SEC: Ole Miss Rebels

The unveiling of the first set of College Football Playoff Rankings angered many because of the large SEC presence, but it also proved November is going to be extremely fun in the nation's top conference.

Three teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss -- found their way into the top four of the rankings, nearly causing a viral revolt. Let's get one thing straight, though. There is no SEC bias, but there are some very talented teams in the SEC. The committee sees it and decided three SEC teams were worthy of their high placements.

These folks complaining about the SEC's initial playoff outlook might not have much to gripe about in a few weeks (when the rankings actually matter) because the conference is in for a bloody, bloody month. The SEC West, which owns four of the top six teams in the country, is about to beat its ever-loving brains in.

The SEC now finds itself in an interesting situation. A week ago, everyone was talking about the possibility of the SEC getting two teams in. Then, Ole Miss lost to LSU.

After the first set of rankings were released, it's clear the committee is impressed with what the SEC West has done to this point. But things are about to get a little complicated for the league, as it begins to devour itself even more, starting with No. 4 Ole Miss hosting No. 3 Auburn on Saturday in what is essentially an elimination game in the Grove.

"This is the time of year where the good teams really come up to the top because they've got to be consistently good," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "It's hard to get better this time of year. Most teams can't do it."

There are four regular-season games remaining between top-six teams, and they all involve SEC West teams. Shame on you if you can't get excited about the cannibalization that is about to ensue in the SEC.

With Ole Miss playing Auburn and Mississippi State, Alabama playing LSU and Mississippi State, and Auburn playing Georgia, the SEC will feast on itself during the month that houses our most gluttonous holiday -- Thanksgiving.

As of this moment, what playoff scenarios still lurk for the SEC? Well, let's take a look:

(Note: I think we can all agree that the SEC champion will make the playoff, regardless of if it has one or two losses. Three losses could complicate things, but we're going off the assumption that the SEC champ won't have three losses.)

Magnolia magnificence

This is the simplest scenario. If No. 1 Mississippi State wins out and wins the SEC, the Bulldogs are in. Duh. Same for No. 4 Ole Miss. No questions asked.

Well, what happens if Ole Miss wins out and Mississippi State's only loss is to the Rebels on the road? I think the committee would have a tough decision involving Mississippi State, because its only loss would be an Ole Miss squad that probably wouldn't dip below fourth in the rankings. Mississippi State beat three top-10 teams in a row earlier this season and No. 6 Alabama (on the road) still looms.

Ascending in Alabama

Alabama or Auburn wins out. Now, there's a chance one of these teams could still make it to Atlanta, but they both need help. Auburn needs Mississippi State to lose at least one more game, and Alabama needs Ole Miss to lose at least one more.

But even if neither makes it to Atlanta, a one-loss Alabama or Auburn could make it into the playoff. Think about the gauntlet both teams would have gone through only to escape with one loss to a team currently ranked inside the top four. It's similar to Alabama making it into the BCS title game in 2011 without playing in Atlanta.

Also, Alabama is currently ranked first in ESPN’s Football Power Index and second in ESPN's strength of record metric and Auburn still has to play three teams on the road ranked inside the top 11.

Georgia ... Oh, Georgia

These Bulldogs could really stir things up. If Georgia wins the East, then a win in Atlanta will send the Bulldogs to the playoff. Even with a loss to Auburn in two weeks, an SEC-winning Georgia would make the playoff.

And that's where things get interesting. What if unbeaten Mississippi State loses to Georgia? Is Mississippi State left out? Would a two-loss Georgia team eliminate Mississippi State altogether?

You think that's tricky? What if Alabama or Auburn wins out, but either Mississippi State or Ole Miss goes to Atlanta and loses? Who do you send? Chances are a two-loss Ole Miss team would be eliminated, but how does the committee look at one-loss Mississippi State and one-loss Auburn? Mississippi State won head-to-head, but will the committee care later? You'd think so, but these are imperfect humans we're talking about.

CHAOS!!

Honestly, this is what everyone should be rooting for. There's a chance the SEC might have four two-loss teams from the West before the SEC championship game.

Here you go: LSU wins out, beating Alabama; Alabama beats Mississippi State and Auburn; Ole Miss beats Auburn and Mississippi State. Now Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have two losses. Or Alabama beats LSU and Mississippi State, but loses to Auburn; Ole Miss beats Auburn and Mississippi State; Auburn beats Georgia and Alabama. Now, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all have two losses.

A tiebreaker decides the West, and then the winner of the SEC title goes to the playoff. Chances are the loser, which would have more than one loss, won't make it.

How the committee views the SEC in the coming weeks will be interesting. If everyone starts losing, hold onto your Tiger Rags and pour another hot toddy, because there are going to be a lot of sleepless nights in the month of November.

Prove It: Is Ole Miss a playoff contender?

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
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In this week's edition of "Prove It," ESPN SEC reporters Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss whether Ole Miss and quarterback Bo Wallace can bounce back Saturday against Auburn and stay in the playoff race.

