Articles By Mitch Light
Have you ever wished that a know-it-all pundit could put his money where his mouth is and actually see how difficult it is to run a professional baseball team? Ben Lindbergh of FiveThirtyEight.com and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus — lifelong fans who never even played high school baseball but who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions on their highly rated podcast, Effectively Wild — took on that challenge and put their personnel philosophies to the ultimate test. The duo spent the summer running the baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent team in the Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs, and they have chronicled their adventures in a book titled The Only Rule Is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team, which will be available in May. Athlon’s Mitch Light talked to Lindbergh and Miller about the experience, which proved just as stressful as you would imagine — but also just as fun.
This feature and more appears in the 2016 Athlon Sports Baseball Preview, available on newsstands everywhere or on Amazon.
How did this come about?
Sam Miller: We have a podcast (Effectively Wild) together that we record every night in which we imagine all the different ways a baseball team could be better. So, one night in the summer of 2013, we had a friend on, Dan Evans, who is the former GM of the Dodgers and was going to be the commissioner of the Northern League, which was an Independent league up in the Northeast that had gone dormant for a while but was going to be restarting. We talked a little about that on the podcast and joked that if they were giving away teams, we would take one. And the joke actually got a sort of serious reaction from Dan, who said, “You know it would actually be interesting to see what a bunch of Baseball Prospectus guys could accomplish with a team.”
So we had that idea in mind for a couple of years, but the Northern League never did end up getting off the ground, so it was just on the back burner, in case an opportunity ever showed up. So last summer, 2014, I was up in NorCal, and I found out about an independent league up here that I’d never heard of. And I went up there to spend a game with the GM and find out how you put together an independent league team. And they were a really interesting story because they were an expansion team basically, and in their first year they were challenging for the pennant. They were in first place late into the season going up against the team that had had a lot more success in the past and had a lot more history.
And so we talked a lot about that and we talked about whether there were opportunities to do things better at that level. And he said, “Well, there are, but we don’t really have any staff. We have no labor whatsoever to speak of. If I had extra labor they would be selling t-shirts, not advance scouting the other team or figuring out sabermetrics.”
So Ben and I thought it over and pitched him the idea that we would be that labor, that we would be basically a baseball operations department at a level that never really had a baseball operations department. And we would do it in a way that would be reflective of our philosophy about the game, our education about the game, the way that we see the game and all the research we’ve done as well as all the extremely smart people that we’ve had the privilege to know, and to edit, and to write with, and to work with at BP (Baseball Prospectus).
So we pitched that to them, they liked it a lot, and we proceeded from there.
How would you summarize your baseball philosophy?
Ben Lindbergh: Evidence-based would be one way to look at it. We’ve both written for BP, we’ve both been the editors of BP, and we’re readers of BP before we became involved with it, so we tend to look at things from more of the statistical side, but not necessarily just the statistical side. We want to incorporate any kind of data or evidence that we can, basically. And that could include scouting information. If you think that that’s a form of information, which it is, then you want to factor that into your decisions too.
Basically, we just want to do things that we think are supported by the evidence, or at least that there was a strong enough argument that it would help us, that we could do it, that we would feel comfortable asking our players to do it because we wanted make a case that any idea we proposed, any player we wanted to sign, would actually help the Stompers, and we wanted that to be based on something.
Sam Miller: I think that there’s a lot of comfort in baseball, in the fact that the game has mostly been played the same way for 150 years. And it makes it easier for everybody else to not really have to reexamine the things you do, the reasons you do them, and the ways you do them.
And I think a lot of people in baseball think that there may be better ways, but it takes a certain amount of courage and effort to suggest doing something differently. And I think that my philosophy going into this was that we would be willing to examine every part of the game and think about the reasons we do things the way we do and whether they make sense. And if we came to the conclusion there were other ways to do it or better ways to do it, we would have the boldness to suggest it and to try to implement it. And to do all the work necessary to do those things.
How big of a role did you guys have in forming the roster?
Ben Lindbergh: Well, that was something that we kind of worked out as we went along. We had this sort of push and pull with: Do we want to come in and put our feet down and tell everyone that they’re going to do things a certain way? Or do we want to come in and try to earn their respect and earn the authority and persuade them that we have people that they should want to listen to because we know what we’re talking about? No one really who was involved with the team other than the broadcaster Tim Livingston and the GM Theo Fightmaster knew who we were or knew of our work. So, you know, we couldn’t really walk into the clubhouse and say, “We write for BP!” and expect that to mean anything to anyone. So we sort of had to justify our presence.
With the roster, there were returning players from 2014, good players that we wanted to be on the team. And then there were guys that our manager wanted to sign and there were guys that we wanted to sign. It was sort of, we get one and he gets one and we bring a guy back, that sort of thing. In the season, we were constantly looking for players in other leagues or players who had just graduated from college who might be available to replace people who left or upgrade over the players we had.
So, by the end of the season, we had put a pretty significant stamp on the roster, whether it was guys that we liked in the tryout when first saw some players in March or guys we signed totally sight-unseen from a spreadsheet, based on their college performance. So we had a pretty significant impact, I would say. There were a lot of guys that were there for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with us, but there were other players who were essentially retired when we called and said, “Hey, come play for the Stompers.”
Sam Miller: I think at the end that there are, by my quick count right here, I think there are 13 players that we found completely on our own, using completely statistical means. And then there are another two or three or four, maybe around four, where we were the primary people who selected them, but using kind of more traditional means, in a little bit more of a collaborative sense. And then there were probably about half the team where either they were coming back, they were returnees, or they were known by either the manager or the GM through some other way and we had kind of veto power over those guys. It was a fairly collaborative process, putting the roster together, as a whole.
Lindbergh, in the grey shirt, spent games in the dugout.
How much interaction did you guys have with the players?
Sam Miller: We were in the dugout every day and for every game. That was one of the things ... that was really kind of the first thing that we did that was unusual and maybe uncomfortable for some the players. It’s very rare to have a front office person in the dugout — it’s rare to have any non-uniformed person in the dugout, and we thought it was very important to be there. Not just so that we could contribute to the discussions over strategy, but so that we could really learn from the players and from the managers by being close to them in the moment and understand what caused them strain, what caused them tension, what made implementing the right moves difficult sometimes in the moment. And so that we could get constant feedback from them and also build the sort of relationships that you can only build when you’re in the dugout for three hours of a hard-fought game night in and night out.
