SEC: Laremy Tunsil
The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.
But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.
You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.
With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:
Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.
Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.
Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.
Five more to watch:
1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.
2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.
3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.
4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.
6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.
7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.
8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.
9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.
11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.
12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
Think about it: Between Tony Conner, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, you're looking at four potential first-round picks in next year's NFL draft.
So why can't Ole Miss make a run at another New Year's Six bowl or possibly reach the College Football Playoff? All of those stud recruits from the 2013 class will be juniors and the schedule isn't daunting relative to the rest of the SEC.
With Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State in Oxford the first two weeks of the season, whoever wins the job under center will have time to acclimate to the offense -- and by "acclimate" we mean get the ball to Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. If they get that down going to Alabama in Week 3 and emerge undefeated, would anyone not have Ole Miss in their top five nationally? After that, you'd be looking at a manageable four-game stretch of Vanderbilt, Florida, New Mexico State and Memphis.
If anything, the Landshark Defense should keep Ole Miss in games regardless of the situation on offense. Granted, there will be changes made without longtime starters Cody Prewitt, Senquez Golson and Serderius Bryant, but in all eight starters are back. C.J. Johnson will continue to provide a presence rushing the passer alongside Nkemdiche, and Mike Hilton and Trae Elston will team up with Conner to make for another stingy secondary.
Underclassmen like C.J. Hampton, Rod Taylor and Jordan Wilkins will be counted on more than ever, but with so much high-level talent surrounding them, the big picture is rosy for the Rebs.
What could go wrong
No team's fate in the SEC hangs in the balance more precariously than Ole Miss'.
If Chad Kelly plays well, the Rebs could compete for a national championship. If he doesn't, they could fall short of a New Year's Six bowl altogether.
And unfortunately for Freeze and Ole Miss, Kelly is a walking wild card who no one is sure will turn up on opening day. He was booted from Clemson, survived a season at a junior college and was promptly arrested in December, after all. Even Freeze admitted that his poor decisions "almost cost him" a spot on the team.
"I'm sure hoping and praying like heck that he doesn't embarrass our team, our university and myself," Freeze said. "But that is a possibility. That is certainly something I recognize and I will have to own."
And that comes before the 20-year-old has ever played a down in Oxford.
He may be talented. He may be the key to a title. But boy, is that a lot to swallow.
Besides, other than possessing a strong arm and eye-popping numbers from junior college, what do we really know about him? In his only season playing at Clemson he attempted 17 passes. Even if he stays on the field at Ole Miss, he could just as easily ride the bench as become a star.
Trading the ups and downs of Bo Wallace on the field for the mystery tour of Kelly off it could be a losing battle for Ole Miss long-term.
Continuing this week’s SEC series of post-signing day roundtable discussions, today we’ll examine the conference coaches who are under pressure to make something happen after signing their newest class of recruits.
Edward Aschoff: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Year 4 of the Freeze era is beginning, and expectations are about to explode in Oxford. After being on the cusp of an SEC West title and a spot in the first College Football Playoff, Ole Miss now has to stay in the thick of the title hunts. While Freeze has been enormously successful during his time at Ole Miss, he has now signed three straight top-20 classes, and now the 2013 class (the crown jewel of Freeze’s tenure) will be all grown up. If the bulk of that class is going to bring a championship to Ole Miss, the time is now because the heavy hitters, like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, will likely head to the NFL after this coming season. There’s too much talent in Oxford for Ole Miss not to compete for a spot in Atlanta, and anything else will be considered a failure.
David Ching: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I was tempted to focus on Mark Richt or Les Miles because the natives seem to be getting restless at Georgia and LSU, but let’s go in a different direction. Mason probably needs to get more out of this 2015 class immediately than those two SEC veterans. Last season was a mess at Vandy, with the Commodores failing to put up a good fight in most of their nine losses. Their three wins came against UMass (by three points), Charleston Southern (by one) and Old Dominion (by 14), and they lost by an average of 18 points per game in SEC play. Now Mason enters his second season with two new coordinators (actually he’ll be his own defensive coordinator) and a recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 44 nationally, dead last in the SEC. Mason told reporters on signing day that he staked his reputation on the quality of this class, which is all well and good. But if the Commodores don’t start looking like a more competent team this fall, I’m not sure Mason’s reputation as a head coach will be too great.
Sam Khan Jr.: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
I think Travis Haney said it best that Sumlin must begin to reap the fruits of the recruiting labor he and his staff have put in over the last three years. The Aggies' classes ranked eighth, fourth and 12th nationally in Sumlin's first three full recruiting cycles, and the team now enters its fourth year in the SEC. He made significant coaching staff changes (including paying a pretty penny for former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis), and overall the Aggies have recruited better than any team in their own state -- which is talent-rich -- since Sumlin has been there. It's time for the recruiting hauls to translate to the standings.
Chris Low: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
As it turns out, the sky didn't fall at Kentucky after the Wildcats lost six commitments in a span of eight days leading up to signing day. Thanks to some hustle by Stoops and his staff, Kentucky was able to plug some of the gaps late and finish with the nation's 43rd-ranked class. The problem was that Stoops reeled in the 20th-ranked class the year before, so expectations were lofty. As Stoops enters his third season at Kentucky -- with a brand-new contract that will pay him an average of $3.57 million per year -- expectations will be equally high on the field. Kentucky will be aiming for its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats looked like they were on their way in 2014 after starting out 5-1, but wound up losing their last six games.
Greg Ostendorf: Jim McElwain, Florida
All things considered, McElwain deserves credit for this class. He took over two months before signing day and closed with a top-20 class that included five-star prospects Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. But this class had a chance to be more than solid. It had the potential to be great. Florida missed on a number of homegrown prospects, including Byron Cowart and Jeff Holland, who both decided to leave home to play at Auburn for the man McElwain replaced. The first-year coach deserves a pass for this class, but he can’t keep letting the top players out of the state. Losing battles to Florida State is one thing. Losing battles to Will Muschamp and Auburn is another.
Alex Scarborough: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
The great thing about Steve Spurrier is that you can take him at his word. But this time I think his openness hurt him. By telling reporters he thought he'd stay at South Carolina 2-3 more years, he had to turn some recruits off. I mean, who would commit to a program knowing the head coach wouldn't be there the whole way through? Though his 31-man signing class was solid, coming in at No. 21 overall in the country, it was what was missing that Gamecocks fans should find troubling -- most notably, four-star defensive players Damon Arnette and Arden Key, who both decommitted heading down the stretch. While you have to appreciate Spurrier’s honest assessment of himself, reading a head coach say this has to be jarring: "I don't think I did a very good job of maybe going full-speed as much as we needed as it turned out."
Derek Tyson: Butch Jones, Tennessee
After two top-five recruiting classes in a row, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones now has the talent on his roster to make a move in the SEC East. With Josh Dobbs showing promise last season and several other freshmen having standout years, including Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., the talent is in place to have a big season on the field this year. Another 7-6 season could have Tennessee fans getting a little restless.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Just like every other coach, Hugh Freeze stood in front of the media on national signing day and discussed his 2015 recruiting class. He said it might be the best class, top to bottom, since he has been at Ole Miss. He called the mid-year group a home run.
That’s all fine and dandy, but it didn’t hide the fact it was a disappointing finish for the Rebels. The fans were hoping for more.
Maybe it was because the memory of signing day two years ago was still fresh in their minds. The day started with Robert Nkemdiche choosing Ole Miss and by the time it was over, fellow ESPN 300 stars Laremy Tunsil, Tony Conner and Austin Golson had followed suit.
Freeze made sure to touch on that, too, when he addressed the media on Wednesday.
“I have kind of had that on my soap box this morning with our coaches,” he said. “We have created a media frenzy around this circus, and so many more people have become involved in the recruiting process. The kids are genuine and nice and want to communicate with every staff. Every staff is good at recruiting. The last one that is on the phone with them sometimes has them confused and leaning that way. As long as they are taking those calls, there are possibilities.”
The number of recruits to switch their commitments in the final weeks has seemingly increased every year, and this year was no different.
Richmond signed with Tennessee. Lewis signed with Mississippi State. ESPN 300 defensive end Arden Key flipped from South Carolina to LSU in the days leading up to signing day, and Van Jefferson, a longtime Georgia commitment, flipped to Ole Miss in late January and nearly switched again before ultimately signing with the Rebels. That's just the SEC.
And how about Kentucky? After losing six straight games to finish the season, the Wildcats had nine players decommit from their 2015 class. It was no wonder third-year coach Mark Stoops was calling for an early signing period.
