SEC: Texas A&M Aggies

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M seemed to have an embarrassment of riches at the most important position in football earlier this season.

The Aggies had a starting quarterback, Kenny Hill, who seemed to be a perfect fit for their offense. The sophomore ably filled the shoes of the school’s greatest player ever at the position, Johnny Manziel, who turned in two of the most productive and memorable seasons in college football history.

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Kyle Allen could get into the starting quarterback mix sooner than expected.
They have a backup who is young but credentialed in Kyle Allen. He was the country’s No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class and someone the coaching staff said battled Hill neck-and-neck for the starting job in preseason training camp.

Waiting in the wings is the No. 1 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, five-star prospect Kyler Murray, son of Kevin Murray, who was a successful Texas A&M quarterback himself in the 1980s.

Leading it all were two highly regarded offensive minds, head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.

Now, the Aggies are searching for answers everywhere, including quarterback.

After having a three-game losing streak capped by a 59-0 disaster in Alabama, Sumlin indicated the Aggies needed to go back to the drawing board at every position, but naturally, all eyes are on the quarterback situation.

Hill, once 5-0 and getting mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate, saw his numbers regress in the last three outings while the supporting cast around him also struggled. Spavital noted that Hill is fighting to keep his starting job as Allen is being given a chance to compete for the starting job Saturday when the Aggies host Louisiana-Monroe.

Allen is still a largely unknown commodity. He has seen limited action in four games, though he was given some first-half action in the Aggies’ 73-3 win over Lamar. He showed bright spots (12-of-16 passing, two touchdowns) and some not so bright (throwing an interception on his first series).

Who starts Saturday will be revealing. Is Allen ready to take the reins? Is Hill poised enough to pull himself out of the recent slump and return to the form he showed in his first month? What’s in the aftermath either way?

In college football’s current climate, it isn’t uncommon to see the “winner starts, loser transfers” mentality set in when it comes to quarterbacks. Only one can play at a time and waiting your turn can be challenging. Should Allen remain the backup the rest of this season, is he willing to wait around or will he consider heading elsewhere?

And now it’s worth wondering about the strength of Murray’s commitment after he recently took an official visit to Oklahoma. If more visits to other schools follow, it certainly is cause for concern. It’s a long way until signing day and if the Aggies don’t turn the ship in the right direction quickly, recruiting momentum could be affected.

Even if the Aggies are able to hang on to Murray’s commitment and get him to sign a national letter of intent in February, they still must keep their fingers crossed until the summer. Murray is a highly regarded baseball prospect who is projected to be chosen high in the 2015 MLB draft. The Aggies have been down that road before when Sumlin signed two quarterbacks in 2013: Hill and Kohl Stewart, who elected to sign a multimillion dollar deal to pursue pro baseball after being drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Twins.

How all this plays out will be telling. For Sumlin, this is relatively uncharted territory for him as a head coach. Never has his team been shut out like it was in Tuscaloosa and never has his team gone through a three-game offensive slump like the Aggies have recently.

Turnover at quarterback has been rare under Sumlin. He chose Case Keenum to start in his first year as the coach in Houston and Keenum never relinquished the job, except for an eight-game stretch when he was injured in 2010. Keenum broke eight career FBS passing records.

Manziel won the starting job in Sumlin’s first season in Aggieland and that history is well-documented. A Heisman Trophy, two record-setting seasons and a first-round NFL draft selection later, Manziel never had to be replaced because of his play.

Sumlin is naturally reluctant to yank a quarterback. Having been in the presence of or coached many great college quarterbacks, Sumlin is a believer in confidence. He doesn’t want his starting signal-caller concerned with whether he’ll get yanked from a game for making a mistake.

“It's been our history to be a one [quarterback] team, not a 'one guy in, one guy out' kind of deal” Sumlin said in a July interview. “It's like pitching. You don't like to play looking over your shoulder at that position. Quarterback is a lot different. You have to have confidence.”

Spavital, too, has been fortunate to work with some accomplished college quarterbacks: Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith.

He has been through a rough stretch before in this offense: in 2012, Smith's senior year at West Virginia.

“At West Virginia we were 5-0, ranked third in the country and then we lost five straight,” Spavital said. “I've been through this before. The main thing is, it's really nothing to do with scheme or anything like that, it's just the mentality we play with, getting out there and competing and having some pride in what you do."

The search for answers continues. A position where the Aggies seemingly had plenty of answers seems to have some of its biggest questions. How they’re answered will mean a lot toward the direction of Aggies football in the coming weeks and beyond.