So, the answer is, a lot. We were there for batting practice, we were there in the dugout, we were there after the game. We were in the cars driving to the road games with them, sometimes were driving the cars with them. Our role was different than a bench coach because we were the front office. We were kind of the front office ourselves and also a liaison between the front office and the dugout. But also, in a lot of ways, we were there so much that we were kind of like a bench coach.
Did you meet with the manager to discuss strategy? How did that work? Like, we’ve got this player and you’re not bunting, you’re not hitting and running enough. How did all that work?
Ben Lindbergh: That was something that we had to sort of carefully navigate also throughout the season. It varied because we ended up having more than one manager and a different relationship with each one.
Did the manager get fired?
Ben Lindbergh: Uh, he was traded. He was a player-manager.
We didn’t go in and write the lineup on the board. We didn’t flash the signs from third base. We weren’t involved on that level necessarily, but we would sort of interject whenever we saw something we didn’t like or at least we would try to suggest alternatives, gently suggest alternatives.
And it was, again, it was sort of a political negotiation, where you’re constantly worried about alienating someone. Because, obviously, the traditional role of the manager, the manager has had final say over all of this stuff. It’s his domain. The front office gives the manager the players, and then the manager decides what to do with them. We were trying to overturn that a little bit, or at least have more of a direct involvement than your typical front office executives would. Again, it was, What’s the best way to go about this? Do we want to come in and say, “You are hitting this guy fifth tonight and that’s the end of it”? Or do we want to show some numbers and look up some evidence and suggest that this is why he should hit in this spot and try to persuade the manager that it was his idea all along, or that at least our idea had some merit to it? So, it varied a lot from game to game and from manager to manager, but it was something that we were constantly trying to navigate.
Sam Miller: When I say that we were trying to look at every aspect of the game and see if there was a better way to do it, that includes — and in many ways especially includes — the question of how you handle disagreements in strategy, how you try to convince people. We learned very early on that the biggest challenge was going to be making sure that you approached everybody the right way to get buy-in, and we spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways that we were doing that and thinking about the ways that we were doing that, and sort of experimenting with the ways we were doing that. In a way, it was a three-month process of figuring out how to convince people that aren’t necessarily inclined to agree with you.
Do you think you got buy-in?
Sam Miller: We got a lot of buy-in from some people. We got no buy-in from some people. And, overall, I think that the last month of the season was much better than the first month. I felt like we had accomplished a lot by the end. And by the last month of the season, I felt completely integrated into the team and into the team’s decision-making and got to see the team playing in a way that reflected how I think baseball should be played.
Sam, you have said that you dreamed of putting your theories into practice. Any theories prove to be wrong? Did you sit back and say, “You know what? It’s easy for us to sit back and talk about this on a podcast or write about, but when you’re in a game, in the dugout, that might not work”?
Sam Miller: Some of our theories that we have developed from observing Major League Baseball turned out to be more challenging in indie ball because of the size of the rosters. We have a 22-man roster instead of a 25-man roster, and you don’t have the benefit of a Triple-A club where you can pull depth from at any given time. And so some of the things that we would love to see a Major League team be creative about were really difficult to put into practice or even consider putting into practice at that level.
I think that three or four years ago, Ben and I were very dogmatic about a lot of things. The process of writing and talking about baseball every day forces us already to engage with opposing views and engage with the arguments against some of the things we believed in. So I think we came into this already realizing that most of the things we believed, they had challenges, that they were not necessarily as easy to implement as we would have liked to think. And so we went in there with a fairly blank slate as far as what we were committed to doing. We were going to survey the landscape, really, before we implemented anything.
I can’t think of anything we did where I thought that (it was) a disaster. There were areas where we were less successful than others and I would love another crack at.
Lindbergh (left), Miller (right)
What was the best part of the experience?
Ben Lindbergh: For me, maybe for both of us, it was just seeing some of the players succeed. The few high points of the season — and you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what they were — there were certain times during the year when everything came down to single moments, where our reputation was on the line and the success or the embrace of something we wanted to do was very much on the line, and a player that we had come to care about was on the line. And in those moments, it could be as simple as that, or even one pitch felt like the whole season was hanging in the balance in more than one way.
And when it worked out, it was wonderful. It was great to see some of these players who had been strangers to us weeks or months earlier, who would have spent the summer working as their school’s assistant baseball coach, getting to succeed in a professional baseball setting in front of actual fans. It was, I think, really rewarding to see these people whose names we just saw on a spreadsheet come out and be real players and real people and have some sort of signature moments that kind of validated their own talent and what we had believed about their talent. So, I think it’s hard to re-create those moments, just as someone who follows baseball and writes about baseball and hasn’t really rooted for a specific baseball team for years, I had more investment in these games pitch to pitch than any baseball I’ve watched for at least a decade. So, it was really exciting for both of us in that respect.
Sam Miller: I think my favorite part was probably hanging out in the bullpen. Generally speaking, hanging out with baseball players is really fun. I’m in my thirties now and I haven’t been around … I haven’t been on a team in 20 years. And there’s really something that develops in all those moments of boredom that’s irreplaceable. And the bullpen in particular is just the liveliest place, the funniest place, and getting to spend three hours every game, every day with people who are completely unfiltered and hilarious, and also bring different perspectives to the world than I do, was nice. It can be very easy to have a small circle of people in your life who all think like you and come from a similar background to you. And this was not that — these were 22 kids from all over the place, from different countries, from different backgrounds who have had very, very different levels of success in baseball. Some of them have played in Double-A and some of them are basically getting their first professional look that they never even thought was coming.
So to have such a variety of people all bonding together was fun, and to hear the way that they talked was particularly enjoyable for me.
Did you guys gain an appreciation for what front office people have to do and the stresses involved?
Ben Lindbergh: I would say so. I think I already had some appreciation for that, but I think just the … it took us a long time and a lot of effort to get to a basic competence that we took for granted. Whether it was getting the statistics that we wanted in a workable form, or editing video and taking video of our players so we could show it to them after the game. Those were things that real baseball teams do and they have staffs devoted to those tasks and we just kind of figured, “We’ll come in and we’ll do those things. Other baseball teams do them, so we can do them too.” But every little task that sounded simple, the minimum that you would do with a professional baseball team, was hard just to get to that point.
