SEC: Robert Nkemdiche
The Rebels were the lone blemish on No. 1 Alabama's schedule, and Ole Miss ended No. 7 Mississippi State's SEC and playoff hopes with a 31-17 win at home to close the regular season. There were plenty of high points to the Rebels' season, including rising as high as third in the AP Poll and fourth in the College Football Playoff, but the Rebels also suffered a crushing 30-0 loss at Arkansas and lost top receiver Laquon Treadwell to a season-ending leg injury in the closing minutes of the loss to Auburn.
Even though Ole Miss missed out on ifs first ever trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, the Rebels retained coach Hugh Freeze for the foreseeable future and have a quality foundation to work with and build on for the coming years.
Best win: While the win over archrival Mississippi State ended the Bulldogs’ championship hopes, that 23-17 home win over Alabama was the one that really put the Rebels on the college football map. Those are the games that Ole Miss has historically suffered in, but the Rebels went toe-to-toe with the Tide, a team they'd lost 10 straight to, and came away with an upset that sent shockwaves throughout the college football world and stood as an historic moment for the state of Mississippi. Behind 251 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Bo Wallace and a perfectly timed, late-game interception by cornerback Senquez Golson, the Rebels took down then-No. 3 Alabama and watched their fans storm the field and take the goal posts through the Grove and to the Square.
Worst loss: A couple weeks after losing Treadwell in an absolute heartbreaker at home to Auburn, the Rebels went to Fayetteville and got pounded 30-0 by an Arkansas team that entered the game winning one of its last 18 SEC games. Now, this Hogs team proved to be better this season, but the Rebels were equipped with more talent on both sides of the ball and were still dominated for four quarters. Early turnovers put Ole Miss down 17-0 after just one quarter, and the Rebels finished the game with six turnovers, including two interceptions by Wallace in the end zone. The loss officially knocked Ole Miss out of the SEC and playoff races.
Player of year: After three years of mostly up-and-down play, Golson proved to be one of the nation’s best cover corners – if not the best. Golson led the SEC and ranked second nationally with nine interceptions and returned one of those for a touchdown. He also tied for first in the SEC with 17 passes defended. Golson transformed into a player who was able to frustrate plenty of quarterbacks this season by taking his entire side of the field away and probably dropped a few more interceptions. Golson also sealed Ole Miss’ historic win over Alabama with a last-second interception in the end zone.
Breakout player: Ole Miss’ defensive line was filled with talent this year, but freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes proved to be the Rebels’ best pass-rusher. The frosh finished the regular season playing in every game, making three starts, and leading the team with 7.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. He ranked second in the SEC in forced fumbles and tied for seventh in sacks. Haynes, who showed that he could excel as both a speed and power rusher off the edge for the Rebels, also had 29 total tackles on the season. He’s certainly a youngster with a very bright future.
Play(s) of year: Yeah, I’m cheating here, and I just don’t care. Golson’s interception was fantastic, agile and perfectly timed. It was a toe-tapping, back-of-the-end zone interception of Alabama’s Blake Sims with 37 seconds left. It happened so fast that it was actually called an incomplete pass at first, before it was ruled a catch after a review. Then there was running back Jaylen Walton’s jaw-dropping, reverse-field, ankle-breaking, 91-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the Rebels’ win over Mississippi State that pretty much ended the Bulldogs’ chances of a comeback by making it 24-10.
2015 outlook: With Freeze coming back, along with a solid cast of characters on both sides of the ball, 2015 could set up to be a special year for the Rebels. The defense will lose Golson and two-time All-American safety Cody Prewitt, but the defensive line is in good hands with Robert Nkemdiche returning, and the linebacker unit has some exciting, young talent coming back. The offense, however, has to find a consistent running game and a replacement for Wallace, who started all three years he was at Ole Miss. Replacing Wallace is the biggest obstacle for the Rebels, as their backups got some in-game reps this year, but lack any sort of consistency. Having Treadwell returning from his injury will be huge for whichever quarterback takes over.
A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.
All good there.
But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.
Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).
Four players for only three spots ...
Hey, there's always next season.
Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:
WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn
CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama
OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina
DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama
OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State
2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.
3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.
Around the SEC
" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.
" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.
" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.
Tweet of the day
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.
The Grove will be buzzing for the biggest event in the state.
Mississippi State's key to victory: Run, run, run the ball and wear down that Ole Miss defense. The Rebels' once-vaunted defense has been exposed in recent weeks, especially against the run. In losses to LSU, Auburn and Arkansas, Ole Miss gave up an average of 223.7 rushing yards per game. Now, the Rebels have to stop bowling ball running back Josh Robinson, who enters the weekend with 1,084 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Just feed Robinson the rock because he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Oh, and the Bulldogs also have dual-threat QB Dak Prescott, who is seventh in the SEC with 891 rushing yards and has 12 rushing touchdowns.