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 29

October, 29, 2014
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The College Football Playoff committee has spoken, and there are four teams from the SEC West in the top six, including three in the top four. Who says the SEC isn’t getting two teams in the playoff? There’s still plenty of football to be played, though. For now, here’s a look at where each SEC playoff contenders stands heading into Week 10.

Mississippi State
Record: 7-0 (4-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Alabama

Reason for optimism: Entering Saturday’s game with Arkansas, Mississippi State ranks first nationally in both strength of record (which measures the difficulty in achieving its record based on its strength of schedule) and game control (which gauges its command of games from beginning to end) according to ESPN Stats & Information. In other words, the Bulldogs have earned their No. 1 national ranking.

Cause for concern: There are still two top-10 opponents left on the schedule, and the Bulldogs will face both of them on the road. On Nov. 15, they’ll visit Alabama (State is 0-2 in Tuscaloosa under Dan Mullen and has won there just twice since 1957) and end the regular season with a trip to Ole Miss (the home team in the Egg Bowl is 12-2 in the 2000s).

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Auburn at Ole Miss

-- David Ching

Auburn
Record: 6-1 (3-1)
Rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 at No. 4 Ole Miss

Reason for optimism: How can Auburn not be happy? At No. 3, the Tigers are the top-ranked one-loss team according to the committee. They’re ahead of Oregon, TCU, Notre Dame and even in-state rival Alabama. On the field, they have to be happy with the way the offense looked this past weekend against South Carolina. Nick Marshall and Co. seem to be clicking again after playing their most complete game of the season.

Cause for concern: It was only one game, but the Auburn defense took a major step backward Saturday. The Tigers couldn’t get off the field at times, and they allowed South Carolina to throw for 416 yards and five touchdowns. Not to mention, the Tigers also have arguably the most treacherous road ahead among the playoff contenders.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Sure, it would be nice to see No. 1 or No. 2 go down, but Auburn should also pull for Kansas State to handle its business at home against Oklahoma State. That nonconference win looks better and better with each Wildcat victory.

-- Greg Ostendorf

Ole Miss
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 4
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. No. 3 Auburn

Reason for optimism: Despite losing at LSU this past weekend, the Rebels aren’t out of the playoff race by any means. That shiny No. 4 ranking proves that the committee has been very impressed with what the Rebels have done to this point. Ole Miss also gets Auburn and Mississippi State at home, somewhat smoothing out the road to Atlanta.

Cause for concern: Well, that loss destroyed the chance at a perfect season, and we saw what happens when you couple an average running game with a quarterback who loses the mental edge with an opponent’s crowd. Bo Wallace was never in rhythm against LSU (just look at that ugly game-clinching interception) and the running game just wasn’t a threat.

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

-- Edward Aschoff

Alabama
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at No. 19 LSU

Reason for optimism: Given the way Alabama struggled in a loss at Ole Miss and a narrow win at Arkansas, there were questions about whether Lane Kiffin's offense could go on the road. But they were answered Saturday when the Tide went to Rocky Top and dominated Tennessee 34-20.

Cause for concern: If you want LSU, you want them early. You want the young, unsure team that lost to Mississippi State, not the confident, maturing bunch that upset Ole Miss. Alabama gets the latter, a team that now believes it can beat anyone, especially in Tiger Stadium.

Who they’ll be rooting for: The SEC will take care of itself, so in order to get two teams from the conference in -- and increase Bama's chances of making the playoff -- Tide fans should be hoping for Louisville to beat Florida State or Stanford to beat Oregon.

-- Alex Scarborough

Georgia
Record: 6-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Nov. 1 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Florida)

Reason for optimism: Find a true competitor in the East, and then maybe the Dawgs would have to look over their shoulders down the home stretch. There just isn’t a team right now that anyone thinks can seriously contend with the Dawgs in November. The defense is now on the same page with the offense, and that’s a great sign.

Cause for concern: We are still awaiting word on Todd Gurley. Nick Chubb has been great in his place, but you just have to wonder how much of a beating the true freshman can take down the stretch. Auburn awaits, and the Dawgs would still have to play -- and beat -- a behemoth in the West in Atlanta.

Who they’re rooting for this week: Kentucky over Missouri

-- Edward Aschoff

LSU
Record: 7-2 (3-2 SEC)
Rank: No. 19
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Reason for optimism: Look who’s back. Most of us thought we’d seen the last of LSU as a playoff contender when Auburn humiliated Les Miles’ club 41-7 on Oct. 4. But after winning three in a row, including one against Ole Miss on Saturday, the Tigers might not be out of it after all. They can truly state their case against Alabama next weekend.