SEC Week 10 predictions

October, 30, 2014
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After everyone agreed on all of the picks last week (probably the last time we all doubt Les Miles in Death Valley at night), we're back with some differences of opinion. The headliner is obviously Ole Miss-Auburn, but there are several other games worth watching closely, including Florida-Georgia, with Will Muschamp trying to save his job. Let's get on with the picks.

Why Georgia wins big: Even without Todd Gurley lining up for Georgia, the Bulldogs still have an absolute stud in freshman Nick Chubb. In two games as a starter, Chubb has rushed for 345 yards and three touchdowns. The kid just tosses people around out there and certainly has a little Gurley in him. Florida is starting the Treon Harris era at quarterback, but the offense has been lousy for the better part of the season, while Georgia's defense is on a roll. It'll be tight early, but Georgia pounds away in the second half. Georgia 28, Florida 14 -- Edward Aschoff

How Florida keeps it close: This is Harris' game at quarterback, and he certainly provides more of a spark than Jeff Driskel. If Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor can run the football and negate some of the pressure from Georgia's talented pass-rushers, Florida could have some success moving the football. If they can even out the time of possession battle, you'll see a much more effective defense from the Gators. Georgia 21, Florida 13 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Kentucky wins: Missouri just can't seem to get it together. Just look at last weekend's game against Vanderbilt. Sure, the Tigers won, but not convincingly. And Kentucky is no Vanderbilt. The Wildcats gave Mississippi State a run for its money and beat South Carolina a few weeks ago. With a true playmaker at quarterback and a better-than-expected defense, Kentucky will give Missouri fits on both sides of the ball and win on the road. Kentucky 30, Missouri 20 -- Alex Scarborough

Why Missouri wins: Ever since a 34-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia, the Tigers have looked shaky, especially on offense. But things are gradually getting better as quarterback Maty Mauk re-learns how to take care of the ball. This game offers the improving Wildcats a plum opportunity to show they can win conference games. But look for the home team to squeeze out a hard-fought victory. Missouri 26, Kentucky 23 -- Jeff Barlis

Why Ole Miss wins: The Rebels were injected with some playoff hope after the first batch of College Football Playoff rankings were announced. That should energize a team that lost an ugly one at LSU. Bo Wallace has to regroup, and he has to follow what his coaches tell him. The Rebels haven't had a consistent running game all season, but Auburn's pass defense ranks 75th nationally, and that should help Wallace regroup after a bad showing in Baton Rouge. Watching Ole Miss' defense try to tackle Auburn's running game might be the highlight of the day. A late turnover will seal it for the Rebels. Ole Miss 31, Auburn 28 -- Edward Aschoff

Why Auburn wins: Ole Miss' sideline was like a M*A*S*H unit last week against LSU, with multiple key players leaving with injuries. Even if most of those guys play Saturday -- and it looks like they will -- the Rebels aren't going to be at 100 percent against arguably the best offense they'll face all season. If Wallace doesn't play better than he did a week ago, Auburn might win easily. Ole Miss' quarterback is the X factor here, and I suspect he'll fare well against Auburn's mediocre defense at home, but the Tigers have way more firepower at their disposal right now. Auburn 31, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching

Why Mississippi State wins big: Playing its first game with the No. 1 ranking, Mississippi State came out tight against Kentucky. Dan Mullen even admitted that. Look for the Bulldogs to play more relaxed at home Saturday in front of the familiar sound of cowbells clanging. They’re the No. 1 team in the country, and Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the defense will prove it against the Razorbacks. Mississippi State 35, Arkansas 14 -- Greg Ostendorf

How Arkansas keeps it close: It should be a triumphant return to Davis Wade Stadium for the nation's No. 1 team, but things aren't perfect for the Bulldogs. Kentucky's offense exposed some issues with the MSU secondary. While Arkansas doesn't have the same caliber of passing attack, the Hogs do have a stable of talented runners, a veteran quarterback and two good tight ends. Mississippi State 37, Arkansas 26 -- Jeff Barlis

More unanimous picks:

Texas A&M over UL Monroe: The big storyline will be who starts at quarterback for Texas A&M, Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? Either way, the Aggies should roll against a lesser opponent. Texas A&M 52, UL Monroe 14

South Carolina over Tennessee: Steve Spurrier won’t have to go for it on every fourth down against the Vols, but don’t be surprised if he still has a few tricks left up his sleeve. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four games in this series. South Carolina 35, Tennessee 24

Vanderbilt over Old Dominion: Vandy is looking for its third win of the season, but it won’t come easy against Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his 54 career touchdown passes. Vanderbilt 31, Old Dominion 28

Standings
Edward Aschoff: 64-11
Greg Ostendorf: 64-11
Jeff Barlis: 63-12
Chris Low: 63-12
David Ching: 62-13
Alex Scarborough: 61-14
Sam Khan Jr.: 57-18