Ole Miss' key to victory: Force Prescott to make mistakes. The Achilles heel of the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner has been taking care of the football. For as good as Prescott has been at carving up defenses, he's turned the ball over too many times in recent weeks, including throwing three interceptions in the loss to Alabama. With Ole Miss' offense banged up and missing star Laquon Treadwell, the Rebels need to work with a short field against the Bulldogs. Ole Miss' defense has been excellent at forcing turnovers, as the Rebels have an SEC-high 28 takeaways.
Mississippi State's X-factor: While the Bulldogs will likely try to cram the ball down the Rebels' throats this weekend with their run attack, keep an eye on wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's been relatively quiet in the last few weeks, but if the Rebels key in on the run too much, look for Prescott to try and find his favorite physical deep threat in key situations. Big plays from Wilson should open the running game up even more.
Ole Miss' X-factor: Stopping the run is going to be important for the Rebels, and big ol' defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche can help out a bunch in that area. His stats haven't been gaudy, but he's been incredibly disruptive this year. The Rebels are likely going to come out in bigger packages to combat Mississippi State's run attack, and Nkemdiche will be a big part of that right in the middle of that line. He'll also be expected to make an impact against the pass to put pressure on Prescott.
Playoff impact: The stakes have never been higher for the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl. A win keeps Mississippi State's College Football Playoff hopes alive. A loss, and the Bulldogs are out of it. Even better, if the Bulldogs win and Alabama loses to Auburn, Mississippi State will go to the SEC title game and the Bulldogs will be guaranteed a spot in the playoff.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.
Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.
Around the SEC
- Leon Orr, who left Florida's team on Saturday before its game vs. Vanderbilt, tweeted remorse about his decision. Gators coach Will Muschamp says "nothing has changed."
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said star receiver D'haquille Williams is "week-to-week" after suffering a knee injury Saturday.
- An ongoing civil suit filed against Denzel Nkemdiche and Robert Nkemdiche could stretch into next year.
- The Twitterverse broke down the crucial Nick Marshall/Cameron Artis-Payne fumble that Texas A&M recovered in the fourth quarter of its upset win.
- Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said strangers have seen his rear end more than he has after he was pantsed vs. LSU.
- A unique map showing where college football means the most in the United States.
Evan Boehm says he took a campus trip with his younger brother, Tyler, to "that school on the other side of the line that I will not name."— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) November 11, 2014
Boehm: "I did not wear any of those God-awful colors." But he did want to help his younger brother through the recruiting process.— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) November 11, 2014
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.
If you haven't found time to let that fact soak in, you should do so. It's been a crazy football season, but nothing better illustrates how upside down things have gotten than the transcendence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Don't let the novelty of the rankings fool you, though. Neither program is a fluke. Their rise hasn't been due to smoke and mirrors. These are two solidly built football teams.
Alex Scarborough: Five years ago, this would have been a simple answer. I would have taken Ole Miss' Landshark defense and been on my merry way.
But this isn't years past. This is a new SEC that thrives on offense.
For that reason, give me Mississippi State's offense. Give me Dak Prescott's mobility and arm strength. Give me Ben Beckwith at guard, Josh Robinson at tailback and De'Runnya Wilson at receiver. I don't care who you have, that's a hard bunch to stop. And I didn't even mention Jameon Lewis, Brandon Holloway and Malcolm Johnson.
The Bulldogs might not have the brand-name cache of others in the SEC, but those guys can put up points in a hurry. They lead the league in yards per game (529.7) and rank second in points per game (41.9). They're balanced, too, with 5.5 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass attempt. More than 23 percent of their plays go for 10 yards or more.
And they have the one thing no defense can account for: a star quarterback.
As long as they have Prescott under center, they have a chance. He wears No. 15 for a reason, and like Tim Tebow, he can will his team to victory. I won't even bother with Prescott's eye-popping statistics (you can find a Heisman Trophy tracker if you must know) because it's his leadership that's the most invaluable part of his game. Good luck stopping that.
Sam Khan: I hear you, Alex. I hear you loud and clear. And honestly, it's hard for me to pick against Prescott and Mississippi State because I, too, believe in the power of a star quarterback, and nobody has been better than Prescott this season.
But Ole Miss' defense has a nickname (the Landsharks) for a reason. It's that good.
There's a reason for the old adage "defense wins championships." It's cliché and simplistic, but it's true. A team can't beat you if it can't score, and nobody's better at keeping opponents out of the end zone than the Rebels. And that scoring average should be lower, considering seven of those points are the result of an Alabama fumble return.
I'll take Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Marquis Haynes and that defensive front. I'll take the heart of a player like linebacker D.T. Shackelford. I'll take a secondary with players such as Tony Conner, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. Speed, tackling, a good mix of youth and experience. Give me the Landsharks. Fins up.
Scarborough: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's the question I'd pose to you: When the Egg Bowl does roll around on Nov. 29, do you think Ole Miss will be able to stop Mississippi State offensively? Would the Rebs keep the Bulldogs under, say, 28 points? Because I'm not sure they will.
Wilson, at 6-foot-5, is a matchup nightmare. Pair that size with the speedy Lewis underneath and you're talking about a headache for any secondary. And it's not like you can focus on just the passing game, either. Robinson's ability to pound between the tackles would negate Ole Miss' pass-rush and demand a safety play closer to the line of scrimmage. He and Prescott running the read-option is dangerous because neither is easy to bring down.
While I think it would be a close contest and a ton of fun to watch, I think Prescott & Co. would put up points on the Rebs. Prescott's dual-threat ability and State's balance offensively is the difference, to me.
Khan: I do think the Rebels have what it takes to keep the Bulldogs' offense in check come Egg Bowl time. This defense is versatile enough to stop just about anything. They shut down a traditional offense, like Alabama's, save for one drive when the Crimson Tide mostly ran behind Cam Robinson. But that was the only touchdown the Rebels' defense yielded that day.
Against a talented spread team, like Texas A&M, the Rebels had answers there, too. The Aggies tried to run it and couldn't (1.5 yards per carry). They tried to throw it and couldn't do that either. And they put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to wreak havoc and force errant throws, which leads to turnovers. I think the Auburn game in a couple of weeks will be another good barometer for the Ole Miss defense.
Wilson is pretty talented. So is this guy -- you might have heard of him -- named Amari Cooper. When the Crimson Tide came to Oxford, he had a nice day (nine catches, 91 yards) but no touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon had 123 yards rushing, but again no touchdowns, and the Rebels kept Derrick Henry in check.
The Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (that came on the road, to Texas A&M and, mind you, the final six came as time expired when the game was out of hand). I'd like their chances at keeping Mississippi State under that 28-point benchmark. When the time comes, it'll be entertaining to watch those two units go head-to-head, that's for sure.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: How do you top a 143-yard, one-touchdown performance in your first collegiate start? By rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in your second start. That's exactly what Chubb did in place of the suspended Todd Gurley on Saturday, leading Georgia past Arkansas, 45-32. He became only the third freshman in school history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton). As long as Chubb keeps getting 30-plus carries a game, he's going to keep showing up on this list.
Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: Don't get me wrong. Senquez Golson is deserving of a helmet sticker with two interceptions on Saturday. But it was Haynes and the defensive line that set the tone for the Rebels. They held Tennessee to zero rushing yards in large part thanks to nine sacks on the night. Haynes led the way with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during the 34-3 win. The freshman might not get the recognition of his counterpart Robert Nkemdiche, but he's one of the SEC's better young stars whom nobody's talking about.
Terrence Magee, RB, LSU: It was supposed to be Leonard Fournette with the huge game, but Magee said “move over freshman, I'm taking this one.” Magee rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in LSU's 41-3 win over Kentucky. That's 14.1 yards per carry for those counting at home. He also happened to be the team's leading receiver with three catches for 44 yards. Fournette might be the LSU running back to watch in the second half, but don't forget about Magee. He's not going anywhere.
Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: Murphy wasted no time putting his stamp on Saturday's game in Gainesville, returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. But he wasn't done yet. No, he had more in store for the Gators. Murphy made it 14-0 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he would later return a punt 82 yards for another score. The senior finished with 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on the night. He was one of the big reasons why Missouri won 42-13 despite only gaining 119 yards on offense.
Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: T.J. Yeldon, you deserve a helmet sticker. Amari Cooper, you deserve a helmet sticker. Alabama's defense, you deserve a helmet sticker. It was that kind of game for the Crimson Tide. But the nod here goes to Sims, who went 16-of-27 for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M. He also made arguably the best move of the day on his 43-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. This team, Sims included, was criticized after last week's win over Arkansas. It responded in a big way.