But he wasn’t alone.
“I have always been in favor of it,” Freeze said. “Always. The only problem is, I do not know if any of us could ever agree on what it looks like. But, I think an early signing period in some form or fashion would be good.
“I actually like the idea someone had of as soon as someone commits, having them sign the paper. So you will know right away who is really committed. Then we can save a lot of time and money in the last six weeks on the ones who really are.”
It looks easy in principle, but just like adding a ninth conference game, good luck getting all the SEC coaches to agree on it. When would the early signing period be? Before the season? During the season? What about the kids? Is it fair to make them sign early before they have looked at all their options? There are a lot of variables involved.
In the meantime, Freeze says he plans to revisit the entire recruiting process, including the idea of letting committed guys take visits to other schools. Maybe Richmond and/or Lewis would have signed with Ole Miss if not for visits taken to other schools. Or maybe not.
The important thing for Freeze now is that he has a group of 22 signees who will be the future of Ole Miss football. And he’s happy with that group … even if he missed on a few.
“You always lose some when you are battling for the best,” he said. “Every school does. We had a few of those, but we also won many battles of kids who really want to be at Ole Miss, in this program, and representing this great university. I am excited to get to work with them.”
Now, with the Rebels returning a handful of talent on both sides of the ball, expectations will be even higher in 2015, and Freeze knows that. But if Ole Miss is going to take that next step in its quest for an SEC West title, the offense has to be more consistent. The Rebels are looking for a new quarterback and the running game has to get going, but if the offensive line doesn't play with more consistency, the Rebels won't make a move in 2015.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: The Rebels struggled with consistency up front for most of the 2014 season. When all was said and done, the Rebels gave up the third-most sacks in the SEC (31) and allowed 2.8 sacks per game in SEC play. Ole Miss’ line also struggled helping anyone with the ball behind the line of scrimmage, as the Rebels finished 13th in the league by allowing 89 tackles for loss (6.9 per game). Ole Miss dealt with injuries but kept that starting line intact for most of the season. However, the on-field production just wasn’t good enough at times to keep the offense going. For as poorly as quarterback Bo Wallace played at times, the line broke down too often in big games and failed to create enough lanes up front, as the Rebels allowed 3.3 sacks per game in their four losses and averaged just 88.8 rushing yards in those losses. Ole Miss dipped below 80 yards rushing four times last season, including totaling just 72 combined yards in losses to Arkansas and TCU (9 yards on 0.24 yards per carry).
How it can be fixed: Freeze has not shied away from the fact that the depth along the offensive line isn’t adequate to consistently compete in the SEC. He was absolutely right last season, but the good news for the Rebels is they return their entire starting lineup from the 2014 season. Star left tackle Laremy Tunsil will miss considerable time in the offseason after breaking his leg in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, as will starting left guard Aaron Morris, who suffered another ACL injury before the bowl game. While the Rebels would prefer to have a complete line, this will at least help get some younger guys into the rotation during the spring. Fahn Cooper and Rod Taylor -- both signees in the 2014 class -- saw good time last season, but their inexperience showed, so spring development will be key. As cliché as this sounds, Ole Miss’ line needs its younger members to get more reps between the start of spring practice and the start of the 2015 season. With the entire starting five coming back, the reserves need to get more comfortable with meaningful reps. Pure and simple, development and reps are essential for this crew getting better in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: With all five starters returning in 2015, the Rebels will bring back 102 combined starts from those guys. Now, that clearly hinges on Morris (31 career starts) being able to recover from his ACL injury. Also, the Rebels should get back transfer Christian Morris, who missed the entire 2014 season because of injuries. That’s a pretty good foundation to start with, and the Rebels are hoping to really build on their depth up front with what’s shaping up to be a pretty solid offensive line recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has three ESPN 300 offensive linemen committed, including No. 3 guard Javon Patterson, who is already on campus. Fellow ESPN 300 recruit Drew Richmond (OT) is committed but has flirted with Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee. Keeping him in this class will be crucial for the Rebels as they look to create solid SEC depth up front for this season and beyond.
Seven Power 5 freshmen running backs surpassed 1,000 yards in '14 -- Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (1,713 yards), Georgia’s Nick Chubb (1,547), Arizona’s Nick Wilson (1,375), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (1,365), Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (1,187), LSU’s Leonard Fournette (1,034) and FSU’s Dalvin Cook (1,008).
