SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

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If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.

SEC morning links

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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1. The SEC is all over the Top 25 this week, but let's just come right out and say it -- there's no dominant team. Oh, a few of the West's best will have their chances to make a case, but right now there isn't a team without some warts. Take Texas A&M for instance. The Aggie offense with Kenny Trill pulling the trigger is a nightmare to game plan against. But A&M's defense is scary, too, and not in a good way. This unit was the worst in the SEC last season in total defense and run defense. Sure, the Aggies have improved since then. Maybe a lot. But who have they played for us to be sure? Aside from the season-opening ambush of South Carolina (a game in which the Gamecocks piled up 433 yards), A&M has played Lamar, Rice and SMU. Kevin Sumlin and Co. would be wise to not overlook the Razorbacks. Since their loss to Auburn in Week 1, the Hogs have averaged 58 points of offense in winning their last three. Their SEC-best rushing attack has the potential to give Texas A&M some nightmares as well.

2. Despite the roller coaster the Gamecocks have already been on in the season's first month of games (you can just see it on Steve Spurrier's face), it should be noted that South Carolina leads the SEC East. Does anybody want to win this division? Maybe we'll get an answer on Saturday when Missouri visits USC. Spurrier isn't sounding too confident after the way his team looked against what had been a dreadful Vanderbilt team. On the other hand, Mizzou is banged up. Starting left guard and fifth-year senior Anthony Gatti tore his ACL and MCL in the Tigers' loss to Indiana. And second-leading receiver Darius White will be out with a strained groin. This one isn't exactly shaping up to be the epic battle for East supremacy that some thought it could be a month ago.

3. ESPN's "College GameDay" is headed to Columbia, South Carolina. Not to be outdone, the other big game in the SEC East -- Tennessee at Georgia -- will be the site of the SEC Network's pregame show "SEC Nation". The Vols have something to prove and will hit the road with a much-improved defense. UT is sixth in the SEC in total defense, giving up 343 yards a game. That should give Tennessee some hope in preparing to face Georgia's star running back Todd Gurley and his SEC freshman of the week understudy, Sony Michel. The Bulldogs are also short-handed with Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley among the injured. The biggest challenge for Tennessee, however, is likely to come on the other side of the ball. Georgia has an intimidating pass rush, and the Vols O-line has given up an SEC-worst nine sacks already this seasons. Buckle up.

Around the SEC
  • LSU's stunning pratfall in Saturday's home loss to Mississippi State will prompt some changes. Most notably, the QB battle is back on.
  • Mississippi State center Dillon Day, accused of stomping on two LSU players, wrote a letter to Bulldogs fans to defend himself. Day has some history, though. He was suspended for a half last year after he stomped on an Auburn player.
  • File this under "Oh, they're friends now." Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to Gus Malzahn after Auburn's win at Kansas State: "Some of you may faint. I shot Gus a congrats text and just said, 'Hey I know how tough that place is. Congrats.' "
  • Will Muschamp has fallen off the hot seat and directly into the fire. Here are some ideas for fixing Florida.
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SEC morning links

September, 22, 2014
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1. Missouri is still reeling from its surprising home loss to Indiana, a middling Big Ten team. Let that sink in for a minute. The Tigers were favored by 14 or 15 points in most spreads. And lost. For a team that was starting to look like a strong contender in the East Division, it was a shocking upset. Mizzou's worst loss in years. There is no panacea on the horizon. Up next is a road trip to South Carolina, which has ongoing problems of its own after barely escaping Nashville with a win against the Dores. As one would expect, Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier threw around some choice adjectives. The word embarrassing came up a lot. After giving up two kickoff returns for touchdowns, Spurrier announced on Sunday that he will be the Gamecocks' new assistant kickoff coverage coach. That oughta fix it. College GameDay will be in Columbia, S.C., this weekend, which prompted yet more Spurrier being Spurrier:

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2. There wasn't much to learn about Georgia in its 66-0 win against Troy. Or was there? We already knew Todd Gurley was one of the nation's finest players. He hardly broke a sweat on Saturday with six carries for 73 yards, but Georgia hasn't had to overwork Gurley, and still his 9.8 yards per carry leads the FBS. We knew the Bulldogs had some talented youngsters, but who knew true freshmen Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie were ready to completely overshadow another injury to former five-star running back Keith Marshall? It seems the only question surrounding Georgia is wither the passing game, fellas? Georgia welcomes Tennessee this weekend along with the chance to see if Hutson Mason needs to do anything other than hand off. For their part, the Vols enjoyed a perfectly timed bye week after three nonconference games and can now go about the business of clawing their way back to SEC relevance.