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
Quick, someone check if Phyllis from Mulga is still breathing. Nick Saban isn't about to hear it from those crazed fans, though. He blew his top in yet another press conference eruption on Monday, saying, "It really sorta, if you want to know the truth about it, pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they're disappointed that we only won the game, 14-13, and in the way we played." The frustration Saban speaks of is obvious. But as Steve Spurrier found out when he built Florida into a powerhouse in the 1990s, out-of-control fan expectations come with the turf.
2. Speaking of crazed fans, a Tennessee supporter hoping to help his Volunteers in their game at No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday posted a Snapchat photo taken in August of Rebels star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche smoking from a bong. What started as a message board post on Sunday night naturally spread to social media. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze acknowledged it during his Monday press conference, saying, "I'm very aware of the picture and also when it was taken and where it was taken." He also said he is "super confident" the school's drug policies are being enforced properly.
3. From the "It was bound to happen" file: Some Florida fans have created websites called HireDanMullen.com and WeWantDan.com in hopes of persuading athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire coach Will Muschamp and hire Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. One of the sites even links to Foley's email address. If Muschamp is truly on his way out, Mullen does make a lot of sense with his success at MSU and as the offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer before that. In fact, the Gators offense hasn't done much since Mullen left. These new sites aren't much to look at, but they are reminiscent of the classic FireRonZook site, which has morphed into an anti-Muschamp site, by the way.
Around the SEC
- Suspended Georgia tailback Todd Gurley returned to practice on Monday. Former Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray said he can relate to Gurley's problem.
- The SEC announced Alabama's game at Tennessee on Oct. 25 will be played at night. Should be a low-key affair for Lane Kiffin's return to Neyland, huh?
- Auburn plans to do some self-reflection during bye week, while Gus Malzahn calls his second-half schedule the toughest in college football.
- Report: Bama TE Kurt Freitag was caught with 112 grams of pot and $4,661 in cash but not charged. Tweet of the day
Miles: "My kind of game is any game the Tigers win. I'll take it sliced, diced and salad on the side."— Ron Higgins (@RonHigg) October 13, 2014
But even after posting 42 points and 645 yards of offense, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t pleased with the outcome. There were too many penalties, too many instances of miscommunication up front. The inside running game, which had been a point of emphasis for weeks, didn’t have much success.
“We didn’t play a perfect game,” said center Ryan Kelly after the game on Sept. 20. “I put a lot of that blame on me, especially with the snap count issues. We’re better than that.
“You look at what we can do, even if we have some false starts and missed calls ...”
Kelly didn’t have to finish his sentence. We can imagine what more Alabama could have done operating at prime efficiency: instead of finishing second all-time in total offense, the Tide might have broken the single-game school record.
Against Ole Miss on Saturday, Kelly and Co. will have another opportunity to show what a perfect game looks like. And if you’re the Rebels, that should frighten you.
Because if Alabama’s offensive line starts dominating again and the inside running game comes back, there won’t be a single phase of the offense you can attack.
“We want to get downhill on guys,” Kelly said this week. “The more that we can run the ball, the more it evens out the passing game.
“We don’t want to be a heavy pass team, but we’re going to take advantage of the looks we get. I’m not going to say that checking it out to wide receivers is a bad thing. We certainly want to run the ball down hill. We’ll see what happens this week.”
With Robert Nkemdiche and a skilled group of pass-rushers on the other side, nothing will come easy for Alabama’s offensive line. The way defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin likes to bring pressure can make for difficult blocking assignments.
“Their quickness is really a tremendous advantage that has given us problems in the past, and they do a lot of movements and a lot of stunts up front,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “They’ve got some really good pass-rush guys – No. 10 [C.J. Johnson] does a great job off the edge, usually plays into the boundary. They have a lot of experience. I think they have nine starters back on defense.
“Without getting technical, they do a good job of trying to take away what you want to do based on their scheme. They’ve been very, very effective doing that, but it still goes back to their quickness, the stunts, the way they can pressure you, and they do a good job of disguising things in the back end, mixing it up, making it more difficult for the quarterback.”
Brian Vogler, Alabama’s senior tight end, said Ole Miss’ front seven is, “The best we’ve seen yet.” The way they slant, he said, can throw you off.
Negative plays could be a killer for Alabama. Three-and-outs won't do the defense any favors against Ole Miss’ uptempo offense.
Controlling the pace of the game will be key.
“It’s a huge thing,” Vogler said. “You want to keep it out of their hands and keep it in our hands and control the tempo of the game, make the most of the possessions we get and try to capitalize on those opportunities.”
When Ole Miss hosts Alabama on Saturday afternoon, the game will feature the Rebels' uptempo spread offense and the Crimson Tide's traditional power running game with a lot of play-action passing mixed in.