SEC morning links

October, 30, 2014
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1. The news broke Wednesday morning that Georgia running back Todd Gurley will miss two more games once the NCAA finally announced its ruling on his eligibility case. He received approximately $3,000 for autographed memorabilia and has been out of action since the Bulldogs' Oct. 11 game at Florida. A subject of ridicule on Twitter was that the NCAA also ordered Gurley to complete 40 hours of community service. But the biggest penalty is obviously that he'll miss Saturday's game against rival Florida and the following week's visit to Kentucky (plus the Mizzou and Arkansas games he already missed). Georgia coach Mark Richt said Gurley will finish his career “with honor” once he returns for the Nov. 15 Auburn game, but what will the Bulldogs do in the meantime? Florida expects the Bulldogs to hand off to Nick Chubb repeatedly, just as they did in the last two games. A college athlete's ability to profit off his or her name is a hot topic these days, with writers like esteemed colleague Chris Low opining that changes are in order. Even the attorney for Bryan Allen, the memorabilia dealer who turned in Gurley, believes that should be the case.

2. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian echoed Volunteers coach Butch Jones' prediction that senior quarterback Justin Worley will not be available Saturday against South Carolina. Maybe that won't be such a bad outcome. Sophomore Josh Dobbs offered reason to believe he might be the Vols' quarterback of the future with a strong performance off the bench last Saturday against Alabama. But the Crimson Tide had not prepared for the youngster. South Carolina will have the entire week. He might be the X-factor in Saturday's game at Columbia. Or for the superstitious Gamecocks among us, maybe it will be South Carolina's uniforms. South Carolina will wear black jerseys and black pants on Saturday for the first time since losing 24-14 to Florida in 2009.

3. Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) is clearly the favorite to win the SEC East, but Missouri (6-2, 3-1) can still make some noise if the Bulldogs fall into any sort of slump. The Tigers haven't played particularly well lately, but they have only one conference loss as Kentucky (5-3, 2-3) prepares to visit on Saturday. Both teams will be looking to get back on track for the stretch run. Perhaps Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk found his stride last week against Vanderbilt after several rocky games in a row. Meanwhile, Kentucky needs just one more win to achieve bowl eligibility, but it hasn't won a true road game since the 2010 opener. Not the greatest sign, particularly since its previously productive running game has underperformed lately and coaches are questioning whether they should use fewer backs in the regular rotation.

Around the SEC

" The State asks how South Carolina's disappointing season might impact its 2015 recruiting class.

" Formerly suspended safety Jermaine Whitehead does not appear close to returning to Auburn's starting lineup.

" Derrick Henry is leading an unusually thin group of Alabama running backs this week in practice with an open date ahead.

" LSU is focused on cleaning up its mistakes from last Saturday's Ole Miss game with Alabama ahead next weekend.

" John Kadlec, better known as “Mr. Mizzou” after serving the school as an athlete, coach, administrator and broadcaster, died Wednesday at age 86.

Tweets of the day

Texas A&M and Adidas, its football apparel partner, have come up with some fresh, unique and eye-catching looks for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era.

From the "Icy whites" to zubaz-inspired accessories to chrome helmets, Texas A&M has made bold choices, but the Aggies' latest uniform trick might be their best.

As a tribute to Texas A&M's 1939 national championship team, the Aggies will don throwback uniforms for Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe, complete with "leather" helmets and cleats (No, the helmets are not really leather, but they do sport a leather look).

 

The details are impressive, all the way to the rusted-look on the facemask:

 

 

The helmets were produced in concert with Hydro Graphics Inc. and Riddell, and the leather look is courtesy of a hydro film leather-like texture featuring wing and cross graphics. The design was created using high-resolution photos of the actual helmet the 1939 team wore. They even have "AMC" on the back, which stands for "Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas," which was what Texas A&M was known as in 1939.

 

Here's a look at the cleats:

 

The uniform tops and pants were also inspired by the original '39 Aggies uniform:

 

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

Can A&M recover from Bama blowout?

October, 27, 2014
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More than a week has passed since Texas A&M's beatdown at 'Bama.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/Butch DillKevin Sumlin and the Aggies have four games left in 2014 to turn around a three-game losing streak.
After spending a much-overdue off week meeting, practicing, resting and regrouping, the Aggies are focusing on the future, even if everyone else is zeroed in on their recent past. Life after 59-0 won't officially start until Texas A&M hosts Louisiana-Monroe at noon ET/11 a.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field, and it may be impossible to completely scrub that embarrassment from the Aggies' collective memories.

