished coach from the Sunshine State to replace him. That man is Vernon Hargreaves II, who brings 30 years of coaching experience to Arkansas. The father of Florida standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has an exhaustive coaching resume, including a national championship with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, and should also keep that strong recruiting in south Florida that Shannon had. Like Shannon, Hargreaves' ties with the Hurricanes are strong, and he should be a good addition to Bielema's staff. Next up for Bielema? Find on offensive coordinator ...

3. For one of the SEC's most accomplished coaches in the regular season, Wednesday's announcement of a contract extension and a raise should have been considered a no-brainer. But when you haven't won the SEC championship at a school like Georgia since 2005, you can't blame fans for their uneasiness toward their head coach. Still, for all the negativity that Mark Richt has had to deal with from Georgia fans -- some of it is justified -- he's had a heck of a coaching career with the Bulldogs. His .739 winning percentage (136-48 record) ranks fourth among active FBS coaches who have coached at least 100 games in FBS conferences, and he's had nine seasons with 10 or more wins at Georgia in his 14 years in Athens. But with an extension going through 2019 and Richt now making $4 million a year, the time to win an SEC title is now. The Bulldogs are equipped with the talent to make a strong run through the SEC, and you know those same fans unhappy with the lack of championship swag in Georgia's trophy cases won't be pleased with anything less than a title run or two in 2015.

Tweet of the day


Around the SEC

Daily Social Roundup: UCLA checks in with Iman Marshall 

January, 22, 2015
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Wednesday marked the two-week point until national signing day and coaches were out in force on the recruiting trail, with UCLA's visit to No. 4 overall prospect Iman Marshall leading the headlines.


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DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."

Season's best SEC players: Nos. 11-15

January, 21, 2015
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Continuing this week’s countdown of the top 25 players in the SEC in 2014, here are players 11 through 15:

11. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama
One of the SEC’s feel-good stories of the year, Sims was not the favorite to win Alabama’s starting quarterback job once news broke that Jacob Coker planned to transfer from Florida State. But the fifth-year senior Sims not only claimed the job, he had an excellent season. He finished second in the nation in Total QBR (85.8) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and helped the Crimson Tide win the SEC title. This week he’s at the Senior Bowl trying to grab a job in the NFL, which would have seemed very unlikely before his standout senior season.

12. Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn
He was Tre Mason’s backup when Auburn shocked the college football world by reaching the BCS title game in 2013, but Artis-Payne proved as a senior that he has plenty of game himself. He led the SEC with 1,608 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and he figures to be an early-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft after rushing for 100 yards or more nine times in 13 games in 2014.

13. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
One of the SEC’s most entertaining players, Cooper can do it all. Take his performance against Tennessee, for example. Cooper caught 11 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns, took a direct snap and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds and also rushed for an 11-yard score. If Cooper had played defense, too, maybe South Carolina would have won the game instead of suffering an excruciating overtime loss. Nonetheless, Cooper was nothing short of outstanding as a sophomore, finishing the season with 1,136 receiving yards and giving Steve Spurrier an obvious weapon to utilize entering the 2015 season.

14. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
The leading tackler on Mississippi State’s “Psycho Defense,” McKinney was probably the group’s emotional leader as well. He won first-team All-SEC honors after totaling 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries and decided to enter the NFL draft after a strong redshirt junior season. The 6-foot-5 inside linebacker is the No. 1 prospect at his position, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who said last month that McKinney is “a good bet to be a first-rounder if the draft were tomorrow.”

15. A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina
Another of Kiper’s top positional prospects, Cann heads the list among guards for the upcoming draft. It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Cann was again the rock on the Gamecocks’ veteran offensive line. He and his fellow linemen’s protection helped Dylan Thompson lead the league in passing, and Cann was named to several All-SEC and All-America squads after the season. Not a bad way to cap an outstanding career as a Gamecock.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 20, 2015
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video
National signing day is less than three weeks away and it’s coming down to crunch time. This past weekend was one of three remaining weekends for recruits to take official visits before signing day and some of the top prospects took full advantage of the available weekend. Auburn had a monster recruiting weekend and, though not to the same extent, so did Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and others. Here’s a closer look at the top news from this past weekend.