Cause for concern: The Tigers haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard against better opponents. They turned it over and scored just 10 points gainst Ole Miss. Until it is more balanced on offense, LSU will lean heavily on its defense and running game and hope that’s enough to win. The results on that front have been mixed.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss vs. Auburn, Arkansas at Mississippi State

-- David Ching

SEC morning links

October, 29, 2014
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1. The initial College Football Playoff rankings came out on Tuesday night, and the "First Four" was all anyone could talk about, especially after the World Series Game 6 devolved into an old-fashioned Kansas City barbecue. With three teams in the top four, #SECbias was probably trending worldwide. Fans of other conferences were going berserk. Nevermind that voices of reason such as playoff chairman Jeff Long (full disclosure: he's also Arkansas' athletic director) said there's a lot of time for things to change. Heck, look no further than this week's schedule. Two of the top teams in the nation will play this week, as No. 3 Auburn visits No. 4 Ole Miss. Fans of other conferences can delight in knowing the SEC West will bludgeon itself throughout November. And as for No. 6 Alabama getting a so-called snub? Well, this sums up the Tide's plight:



2. As the AJC's Chip Towers said, "Gurley Watch" reached Day 19 on Tuesday and still no update on the Georgia running back's status for Saturday's big game against Florida. The Bulldogs are cautiously optimistic, as Todd Gurley continues to practice. Meanwhile, the Gators' defensive players say they are expecting, preparing and actually hoping to face the Heisman candidate on Saturday. Despite Florida's downward spiral in the past two seasons, the Gators say they're confident. The history of this bitter rivalry suggests the game is usually closely contested. At least one thing that's guaranteed is a good time at the ol' Cocktail Party. It's always cool to see the intermingling of red, black, orange and blue inside and outside the stadium. On Saturday, we'll see it on the field as well. Georgia is the home team, but both teams agreed to wear home jerseys in what should make for a neat visual.

3. Determined to snap its three-game losing streak, Texas A&M underwent a sweeping round of soul-searching during its bye week with a willingness to re-evaluate every position on the team. That includes the quarterback position, where sophomore starter Kenny Hill is now battling with freshman Kyle Allen with a decision to come on Thursday. It's a stunning turn of events for Hill, who started the season with a school-record 511 yards passing in the opener and has thrown for 2,649 yards in eight games. Allen actually went to offensive coordinator Jake Spavital's office to ask if the starting job was really up for grabs. Yes, he was told, this is really happening. The same could be said for the Aggies' tailspin, but at least the bye week came at a perfect time. A&M is still reeling from its last game, a 59-0 loss at Alabama. Saturday's home game against Louisiana-Monroe ought to do wonders in boosting some confidence in Aggieland. Especially for the QB, whoever he is.

Around the SEC

" Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott ditched his walking boot and practiced on Tuesday. He's not sure what all the fuss was about, saying: "I'm sure there's some boots Beyonce or somebody's worn before that people have made a big deal about."

" Ole Miss changed its play-calling terminology after a former intern left in the offseason to join the Auburn staff.

" Michigan native and current Tennessee coach Butch Jones swatted aside speculation that he could be a candidate to be the Wolverines' next coach.

" Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary will be the "lead dog" against Old Dominion, but coach Derek Mason also hopes Patton Robinette will play after being medically cleared last week from a concussion suffered on Sept. 20.

Tweet of the day

SEC bowl projections: Week 9

October, 28, 2014
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Now that the first batch of playoff rankings is out, we can really dive into postseason projections.

Three SEC teams in the top four of the playoff committee's rankings? I actually didn't see that coming. While I do agree that those are three of the four best teams in the country, I figured the committee would lean toward not having three teams from the same conference -- let alone the SEC -- take three slots up top in the first set of rankings.

But that's what happens when you deal with the human element, and that's what is going to make the next few weeks in college football delightful.

So how does that affect our bowl projections for this week? Well, for starters, we can go on ahead and put two SEC teams in the two semifinal games. I think folks below the Mason-Dixon Line were kind of expecting that anyway.

I'm not ready to put three SEC teams in, though. It's just not going to happen. These rankings are fun to look at and make projections with, but let's face it, no conference -- not even the big, bad SEC -- is going to get three teams into the playoff.

So for now, the SEC is left with two teams in the final four. The good news for the conference is that those two teams won't play each other in our fictional first round, making for a possible fictional all-SEC national championship.

Oh, the country would just LOVE that!

I have 10 SEC teams making bowl games this year:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual): Auburn
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: LSU
TaxSlayer Bowl: Kentucky
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Texas A&M
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
Ole Miss was up to its old turnover tricks on defense Saturday against LSU. The Rebels’ problem in the 10-7 loss was that they failed to capitalize on turnovers the way they normally do.

In fairness, the Rebels’ lone touchdown of the night did follow safety Cody Prewitt's fumble recovery in the Ole Miss end zone. But this was an Ole Miss club that's made opponents pay for their mistakes all season, entering the LSU game with an FBS-high 90 points off turnovers.

They won the turnover battle against the Tigers 4-1, but were otherwise unable to turn those takeaways into points.

“When you turn the ball over that many times, it’s rough,” LSU center Elliott Porter admitted. “But we got it done, thank you Lord.”

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesCody Prewitt and Ole Miss forced turnovers against LSU like they had all season, but the Rebels' offense was unable to turn them into points.
The Tigers can thank their increasingly hard-nosed defense as well, as Ole Miss didn’t accomplish much on offense after the other three turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal by LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye.

  • After Delahoussaye’s first-quarter miss gave Ole Miss the ball at the Rebels’ 20-yard line, they drove into LSU territory, but quarterback Bo Wallace threw incomplete to running back Jaylen Walton on fourth-and-2 at the LSU 30.
  • Following a second-quarter C.J. Johnson fumble recovery at the Ole Miss 48, the Rebels actually scored on a 34-yard I'Tavius Mathers run, but the touchdown came back on a holding penalty against tight end Nicholas Parker. Instead, the Rebels were forced to punt.
  • Senquez Golson intercepted LSU’s Anthony Jennings at the Ole Miss 49 in the third quarter, but Golson was then flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. The 15-yard penalty gave the Rebels first-and-25 at their own 34, and they went backward to their 29 before punting.
  • Finally, Mike Hilton intercepted a Jennings pass at the Ole Miss 35 in the fourth quarter. Afterward, the Rebels went three-and-out and punted to LSU again -- with the Tigers then launching the game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive.

This was not the opportunistic Ole Miss club that had taken the field each previous Saturday en route to a No. 3 national ranking, and Rebels coach Hugh Freeze admitted that he might have played it too conservatively since his defense had been so effective against LSU.

“The plan that we had certainly gave us a chance to win,” Freeze said of not using more up-tempo pace against the Tigers. “We had two touchdowns called back and had chances to score more points, and either we didn’t make the right call or we didn’t execute properly at times or LSU made good plays.

“So should we speed it up more? Maybe, but I still say that we had a chance to win in a hostile environment against a very good football team that’s playing really well right now had we made better calls, better plays at certain times.”

Freeze and Wallace said the Tiger Stadium crowd was a factor on Saturday, particularly during the period where Ole Miss was without two offensive line starters. Center Ben Still missed the game with a knee injury and was replaced by converted tackle Robert Conyers. When star left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed time in the second half with a biceps injury, normal fill-in Conyers was already at center, so the Rebels were forced to go with inexperienced redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin.

Ole Miss generated just 107 yards (36 on the ground) and went 2-for-10 on third down after halftime.

“Daronte’s [issue] was not physical as much as it was playing in that environment on a silent count was very, very late off the ball all three possessions,” Freeze said. “That cost us some negative plays. We’ve got to prepare him better and hopefully get some kids healthy where we can play kids that have been in those environments before.”

Freeze said Still and Tunsil are both “day-to-day” for Saturday’s game against No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC), and it’s clear the Rebels (7-1, 4-1) need them both. LSU overwhelmed their replacements at times on Saturday, and Auburn boasts one of the SEC’s better defensive fronts.

Obviously their presences in the starting lineup would make it easier for Wallace and the offense to attempt to force the issue more against Auburn than they did against LSU. Either way, that is the Ole Miss’ quarterback’s hope for Saturday.

“At lot of times when we’re throwing the ball right now, it’s third down. It’s easy when you know it’s coming, third-and-9, third-and-long,” Wallace said. “We’re staying in third-and-long so much when you know it’s coming, people get in their third-down defense and it’s hard obviously to convert three downs with as well as you can play third-down defense.

“So we have to get back to throwing the ball on first and second down and making plays like we did earlier in the season.”
We've known for weeks now that the SEC would eventually cannibalize itself.

There was no way four teams could run the table in the West. Someone -- in fact, many someones -- would have to take a loss.

First it was Alabama. Then it was Texas A&M and Auburn's turn. Finally, Ole Miss finally fell in Death Valley.

The only one standing -- as one of two unbeaten teams left in college football's Power 5 conferences -- is Mississippi State.

But for how long will the Bulldogs' perfect record remain intact?

That question is no small part of today's Take Two debate: Can anyone in the SEC run the table from here on out?

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDoes having the best player in the conference, Dak Prescott, give Mississippi State a better chance at running the table?
Alex Scarborough: You think that's a light at the end of the tunnel you see? Cute. Five more weeks of the regular season remain, but the SEC gauntlet is far from over. Someone will make it out alive, but no one is going to survive unscathed.

In fact, I can easily see no one in the SEC finishing with fewer than two losses. That includes you, Mississippi State.

As I wrote in my Monday column, it's about time everyone accept that there is no dominant team in the league this season. We're not looking at Florida in 2008 or Alabama in 2009. Instead, we're talking about five playoff contenders that all possess significant flaws: Mississippi State's special teams are an Achilles' heel, Ole Miss is guided by an inconsistent quarterback, Auburn can't play defense, Alabama struggles on the road and Georgia is one-dimensional offensively.

I could go on, but those are the lowlights.

I like to rely on statistics whenever possible, and I trust the good folks at ESPN who put together the Football Power Index. According to their calculations, no one has a particularly strong shot at running the table with Alabama (17 percent) and Georgia (14.5 percent) leading the pack. I don't know about you, but while I think Auburn and Mississippi State are strong football teams, I don't like their 5.2 and 4.5 percent likelihood of going undefeated from here on out.

Sam Khan Jr.: Stats are nice and can often be useful. I'm not going to go as far as "stats are for losers," but remember when TCU had a 98 percent win probability in the fourth quarter against Baylor earlier this month? How did that work out for the Horned Frogs?

Here's what I know: Mississippi State is the best team in the conference at this moment. They also have the best player in the conference, quarterback Dak Prescott and the best one-two punch in Prescott and running back Josh Robinson. I haven't even touched on their talented receivers or strong offensive line. On defense, Preston Smith says hi. So does Benardrick McKinney.

Mississippi State's schedule has some peaks and valleys moving forward. After having to play four winning SEC teams in a row in the last five weeks (LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Kentucky) the Bulldogs remain unscathed. Arkansas comes to StarkVegas this week. Then the Bulldogs get some relief with UT-Martin. That's perfect the week before Alabama, where the Bulldogs can take a commanding lead, get their guys out early and rest up for the showdown in Tuscaloosa.

A similar thing happens before the Egg Bowl: the Bulldogs get Vanderbilt at home, which hasn't won an SEC game yet. Are the road games at Alabama and Ole Miss tough? No question. But when you have the best player on the field on your side, that can make up for a lot of deficiencies.

I think you're right Alex: there are many flawed teams in the league and no real dominant ones. That means they can all be beat and Mississippi State might have enough magic to beat them all on the strength of 'Dak Attack' and the 'Bowling Ball.'

Scarborough: Let's see if we can make this simple.

Just take a look at what's ahead for the SEC's playoff hopefuls:

  • Alabama: Good luck going to Death Valley in two weeks. Survive that and you get Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Auburn: You think Ole Miss is just going to roll over this weekend? Beat them and you get Georgia and Alabama on the road.
  • Ole Miss: There's no time to look your wounds with Auburn coming to town. Then to end the season you get Mississippi State.
  • Mississippi State: Enjoy Arkansas and UT Martin because in a few weeks you have to go to Alabama. If you beat the Tide, you still have to face Ole Miss in Oxford.
  • Georgia: OK, so the East is a bit of a joke. But best of luck to you in the SEC Championship Game when you go up against a battle-tested team from the West.

Do you see an undefeated team in there anywhere? Me neither.

Khan: I'm glad you brought up Georgia. I was just about to mention the Bulldogs. Their upcoming schedule? Florida, at Kentucky, Auburn, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech. The Kentucky game could be sticky if the Wildcats keep this up, but Auburn is the main threat here and Georgia gets to host the Tigers. The schedule sets up great and if Georgia gets Todd Gurley back, watch out.

If Ole Miss bounces back to beat Auburn on Saturday, the Rebels have a great chance to do it. Presbyterian, Arkansas and the Egg Bowl follow. And the Egg Bowl is in Oxford. Anything can happen.

I don't think Auburn will do it. That schedule is too daunting. If Alabama does beat LSU, the Tide get to host their final three games. That's a plus for them.

I'll cheat a little and throw another team at you: South Carolina. It won't matter, because the Gamecocks are pretty much out of the SEC East title race, but their schedule finishes as such: Tennessee, at Florida, South Alabama and at Clemson. We all know Spurrier's history against Clemson and if you don't, he'll tell you about it. You said anyone in the SEC, right?

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

October, 28, 2014
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As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There were a few big commitments, key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the SEC.

Each Tuesday, we ask the College Football Insider team to answer three big questions. On tap today: Which College Football Playoff matchups would be the most interesting? Which coach has done the best job so far? And which team truly boasts the most dominant defense?

Which coach has done the best job so far this season?
Travis Haney: Rightful homage is being paid to the coaches in Mississippi, but I want to go a different direction. Kyle Whittingham has Utah 6-1 after some doubted whether he could handle the Pac-12 transition. The Utes' offense isn't great at all -- 84th in yards per play -- but that further illustrates the job Whittingham has done to make Utah a complete team on defense and special teams. The win over Stanford in 2013 didn't look fluky, and neither did wins over UCLA or USC in 2014. The Utes will be a headache for Oregon in a couple of weeks, especially coming off the Stanford game

Tom Luginbill: Nobody was talking about Utah prior to the season, and all the Utes have done is take care of business with average QB play (plus an injury) and stellar special-teams performances. Utah is the one team that can truly throw a wrench into the Pac-12 playoff picture.


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National links: Beware the big day 

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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Welcome to terrific Tuesday. Or terrible Tuesday. All depends on your perspective.

The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.

It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”

With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SEC morning links

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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Today is the day, folks. Curious fans who want to know what the College Football Playoff selection committee is thinking will get a window into those thoughts when the committee's inaugural top 25 poll releases at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight on ESPN. Our Ivan Maisel likens the group to a jury, now that it's down to 12 members. Not everybody is enamored with the idea of the committee releasing its own rankings, though. Dan Wetzel makes the case against the idea, suggesting it should look more like the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee, which simply releases its results after the season is complete. George Schroeder calls the poll a "pointless exercise." For the speculative types, here is a prediction at what the first set of rankings might look like. For those who miss the old days of the BCS, here's a look at what the computers say about the teams to this point. No matter what the result, it will generate a lot of conversation nationally.

Not a surprise, but as the noise increases around Florida coach Will Muschamp and his job security (or lack thereof), the Gators players are voicing their support for the coach. "I mean, people can really say what they want," Florida senior linebacker Mike Taylor said. "We're the ones who sit in these meeting chairs and listen to him. The people that are saying that are not out there coaching with them, not being coached by him, they're not playing on Saturday." The Gators should have plenty of motivation this week for their rivalry game with Georgia. They're under pressure, too. I remember Vernon Hargreaves III talking at SEC media days about things classmates said to players last year when the Gators were 4-8. Is it likely the Gators turn it around? Probably not, given how good Georgia is. But like their coach, they'll probably operate with a bunker mentality moving forward.

Here's an interesting dynamic before this weekend's showdown between Auburn and Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze expressed some concern over the fact that a former quarterback of his at Arkansas State and intern for him at Ole Miss, Ryan Aplin, is an offensive graduate assistant with Auburn now. In the coaching world, turnover is frequent and a situation like this can be expected to pop up from time to time, but the fact that Aplin spent so much time with Freeze, who gave Aplin his first job in football, suggests he has a deep knowledge of Freeze and the inner-workings of his attack. Everything is on film, so I doubt that it is a make-or-break type of thing, but coaches search for every advantage they can get. Bo Wallace acknowledged that the Rebels have changed terminology since Aplin left, but it's still worth noting.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ole Miss fans might have wondered whether Hugh Freeze had brain freeze in the final moments of Saturday night’s 10-7 loss to LSU. But the Rebels’ coach offered a reasonable explanation for each of the missteps that prevented his team from even attempting the game-tying field goal.

The most glaring error was that quarterback Bo Wallace threw to the end zone instead of settling for a safer route along the sideline or throwing the ball away to stop the clock. That is what Freeze said he instructed Wallace to do, which still would have left time for a field goal. Instead, Wallace underthrew Cody Core in the end zone and LSU safety Ronald Martin cut in front of the Rebels wideout to make the game-saving interception at the goal line.

"I think Bo would tell you, I thought we were pretty clear we were either going to take the flat throw or throw it out of bounds and try the field goal," Freeze said after the game. "He must have felt like he had a shot at the touchdown play there, the clear-out guy. But no, I wish I could do that over for sure."

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanA risky decision by QB Bo Wallace cost Ole Miss a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal at LSU.
Wallace’s poor decision concluded a sloppy final sequence that resulted in the Rebels’ first loss of the season. Freeze actually sent freshman kicker Gary Wunderlich out to attempt a 42-yard field goal with 9 seconds to play, but Ole Miss was flagged for delay of game after the kicking team was slow to arrive on the field.

That was Ole Miss’ first major error at the end of the game, although Freeze said he also wanted to review how the officiating crew handled LSU’s substitutions before the play.

Wallace did not begin to leave the field until 22 seconds remained on the play clock. There were only 12 seconds left by the time Wunderlich arrived at the ball and started setting up to kick. He was finally settling into position when the clock hit zero.

"After the penalty, which I’m going to have to watch the film, they stood over the ball and I thought they had 12 men on the field for a long time," Freeze said. "And then we get the penalty, pushed it back to I think 48 yards from the right hash which is not [Wunderlich’s] favorite deal."

That set up multiple dilemmas for the Rebels. Were he to convert the 48-yard kick, it would have been the longest made field goal in Wunderlich’s three-game stint as Ole Miss’ starting place-kicker. And as Freeze mentioned, most right-footed kickers prefer to kick from somewhere other than the right side of the field, which was where the ball was placed.

When LSU coach Les Miles called timeout to allow pressure to build for the freshman kicker, Freeze decided to toss one more pass in an attempt to move closer to the goal and further to the left.

"It made me nervous as hell because I’m sitting there going, 'Well, if he tries a three-pointer, that’s certainly a tie and we’re going into overtime. Certainly if he tries something else, that could be another ending' and one that we’d all be miserable about right now," Miles said.

Facing third-and-7 from the LSU 30-yard line, Wallace took a shotgun snap and sprinted left. Freeze clearly expected his quarterback to throw to Laquon Treadwell along the Ole Miss sideline at the 23 -- he even held up his arm and pointed at Treadwell as Wallace rolled in that direction -- but Wallace instead released a deep ball to Core with 7 seconds showing on the game clock.

TV replays showed Freeze cringing in agony as Wallace threw downfield instead of passing to Treadwell or tossing an incompletion that would have stopped the clock and allowed Wunderlich to try to tie the game.

"I told him to sprint out and either take the flat throw right now or throw it out of bounds," Freeze said. "Still, worst case, you’re still at the same point. We were trying to get it to the left hash for him or left-middle. We just didn’t get it done there."

LSU had to run one final play to use up the remaining 2 seconds on the clock, but Wallace was not there to see it. He ran to the locker room shortly after Martin’s interception and avoided the flood of Tigers fans who poured onto the field a few moments later.

Wallace was on the verge of tears when he couldn’t explain his mistake -- his first interception in SEC play all season -- to reporters after the game.

"I’m not going to talk about it. One-on-one, threw it up -- [it’s] done," Wallace said.

In truth, Wallace didn’t need to concoct an explanation. He simply tried to be a hero on the Rebels’ final play when a safer decision might have sufficed, and his mistake spoiled then-No. 3 Ole Miss' bid for a perfect season. Nobody had to hear those words cross Wallace’s lips to understand what had occurred.

The loss wasn’t entirely Wallace’s fault considering how the Rebels went 0-for-6 on third down in the second half and generated just 107 yards of offense (36 on the ground) after halftime. But he’s a senior and a third-year starter and seemed to have finally progressed beyond the mental errors that marked the early days of his career.

His mistake at the end of the LSU game was painful, and it will only become more so if the Rebels fail to make the program's first appearance in the SEC championship game.

At first glance: SEC Week 10

October, 27, 2014
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We could be on the verge of another Separation Saturday in the SEC’s respective division races. If division leaders Mississippi State and Georgia successfully dodge upset bids from Arkansas and Florida, they will inch closer toward a meeting in December with a conference championship at stake.

As we move into what should be an incredible November in the SEC, let’s take a quick glance at some of this week’s top storylines:

Game of the week: No. 4 Auburn at No. 7 Ole Miss

LSU’s 10-7 comeback win over Ole Miss last weekend knocked the Rebels from the ranks of the unbeaten, but this game still carries enormous SEC West implications for both one-loss clubs. The loser might not be mathematically eliminated, but it will certainly face an uphill climb -- particularly if Auburn loses since it still must go on the road to face No. 3 Alabama and No. 9 Georgia. The fascinating matchup here will be Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Auburn’s spread running game against a vaunted Ole Miss defense that just surrendered 264 rushing yards to LSU. The Rebels also took some physical lumps against LSU, with key players such as Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and All-America safety Cody Prewitt all missing time against LSU with injuries. If they don’t regroup quickly, the Rebels’ division hopes might be on life support by Sunday.

Player under pressure: Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill

He hasn’t been nearly "trill" enough lately. Nobody has at Texas A&M during an ugly three-game losing streak where the Aggies have lost to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama by a combined 142-51 margin. Hill’s numbers weren’t awful in that stretch -- he was 96-of-141 for 904 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions -- but the Aggies simply were not competitive in any of those games. Hill was a Heisman Trophy contender a month ago, but Kevin Sumlin and Jake Spavital might turn to freshman Kyle Allen if things don’t start turning around quickly. Hill desperately needs to get back on track Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe before the Aggies close the season against a gantlet of Auburn, Missouri and LSU.

Coach under the microscope: Florida’s Will Muschamp

Every indication seems to be that the end is near for Muschamp at Florida. But what happens if his Gators pull a huge upset against hated rival Georgia on Saturday? Is there a scenario where the Gators miraculously look like a different team coming out of their open date and show some progress to end the season? It might require a miracle for Muschamp to return as Florida’s head coach next season -- and that’s pretty much what it would be if the Gators snap their three-game losing streak against Georgia.

Storyline to watch: Todd Gurley and the NCAA

Georgia expects to hear back soon from the NCAA regarding Todd Gurley’s reinstatement request. The Bulldogs’ star sat out during wins against Missouri and Arkansas after accusations that he accepted money for autographing memorabilia jeopardized his eligibility. Gurley remains one of the SEC’s leading rushers with 773 yards in just five games, and Nick Chubb has been an outstanding replacement during Gurley’s absence, but the Bulldogs have to love their chances against Florida if the one-time Heisman Trophy front runner returns to the lineup on Saturday.

Intriguing matchup: Maty Mauk against Kentucky’s secondary

Missouri quarterback Mauk has been awful in SEC play -- he has completed 40 percent of his passes, averaged 98 passing yards per game and tossed two touchdowns against five interceptions in four conference games == which could make things interesting on Saturday. Kentucky doesn’t have the most imposing defense, but it boasts arguably the most improved secondary in the nation this season. The Wildcats have intercepted 13 passes in eight games after picking off just three throws in the entire 2013 season. If Mauk fails to raise his game on Saturday, the Wildcats might give the defending SEC East champs all they can handle.

SEC race is all about survival

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People think the SEC is complicated.

It’s really not.

The conference, no matter what some pundits argue and statistics might say, can be observed by following one simple rule: survive and advance.

Style points are erroneous. Average margin of victory is useless. Strength of schedule really isn’t that important.

Ignore all of it.

You think Mississippi State didn’t look like the No. 1 team in the country against Kentucky? Get a grip.

I know that Dak Prescott wasn’t sharp throwing the football. I know that the secondary looked susceptible. I know that turnovers could eventually doom the Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Dak Prescott and Dan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports"Hopefully, we can get all of this ranking stuff behind us," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. "I don't know where we'll rank. You can drop us if you want or you can raise us, I don't really care on any of that now."
But please tell me something I don’t know. Talk to me when Mississippi State actually loses a game.

“This league is brutal,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. “It’s difficult each Saturday to win football games, particularly when you may not play your best and you suffer some injuries you’re not used to having.”

You think Freeze cares about style points today? He would have gone dancing with Mike the Tiger to go back and play LSU differently.

People get too caught up in the minutia. We all do. The fact that so many are now burying Freeze and Ole Miss after their loss at LSU is a testament to that.

If you think the Rebs are out of it, you’re fooling yourself.

Remember when Alabama was buried and the dynasty was over? What about Auburn's ominous fall? Did we forget our recent rush to pronounce Georgia dead?

Good times.

Last time I checked this is still the SEC. Anything can happen. A few cuts and bruises doesn't mean anyone’s season is over.

Ole Miss could beat Auburn this weekend and jump right back into the top four of the polls. A win in the Egg Bowl could mean the division crown and a berth in the SEC title game.

Good luck keeping Ole Miss out of the playoff then.

What happened this past Saturday was all about the continued jockeying for position. The lead in the West could change hands every week from now until the end of November. And sitting off to the side could be Georgia, just hoping no one pays attention to its steady rise up the rankings.

There is no dominant team in the SEC this season, and it’s about time everyone accepts that.

“Hopefully, we can get all of this ranking stuff behind us,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. “I don’t know where we’ll rank. You can drop us if you want or you can raise us, I don’t really care on any of that now.”

It may be wishful thinking, but what Mullen was speaking to is perspective. It’s a rare commodity these days.

But Mullen seems to understand a simple truth about the SEC: win and you’re in. You don’t even need to win all of your games so long as you’re among the top two teams when the music stops. How well you dance doesn’t matter.

Unlike the other Power 5 conferences, there’s no need for overanalyzing schedules and determining supposed “quality wins." You don’t see Mike Slive politicking for the playoff because he doesn’t have to.

The SEC champion won’t be denied a spot in the final four. And the way things are going, the No. 2 team in the league could be in as well. If you go by the AP and coaches’ polls, three SEC teams are among the top four in the country.

We can debate about who’s the best of the bunch all we want, but what really matters is who survives.

The rest will get sorted out in the end.

SEC morning links

October, 27, 2014
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1. As Mississippi State's magical season chugs along, running back Josh Robinson has become the newest darling of college football. He has a wide smile and a playful spirit, as evidenced by a perfectly executed videobomb of coach Dan Mullen's postgame interview on Saturday. Robinson is listed generously at 5-foot-9 and carries his 215 pounds like a round mound of ground and pound. But he's got an even better nickname: "The Human Bowling Ball," and it makes sense when you watch this highlight of Robinson breaking no less than six tackles on one play. He ran for a career-high 198 yards, including 142 yards after contact. It was Robinson’s second conference game with 100 or more yards after contact (the other featured 116 yards after contact at LSU). Entering Week 9, the rest of the SEC had two such games combined. Robinson really wanted those last two yards to reach the 200-yard mark for the day. As MSU was executing the kneel-down play, Robinson gestured toward Mullen with two fingers to plead his case. Mullen seemed annoyed after the game, saying, "Well, you should have gotten the two yards earlier in the game. You had 59 minutes to get that done." The lesson here? Don't videobomb Dan Mullen.

2. Playing quarterback takes guts and conviction. It's what Good Bo/Bad Bo is all about. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace had his reputation on the line in the waning seconds of Saturday's Ole Miss-LSU game, and he went for it. It's too bad for the Rebels that Wallace didn't do anything close to what he was told to do. Coach Hugh Freeze said he told Wallace to throw to the flats or out of bounds. Wallace went for it in the end zone, and LSU intercepted the ball to seal its upset. So it's all on Bad Bo, right? Not so fast. Wallace struggled throughout the decisive fourth quarter, completing 6 of 13 passes before the final play. Shouldn't Freeze have known better than to take that risk with Bad Bo at the controls? "I thought we were pretty clear," Freeze said afterward. Wallace's ill-advised pass was his first interception in SEC play. Entering the week, he led the SEC in fourth-quarter Total QBR (90.7) and had zero fourth-quarter turnovers. Saturday was just a very clear, very painful case of Good Bo/Bad Bo.

3. It needs to be said: Amari Cooper is the best wide receiver on Earth who's not in the NFL. Scouts and wonks are lining up to agree. ("He's like a smaller version of A.J. Green!") Cooper had his second SEC game of the season with 200-plus yards receiving and now has 13 career games of at least 100 receiving yards, which is tied with D.J. Hall for most in school history. In other words, it's safe to say Cooper will hold every meaningful Alabama record for a wide receiver when he's through. What is certain is Nick Saban intends to continue feeding the beast. And at the very least it should ensure Cooper gets a shot at some major hardware in December. "He should be up there for the Heisman trophy," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones without the slightest bit of hyperbole. His Vols had the skid marks to prove it.

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