Saturday is the start of a crucial season-ending, four-game regular-season stretch for the Aggies, head coach Kevin Sumlin and the current group of players. How they respond to the jaw-dropping loss to Alabama on Oct. 18 will define the 2014 Aggies and perhaps the teams to come in the next year or two.

SEC contenders or pretenders? That's what's at stake moving forward.

The Aggies had more success in their first two seasons as SEC members than most expected. Coming into the league off a disappointing 7-6 campaign in 2011, many wondered if Texas A&M could hold its own in college football's premier league. An 11-2 debut season in 2012 that included an upset of No. 1 Alabama, Johnny Manziel becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and recruiting success charging toward new heights re-calibrated long-term expectations for the program, both internally and externally.

The 20-6 mark in the Aggies' first two years in the SEC provided a foundation to build from and the Aggies showed no signs of slowing down early this season when new starting quarterback Kenny Hill & Co. bushwhacked South Carolina to start the season. The win looked a lot better then than it does now, with the Gamecocks not living up to high preseason expectations. Three consecutive Texas A&M losses to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama -- all of which have been in convincing fashion -- have brought the Aggies back down to earth and left them searching for the spark that got them to 5-0.

"This program was founded on three things: play hard, play smart, be physical," Sumlin said. "The last couple weeks, that has not been the case and has directly contributed to us losing. Our challenge is to get back to those three things and be the program that we were when we started the season and have been since we've been here."

Losses like the one the Aggies suffered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, are rare for championship programs. Since the Associated Press poll began in 1936, only six other ranked teams have suffered a shutout loss as bad or worse than the Aggies' 59-0 debacle. Four of the teams on the winning end of those blowouts went on to a national title that season. Championship teams deliver those blows, they don't absorb them.

Since 2000, only one head coach who eventually went on to win a national championship or SEC championship suffered a loss with a margin of defeat in a similar vicinity to the Aggies' 59-point loss: Mack Brown.

While at Texas, Brown's Longhorns lost by 49 points (63-14) to Oklahoma in 2000 and by 52 points (65-13) to the Sooners in 2003. Each time, both teams were ranked in the top 11; but both times the Longhorns responded by winning six consecutive games. The program was able to bounce back and continue moving forward, building toward its eventual 13-0 campaign in 2005 when the Longhorns won the BCS championship.

Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Les Miles, Jimbo Fisher and Urban Meyer don't have regular-season losses nearly as ugly as 59-0 on their record prior to winning a championship. Yes, there are some convincing losses and blowouts but none of that magnitude for that tier of coaches. Why is that relevant? Because where they've been is where the Aggies want to be and that's why the powers that be at Texas A&M committed to Sumlin to the tune of six years and $30 million, an annually salary of $5 million, last December.

The Aggies can't change the past, they can only salvage the future. Whether the historic loss and the recent three-game losing streak is a mere blip on the radar of otherwise positive progress or the start of a troubling new direction will be largely determined in the next month and next season. It certainly was cause for some soul-searching.

"I don't think there is anything that's off the table [in terms of changes] from a position standpoint in evaluating where we are right now," Sumlin said. "Something like what happened [at Alabama] is an eye-opener and should be an eye-opener to coaches and fans and to players, too."

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.

How the SEC West became so dominant

October, 24, 2014
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The SEC West has been the center of power in the conference for several years now, but never has the gap been greater than now. By placing a historic four teams in the top five of the AP poll, the West is stronger than ever. That's due in large part to the rise of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, while the likes of Alabama and Auburn remain strong. How has it gotten to this point? Here are five key decisions -- coaching hires, recruiting classes and more -- that made the SEC West what it is today.

Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn
Auburn fans might blame Gene Chizik for the program’s collapse in 2012, but give him credit for what he accomplished. And more importantly, give him credit for hiring Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2009. If not for that hire, Malzahn would likely not be the Tigers' coach today. In turn, the Tigers wouldn’t have executed one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history last season, nearly winning a national championship, and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be top five in the polls this fall. People questioned athletic director Jay Jacobs when he brought Malzahn back to Auburn, but the former high school coach has always been a winner. He’s proving that now. -- Greg Ostendorf

Mullen builds up Mississippi State
He wasn't kind or understanding about the low expectations and the low sense of worth he felt around Mississippi State. Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida, took over as the head coach in Starkville, Mississippi, determined to break down that imaginary wall separating State from becoming a contender.

It started with simply reaching bowl games, but after six seasons, it's turned into championship aspirations. Mullen and his staff have developed overlooked talents into NFL prospects. If you don't think so, just look at QB Dak Prescott or linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Neither was highly sought after in high school, but now they're among the best in the country. -- Alex Scarborough

Hugh Freeze and his 2013 recruiting class
The hire of Hugh Freeze didn’t exactly set off fireworks in Oxford, Mississippi, but he made waves throughout the conference when he took an Ole Miss team that had lost 16 consecutive SEC games to two consecutive bowl wins. But what really had people buzzing was that historic 2013 recruiting class. Freeze signed the No. 1 player in the country, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and receiver (Laquon Treadwell).

That class put the Rebels on the map in early February of 2013, and its on-field contribution has been tremendous, with those three becoming stars in the SEC and tight end Evan Engram transforming into one of the league’s best at his position. As a result, Ole Miss is 7-0 and looking for a playoff berth. -- Edward Aschoff

Dominance on the recruiting trail
Alabama’s run over the past four years has been nothing short of amazing. The Crimson Tide are on pace for their fourth consecutive recruiting title and currently have 21 2015 commitments, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300. The reputation of the SEC West alone is a compelling recruiting pitch to the top prospects in the country, and Alabama is at the forefront of the dominant division. LSU and Auburn have also done very well, and Mississippi and Mississippi State have made huge strides under Freeze and Mullen, respectively. -- Derek Tyson

Texas A&M joins as Manziel, Sumlin enter
Many felt Texas A&M would take it on the chin upon entering the conference in 2012. The Aggies didn't exactly light it up in their final Big 12 season (7-6), and there were a ton of question marks. Enter Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin. Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, Sumlin leveraged the team's success to consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, and the Aggies went 20-6 in their first two SEC seasons, including an 11-2 debut in 2012 that included a win over eventual champion Alabama. Some of the struggles expected in Year 1 seem to be surfacing now, though, as the Aggies endure a three-game losing streak. -- Sam Khan Jr.

SEC morning links

October, 24, 2014
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1. Who is the best one-loss team in the country? That is the most intriguing debate in college football right now. With four teams in the top 5, it has to be somebody from the SEC, right? Well, the rest of the nation might disagree and claim SEC bias. On Thursday, ESPN Insider Brad Edwards used a metric called Game Score to rank the losses of each playoff contender. The best loss, with a score of 72, was Alabama's loss at Ole Miss. The worst (27) was Ohio State losing at home to Virginia Tech. That seems fair. What I don't agree with is putting Auburn's loss to Mississippi State among the worst losses with a score of 46. Sure, the Tigers lost by double digits, but it was on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. And they overcame a 21-0 deficit to make it a one-score game in the second half.

1a. On the same scale, Notre Dame's recent loss to Florida State was among the best losses, but it still might have cost the Fighting Irish a shot at the playoff according to Gregg Doyel. The new Indianapolis Star columnist writes that while it was a good loss, the Irish are lacking any good wins. I tend to agree. I figured SEC fans would, too. Read the full piece here.

2. So I was going to call out Texas A&M for backing out of its home-and-home series with Oregon in 2018 and 2019, but then the Aggies went and scheduled a home-and-home with Clemson those same years. Now personally, I would have loved to have seen the Aggies and the Ducks and all the points that would have ensued. But who knows where those two programs will be in four years? All I know is that there are some enticing non-conference matchups on the slate for 2019. Check these games out:
  • Texas A&M at Clemson
  • Notre Dame at Georgia
  • LSU at Texas
  • Kansas State at Mississippi State
  • Michigan at Arkansas

Even that last game could be intriguing assuming Michigan has hired a new coach and that Bret Bielema has the Razorbacks among the SEC contenders by then. And they haven't yet, but you can go ahead and count on both Alabama and Auburn scheduling a quality non-conference that year.

3. I've done a couple stories this season on SEC players showing support for cancer patients, so naturally it caught my attention when I saw a similar piece on Patrick Towles. The Kentucky quarterback has lent support to high school freshman Brady Walz, the nephew of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz, and even invited him to attend the Wildcats' win over Vanderbilt last month. No, it's not the Iron Bowl, but the Kentucky-Louisville can get pretty heated in the Bluegrass State. This seems to be a growing trend in college football, and there are probably more stories like this that never get told. Kudos to you Mr. Towles. Kentucky hosts No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday.

Tweet of the day

 

Clemson, Texas A&M set home-and-home

October, 23, 2014
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Texas A&M has replaced Oregon with Clemson as a high-profile home-and-home opponent for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the schools announced Thursday night.

The Aggies will host the Tigers on Sept. 8, 2018, before traveling to Death Valley on Sept. 7, 2019.

"We are excited to play the Clemson Tigers, who have been on Texas A&M's non-conference schedule previously," Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said in a statement. "As a fellow land-grant institution, Clemson is very similar to Texas A&M with a great football tradition and passionate fans. This will be a great non-conference series for both schools."

The Aggies hold the all-time series lead 3-1, with the Tigers winning the most recent meeting 25-24 in 2005.

Click here to read the full story.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M has had a rough stretch in October, going from No. 6 in the country to unranked after its most recent loss, a 59-0 whipping from Alabama.

There are countless issues to address for the Aggies (5-3, 2-3 SEC). What are some potential ways to address the issues and turn things around? Here are some suggestions and thoughts from the Aggies’ coaches.

Making a quarterback change

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWill the Aggies look for a spark from true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen in their next game on Nov. 1 against Louisiana-Monroe?
It doesn’t take an expert to see that sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill's play hasn’t been as good in the last three games as it was in the first five. The first-year starter saw his name discussed in the Heisman Trophy race after the Aggies’ 5-0 start, but in the last three weeks, Hill has thrown six interceptions and also lost a fumble. He isn’t the only one struggling – there has been poor play from the offensive line and receivers – but it’s a wonder if simply having a fresh face behind center might provide a spark. The Aggies have a highly-touted freshman as Hill’s backup: Kyle Allen, the nation’s No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class.

Could a change happen? The coaching staff didn’t rule it out this week.

“I'm going to open every position this week,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. “I want to find the 11 guys who want to fight and be physical and go out there and play. When it comes down to it, it's a physical sport and you've got to out there and fight. We're going to have a lot of discussions this week and see who the best 11 players are that want to go out and compete for it.”

Reshuffling the offensive line

The running game has been unable to get started in recent weeks (the Aggies had a horrid 1.5 yards-per-carry average on Oct. 11 vs. Ole Miss) and Hill hasn’t had much time to throw (he was sacked five times vs. Alabama). The lack of time in the pocket for Hill has also affected the downfield passing game. Changes could be on the horizon for the offensive line, once considered the strength of Texas A&M’s program but now simply another question mark.

"When you go into the season and that's the strength of your team and you see them getting beat, that’s obviously tough and makes it tough on your other players,” Spavital said. “They’ve got to know the truth and see it. The film is not going to lie. I think some of them see how their performance is out there. They've got to fix it or they’re going to be replaced.”

Improving tackling

Tackling has been an issue for the Aggies and it was painfully apparent against Alabama. For evidence, just see how quarterback Blake Sims evaded defender after defender en route to a 43-yard touchdown run or how easily T.J. Yeldon sliced through the middle of the Aggies’ defense.

It is the No. 1 issue on defensive coordinator Mark Snyder’s fix-it list.

“Mistakes are tackling. There's your mistakes, it's tackling people,” Snyder said. “You go out and tackle people. We've got a bye week this week, and we're going to tackle this week.”

Injecting more fresh faces on defense

The results on defense the last four weeks have been poor. The Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, 495.8 yards per game, 255.7 rushing yards per game, 8.89 yards per pass attempt and are tied for worst nationally in red-zone efficiency in that stretch (86.7 percent). We might see some players on the field who haven’t played as much as others, perhaps true freshmen such as linebacker Otaro Alaka, cornerback Nick Harvey or defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, couldn’t hurt the results at this point.

“You can get beat 59-0 with anybody on the field,” Sumlin said. “So the guys who are going to play to the standard we've set, I think we got away from that and it's our job to get back to that.”

Coaching staff changes

This is something that some fans have called for in the wake of the recent losing streak and the embarrassment on Saturday. Sumlin made it clear that making a change to the coaching staff, whether it is Snyder, Spavital or anyone else, is not something he’s considering at this moment.

“There's nobody who's working harder at coaching technique, game-planning, all that kind of stuff than our guys in this building,” Sumlin said. “We've got to get the right pieces of the puzzle on the field and do a better job. Don't get it confused; that starts with me. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed. It's not one player, it's not one coach, it's not one thing, when you have a situation like what happened Saturday.”

In his seven-year head coaching career, Sumlin has never made a midseason coaching change, so don’t expect that to happen now. If he is to consider changes, the timing would more likely be after the regular season is complete.

ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

October, 22, 2014
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video
The SEC has an impressive 89 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. While the SEC West has been dominant on the field, 13 of the 14 SEC schools are ranked in the top 40 of the RecruitingNation class rankings. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
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Although Georgia’s Nick Chubb is the headliner for a second straight week after another ridiculous performance, this week’s SEC freshman tracker is heavy on defense -- including a couple of defensive linemen who have already emerged as breakout performers.

Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out last Saturday (and five more worth mentioning):

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did:
Chubb continued to give Todd Gurley the Wally Pipp treatment by carrying 30 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 45-32 win at Arkansas. He also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain. In the last two games, Chubb has run 68 times for 345 yards, and the Bulldogs have blasted Missouri and Arkansas on the road.