So in that sense, yes.
And being there when players are getting cut is difficult, and we got to see that first hand. So you gain some appreciation for a non-fantasy team and how that works when you pick up and drop players. There’s an emotional side to it that most people don’t get to see. I think I had a healthy respect already for what baseball teams do, but having to do it ourselves revealed our incompetence in many ways.
Athlon Sports would be the first to tell you to sit back and enjoy the college basketball regular season from start to finish.
But let’s face it: The big prize — the only prize, it seems — is the NCAA Tournament. And that’s part of the excitement of the season. Essentially every team has a chance to play in the championship event. Finish in last place in your conference? You’ve got the conference tournament to remedy a lost season.
For us, bracketology starts early. Here’s our first projection of the field of 68.
NCAA bids by conference
ACC (9): Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, NC State
American (2): UConn, Cincinnati
Atlantic 10 (2): Dayton, Rhode Island
Big 12 (6): Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, West Virginia
Big East (5): Villanova, Butler, Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
Big Ten (7): Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa
Mountain West (2): San Diego State, Boise State
Pac-12 (6): Arizona, Cal, Oregon, UCLA, Utah, Oregon State
SEC (6): Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Georgia
America East (Stony Brook), Atlantic Sun (North Florida), Big Sky (Eastern Washington), Big Sky (Coastal Carolina), Big West (UC Irvine), Colonial (Hofstra), Conference USA (UAB), Horizon (Valparaiso), Ivy (Yale), MAAC (Iona), MAC (Central Michigan), MEAC (Hampton), Missouri Valley (Wichita State), Northeast (Mount St. Mary's), Ohio Valley (Belmont), Patriot (Lehigh), Southern (Chattanooga), Southland (Stephen F. Austin), Summit (South Dakota State), Sun Belt (UL Lafayette), SWAC (Texas Southern), WAC (New Mexico State), West Coast (Gonzaga)
The SEC welcomes two new coaches with Final Fours on their résumés — Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) — but it is the league’s longest-tenured coach, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, who has the team with the best chance to challenge Kentucky for the top spot in the conference. The Commodores, who won 10 of their final 14 games last season while starting three freshmen and one sophomore, will surround one of the nation’s top big men — junior Damian Jones — with arguably the finest collection of shooters in college basketball.
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
The Commodores’ lineup often will feature four dangerous 3-point shooters, but the 7’0” Jones will remain the focal point of the offense. Jones is an elite athlete who can dominate a game on both ends. He averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds as a sophomore and ranked third in the league with 2.0 blocks per game. Improving from the foul line — he shot 59.9 percent on a league-high 222 attempts — and playing with more “emotional maturity,” according to his coach, are the next steps in his development.
Luke Kornet is a rapidly improving stretch-4 who has a skill set that compares favorably to former Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky. The son of former NBA second-round pick Frank Kornet, he averaged 8.7 points in only 21.6 minutes per game as a sophomore while shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range. “Luke showed flashes last year of brilliant play. He does things you don’t think a 7-foot guy can do,” Stallings says. Don’t be surprised if Kornet contends for All-SEC honors.
If healthy, sixth-year senior Josh Henderson will serve as the primary backup center, though Kornet has logged significant time at the 5. Another option is freshman Djery Baptiste, a 6’10”, 235-pound physical specimen who can provide some rebounding and shot blocking. When Stallings wants to go small, 6’6” sophomore Jeff Roberson, who started 24 games at small forward last season, can slide down and play the 4. “Jeff is a physical guy,” Stallings says. “I certainly wouldn’t be concerned about him matching up defensively against a 4.”
Freshman power forward Samir Sehic is skilled offensively and adds a physical presence.
No. 15 Vanderbilt Commodores Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-14 (9-9 SEC)
Last NCAA Tournament: 2012
SEC projection: 2
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Riley LaChance was the best known of Vanderbilt’s all-freshman backcourt last season, but you can make a strong case that Wade Baldwin IV — who seized the starting point guard spot in January — was the Commodores’ top perimeter player in the final two months of the season. Baldwin averaged 9.3 points, had a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio and — most surprising — shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range. His finest quality, according to his coach, is his competitiveness. “Wade is fearless,” Stallings says. “And it’s real. There is no fake bravado about his game.”
LaChance emerged as Vanderbilt’s top offensive option on the perimeter and was the league’s top scoring freshman (12.3 ppg). He is known for his 3-point shooting, but only 66 of his 147 field goals came from beyond the arc. LaChance will start at the 2 and also serve as the backup at the point. Matthew Fisher-Davis arrived with the reputation as a prolific shooter and did not disappoint. Slowed early in the season by a foot injury, he hit at least three 3-pointers in 14 games, including six in a season-ending loss to Stanford in the NIT quarterfinals.
Vanderbilt will add three quality wing players to the mix, including two big-time shooters in freshman Camron Justice and junior Nolan Cressler, a transfer from Cornell. “Nolan will be a factor for this team,” Stallings says. “He is a tremendous shot maker and plays with a great degree of toughness.” Freshman Joe Toye is a prototypical, athletic small forward.
Key Losses: G Shelton Mitchell, F James Siakam
Top Players: G Wade Baldwin IV, G Riley LaChance, G/F Matthew Fisher-Davis, F Luke Kornet, C Damian Jones
Nolan Cressler is a shooting guard who averaged 16.8 points and shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range two years ago at Cornell. He will play significant minutes. Camron Justice, Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, will carve out playing time due to his ability to shoot from long range. Joe Toye is a small forward who will add some athleticism to the roster. Big men Djery Baptiste and Samir Sehic won’t be thrust into prominent roles as freshmen. Baptiste is a redshirt candidate.
Vanderbilt advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times from 2007-12 but has missed out the last three seasons. That drought figures to end this season.
“We have a chance to have a very good team,” says Stallings, who is entering his 17th year at Vanderbilt. “It’s a talented team — a team with depth and with experience and a team that will really be able to shoot the ball.”