While a vast majority of teams in the SEC have been focused on defending the new and innovative uptempo offenses that have spread like a wildfire throughout the conference, Ole Miss has quietly been building its defense to stand up to the more physical teams of the SEC West. The transformation is working; the Rebels are No. 4 in the country in total defense, yielding just 248 yards per game.
In two full seasons of recruiting, Rebels coach Hugh Freeze has led Ole Miss to the No. 5 recruiting class and the No. 17 recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has the No. 24 class in the country. But with several ESPN 300 members remaining on the recruiting board that number is sure to increase.
Prior to Freeze’s arrival in Oxford, Mississippi, the Rebels didn’t have a top 20 recruiting class in any year since ESPN started doing recruiting rankings back in 2006.
But to those around the programs and those invested in these teams, this series is very much a rivalry. Mississippi State and LSU might bring out more passion in Ole Miss fans, and Vandy’s followers might have more hatred for Tennessee, but this game resonates with folks in Oxford and Nashville.
Saturday marks the 89th meeting between the schools. They recruit many of the same players out of the Tennessee area and the series has been pretty competitive in its long history. Ole Miss leads the series 48-38-2 but is 27-22-2 in Nashville, where Saturday’s game will be played.
The series has been played annually since 1970. Vandy has won six of the last nine against Ole Miss, including three of the last five in Nashville. Ten of the last 15 meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the last two were decided a combined five points.
The only team that Vandy has played more than Ole Miss (88 times) is Tennessee (108).
“It’s always been a fun and exciting game to be a part of,” junior Vanderbilt offensive lineman Spencer Pulley said. “I know the community and fans have really gotten into it, especially the last couple of years. As far as a rivalry, over the last couple of years it’s really turned into a good one.”
In 2012, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw a career-high 403 yards and wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan caught eight passes for 160 yards – both career-highs -- only for the Rebels to blow a 17-point lead. The Commodores scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and won 27-26 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.
Last year, Ole Miss snapped the Commodores’ three-game winning streak with 29 second-half points in a 39-35 victory, capped by an exhilarating 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left.
The images of a cutting, darting Scott still plays in the minds of some Vandy players, and it’s added a little fuel to Saturday’s game.
"It sticks with me, 'cause every time I think about Ole Miss, I think about that last play,” Vandy defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “And I just think about if we would've stayed with our fundamentals, which is an area that coach said we didn't really stick with in this past game.”
Ah, yes, the last game. A comedy of errors for the Commodores. With seven turnovers, seven penalties, less than 280 yards of offense and no points on offense, Vandy was steamrolled in its home opener 37-7 to a Temple team that won just two games last year.
Head coach Derek Mason is embarrassed, and so are his players. But they’re motivated by the fact that Ole Miss visits for a late afternoon game at LP Field, just down the road from Vandy’s campus.
Mason will be baptized into this rivalry on Saturday, but players filled him in on the importance – and bragging rights – this game holds.
“The veterans got up and talked about the rivalry between the two schools and how tight it’s been,” Mason said. “That’s when your leadership starts to come out and shows you what the scope of this game is. Not only is it an SEC opponent, it’s a rivalry game. There’s always a little more on these rivalry games, but I think it helps us understand where we need to go, what the level of intensity is going to be.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is very familiar with this game. He spent three years in it as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-2007, when the Rebels went 1-2 against the Commodores. As the head coach he’s 1-1, and knows it’s dangerous to discount the Commodores.
“We’re not going to overlook them,” said Freeze, whose 15th-ranked Rebels are coming off a 35-13 victory over Boise State. “We’ll get them ready. It’s an SEC football game on the road.
“They’ve always played us tough up there, for whatever reason.”
What will add a little more to this game is the atmosphere inside LP Field. With a large contingent of Ole Miss fans residing in and around the Nashville area, there’s a chance that this could actually feel like a home game for the Rebels. The short drive from Oxford, Mississippi – roughly 230 miles – should also help pack a lot more red and blue into "Nashvegas."
“This game is going to be a live atmosphere,” Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell said. “I can’t wait.”
2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.
3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."
More from around the SEC
- It's been a long time since Tennessee defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt played, 656 days to be exact. The junior expects to be emotional come Sunday night.
- Missouri has the country's longest active turnover streak.
- Florida is confident in what's ahead on offense behind new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
- Georgia will be missing Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on Saturday. Will the Bulldogs be able to stretch the field without them?
- Getting new starting quarterback Patrick Towles into a comfort zone is an important task for coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown
KENNY FOOTBALL!!! #GigEm— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) August 29, 2014
Hill: I don't really like "Kenny Football." [crowd burst in laughter]— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) August 29, 2014
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State