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SEC morning links

January, 20, 2015
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1. Could Lane Kiffin be on the move, again? Sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Kiffin, who is currently Alabama's offensive coordinator, is a frontrunner to be the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator. What is it with Kiffin and the one year thing in the SEC? Obviously, what Kiffin did at Alabama in just one year was very impressive from a numbers standpoint, so no one should be surprised if NFL teams come calling. While his head-coaching resume is dismal, Kiffin is an X's and O's genius. There's no getting around how good he is when he's dialed in during games. He's be no means perfect with his play calling (just look at the second half of the Sugar Bowl), but Kiffin turned Alabama into a pass-first, offensive juggernaut in 2014. Also, Blake Sims, anyone? Still, as ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez writes, with the baggage that Kiffin has, he's a strange candidate for the team.

2. I guess you could say that Will Muschamp hasn't lost much of a step in recruiting. In what he might have lacked in the way of coaching during his four years at Florida, he certainly made up for on the recruiting trail. And it's showing in his short time as Auburn's defensive coordinator. He's currently trying to reel in the ultimate three elite prospect package deal in five-star defensive ends Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson, and four-star linebacker Jeffery Holland. The kicker is that all three are from the state of Florida and were all recruited by Muschamp while he was at the University of Florida. All these guys have interest in the Gators, but they all have close relationships with Muschamp, and Cowart thinks all three will play at the same school.
"Yeah, we're going to stick together," Cowart said after his official visit to Auburn Sunday. "We'll all play at the same school, because we know we can make an impact. One guy can't make a difference at a school, and I don't think people understand that."

If they all pick Auburn, Muschamp would certainly be bringing the Boom.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day
In two weeks, we will officially say goodbye to football season.

College football left us last week, and with the Super Bowl scheduled for Feb. 1, we'll soon have to shift some of our sporting attention to ... baseball. Thank goodness for March Madness.

But before we settle, let's take advantage of the next two weeks of football coverage before the biggest game of them all.

The SEC will have 24 player representatives in this year's Super Bowl featuring the Seattle Seahawks (again) and the New England Patriots (pretty much again). There are 14 SEC players on the Seahawks and 10 on the Patriots. Alabama leads all SEC teams (shocker) with four players on Super Bowl rosters, while Mississippi State and Texas A&M both have three. Auburn is the only SEC team not represented.

Here's a complete list of the 24 SEC players on the two Super Bowl rosters:

SEAHAWKS

Alvin Bailey, OT, Arkansas
Michael Bennett, DE, Texas A&M
Justin Britt, OT, Missouri
James Carpenter, OG, Alabama
Demarcus Dobbs, DE, Georgia
Lemuel Jeanpierre, OL, South Carolina
Patrick Lewis, C, Texas A&M
Chris Matthews, WR, Kentucky
Tony McDaniel, DT, Tennessee
Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama
Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Steven Terrell, S, Texas A&M
K.J. Wright, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/injured

Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

Coaches

Pete Carroll, head coach: He spent a season as a graduate assistant working with the secondary at Arkansas (1977) under Lou Holtz.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator: Florida's defensive coordinator from 2010-11.
Kippy Brown, wide receivers: Coached receivers at Tennessee from 1983-89 and served two seasons as the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at Tennessee from 1993-94. He also spent one month at Tennessee in 2009-10 as its wide receivers/passing game coordinator for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, before serving as interim head coach after the departure of Lane Kiffin.
Pat Ruel, assistant offensive line: He served as Arkansas' assistant offensive line coach in 1977 and later became the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Texas A&M from 1982-84.
Will Harriger, offensive assistant: He served as an assistant at Auburn in 2007 and an assistant at Florida from 2012-13.
Travis Jones, defensive line coach: The former Georgia defensive lineman (1990-92, 94) served as a graduate assistant/defensive line assistant at his alma mater in 1997. He later became the defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator at LSU from 2002-2004.
Marquand Manuel, defensive assistant: The former Florida defensive back was also a coaching intern at Florida in 2011.
Chris Carlisle, head strength and conditioning coach: Served as a strength and conditioning graduate assistant at Arkansas for two years (1992-93) before getting his master’s degree in history from Arkansas in 1997. He then became the associate head strength and conditioning coach at Tennessee for three years (1998-2000).

PATRIOTS

Brandon Bolden, RB, Ole Miss
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
Chris White, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/Injured

Dominique Easley, DL, Florida
Jerod Mayo, LB, Tennessee
Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU

Practice squad

Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
Jonathan Krause, WR, Vanderbilt
Deontae Skinner, LB, Mississippi State

Coaches

Dave DeGuglielmo, offensive line: Tutored South Carolina's offensive line in 1999 and 2003 and the offensive tackles and tight ends from 2000-02.
Joe Judge, assistant special teams coach: He played multiple positions at Mississippi State from 2000-04. He then served as a graduate assistant at Mississippi State from 2005-07. He later spent three years at Alabama as a football analyst under Nick Saban (2009-11).

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