What it means: If and when Gurley returns to the lineup, he will obviously resume carrying the Bulldogs’ running game. But with the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner suspended and Sony Michel and Keith Marshall out with injuries, Georgia desperately needed Chubb to produce, and he has exceeded every reasonable expectation.

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did:
Barnett logged his first game with double-digit tackles, recording 10 in a loss to Ole Miss, and also notched four tackles for loss and two sacks. The game wasn’t particularly competitive -- Ole Miss won 34-3 -- but Barnett clearly ranked among the Volunteers’ top defensive performers.

What it means: He hasn’t been getting the same kind of attention as Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett, but Barnett might catch up soon. All of a sudden he’s second in the SEC with 9.5 tackles for loss, along with 38 tackles and three sacks.

DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss

What he did:
In the Rebels’ win against Tennessee, Haynes finished with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and his first career fumble recovery. That continued a dominant recent run in which he has totaled 4.5 sacks in the last two games.

What it means: Haynes leads arguably the SEC’s top defense with 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also leads the SEC with three forced fumbles. The Rebels already have a star-studded defense, and Haynes is quickly adding another name to the list of players to watch.

S Jamal Adams, LSU

What he did:
The Tigers’ highest-rated defensive signee in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class, Adams had his best game yet in a win against Kentucky. He finished with a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, plus he delivered the key block that sprung Tre'Davious White for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Simply put, the energetic Adams is showing why those around the LSU program believe he is the next Eric Reid at safety. He is the Tigers’ leading tackler on special teams and is already a leader on their nickel and dime defensive groupings.

S Dominick Sanders, Georgia

What he did:
Sanders started at safety for the seventh straight game and scored for the first time in his college career when he picked up a Brandon Allen fumble and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown. Sanders’ touchdown just before halftime gave Georgia a 38-6 halftime lead.

What it means: Sanders, who also made four tackles against Arkansas, has been one of the more reliable performers in Georgia’s depth-deprived secondary. The Bulldogs still have plenty to clean up on pass defense, but the overall defense continues to make progress under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Other notables:

WR Kendrick Edwards, Arkansas: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the Razorbacks attempted a late rally against Georgia.

QB Treon Harris, Florida: Rotated at quarterback with Jeff Driskel and finished 8-for-12 for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and also rushed eight times for 26 yards.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Ran 13 times for 40 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Josh Malone, Tennessee: Caught five passes for 75 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Caught four passes for 32 yards and returned six kickoffs for 106 yards in a loss to Alabama.

SEC morning links

October, 22, 2014
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1. On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Ostendorf wrote about how Auburn freshman Roc Thomas is primed for a big second half to the season. Watching Thomas from afar, I'd have to agree. While he's not as fast as Corey Grant or as powerful as Cameron Artis-Payne, he's probably Gus Malzahn's most explosive running back when it comes to consistently picking up large chunks of yards. But Ostendorf's piece got me thinking: Who are some other potential second-half stars in the SEC? Here are four that come to mind:
  • Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama: A big body at linebacker who is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. He'll be an integral part of stopping the run against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Too obvious? The longer Todd Gurley is sidelined, the faster the freshman back's star rises.
  • AJ Derby, TE, Arkansas: Bret Bielema told me this spring that the former QB had NFL talent as a tight end. We're starting to see more and more of that lately.
  • Brandon Holloway, RB, Mississippi State: A shifty running back with blinding speed that can catch the ball out of the backfield, Holloway is the perfect change of pace to the bruising style of Josh Robinson.

2. The Head Ball Coach took the Florida question in stride. Steve Spurrier says he's not leaving South Carolina for The Swamp to replace Will Muschamp. "No," Spurrier told reporters on Tuesday. "I tell everybody my next move is going to be to Crescent Beach, Fla." It was fun to imagine Spurrier roaming the Florida sideline again, but at 69 years old you knew it wasn't likely, if not altogether impossible. He's comfortable at South Carolina. Things might not be perfect there right now, but the work pales in comparison to what must be done at Florida. The Gators, should they choose to part ways with Muschamp, need a long-term solution, not a splashy stop-gap they'd have to replace sooner than later.

3. Texas A&M is going back to the drawing board. Even the QB position is up for grabs, said coordinator Jake Spavital. But that's not what caught my attention on Tuesday. What piqued my interest was coach Kevin Sumlin's comments about how Saturday's loss at Alabama was an "eye-opener." He said, "This program was founded on three things -- play hard, play smart, be physical." Texas A&M has done none of those things recently. It started with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but it ended with Alabama breaking its will. There was no aggressiveness from the Aggies' sideline, no fire to show in the second half they're better than the score indicated. They gave up. They wanted to go home. And if you're a coach, that's the worst possible thing you can see. What we're seeing from A&M is that you can't survive in this league on talent alone. You have to have those three things Sumlin discussed, but you have to have them in more than name only.

Tweet of the day

Texas A&M’s 59-0 loss to Alabama on Saturday raised a lot of questions about the Aggies. The team was inferior to the Crimson Tide in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense and special teams -- and the loss brings into question the direction the Aggies are headed.

One of the many areas of concern is a theme that hasn’t drastically changed since last season: the struggles on defense.

Texas A&M’s 2013 defense was poor by any measure. This season began with some promise, but many of the reasons for optimism have gone by the wayside with recent performances. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, in discussing his team’s loss Saturday, noted the Aggies had to evaluate where they are in all three phases of the game and that changes could be in store.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonThe Texas A&M defense has been behind the curve far too often in the past four games.
Defensively, the question is whether the changes need to be in personnel, coaching staff or both. The reasons for the struggles have been varied, but let’s take a look at each season and where the defense is under coordinator Mark Snyder, who is in his third season at the defensive helm.

The 2012 season was by far the Aggies’ best under Snyder. Though depth wasn’t ideal, the combination of experience and leadership in key areas in Texas A&M’s first-team defense is something the group hasn’t had since. Players like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy (not to mention the pure pass-rushing production of defensive end Damontre Moore) are what the Aggies have been missing the last two seasons.

That season, the Aggies ranked in the top half or, in some cases, the top third nationally in several categories. They were 26th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game), 37th in yards per play (5.22), 31st in yards per rush (3.72), 43rd in yards per pass attempt (6.72) and 16th in third-down conversions (32.4 percent).

In other areas they weren’t as strong but still respectable, like yards per game (390.2, 57th nationally), rushing yards per game (139.5, 35th), red-zone efficiency (58.1 percent, 51st) and goal-to-go efficiency (71.4 percent, 46th).

The 2013 season, on the other hand, was easily the worst so far. With those aforementioned veterans moving on as graduated seniors (or in Moore’s case, early entry into the NFL draft), the Aggies plugged in a ton of youth and were a porous unit for virtually the entire season.

Last year’s defense ranked worse than 100th nationally in yards per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), rushing yards per game (222.31), yards per carry (5.38) and red-zone efficiency (71.4 percent).

Their rankings in several other areas weren’t much better. Those included scoring defense (32.2 points per game, 95th), passing yards per game (253.46, 95th), yards per pass attempt (7.56, 91st), sacks (21, 84th) and third-down conversions (41 percent, 78th).

That brings us to 2014, where the Aggies have shown statistical improvement in every one of the above-mentioned statistical categories. A solid start in the first four weeks of the season against South Carolina and three non-Power 5 teams in nonconference play gave the illusion of marked improvement.

In addition, increased depth, particularly along the defensive line thanks to the 2014 recruiting class, has helped. A pass-rushing presence that was sorely missed last season has been found in a player like true freshman Myles Garrett, a four-star recruit who is closing in on Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record.

Depth is still thin at linebacker, however, where the Aggies dismissed a starter this offseason (Darian Claiborne) and lost another to injury in the season opener (A.J. Hilliard). In the secondary, there’s a mix of veterans and youth, seemingly plenty of depth but much inconsistency in terms of performance.

While the start to this season was good, the past four games, which have all been against SEC opponents (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama) have established an alarming trend. The Aggies’ defense is trending statistically worse in that four-game stretch.

In just the last four games, the Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, which ranks 119th nationally. Yardage numbers have been poor, too: yards per game (495.8, 110th), yards per play (6.96, 117th), rushing yards per game (255.75, 117th), yards per carry (5.78, 117th) and yards per pass attempt (8.89, 115th).

In key conversion areas, Texas A&M has also struggled. The Aggies' third-down conversion defense in the last four games (41.2 percent, 75th nationally) is about where it was a season ago. Similar traits apply for red-zone efficiency (68.2 percent, 103rd) and goal-to-go efficiency (76.5 percent, 72nd).

And while the numbers tell enough of a story, so do a layman’s eyes. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the Aggies are struggling defensively. Just look at Saturday’s game against Alabama and watch Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims evade about six Texas A&M defenders en route to a 43-yard touchdown run. Or Amari Cooper catch eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Or T.J. Yeldon run for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. The Aggies allowed 602 total yards -- poor any way you slice it.

Senior linebacker Justin Bass put it plainly after Saturday’s game.

“You can’t play defense if you can’t tackle,” Bass said. “It’s as simple as that. ... If you don’t tackle, you aren’t going to win games.”

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