To emerge as a legitimate threat to win the SEC, Vanderbilt needs to improve its rebounding, especially on the defensive end. “Our first-shot defense was good enough last season,” Stallings says, “but our rebounding wasn’t as good as it’s going to have to be.”
Earlier this week, Athlon Sports ran down the top 50 coaches in college basketball for 2015-16.
This isn’t necessarily the flip side of that argument, but these are the coaches who are facing the most pressure in this upcoming season.
The following article and more can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview magazine, available now.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State
The good news: Ford has guided Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three seasons. The bad news: The Cowboys are 0–3 in the NCAAs and have had a losing record in the Big 12 in each of the past two seasons. Ford has recruited well and kept the Pokes relevant, but he has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2009, his first season at the school.
Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets slumped to 3–15 in the ACC last season, giving Gregory a 19–51 mark in league games in his four seasons at Georgia Tech. Over the last 10 years (six at Dayton, four at Tech), Gregory has coached only one team that finished higher than seventh in its respective league. The Yellow Jackets need to show significant progress in 2015-16.
John Groce, Illinois
Other than a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13, his first season at Illinois, there’s not much to like about Groce’s tenure at Illinois. The Illini are 24–30 in the Big Ten and have not finished higher than a tie for seventh place in the league standings. Last year, they missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, something that hadn’t happened at Illinois since the early 1990s.
Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois
Hinson has been unable to restore order at Southern Illinois, the once-proud program that has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2007. The Salukis slumped to 12–21 overall and 4–14 in the Missouri Valley last year and are 19–35 in the league in Hinson’s three seasons.
Donnie Jones, UCF
Jones has survived NCAA sanctions — he was hit with a three-year show-cause order following an 2011 investigation — but the former Billy Donovan assistant won’t be around much longer if his program doesn’t make a move in the American Athletic Conference. UCF is 25–36 overall and 9–27 in league play in the last two seasons after making the move from Conference USA to the AAC.
Josh Pastner, Memphis
Pastner has compiled a gaudy record in six seasons at Memphis — 148–58 overall and 74–26 in league play (C-USA and AAC) — but his teams never seem to play up to their potential, and he has struggled in the postseason (2–4 in the NCAA Tournament). Roster upheaval has hit this program hard as well. This past offseason, Austin Nichols, the team’s best player and a Memphis native, transferred to Virginia.
Dave Rice, UNLV
Rice has done a phenomenal job attracting talent — he’s signed three top-10 classes in the last four years — but the Runnin’ Rebels continue to underachieve. They are 18–18 in the Mountain West the past two seasons and have yet to win an NCAA Tournament game on his watch, losing as a No. 6 seed in 2012 and a No. 5 in ’13.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Romar has done some good things at his alma mater — Washington advanced to the NCAA Tournament six times from 2004-11 and averaged 12.5 league wins from ’09-12 — but the Huskies went 5–13 in the Pac-12 last year and have not played in the NCAAs since 2011. To make matters worse, Nigel Williams-Goss, the Huskies’ leading scorer in ’14-15, transferred to in-state rival Gonzaga in April.
Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Weber is a respected head coach who has won a lot of games, but he never seems to be in good graces with his fan base. He enjoyed immediate success after taking over for the popular Frank Martin, tying for first in the Big 12 in 2012-13 with a 14–4 league mark. Since then, however, the Wildcats have regressed, to 10–8 in ’13-14 and 8–10 last season. And things don’t look promising moving forward; leading scorer Marcus Foster transferred, and Nino Williams and Thomas Gipson, the team’s two other double-figure scorers, graduated.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
Seton Hall is 30–60 in the Big East in Willard’s five seasons. The high-water mark in his tenure came in Year 2, when the Pirates went 21–13 overall and 8–10 in league play. There has been significant roster turnover of late, notably the loss of guards Jaren Sina (in the middle of last season) and Sterling Gibbs (in late April).
In 2015, the most iconic pregame show in college sports, ESPN’s College GameDay, will undergo a changing of the guard. Chris Fowler, who has hosted the show since its inception in 199, will move full-time onto the ABC primetime game of the week, a role he first started last season in conjunction with GameDay.
Hosting GameDay will be Rece Davis, the voice of ESPN’s featured Thursday night game and GameDay Final. Analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit are still on the team, but the field has expanded over the years to include additional reporters and analysts, a guest picker and an extra hour. More changes may be afoot in coming years as Corso, 80, nears retirement.
As GameDay was well on its way to becoming a fixture for college football fans, Athlon’s Mitch Light joined the team for a broadcast during the 2001 season. The broadcast turned out to be “definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay.”
A week earlier, Nebraska and Oklahoma appeared to be on track to play in a game with BCS championship game implications in the Big 12 title games. Both ended up losing, turning the focus on the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in Gainesville.
The following story appeared in regional editions of the 2002 Athlon Sports College Football preview.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chris Fowler had been watching college football for more than 10 hours. He’s been talking college football since reporting to the set just outside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after 7 a.m.
There is a throng of jubilant Tennessee fans waiting for Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso to film their next SportsCenter segment. But that won’t happen for another 30 minutes. Fowler can sit and relax and watch his alma mater, Colorado, battle Texas in the Big 12 title game from the relative comforts of the ESPN trailer adjacent to the GameDay set.
This has been a typical fall Saturday for Fowler, Herbstreit, Corso and the traveling road show known as ESPN’s College GameDay: attend meetings and rehearsal, broadcast the 90-minute live show, watch games on television, go to the on-site game, watch more games, film SportsCenter segments and watch more games.
Not a bad way to spend 17 hours.
“Doing the show is phenomenal,” says Fowler, who has hosted GameDay since 1990. “It is incredible. That is what you remember every time you whine about a missed (plane) connection or you whine about the hotel check-in desk. You just remember that you are incredibly blessed to be able to do this. Anything you have to do or put up with to make this happen is trivial.”
Fowler has witnessed GameDay grow from a struggling studio show “that was kind of on life support” to arguably the most popular pregame show in sports. “I never would have imagined this,” he says. “It is a unique show. I think the people who watch it have the same passion for the sport that we do and appreciate that we take them to the site of the biggest game each week.”