3. That sound of laughter you're hearing off in the distance? It's Lane Kiffin basking in the afterglow of Alabama's 42-21 smackdown of the Gators. His offense so thoroughly dominated Florida's defense, the Gators set a record for the most yards allowed in school history. Dating to his time as head coach at Tennessee, that kind of performance against the hated Gators was something Kiffin could only dream about. On Saturday, his quarterback threw for 445 yards -- second only to Scott Hunter's 484 in Alabama history -- and his money wide receiver was the clear winner in a much-anticipated matchup with one of the best cover cornerbacks in college football. Today, receiver Amari Cooper is a legitimate Heisman candidate. We suspected he might be the best wideout in the country, but there is now a totally different perception of quarterback Blake Sims (who deflected some of the praise to Kiffin, by the way). If Alabama's offense can keep up this kind of balance and ruthless efficiency, the only sound we'll be hearing will be the chattering teeth of defensive coordinators.

Around the SEC
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South Carolina 48, Vanderbilt 34

September, 20, 2014
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Dylan Thompson threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns in No. 14 South Carolina's 48-34 win over Vanderbilt.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
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Well, that was an interesting day in the SEC. Here's what we learned:

1. The SEC West is clearly the best ... again: It's the same story in the SEC: The West is the best. None of these teams are perfect, but they are the best of the bunch in the SEC. Alabama throttled Florida at home, Auburn went on the road and gutted out a tough win over No. 20 Kansas State, Texas A&M just continues to roll over everyone, Arkansas can run on anyone, Ole Miss is a top-10 team, and Mississippi State walked into Death Valley at night and beat No. 8 LSU team in what turned into a late thriller. We know this LSU team has issues with its passing game and young defense, but give Mississippi State a lot of credit for that performance. There's a reason the West entered the weekend with five ranked teams -- all in the top 10. On the other side of the conference, everyone in the East has issues. The thing about the West is no team is really sticking out as the dominant team in the division, and every one of them is a work in progress, but they've all had really good moments. This is easily the toughest division in all of college football. Whoever comes out of this division might have an automatic ticket to the playoff on principle alone.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott had 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns in a return to his home state.
2. Florida's offense and defense have issues: Where do you even start with Florida's performance in that 42-21 loss to third-ranked Alabama? Despite plenty of opportunities afforded to the offense, the Gators continuously stalled with the ball. Quarterback Jeff Driskel struggled with the same issues that have plagued him his entire career. He was off with his deep throws and had trouble with his reads and threw for just 93 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 9-of-28 passing. Even with decent protection for most of the day, Driskel never got into a rhythm and couldn't take advantage of an Alabama secondary trying to find its identity. The defense gave up some big plays in the passing game, especially when the ball went to Amari Cooper (10 catches, 201 yards and three touchdowns). Blake Sims torched Florida's secondary, which struggled with coverage issues all day, for 445 passing yards and four touchdowns, including one of 87 and 79 yards. Yes, Florida's defense was on the field for a very long team, but the Gators allowed 645 total yards ... the most allowed in school history.

3. Mississippi State will challenge for the West title: I wondered why this team wasn't ranked in the Top 25 to begin the season, and then the defense fell asleep in Week 2 and I started to wonder if Mississippi State was for real. Now, after a 34-29 win over LSU in Baton Rouge, you can't sleep on Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs. Sure, this was a rout that got pretty tight late in the fourth quarter, but this is a win the Bulldogs should be ecstatic about. And how about quarterback Dak Prescott? He had his best performance to date in his home state with 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Fellow Louisiana native Josh Robinson wasn't too shabby either, as he rushed for 197 yards and a score. Take the Bulldogs lightly at your own risk.

4. The East race is a total crapshoot: Besides a dominating performance from Georgia over Troy, the SEC East didn't have a great day. Florida was blown out by Alabama, Missouri was stunned at home by unranked Big Ten representative Indiana 31-27, and South Carolina slogged through a 48-34 win at Vanderbilt. We saw that Florida's offense still has major issues and Missouri's interior defensive linemen need a lot of work, as Indiana ran for 241 yards on the Tigers. South Carolina still controls its own destiny when it comes to going to Atlanta for the SEC title game, but no one would be shocked to see the Gamecocks drop another one. Will Georgia's defense get better? Will Florida have an offense? Was this a fluke loss for Mizzou? Is Tennessee a real sleeper? A two-loss SEC East champ is not out of the question with so many uncertainties.

5. Will Muschamp's seat is hotter than ever: I have a feeling Bill from Gainesville won't be calling into many radio shows this week. With a loss in which the Gators faded quickly in the second half, Muschamp's seat is roasting in Gainesville. Last year's injury-riddled, 4-8 season was one thing, but Florida has regressed in the past two games this season, which means the Gators have to show vast improvement in two weeks at Tennessee in order to perk an already downtrodden and disheartened fan base. You have to let the season play out, but this was a bad loss for Muschamp's squad, even if Alabama was the No. 3 team in the country. Florida should be competitive in games such as this, and the Gators just weren't after Alabama cleaned up its mistakes in the second half. There were plenty of opportunities for Florida in this one, but the Gators just didn't execute. Florida fans are frustrated with their coach and their quarterback, who are both in their fourth years at UF.

Video: Spurrier on sloppy win for S.C.

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
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South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was embarrassed by his team’s play in a sloppy, 48-34 victory over Vanderbilt.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
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Troy at No. 13 Georgia, SEC Network: Georgia is coming off a 38-35 loss at South Carolina and is looking for a resounding victory here. The last time these teams met (2007), Georgia won 44-34. This Troy team, however, is 0-3 and allowing 40 points per game while averaging only 20.7. Look for the Bulldogs to jump out early in this one.

3:30 p.m. ET

No. 6 Texas A&M at SMU, ABC/ESPN2: The Aggies come in at 3-0 and they’ve been rolling so far this season. SMU has been a mess, 0-2 and with a new coach: June Jones resigned last week; Tom Mason is serving as the interim head coach and is making his debut. Perhaps the Mustangs are fired up and have a renewed energy, but even if they do, the Aggies are in position for a convincing victory. These teams' past three meetings, dating to 2011, have resulted in a 35.3-point average margin of victory for A&M.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp, Nick Saban
Gary W. Green/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama own a three-game winning streak over Florida. The teams haven't played since 2011, Will Muschamp's first season.
Florida at No. 3 Alabama, CBS: Few are likely giving the Gators much of a shot here because they were pushed to their limits by Kentucky. How well they operate their no-huddle, up-tempo offense will go a long way in determining how well they fare. Meanwhile, eyes continue to focus on the Alabama quarterback situation with Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and it will be worth watching to see what develops. The Crimson Tide own a three-game winning streak over Florida.

4 p.m. ET

Indiana at No. 18 Missouri, SEC Network: The Tigers are quietly getting it done and look to close out their nonconference schedule 4-0. If they do, it would be the eighth 4-0 start under Gary Pinkel and seventh in nine seasons. Maty Mauk is coming off a four-touchdown-pass performance and Shane Ray is coming off a two-sack, four-tackles-for-loss performance.

7 p.m. ET

Northern Illinois at Arkansas, ESPNU: A victory would give the Razorbacks as many wins this season (three) as they had in all of 2013. That would be a big step forward for Bret Bielema's crew. Northern Illinois is a quality road team, having won 17 in a row in opponents' home stadiums, including one at Northwestern on Sept. 6. Arkansas brings in a second-best-in-the-nation 362 rushing yards per game.

Mississippi State at No. 8 LSU, ESPN: Saturday nights in Death Valley are always fun -- typically for the Tigers. They're 43-2 under Les Miles in Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium. This is a big "prove-it" game for Mississippi State, a team that's 3-0 and trying to take a big step into SEC West contention. Last year's meeting between these two was competitive until a 28-point fourth quarter by LSU.

7:30 p.m. ET

No. 14 South Carolina at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: The Gamecocks got a huge win versus Georgia and are looking to go to 2-1 in league play with a victory here. South Carolina jumped out to a big lead over Vandy the last time these teams met and it's likely to happen again if the Commodores don't get on track quickly. They've struggled mightily out of the gate and had to rally to beat UMass last week. Patton Robinette will start at QB; will coach Derek Mason stick with him this time?
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.

SEC morning links

September, 18, 2014
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1. The big storyline Wednesday wasn’t from the SEC. It was from the ACC. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, a name SEC fans surely know by now, will sit the first half against Clemson for yet another off-field incident. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach summed it up well in his column: “Funny, the last time I checked, you can’t spell Jameis without ‘me’ and ‘I.’” This got me thinking, though. What player in the SEC could their team not afford to lose for a half? Auburn already showed it can win without its quarterback Nick Marshall, who sat out the first half against Arkansas. Losing Todd Gurley would be rough, but Georgia has a full stable of running backs behind him. Maybe Amari Cooper at Alabama? Or how about on the other side of the ball with Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida? The two will be squaring off this Saturday. But what do you think? Who’s the SEC’s most indispensable player?

2. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will turn 49 next month, one year away from the big 5-0, but that’s nothing compared to his coaching counterpart Thursday night. Bill Snyder, who is in his second stint at Kansas State, is 74 years old. The stadium his team plays in is already named after him. Not a lot of coaches can say that. As for Malzahn, he doesn’t see himself coaching at 74 because according to him, “college football ages you in dog years.” It’s not all that uncommon in the SEC, though. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier turns 70 in April, and others -- including Nick Saban (Alabama), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), and Les Miles (LSU) are all over the age of 60. My guess is that Malzahn will be coaching in the NFL long before he reaches that age, but you never know.

3. It’s been awhile since Mississippi State last beat LSU -- 15 years to be exact. In fact, the Bulldogs have never beat Les Miles since he’s been in Baton Rouge, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen this season. On Wednesday, Miles called this Mississippi State team “as talented and as complete” as any Mississippi State team he’s coached against. He’s not taking this game lightly, and neither will the fans. You can bet that the newly renovated Tiger Stadium will be rocking Saturday night. There are games -- like Sam Houston State and Louisiana Monroe -- and then there are SEC games. This weekend marks the first SEC game.

Around the SEC
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SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4

SEC morning links

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

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

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

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September, 15, 2014
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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

Bowls are only one thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the regular season, the SEC is still king

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

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

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

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

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

It’s going to get better -- sort of

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

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

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

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

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

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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After Week 2, the quarterback battles in the SEC seem to be dwindling. Nick Marshall returned as the starter for Auburn while it looks like both Kentucky and Tennessee have found their man. The same can’t be said just yet at Alabama and LSU, and nobody knows what’s going on at Vanderbilt. The SEC quarterback tracker is back. Have a look.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Sims continues to do what coach Nick Saban and his staff value most: manage the offense. It might not be flashy, but Sims has taken what the defense has given him time and time again. Relying on mostly short, quick passes, Sims threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing against Florida Atlantic. He also ran in a touchdown from 7 yards out.

What it means: Sims has done nothing to lose the starting job, but it's still what he hasn't done -- throw the football deep -- that's most troubling. Coker, on the other hand, can do that. In fact, he seemed intent on chucking it deep in his first real action under center for the Crimson Tide. Coker was 15 of 24 for 202 yards and a touchdown against FAU. But it was what he couldn't do -- manage the offense, minimize mistakes -- that is keeping him from truly challenging Sims. – Alex Scarborough

Sims’ hold on position: 8

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson

How Marshall performed: After missing the first half in the opener, Marshall returned as the starter in Week 2 and played well. He threw for over 100 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored twice. A solid effort, but by no means was it perfect. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts, and he fumbled on the opening drive. With that said, the Auburn offense still racked up over 400 yards through three quarters with Marshall under center.

What it means: The big takeaway from Saturday was that Johnson didn’t see the field until the fourth quarter with the Tigers already ahead 45-13. That’s not the “role” we all envisioned for Johnson after Week 1. I believe it was Gus Malzahn’s way of re-enforcing the fact that Marshall is this team’s quarterback. If there was any doubt at all after the Arkansas game, he wanted to make it crystal clear on Saturday. – Greg Ostendorf

Marshall’s hold on position: 10

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker and Reese Phillips

How Towles performed: After passing for 377 yards in the opener, Towles did his damage on the ground in a 20-3 win against Ohio. Towles had 22 rushing attempts (five of which were sacks) for 59 yards, with six runs covering 10 yards or more. He also went 17-for-31 for 170 yards and tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker for the Wildcats’ first score. If there was anything to criticize, it’s that the Wildcats’ offense bogged down after jumping out to a 17-0 lead.

What it means: It was another impressive, and turnover-free, start from Towles, who won the starting job during preseason camp. He’s about to face an enormous step up in competition, however. Saturday’s visit to Florida, which allowed just 125 yards in its season-opening 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan, is going to be one of the toughest tests of the season for Kentucky’s reconstructed offense. If Towles can stay composed and move the offense against the Gators, Kentucky will truly have something to get excited about. – David Ching

Towles’ hold on position: 9

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Jennings took the majority of snaps in a 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State and connected with Travin Dural for three touchdown passes -- including a 94-yard score on LSU’s first play from scrimmage. Jennings also ran eight times for 43 yards and played by far his most efficient game yet out of three college starts. It was another step in the right direction after a solid second half in the Tigers’ comeback win against Wisconsin in the opener.

What it means: We saw Harris (4-5, 62 yards, TD) get his first substantial playing time against SHSU, too, and the freshman made a couple of huge plays -- most notably a 46-yard touchdown run. LSU coach Les Miles was critical of the freshman’s fourth-quarter fumble, but it was overall a strong home debut for Harris. He’s probably not ready to push Jennings for the starting job yet, but we’re going to see a lot more from the freshman as the season progresses. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman

How Worley performed: It was another impressive performance from Worley. He completed nine straight passes to start the game and finished 22 of 38 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He even rushed for a third score. The only negative came in the third quarter when Arkansas State defensive back Money Hunter, son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, dove in front of one of Worley’s passes and intercepted it.

What it means: Through the first two games, Worley is looking like the most improved player in the SEC. The two touchdown throws to Marquez North on Saturday were not easy throws, and he put them on the money. The senior quarterback will have to play a nearly flawless game this weekend if the Volunteers hope to upset Oklahoma on the road, but win or lose, Worley is still the guy for Tennessee. – Greg Ostendorf

Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen

How Hill performed: Hill wasn't quite as accurate in his second game (17-of-26) as he was in his debut (44-of-60) but still performed well, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he wants to see Hill improve on his intermediate and deep-pass accuracy and the Aggies took more shots downfield in their win over Lamar than they did in their season opener vs. South Carolina. Allen got some work in both the first and second half once the Aggies had a big lead.

What it means: Spavital called the game in such a way to work on some areas where Hill isn't as strong and by doing that, Hill was out of his comfort zone a little, but he handled it well overall and turned in a strong performance. A game against an FCS opponent was an opportune time to get a live look at how Allen would perform. He had some freshman moments, like throwing an interception on his first drive, but bounced back well. Still, Hill did just fine and while Allen is not backing down, Hill is the starter. – Sam Khan

Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: TBD
Options: Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette

How Rivers performed: Rivers got the nod last week but the performance wasn't pretty. He was 6-of-25 passing for 60 yards and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss. Head coach Derek Mason noted that "we should have done a better job of using those guys' skill sets and getting the ball in playmakers' hands," and said that they've made schematic changes as a result. It is worth noting that Mason stuck with Rivers for the entire game Saturday rather than playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks, as he did in the season-opening loss to Temple.

What it means: The Commodores still don't have a starter at the moment, as Mason referenced the quarterbacks will compete for the right to start this week. Now, there's a fourth name in the mix in addition to Rivers, Robinette and McCrary -- Freebeck, the true freshman from Florida. Mason said he's very much in the competition this week. Who starts this weekend against Massachusetts is anyone's guess. For what it's worth, Mason promised "explosive offense." We'll see. – Sam Khan

Rivers’ hold on the position: 0

SEC morning links

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
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How good was Calvin Johnson last night? If you missed the game, Megatron put on a show with seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. That got me thinking. Is there a future Calvin Johnson in the SEC? Even though he’s on pace to shatter the record book at Alabama, Amari Cooper isn’t nearly as big or as physical as Johnson. He reminds me more of a Keenan Allen or a Reggie Wayne in his prime. When I think of Johnson, I think of players such as Marquez North at Tennessee or Ricky Seals-Jones at Texas A&M. Former Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, now at Oklahoma, is another one that fits the bill. It will be interesting to see how all of these guys translate to the NFL one day. Both Cooper and Green-Beckham are among Todd McShay’s top 32 prospects for 2015 (Insider).

Despite all of the emerging wide receivers, the SEC is still a running back-driven league this season. After Week 1, Georgia’s Todd Gurley established himself as the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. As he prepares for Saturday’s showdown at South Carolina, here are 10 things to know about the Dawgs’ star. The Gamecocks have a pretty good back of their own in Mike Davis, and he certainly has Georgia’s attention after rushing for 149 yards and a touchdown in last year’s matchup. T.J. Yeldon is another obvious name, but how about Cameron Artis-Payne at Auburn? The senior has rushed for 289 yards through two games, the most by an Auburn back in his first two games since Rudi Johnson in 2000.

It was not a huge surprise to see Maty Mauk named the SEC offensive player of the week. He threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns against Toledo this past weekend, and there’s a lot more where that came from, especially with the deep ball. Seven of Mauk’s 34 completions this season have been of 25 yards or more. Meanwhile, Toledo will have to find a new quarterback. Former Alabama transfer Phillip Ely tore his ACL in Saturday’s game and will miss the rest of the season. Gary Pinkel’s thoughts? “I don’t wish that on any team -- even Kansas.” A quick jab from Pinkel. It’s too bad the two schools don’t play each other anymore. That was one of the more underrated rivalries in college football.

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