Any one of those players could certainly find another gear and make a run at the 2015 Heisman. But the belief among coaches I’ve spoken with the past few weeks is that the best running back -- and player -- in 2015 will be Ohio State rising junior Ezekiel Elliott (1,878 yards this season).
2. Remember the first Saturday in October? Ole Miss took down Alabama, and just down the road, Mississippi State knocked off Auburn. That was a good day in the Magnolia State. Wednesday? Not so much. Both Mississippi schools were outmatched in their respective New Year's Six bowl games. The Rebels ran into a TCU team that was clearly still upset it didn't make the playoff while the Bulldogs had no answer for Georgia Tech's option attack, losing big in the Orange Bowl. To make matters worse, Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil broke his leg in the loss to the Horned Frogs. He's the team's second star player to break his leg this season, joining wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who suffered the injury in November.
3. If you can't beat them, join them. Texas A&M has yet to figure out LSU's defense since joining the SEC, so what did the Aggies do? They brought in John Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator, to take over the same position on Kevin Sumlin's staff. That's good news for Kyle Allen but bad news for the Tigers. LSU hasn't wasted any time seeking a replacement as head coach Les Miles has already reached out to former NFL and USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast about the vacant position. That wasn't the only bad news LSU's defense received Wednesday. Linebacker Kwon Alexander, the team's leading tackler, announced that he's leaving school early for the NFL.
Around the SEC
- Enjoy the Nick Marshall version of Auburn's offense one more time in the Outback Bowl.
- Andre Debose's roller-coaster career at Florida comes to an end with one game remaining.
- Josh Robinson calls Orange Bowl his last game at Mississippi State, declares early for NFL.
- From "chunky" kid to first-round pick, Shane Ray's transformation is nearly complete.
It isn't easy to win at a place like Ole Miss, which had been buried in mediocrity before Freeze arrived and still has to play six games in the SEC West. But as Freeze shifts his complete focus to recruiting and an eventual bowl game, he'll do so with a 24-14 record in three seasons and the Rebels' first nine-win season since 2003.
Because of Freeze's success and his incredibly warm personality, along with a fan base that has totally embraced its native son, there's real enthusiasm for a program that hasn't won an SEC title since 1963 and has never been to Atlanta to play in the SEC championship game.
Freeze's team spent a couple of weeks in the College Football Playoff discussion and he has done a phenomenal job recruiting at a school that isn't used to the collection of athletes Freeze has lured to Oxford. Freeze's historic 2013 recruiting class, which featured the No. 1 overall player (defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche), the No. 1 wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), is maturing beautifully. Along with tight end Evan Engram, arguably the best at his position in the SEC, and safety Tony Conner, this class has a legitimate championship formula with Freeze returning in 2015.
By all accounts, he'll add to a star-studded foundation with what appears to be exceptional 2015 and 2016 classes. With future NFL players littering his lineup now and in the future, Freeze has ensured that Ole Miss won't be a pushover with him in charge. He could have bolted for a bigger job, but he has unfinished business at Ole Miss he wanted to see through.
And after the coaching job he did and the adjustments he made in 2014, it would be unwise to think Freeze can't have Ole Miss competing for championships.
We all knew the offensive genius Freeze was -- and his Rebels are averaging 443.3 yards per game -- but the development on defense was even more impressive. A season after giving up nearly 24 points per game, Ole Miss leads the nation in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and touchdowns allowed (18). Ole Miss is allowing just 321.2 yards per game in the process.
There were heartbreaking defeats at the hands of LSU and Auburn. There was a 30-point blowout at Arkansas and the loss of Treadwell for the season. Somehow, Freeze rallied his team to flog the playoff hopes of archrival Mississippi State over the weekend, improving Freeze's record against the Bulldogs to 2-1. The relationship he has with his players and the respect his players have for him are two major reasons why Freeze and Ole Miss are in this position today.
Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year at Ole Miss, but he soon will be discussing his third bowl game with the Rebels and might end up talking about his third straight bowl win.
Before Freeze arrived in Oxford via Arkansas State and the high school football circuit, the Rebels had gone an embarrassing 6-18, with 14 straight SEC losses, in the final two seasons of Houston Nutt's tenure in Oxford.
Freeze, who grew up in Independence, barely an hour outside of Oxford, inherited a program spiraling on and off the field but has it in great position for the present and future. His success at Ole Miss is why his name was linked to the coaching vacancy at Florida. It's a testament to not only him, but his staff and his players and what they've accomplished.
It won't be easy for Freeze to sustain the success he has had with the Rebels, but he has come this far in just three years. Imagine what he could do with time.
Record: 8-0 (5-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Alabama
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs keep cruising along. They will play their final nonconference gimme of the season this weekend against UT-Martin, providing an opportunity to get the starters off the field early ahead of next week’s showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Cause for concern: Last week’s narrow win against Arkansas provided evidence that Mississippi State can look awfully average if quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t 100 percent. He threw for a career-high 331 yards against the Razorbacks, but also tossed two interceptions and limped around the field for much of the game. The Bulldogs need him to stay healthy or that No. 1 ranking will be in jeopardy.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Alabama
-- David Ching
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Georgia
Reason for optimism: It hasn't always been easy, but Auburn has navigated through the nation’s hardest schedule with just one loss. Trips to Georgia and Alabama remain, but win out and the Tigers are in the playoff. That’s all you can ask for at this point in the season. It doesn’t hurt that Georgia took a gigantic step backward on Saturday.
Cause for concern: Nick Marshall and this Auburn offense are clicking right now. The same can’t be said for the defense, though. The Tigers were lit up again Saturday at Ole Miss, and if not for two late turnovers, it might have cost them the game. They also committed a season-high 13 penalties for 145 yards against the Rebels.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: If Alabama loses at LSU this week, Auburn could lose the season finale in Tuscaloosa and still win the SEC West (assuming it wins its other remaining games). And it keeps the door open for a five-way tie. Who doesn't want that?
-- Greg Ostendorf
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 5
Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU
Reason for optimism: After Ole Miss' loss to Auburn last weekend, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny. If they win out, they'll finish on top in the West and play in the SEC championship game. A trip to LSU won't be easy, but the remaining two games against ranked teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn -- both come at home.
Cause for concern: They don't call it Death Valley for nothing -- and the Tigers' record there after dark speaks for itself. If Alabama is going to prove it belongs in the playoff conversation, it has to survive this weekend's game at LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for: If Kansas State beats TCU and Utah beats Oregon, Alabama's chief competition in the debate over the best one-loss team in college football will be much more manageable.
-- Alex Scarborough
Record: 7-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Nov. 22 at Arkansas
Reason for optimism: After two losses, the Rebels’ hopes seem all but dashed. They didn’t drop too far in the rankings, so that’s a plus. But if Ole Miss is going to have any chance at the final four, the Rebels have to win out and win the SEC. Auburn needs to lose two more, while Alabama and LSU need to lose one, all of which is possible with Alabama playing Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State this month.
Cause for concern: Having two losses is damning at this point. The Rebels need help from teams that are on a roll, especially Auburn. Then there are injuries. Star receiver Laquon Treadwell (leg/ankle) and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (ankle) are out for the season, while left tackle Laremy Tunsil is dealing with a biceps pull.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over LSU
-- Edward Aschoff
Record: 7-2 (3-2)
Rank: No. 16
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: During their three-game winning streak -- particularly in the last two games against Kentucky and Ole Miss -- the Tigers got back to playing traditional LSU football. They leaned heavily on the run and on a tough defense, earning two wins. After last weekend’s open date, they should be in good physical shape for Saturday’s showdown with Alabama.
Cause for concern: This is Alabama, which owns a three-game winning streak over the Tigers. LSU has to win to remain in the hunt for the SEC West title and for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers look much better lately, but they’ll need to play their best game of the season to beat the Crimson Tide.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Auburn
-- David Ching
Record: 6-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 20
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 vs Auburn
Reason for optimism: This was supposed to be an easy jog to Atlanta for the Dawgs, but after getting routed by Florida, Georgia is now very much on the outside looking in. Georgia has to win out and win the SEC to have a chance. It also needs Missouri to lose one more, which could happen with Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas left on the schedule.
Cause for concern: Well, two losses appears to be the kiss of death, and Georgia lost to a relatively unimpressive Florida team. A trip to Kentucky and a home game with No. 3 Auburn loom. Also, Missouri ends the season playing three teams that have gone a combined 3-12 in SEC play.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Vanderbilt over Florida
-- Edward Aschoff
In fairness, the Rebels’ lone touchdown of the night did follow safety Cody Prewitt's fumble recovery in the Ole Miss end zone. But this was an Ole Miss club that's made opponents pay for their mistakes all season, entering the LSU game with an FBS-high 90 points off turnovers.
They won the turnover battle against the Tigers 4-1, but were otherwise unable to turn those takeaways into points.
“When you turn the ball over that many times, it’s rough,” LSU center Elliott Porter admitted. “But we got it done, thank you Lord.”
- After Delahoussaye’s first-quarter miss gave Ole Miss the ball at the Rebels’ 20-yard line, they drove into LSU territory, but quarterback Bo Wallace threw incomplete to running back Jaylen Walton on fourth-and-2 at the LSU 30.
- Following a second-quarter C.J. Johnson fumble recovery at the Ole Miss 48, the Rebels actually scored on a 34-yard I'Tavius Mathers run, but the touchdown came back on a holding penalty against tight end Nicholas Parker. Instead, the Rebels were forced to punt.
- Senquez Golson intercepted LSU’s Anthony Jennings at the Ole Miss 49 in the third quarter, but Golson was then flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. The 15-yard penalty gave the Rebels first-and-25 at their own 34, and they went backward to their 29 before punting.
- Finally, Mike Hilton intercepted a Jennings pass at the Ole Miss 35 in the fourth quarter. Afterward, the Rebels went three-and-out and punted to LSU again -- with the Tigers then launching the game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive.
This was not the opportunistic Ole Miss club that had taken the field each previous Saturday en route to a No. 3 national ranking, and Rebels coach Hugh Freeze admitted that he might have played it too conservatively since his defense had been so effective against LSU.
“The plan that we had certainly gave us a chance to win,” Freeze said of not using more up-tempo pace against the Tigers. “We had two touchdowns called back and had chances to score more points, and either we didn’t make the right call or we didn’t execute properly at times or LSU made good plays.
“So should we speed it up more? Maybe, but I still say that we had a chance to win in a hostile environment against a very good football team that’s playing really well right now had we made better calls, better plays at certain times.”
Freeze and Wallace said the Tiger Stadium crowd was a factor on Saturday, particularly during the period where Ole Miss was without two offensive line starters. Center Ben Still missed the game with a knee injury and was replaced by converted tackle Robert Conyers. When star left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed time in the second half with a biceps injury, normal fill-in Conyers was already at center, so the Rebels were forced to go with inexperienced redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin.
Ole Miss generated just 107 yards (36 on the ground) and went 2-for-10 on third down after halftime.
“Daronte’s [issue] was not physical as much as it was playing in that environment on a silent count was very, very late off the ball all three possessions,” Freeze said. “That cost us some negative plays. We’ve got to prepare him better and hopefully get some kids healthy where we can play kids that have been in those environments before.”
Freeze said Still and Tunsil are both “day-to-day” for Saturday’s game against No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC), and it’s clear the Rebels (7-1, 4-1) need them both. LSU overwhelmed their replacements at times on Saturday, and Auburn boasts one of the SEC’s better defensive fronts.
Obviously their presences in the starting lineup would make it easier for Wallace and the offense to attempt to force the issue more against Auburn than they did against LSU. Either way, that is the Ole Miss’ quarterback’s hope for Saturday.
“At lot of times when we’re throwing the ball right now, it’s third down. It’s easy when you know it’s coming, third-and-9, third-and-long,” Wallace said. “We’re staying in third-and-long so much when you know it’s coming, people get in their third-down defense and it’s hard obviously to convert three downs with as well as you can play third-down defense.
“So we have to get back to throwing the ball on first and second down and making plays like we did earlier in the season.”
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.
2. I'll admit it, I wasn't very high on Georgia's prospects post-Todd Gurley. In fact, I didn't like the Bulldogs' chances before he was suspended indefinitely. But Mark Richt's squad has shown me something, and it's more than the uber-talented Nick Chubb that's impressed me. Instead, it's how the rest of the team has picked up their play. Hutson Mason has thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games. And the defense has found a way to create turnovers in bunches, picking off Missouri's Maty Mauk four times and Arkansas' Brandon Allen a pair of times. Leonard Floyd has been a beast rushing the passer and the rest of that front seven showed me something as it held down the Razorbacks' vaunted rushing game. Post-Gurley, Georgia's become a much more complete football team. If and/or when he comes back, he'll only make it better.
3. If there's been one area of Ole Miss' game that's concerned me, it's the offensive line. Though they've played much better than expected, the fact remains that there wasn't a lot of returning experience there from a season ago. Laremy Tunsil was someone you knew you could count on, but the rest was iffy. It turns out offensive coordinator Dan Werner found a good starting five after all, but now his depth will be put to the test as it looks like starting center Ben Still is questionable for the LSU game. As we all know, playing the Tigers in Baton Rouge is most often a battle in the trenches. Without his starting center, will Bo Wallace be as comfortable under center? And will an already limp running game take a step back? It's hard to say exactly, but the timing isn't ideal, that's for sure.
Tweet of the day
These two former Vols have thrown a combined 510 NFL touchdown passes: pic.twitter.com/mMA2tRkpJb— SI Vault (@si_vault) October 20, 2014
So we at the SEC blog came together and updated our all-conference team. There were some carry-overs from the initial list, but there are also some new names, some names that might have gone under the radar before the season.
Without further ado, here's your midseason All-SEC team:
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
No quarterback has been better in the SEC. Prescott has 2,089 total yards with 23 touchdowns and has taken down three straight top-10 opponents.
Preseason pick: Nick Marshall, Auburn
Suspension aside, Gurley has been the nation's best player. He still leads the SEC in yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and rushing touchdowns (eight).
Preseason pick: Gurley
RB: Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
Once known as the “Bowling Ball,” he's a certified wrecking ball with his bruising style. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Preseason pick: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
There's been no more dominant wideout in the SEC than Alabama's junior from South Florida. More than half of Tide QB Blake Sims' completions have ended up in Cooper's hands.
Preseason pick: Cooper
WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn
We all knew he was going to be good, but this good? The junior college transfer leads Auburn in receptions (31), yards (493) and touchdowns (five).
Preseason pick: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Engram didn't receive as much preseason publicity as some SEC tight ends, but has been the league's best so far with 18 receptions for 264 yards.
Preseason pick: O.J. Howard, Alabama
OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
The senior has been solid, though not perfect, in his transition from right tackle to left tackle. He has done an overall fine job protecting Kenny Hill's blind side.
Preseason pick: Ogbuehi
OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
South Carolina's season hasn't gone as planned but Cann, a fifth-year senior, has been a consistent force from his left guard spot.
Preseason pick: Cann
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
There's been a lot of shuffling up front, but Dismukes has been the constant. The senior has started 43 of Auburn's last 44 games, including all six this season.
Preseason pick: Dismukes
OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State
One of the driving forces in State's running game, the former walk-on has started 18 straight games and filled in for suspended center Dillon Day against Texas A&M.
Preseason pick: Vadal Alexander, LSU
OT: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Bo Wallace has been Good Bo, not Bad Bo, because of his O-line. Tunsil has kept watch of Wallace's blind side and helped the Rebs to the second-best passing game in the SEC.
Preseason pick: La'el Collins, LSU
DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State
At one point, Smith was named the SEC's defensive lineman of the week for three straight weeks. He does it all for the Bulldogs' stout defensive front.
Preseason pick: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
Ranked second nationally in tackles for loss and third in sacks, Ray has been consistent. He has at least one TFL in every game and only one sackless game.
Preseason pick: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
The true freshman is living up to the hype that defined his recruitment. His 7.5 sacks are a school freshman record and only a half-sack behind the SEC freshman record.
Preseason pick: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
The statistics don't tell the story of the sophomore, who has been a disruptive force for the Rebels. Example: the pressure he put on Kenny Hill on Saturday to force a pick-six.
Preseason pick: Nkemdiche
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Try to find a better linebacker who can blitz, clog the run, cover and play sideline-to-sideline as well as McKinney. He has a team-high 41 tackles with three sacks.
Preseason pick: McKinney
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
With four sacks, the Bulldogs' chief pass-rusher hasn't had a truly dominant game yet, but he typically draws the most attention among UGA's pack of sack artists.
Preseason pick: Floyd
LB Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
It has taken him four years, but Dickson is finally having that breakthrough season. The senior leads Alabama with seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
Preseason pick: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Tied for second in the SEC with six pass breakups, Hargreaves is rarely tested due to his terrific instincts, great range and solid tackling ability.
Preseason pick: Hargreaves
CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
One of the SEC's best cover corners with an SEC-leading five interceptions (second nationally). He's tied for first in the SEC with eight passes defended.
Preseason pick: Tre'Davious White, LSU
S: Landon Collins, Alabama
It's hard to imagine where Bama's defense would be without Collins, who sealed Saturday's win with an interception. The talented junior leads the Tide in tackles and passes defended.
Preseason pick: Collins
S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
He may not lead his team in interceptions, but Prewitt is possibly the Rebs best defensive player. The veteran safety has 3.5 tackles for loss, two picks and 32 total tackles.
Preseason pick: Prewitt
K: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
Fry leads the SEC with 10 field goals made and a conversion rate over 90 percent. The sophomore has a long of 45 yards and is perfect on 25 PATs.
Preseason pick: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: JK Scott, Alabama
Looking for Alabama's first-half MVP? Look no further than Scott, a lanky true freshman with a big leg. Forget leading the SEC, Scott ranks sixth in the country in yards per punt (46.7).
Preseason pick: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
KR/PR: Quan Bray, Auburn
The senior might not have lived up to his potential as a wide receiver, but he's making an impact in the return game. Bray leads the SEC, averaging 25 yards per punt return.
Preseason pick: Christion Jones, Alabama
Forget Jake Coker and forget being a game manager, Blake Sims has developed into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator hasn't signaled the end times, it's brought about a renaissance replete with screen passes, misdirection and even the use of the hurry-up, no-huddle.
After fumbling about against West Virginia in the season opener, Alabama's defense has returned to form. If it weren't for four turnovers, Florida wouldn't have scored a single point in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made the Gators look inept as Jeff Driskel struggled to complete 9 of his 28 pass attempts.
Alabama has developed into a complete football team these past few weeks. Even the punting and place kicking have been better than expected.
But now comes the real fun.
Now comes Ole Miss.
Whatever we think we know about Alabama will be challenged Saturday when the Crimson Tide have their first true road test against the No. 11-ranked team in the country. Oxford, Mississippi, may be a picturesque college town that prides itself on never losing the party, but what awaits Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium won't be so friendly. Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche want to knock off the No. 1 team in the land, not serve it sweet tea and barbecue.
How will Sims hold up under that type of pressure? He's played well so far, tossing eight touchdowns to two interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least two starts, he ranks third nationally with an adjusted QBR of 89.4. But he hasn't played in a raucous road environment yet, and he hasn't faced a defense that's as good top to bottom as Ole Miss'. The Nkemdiche brothers can get after you. So can C.J. Johnson and D.T. Shackelford. And if you try throwing into that secondary, don't expect the ball back. Senquez Golson leads the SEC with three interceptions this season and Cody Prewitt led the league with six picks last season.
Speaking of defense, what do we really know about Alabama's? The Crimson Tide barely survived West Virginia Week 1, and in subsequent games they haven't really been put to the test. Florida was supposed to be a measuring stick, but we saw how that played out.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, should give Alabama everything it can handle. Wallace may be up and down as a passer, but when he's hot, he can really sling it. He's elusive in the pocket and knows Hugh Freeze's offense like the back of his hand. Plus, he's protected by an offensive line that stars one of the best tackles in the SEC in Laremy Tunsil.
Alabama's secondary won't be able to sleepwalk by the Rebs. Treadwell is one of the most productive receivers in the country and Evan Engram is a constant mismatch at tight end. And that's not to mention Cody Core and Vince Sanders, who are difficult to account for in their own right. If you're Saban, you're worried because your top cornerback is generously listed at 5-foot-10, your second-best cornerback, Eddie Jackson, has health concerns, and your third-best cornerback, Tony Brown, is a true freshman.
And all that goes without saying how Alabama has continued to struggle against the hurry-up, no-huddle. Go back and look at Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia; it hasn't been pretty.
Meanwhile, Freeze just so happens to be one of the leading experts on uptempo offense. And unlike last season's game, he's probably going to make sure his signals aren't so obvious.
If Alabama wants to remain the No. 1 team in the country, it will have to prove it against Ole Miss.
From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.