This week, the GameDay gang is in Gainesville, Fla., for the annual Tennessee-Florida grudge match. The game, normally played in mid-September, has been pushed back to Dec. 1 due the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fans begin gathering around the show’s set at 6 a.m., nearly four-and-a-half hours before the 10:30 airtime. The crowd eventually swells into the thousands and includes Scotty Spurrier, the 14-year-old son of the Gators’ coach. “The atmosphere is incredible,” Fowler says. “It is very hard to show up and give a lame effort when the atmosphere is like this. It is impossible to give a low-energy show.”
GameDay is in Gainesville for the sixth time in the past five years, yet there is still a tangible excitement around campus. “We have been here quite often, but we still had a front-page headline in the Gainesville Sun : GameDay is in Town,” says Steve Vecchione, the show’s coordinating producer since 1994. “The excitement here is great. I don’t think people take us for granted. It is still exciting when we go to a place for the fifth or sixth time.”
Rachel Shapiro, a 2000 Florida graduate, flew down from New York City to watch her beloved Gators — and be a part of the GameDay experience. “The most exciting part of the weekend is the people coming out to watch, getting that GameDay feeling,” she says. “This is the best part of living in Gainesville and going to school here. There is just no better feeling that having a GameDay in Gainesville for a big Florida football game.”
“Like Rock Stars”
GameDay’s popularity has turned Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso into celebrities. In Gainesville, they receive a police escort for the short walk from the ESPN trailer to the stadium. Fans scream their names and reach out for a handshake and high five.
“They are like rock stars,” says Tony Barnhart, a college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who is a regular guest on the show. “Everywhere they go, people go nuts. It’s been great for college football and great for the show.”
Herbstreit, a 1993 Ohio State graduate and a former Buckeye starting quarterback, receives the most attention from adoring fans. He stops for every autograph and poses for as many photographs as possible. “It is part of the business,” he says. “I don’t mind it. I don’t love it, but it’s part of what we do. We are out there in front of people. It is important for us to show how much we appreciate them and the fact that they like our show. We would be silly not to recognize those people who come up to us.”
Herbstreit is known for his youth and good looks, while Corso (top right, pictured in 1982 as head coach at Indiana) is “like your crazy uncle or your crazy grandfather,” according to Herbstreit. “Lee has a unique relationship with most fans across the country. They have a love-hate relationship with him. People get upset with him, but at the same time, they love him to death.”
Corso, a former head coach at Northern Illinois, Louisville and Indiana, has a cult-like following from the younger generation of college football fans. Just off the GameDay set, one young Florida woman holds up a ‘Lee, I’m Pregnant’ sign. Another sign reads ‘Lee Corso is my father.’ The Pike House flies a banner taunting Corso, an alum of the hated Florida State Seminoles. “Kirk always picks (Florida),” Shapiro says, “and Corso is usually the devil’s advocate. It is fun. It fires everybody up.”
Corso shines in the final moments of each GameDay broadcast when he dons the mascot head of the school he is picking to win. The tradition began in 1996 when in Columbus, Ohio, when Corso noticed Brutus Buckeye stroll by the GameDay set. “I decided I wanted to put that head on when I picked Ohio State,” Corso says. “So I asked Kirk’s fiancée (now his wife) Allison, who was a cheerleader, and she went and got the head. We got a great reaction and thought we were onto something. I started putting mascot heads each week and one time I went 16 straight mascot heads without a loss. I was lucky.”
Corso has been with GameDay since 1989. Fowler joined the following year, and Craig James, the former All-America running back at SMU, came on board in 1992. “When we started doing this, the show really didn’t rate very well,” Fowler says. "It didn’t have good games to lead into and the show didn’t know what it wanted to be.
“But then we began to hit on something. The chemistry and liveliness of it kind of jump-started things and people started taking notice. Then we convinced management to take the show on the road and that is what we did in 1993 and that is what has led to the increased popularity.”
South Bend, Ind., was the site of GameDay’s first remote broadcast, and they could not have selected a better game. Second-ranked Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 Florida State in one of the great Irish wins of the Lou Holtz era. The game might have been a classic, but GameDay’s first road show was a rather meager production. “We were set up on the floor of the (College Football) Hall of Fame with a rope around the set,” Fowler says. “And there were some curious people wondering what the hell they were seeing.”
The first show, however, was a huge hit with the viewers, and ESPN decided to take GameDay on the road on a more frequent basis. There were six remotes in 1994 and an average of 10 per year ever since. “We are budgeted for 11 road shows (per year),” says GameDay coordinating producer Barry Sacks, who estimates each show costs “somewhere in the $200,000-250,000 range.”
The on-location setup for each show begins Thursday morning when the stage is assembled. By Friday afternoon, the road show crew has swelled to 50 and consists of on-air talent, an operations manager, two directors, three producers, five cameramen, technicians, a researcher, a make-up artist and a catering company that provides three meals a day to keep the staff well-fed.
"This is a major circus on wheels,” Fowler says. “Our crew is phenomenal. Those guys have been doing this for years and they do their jobs well. They love this sport and they love the idea of doing this show.”
A Great, Gutsy Hire
Fowler’s fears subsided after he met with Herbstreit (pictured in 1992 with Ohio State), who had served as a sideline analyst for ESPN’s college football broadcasts in 1995.
“Kirk was a great, gutsy hire,” Fowler says, “because he didn’t come from a real experienced background and he wasn’t a big-name player. But he was a natural and he had a knockout audition. He seated immensely. He was like Robert Brooks in Broadcast News. He has grown so much and that has been so much of the reason for the popularity of the show. Lee and I have been here and Kirk comes in and brings a real young, energetic, hard-core football mentality to it.”
Herbstreit formed an immediate bond with Fowler, the savvy host, and Corso, the wacky analyst. “You either have chemistry with a group of people or you don’t,” says Herbstreit. “You can’t fake it. You hear football coaches talk about a special chemistry and I think we are fortunate to have that on this set.”
Herbsterit was a loyal GameDay viewer during his playing days and still has the same passion for the game now that he is on the other side of the camera. “We absolutely love what we do,” he says. “We love talking about the games. We are just thrilled that people are enthusiastic about the sport. Even if I had an opportunity to do something else, I would stay in this position because I love college football and all of the emotion that goes with it.”
There is still plenty of emotion on the sidelines in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when the Gator sand Vols take the field for the opening kickoff. Fowler and Herbstreit are situated on the Florida side, while Corso opts for the Tennessee sideline. Simultaneously, Fowler and Herbstreit scan the 85,000-seat stadium and smile. This is the biggest game of the college football season to date in one of the great environments in sports. “This is incredible,” Fowler says, “We love doing the show, but the gravy is getting to watch probably the best game every week from the field and being able to witness places like the Swamp and Tennessee and Nebraska. We get a great opportunity to see the best teams close up. It helps us with our assessments of teams. It helps to get to know the personalities of teams besides just watching them on TV.”
Your Program Has Arrived
When College GameDay shows up on your campus, you know your football program has arrived.
“There is a certain truth to that,” Fowler says, “because in a sense if we are there, then it is the biggest game in the country and if it is the biggest game in the country then your program has arrived.”
Lou Holtz lobbied for GameDay to bring the show to Columbia, S.C., for the Gamecocks’ SEC clash with Florida last November. “I pick up the phone one day,” Sacks says, “and this guy says, ‘Barry, this is Lou Holtz from South Carolina. I just want to let you know that it would be important to the state of South Carolina and to me personally for you to bring your show to South Carolina.’”
GameDay did in fact make its first appearance at South Carolina on Nov. 10, 2002, remarkably just two years after the Gamecocks completed an 0-11 season. “In my first year on the job,” Holtz says, “we asked some of the underclassmen what they hoped would happen for the team before their careers were over. One of the things they mentioned was they wanted to have GameDay come to campus. They said when that happened, they would know the program really arrived.”
GameDay in Columbia attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000 for a pregame show that ended seven-and-a-half hours prior to kickoff. “Coach (Holtz) promised me a great atmosphere,” Sacks says. “I knew there would be. They have great fans.”
Nebraska currently holds the GameDay attendance record (15,800 for the Oklahoma game last October), while Kansas State has drawn two 15,000-plus crowds in the past several years. “It’s all unofficial and all in good fun,” Vecchione says.
Fowler enjoys being a part of the college football experience each Saturday, but he never wants the show to be bigger than the games. “I don’t like to get too caught up in what we mean,” he says, “We are never going to be the show. The game is the big deal and that is the way it should be. We are just happy to be a small part of it.”
The show, however, influences public perception. When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso speak, people listen. “What happens on this show reverberates all through college football,” Barnhart says. “That is a statement about them and the people that put on this show.”
GameDay’s influence isn’t limited to the sport’s passionate fans. Coaches and players often tune in on the day of the game to see what is being said about their program or their conference.
“If we have a night game, the whole team is up watching (the show) in the morning because we all want to know what Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit have to say about not only us, but all the games that day,” says Ronyell Whitaker, a cornerback at Virginia Tech. ”And if we have a noon game, we’re all bummed because we know we can’t watch the show.”
And often, things said during a 10:30 a.m. GameDay telecast can serve as motivation for a game later that day. On Dec. 1, the Tennessee Volunteers watched from their hotel in Gainesville as Herbstreit and Corso picked the Gators to roll past UT with relative ease.
“Guys started yelling and banging on the walls of their rooms (after the picks),” UT defensive end Bernard Jackson told The Tennessean. “It got loud at the hotel. We wanted to play them right then.”
Tennessee’s players weren’t the only ones fired up about the perceived anti-UT comments. Long after the Vols secured their 34-32 win — the program’s first victory in Gainesville since 1971 — that throng of jubilant Tennessee fans is still waiting for Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso to emerge form their trailer. It’s almost 11 p.m., but these die-hards have been waiting all day to throw the predictions back at the GameDay experts.
When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso take the stage for the final time, they are overwhelmingly complimentary of the Tennessee program for its gutsy win at the Swamp. Volunteer fans erupt in the background and belt out a few rounds of ‘Rocky Top.’ And just as another ESPN GameDay comes to a close, Corso puts on a bright orange Tennessee cap. It’s a little late to change his pick, but Corso has jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon.
From Dallas to Blacksburg to Gainesville
During a wild weekend near the end of the 2001 season, GameDay settled on three different locations. Here’s the behind-the-scenes look:
Friday, Nov. 23, 2001
Barry Sacks settles into his living room in Southbury, Conn., to watch the annual Colorado-Nebraska showdown. Like most college football observers, Sacks, the senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s College GameDay, is confident Nebraska will wrap up its fourth Big 12 North title in six years. A trip to the league championship game in Dallas is looking very good for the Husker nation. And with Oklahoma playing host to 3-7 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, the dream matchup featuring Nebraska (No. 2 in the BCS) and Oklahoma (No. 3) will soon be a reality.
And this is very good news for Sacks and the entire GameDay gang, who are planning to take their show to Dallas — the site of the Big 12 Championship game — on Dec. 1. Plans for GameDay in Dallas began 11 months earlier after Oklahoma completed its national championship season with a 13-2 win over Florida State. “When the (2000) season ended,” Sacks says, “we were already thinking about Oklahoma-Nebraska playing for the (2001) Big 12 Championship. We want to go to the biggest game each week with the biggest national championship implications. And all along, (throughout) the whole season, it looked like the Oklahoma-Nebraska rematch would be another Game of the Year. Obviously, that is where we try to be.”
So the plans are set. Plane reservations are made. Hotels are booked. College GameDay is coming to Dallas.
But just in case something strange happens, Sacks and Steve Vecchione, GameDays coordinating producer, have been working on alternate plans of attack. “We have (the games) ranked,” says Sacks. “We are going to Oklahoma-Nebraska. But if one of them loses, we are probably going to Miami-Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg) because Miami has a chance to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl.”
It becomes clear in the opening minutes of the Nebraska-Colorado game that the contingency plan might be needed. Colorado’s power running game is completely dominating Nebraska’s defense. Early in the second quarter, Colorado has rolled up 301 total yards and leads the stunned Huskers 35-3.
Sacks calls Vecchione at the office to discus Nebraska’s meltdown. Vecchione is still in favor of Dallas, despite the Huskers impending loss. Colorado has been playing as well as any team in the country and Oklahoma is still very much alive in the championship race. Sacks agrees that Colorado-Oklahoma, because of the Buffs’ dominating showing against Nebraska, is now a viable option, but he isn’t quite ready to commit to any game.
“Colorado-Oklahoma is intriguing,” he says. “Maybe people think that Colorado, coming off their win, can beat Oklahoma, too. But let’s see what happens tomorrow.”
Late Friday night, Vecchione and Sacks dismiss the possibility of moving the show to Gainesville for the epic Tennessee-Florida battle. “There is no way we’re going to Gainesville, right?” Vecchione asks. “As for right now,” Sacks says, “it is not even on the radar screen.”
Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001
All GameDay-to-Dallas discussion ends when Oklahoma State, a 27-point underdog, completes its stunning 16-13 win over Oklahoma. With both Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer in the equation, GameDay bails on the Big 12 Championship Game. “The Texas-Colorado game, though a nice game, really doesn’t have the national championship implications by itself,” Sacks says.
With all of the crazy happenings, the Florida-Tennessee game, which wasn’t even on the radar screen 24 hours ago, emerges as the biggest game of an important Saturday of football. Florida now has a clear path to the Rose Bowl: Beat Tennessee and win the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee’s road is a bit more difficult, but the Vols still have legitimate national title aspirations. “Gainesville is not only not the radar screen, as a start thinking about it, it’s almost a no-brainer,” Sacks says.
With the decision almost official, Vecchione calls the Florida athletic department to inform them GameDay will likely be making its sixth trip to Gainesville.
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001
It’s official. The executives at ESPN agree with Sacks, Vecchione and Chris Fowler, the show’s host, that Gainesville, Fla., is where GameDay needs to be on Dec. 1.
“It was a good decision,” Sacks says. “It was definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay. (Gainesville) went from a place were not going to, to the place where we had to be. It is the only one of the three games we considered that we had not booked travel for because there was no way anybody on our show’s staff thought both Nebraska and Oklahoma would lose. That was the only way we were going to Gainesville. Friday night we were going one place, Saturday night we were going somewhere else.
“To me, that is what makes the show as special as it is. We are at the biggest game of the week, regardless of what it takes to get there.”
Very few players have been scrutinized as much as Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace in the past few seasons.
The opinion of Dr. Bo Wallace — the nickname given to him by his cult-like followers on the Twitterverse — fluctuated from “Good Bo” to “Bad Bo” seemingly with every pass.
Wallace had some issues early in the fall — he threw three interceptions in a Week 1 win over Boise State — but there was far more good than bad in the first half of the season. In fact, Wallace did not throw a pick in his first four SEC games, all wins by Ole Miss.
Then, as the scheduled toughened up a bit and injuries began to mount on the Rebel offense, Wallace’s production dipped. He did throw for 339 yards with no interceptions in a narrow loss to Auburn, but he managed only 176 yards at LSU and threw two costly INTs in the end zone in a stunning 30–0 loss at Arkansas last week.
Wallace and the Rebels, once ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, limped — figuratively and literally — into the final regular-season game of the season riding a three-game SEC losing streak. Ole Miss was only a slight underdog, but you would be hard-pressed to find many outside of Oxford who were forecasting a Rebel victory.
Well, Wallace, who has made a career of defying the odds, led his team to an improbable 31–17 win over Mississippi State that gave Ole Miss its first winning SEC season since 2008. The quarterback who couldn’t land an SEC offer coming out of Pulaski, Tenn., threw for 296 yards on a bad ankle to deliver arguably the most satisfying win of the Hugh Freeze era. Sure, beating Alabama was nice, but knocking rival Mississippi State out of the CFB Playoff picture was a great way to walk off the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium or the final time.
“I knew this game would define my legacy,” said Wallace, who somehow flirted with the 300-yard mark despite completing only 13 passes. “I had to win this game to be remembered like I want. ... I hope they’ll remember as a guy who gave his all ever single game and won a lot of games.”
There’s one simple stat that tells the story of Alabama’s 55–44 Iron Bowl victory. And at first glance, it appears that Auburn did quite well executing its offense in the red zone. After, all the Tigers scored on seven of their eight trips inside the Alabama 20-yard line. But five of those seven scores ended in field goals, including four of fewer than 25 yards. Auburn had seven possessions that went 60 yards or more — an amazing feat against the Alabama defense — but only two of those seven ended with a touchdown.
“I think the name of the game really was that when we got in the red zone, we had to kick field goals,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We kicked five of them and didn’t score our touchdowns. We had enough yards to score a whole bunch of points and that was probably the name of the game.”
Alabama, on the other hand, converted its opportunities into touchdowns, finding the end zone on all five of its trips into the red zone.
The Tide was especially efficient in the second half; after Alabama’s first drive of the third quarter ended with a Blake Sims interception — his third of the game — it proceeded to score a touchdown on its final five possessions of the game. A 36–27 deficit gradually turned into a 55–36 lead.
“We started making some plays on offense can got the momentum of the game back,” coach Nick Saban said.
Alabama’s outstanding execution in the second half resulted in some gaudy final stats. Despite running only 61 plays — the second-fewest of the season — the Tide accumulated 539 yards of offense and averaged 8.84 yards per play, the most against an SEC opponent since they went for 9.1 in a 52–7 win at Ole Miss in 2011.
The final week of the regular season is highlighted by rivalry games in Tuscaloosa and Oxford. Elsewhere, Missouri attempts to capture the outright SEC East title; Texas A&M and LSU try to close disappointing seasons on a positive note; Tennessee seeks its sixth win to become bowl-eligible; and a quartet of SEC schools will play rivalry games against ACC foes.
Week 14 Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 14 Game Power Rankings
1. Auburn (+9.5) at Alabama (7:45 ET, ESPN)
Auburn played its way out of the SEC West race — and a spot in the College Football Playoff — by losing consecutive games to Texas A&M and Georgia, but this game is still very important on the national scene. Top-ranked Alabama is one of three teams — along with Oregon and Florida State — that controls its own destiny to secure one of the four Playoff spots. A win over Auburn and in the SEC Championship Game — against Missouri or Georgia — likely would make the Crimson Tide the No. 1 seed. First things first: A very talented Auburn team awaits. Despite the Tigers’ struggles two weeks ago at Georgia — they scored only seven points and managed only 292 total yards — this is one of the top offensive teams in the nation. Last year, Auburn rolled up 393 yards on a healthy 5.8 yards-per-play average in its thrilling 34–28 win over Alabama. The guess here is Auburn will need to score at least 30 points to win in Tuscaloosa.
2. Mississippi State (-2) at Ole Miss (3:30 ET, CBS)
About a month ago, the folks in the Magnolia State were dreaming of an Egg Bowl featuring two undefeated teams, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the national polls. That hasn’t happened, but this is still the most anticipated game between these two rivals in decades. Mississippi State, 6–1 in the SEC, can advance to the league title game with a win over Ole Miss coupled with an Alabama loss to Auburn. And the Bulldogs are still very much alive in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot even if they don’t win the SEC West. Ole Miss must regroup after a sobering 30–0 loss at Arkansas, the Rebels’ third straight loss in league play. This team was 7–0 not too long ago; now a 4–4 SEC record is a very real possibility. That’s not what the locals had in mind when they were storming the field after the epic win over Alabama.
3. Arkansas (-1.5) at Missouri (Friday, 2:30 ET, CBS)
This is suddenly one of the more intriguing games of the holiday weekend. Missouri is one win away from securing its second straight trip to the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers, who beat Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday, have now won eight straight SEC road games. The key to Missouri’s success has been a defense that is allowing a league-low 4.19 yards per play against SEC opponents. The Tigers have 25 sacks in seven conference games and have forced 11 turnovers in their last five games. Arkansas has been arguably the most impressive team in the nation the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 47–0. Like Mizzou, Arkansas is getting it done on defense. The same unit that gave up 595 yards to Auburn, 523 to Texas A&M and 459 to Mississippi State allowed an average of 219.5 — including 49.5 on the ground — against LSU and Ole Miss. Points could be at a premium on Friday.
4. LSU (-3) at Texas A&M (Thursday, 7:30 ET, ESPN)
Despite the fact that both teams have a losing record in the league, there will be a ton of talent roaming the field in College Station on Thanksgiving night. The LSU offense has struggled over the last three weeks, scoring a total of two offensive touchdowns against Ole Miss (a win), Alabama (a loss) and Arkansas (a loss). The Tigers averaged an alarmingly low 2.3 yards per play in the shutout defeat at Arkansas. Texas A&M has some issues, but the Aggies’ offense has shown progress of late. They have scored a total of 68 points in their last two games — a win at Auburn and a home loss against Missouri — as true freshman Kyle Allen has become more comfortable in the offense.
5. Georgia Tech (+13) at Georgia (12 ET, SEC Network)
Georgia Tech clinched a spot in the ACC Championship Game last Thursday when North Carolina beat Duke. In a season with low (external) expectations, the Yellow Jackets have won nine games, including the last four by an average of 24.5 points. As usual, Tech is doing most of its work on the ground, ranking fourth nationally with 327.9 rushing yards per game. The Jackets have averaged 285.6 rushing yards against Georgia in the last five seasons but have lost all five games. The problem has been on the other side of the ball; Georgia has scored 30 points or more in all five of those wins, including 41 in last year’s victory in Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s task this weekend will be to slow down running back Nick Chubb. The true freshman has rushed for at least 100 yards in six straight games and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry for the season.
6. Kentucky (+12.5) at Louisville (12 ET, ESPN2)
Kentucky is seeking its first win since early October, when the Wildcats topped ULM 48–14 to improve to 5–1 overall. They have since lost five straight, all by 10 points or more. The defense has been UK’s biggest issue; the Cats have given up 41 points or more four times during the losing streak, including a total of 113 in consecutive losses to Georgia and Tennessee. Louisville is riding high after beating Notre Dame 31–28 in South Bend. The Cards were powered by a rushing attack that churned out 229 yards on 50 carries. True freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon only completed eight passes, but he averaged a healthy 22.5 yards on those eight completions. The Cards are now 8–3 overall and closed their first season in the ACC with a 5–3 record.
7. Florida (+7.5) at Florida State (3:30 ET, ESPN)
Will Muschamp’s final game at Florida will be on the same field as one of his finest moments as the Gators’ head coach. Two years ago, Florida closed the season with a 37–26 win in Tallahassee to cap off an 11–1 regular season. Since that late November Saturday, Florida is 10–13 overall while Florida State has yet to lose another game. The Seminoles have come close of late, flirting with defeat in each of their last five games. They have found a way to win each week and remain in control of their own destiny for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Florida will need significant production from its running game to have a shot in this game. Freshman quarterback Treon Harris has shown flashes of excellence but shouldn’t be trusted to get too much done against the FSU secondary. Last week, the Noles allowed 240 yards rushing to Boston College. If Florida approaches that number, this game could be very interesting.
8. South Carolina (+4.5) at Clemson (12 ET, ESPN)
South Carolina has won five straight in this underrated rivalry and has done so on the defensive end. Clemson, one of the top offensive teams in the ACC in recent years, has not scored more than 17 points in any of the five losses to South Carolina. Conventional wisdom suggests that will change due to the Gamecocks’ defensive struggles, but Clemson is having trouble scoring points of late. With true freshman Deshaun Watson slowed by an injury, Cole Stoudt got the nod last week in a lethargic 28–0 win over hapless Georgia State. The week before, the Tigers managed only 190 total yards in a 28–6 loss at Georgia Tech. Watson, who missed the final three quarters of the Tech game and the entire Georgia State game with a knee injury, is questionable this week. His return, assuming he’s close to 100 percent, would provide a nice boost to the Clemson attack. South Carolina has underachieved this season, but the Gamecocks have at least kept things exciting; each of their last five games against Power 5 teams have been decided by seven points or fewer.
9. Tennessee (-17) at Vanderbilt (4 ET, SEC Network)
The stakes are high for Tennessee, which needs to beat Vanderbilt to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. The Vols are making nice progress under Butch Jones, but a loss to Vanderbilt would not sit well with Volunteer fans. The Commodores have been a disappointment in Derek Mason’s first season in Nashville. A third-straight win over Tennessee would no doubt be a huge boost for this program as it heads into the offseason, but there is nothing on the Dores’ 2014 résumé that suggests they are capable of winning this game. