SEC: Oklahoma Sooners
Four of the seven SEC West teams will have new defensive coordinators next season, which is fitting, given the carnage we saw in that division during the bowl season.
It's a carnage particularly glaring on the defensive side and yet another reminder that times are changing -- or, more precisely, have changed -- in college football.
Remember when the SEC was known for its defense?
Well, there is no defending how the five Western Division teams that lost in bowl games played, defensively, last week.
The numbers were abysmal, the kind of cataclysmic meltdown that only lends credence to the biggest criticism of SEC defenses over the past few years: They rack up most of their numbers against offenses within the league that aren't very explosive.
Now, before we go any further, not everybody in the West suddenly forgot how to play defense during the postseason.
Arkansas crushed Texas 31-7 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and made the Longhorns look even worse than they really were offensively, which took some doing. The Hogs held the Longhorns to 59 total yards on 43 offensive plays, which marks the fewest yards by any FBS team this season.
It wasn't just that Texas was that bad, either. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith did an amazing job of transforming the Hogs' defense all season. They held opponents to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 13 games, and six of the eight were against bowl teams.
With only the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T remaining, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and 12th in rushing defense. The only other SEC team in the top 12 in all three categories is Alabama.
Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all gave up more than 30 points each in their games. The Aggies were able to escape with a 45-37 win against West Virginia, though their biggest win might have been prying away defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU a few days later.
It wasn't a memorable final game for Chavis' LSU defense. The Tigers gave up 263 rushing yards to Notre Dame in a 31-28 loss and were especially vulnerable on third down. The Irish converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities and drove 71 yards in 14 plays for the winning field goal.
As it was, LSU's defensive performance might have been the best one of the bunch among the five West teams that lost bowl games, which underscores what a shoddy three days of defense it was for those five teams.
The final damage: Averages of 39.6 points allowed, 501.4 total yards allowed and 314.6 rushing yards allowed, not to mention a combined defensive third-down percentage of 55.4 percent.
The rushing totals were most incriminating. Mississippi State was gashed for 452 yards on the ground by Georgia Tech's option attack and gave up 49 points.
Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin did a number on Auburn, to the tune of 400 rushing yards, and Alabama allowed 281 rushing yards -- including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- in its 42-35 playoff loss to Ohio State.
That's two bowl games in a row in which Alabama has laid an egg defensively. The Tide gave up a combined 87 points and 966 yards in losses to Oklahoma a year ago in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State this year in the playoff.
Does that mean Alabama has lost it defensively? Of course not. The Tide are always going to be a force defensively as long as Nick Saban is around.
But it is fair to say they haven't been nearly as dominant defensively on some of the biggest stages as they were during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
In their 55-44 win against Auburn this season, they gave up a school-record 630 total yards. In the 34-28 loss to Auburn last season, they gave up 296 rushing yards, and earlier in that year, they allowed 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a wild 49-42 win over the Aggies.
Spotty play at cornerback has been a recurring problem for the Tide the past two seasons. They've had trouble covering people, which has been magnified by their inability to consistently get to the quarterback.
Nobody's writing off the Tide defensively. Teams all over the country would gladly take their numbers -- and certainly their talent. But mobile quarterbacks have tormented them, and the way they've finished seasons defensively each of the past two seasons has been a concern.
Last impressions are what they remember in college football, and that also goes for Alabama's brethren in the West.
Reputations are earned. Right now, the entire SEC -- specifically the West -- has some work to do in earning back its reputation on the defensive side of the ball.
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Yes, the 12-member panel tasked to
Some of them, apparently, have ideas about the way the game ought to be played and coached.
Take a deep breath and remember, this is what we wanted.
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Here's my ranking of every division in the major conferences, going from the most ideal to join as a new coach to the most difficult. Easiest to hardest. (I’m counting the Big 12 as one 10-team division. It’s a reasonable way to view it since, as with the divisions in the other four leagues, everyone plays everyone.)
1. Big Ten West
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As the College Football Playoff selection committee continues to digest the results of Week 10, it's time to turn the page.
Up first for the committee comes the question of whom to plug into the spot formerly occupied by Ole Miss. It says here that Oregon should advance to No. 4.
Of course, that's assuming the committee doesn't drop an early bombshell -- in starting with a clean slate each week, as promised -- and rework the top four to include two new members. It could happen.
Remember, we've entered the age of chaos.
This week, six playoff contenders go on the road to face big tests. I'm going to tell you who among them is most likely to lose, who's most likely to win -- and why it matters less than you think.
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College football has been a well-kept secret so far, as it has been hiding the true identities of teams. Not this week. It's time to play or go home. There are six games between ranked teams. Of the 17 undefeated teams remaining, eight play against each other this week. It's the most relevant weekend the sport has had in regard to the new College Football Playoff.
Here are the games you can't miss, ranked from least to most likely to affect the playoff:
No. 14 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame -- Stanford already has one loss, and this is the second straight road trip for the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, its playoff hopes will be in serious jeopardy but not over, given that it could still win the conference. This game should reveal more about Notre Dame's place in the playoff, as it will be the first ranked opponent for the Irish.
No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 25 TCU -- ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oklahoma a 64 percent chance to win and predicts this to be Oklahoma's hardest remaining game -- slightly more difficult than Nov. 8 against Baylor. If the Sooners can't handle TCU, they'll be on the outside looking in.
No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn -- LSU gave Auburn its only regular-season loss the past year, but LSU has already lost to Mississippi State, which put the Tigers behind in the SEC West race. Considering the rest of LSU's schedule -- and the hole it's already in -- this is a must-win. For Auburn, this is a chance to erase some doubts and make a push from the bubble into the top four.
No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State -- Two terrific quarterbacks will be on display in the Aggies' Kenny Hill and the Bulldogs' Dak Prescott, who both rank in the top 10 in total QBR. A&M's stock dropped a bit this past week after it needed overtime to beat Arkansas, but it could be a top-four team if it can survive the state of Mississippi the next two weeks.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss -- This is the most interesting matchup of the day. Alabama ranks third in offensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency. Neither team has played a ranked opponent, so there is still some margin for error, but the Tide have a chance to separate from the crowded West.
No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State -- Surprise. The game with the biggest playoff implications is not in the SEC West. This Big Ten matchup could knock Sparty out of the playoff entirely. It's one thing to lose to Oregon; it's another to try to make the four-team playoff with two losses and your best win coming over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a win in East Lansing could vault the Huskers into the playoff conversation. They're the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and the toughest game left on their schedule is against No. 17 Wisconsin. If Nebraska pulls off the upset, it's time to take it seriously as a playoff team.
Behind a sharp effort from quarterback Trevor Knight and a swarming defense that forced three turnovers, the Sooners coasted past Tennessee 34-10 to remain undefeated.
Here were the three plays that spearheaded Oklahoma's victory:
1. HAYES BRINGS THE HAMMER EARLY
After Oklahoma scored a field goal on its opening drive, Tennessee came right back and was stringing together a drive of its own. Tennessee QB Justin Worley connected with Pig Howard for a 19-yard pass that pushed the Vols to the Oklahoma 40-yard line. But on the next play, Sooners defensive coordinator brought Quentin Hayes on a safety blitz. Worley never saw him coming, and Hayes belted into Worley's blindside, knocking the ball loose. After rolling through Worley, Hayes popped up and recovered the fumble, too. The turnover not only thwarted Tennessee's first potential scoring opportunity, it set up a Trevor Knight-to-Keith Ford touchdown pass six plays later to give the Sooners an early 10-0 lead and control of the game.
2. NEAL GETS SOONERS GOING AGAIN
Despite a rocky start, Tennessee kept the Sooners from running away with the game in the first half, and trailed only 20-7 at halftime. But the Oklahoma offense, which struggled to end the second quarter, got rolling again in the third. With the Vols focused on Sterling Shepard on the boundary side, Knight flipped his vision the other way and tossed a strike to a wide open Durron Neal running a slant route. Neal slipped through a pair of defenders downfield, then raced to the Tennessee 9 for a 43-yard gain. Two plays later, Knight was in the end zone, giving the Sooners a commanding 27-7 lead.
3. WILSON DELIVERS THE EXCLAMATION POINT
Tennessee trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, but had one final chance to get back in the game. Facing third-and-2 at the Oklahoma 4-yard line, Worley tried to force a pass to Marquez North at the front of the end zone. But before the pass could get to North, Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans tipped the ball in the air over North and into the arms of Sooners cornerback Julian Wilson. With a convoy leading the way, Wilson sprinted 100 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Officials reviewed the play to make sure Wilson crossed the goal line before he dropped the ball. But replay confirmed he was in the end zone first.
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
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.
Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)
But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.
For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Knight under center
Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.
If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:
• Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”
Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.
We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.
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When Tennessee travels to Oklahoma this weekend, it will be as a heavy underdog and one of the youngest teams in the country. The Sooners, meanwhile, will be looking to establish themselves for a playoff run with a convincing win over an SEC foe. Can Butch Jones' crew give Oklahoma a scare? Or will Bob Stoops' team earn a second consecutive decisive triumph over the SEC?
Let's break it down:
How Oklahoma can control this game: It comes down to the trenches, where the Sooners appear to hold a decisive edge. Oklahoma owns the most experienced offensive line in the Big 12, and that has manifested itself in a ground attack that is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and almost 224 rushing yards per game. Defensively, the Sooners have been just as formidable up front, thanks to tremendous depth and speed across the board. If Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and Eric Striker can get after Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley and force him into mistakes, it could be a long day for the Vols in Norman.
How Tennessee can pull off upset: The Vols need the type of performance they received the first two weeks from Worley and the offense. Worley's confidence appears to be at an all-time high. He's accurate, making quality throws (did you see the back shoulder fade he threw to Marquez North on Saturday?) and getting the ball in the hands of the Vols’ numerous playmakers. Defensively, Tennessee has been great on third downs so far this year, allowing opponents to convert only 22.6 percent of the time (14th nationally and fourth in the SEC). Keeping that up against the Sooners would go a long way toward keeping Tennessee in this game.
Oklahoma’s X-factor: Tennessee is likely to load up to try and stop Oklahoma’s powerful running game. And the Vols will be aware of where leading receiver Sterling Shepard will be at all times. That should leave opportunities for Shepard’s budding wingman, junior Durron Neal, to make plays in the passing game. The only potential weakness of the Oklahoma offense coming into the season was at receiver, where Shepard was the only proven performer. Neal, who had six catches for 70 yards against Tulsa, seems to be the key to turning that weakness into a strength.
Tennessee’s X-factor: The youth. More than half of the players traveling will be making their first road trips and with so many true freshmen (the Vols have played 22, more than any FBS program), it is critical they remain poised in raucous Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners are 37-2 at home in non-conference game under Bob Stoops and 88-5 all-time at home under Stoops. Last year, Tennessee looked overwhelmed in its road opener at Oregon, losing 59-14. The Vols will have to weather the storm early on and keep their composure to avoid a repeat. Aside from that, finding the right combination on the offensive line and playing well up front will be critical.
What a win would mean for Big 12: Dating back to Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in January, the Big 12 has been generating momentum as college football transitions into the playoff era. Oklahoma State and West Virginia kept that momentum going by taking No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Alabama to the wire in their openers. This weekend offers another opportunity for the Big 12 to establish its legitimacy to the playoff selection committee. The league has seven games against Power 5 conference opponents, including this clash with the SEC. A successful weekend -- including a convincing Oklahoma victory -- would keep the snowball rolling.
What a win would mean for SEC: It would be huge for Tennessee's program, because second-year coach Butch Jones is trying to get his program back into the national conversation. Road wins against highly ranked teams are a good way to find relevance. And for the conference as a whole, it would be a feather in the league's cap to have a team beat Stoops' crew, since he has been vocal in his criticism of the SEC -- or at least the praise and hype it receives -- in recent years. And his team decisively beat Alabama in last year's Sugar Bowl (then this summer took exception to Nick Saban's assertion that Alabama played last year's Sugar Bowl like it was a "consolation game").
"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"
So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.
"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"
Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?
I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.
I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.
The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.
Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.
Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.
So, here is the actual data:
It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.
Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.
It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.
Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.
For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.
Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.
It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.
Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.
And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
NOTE: For battles with multiple teams, reporters chose reported leaders or best fits.
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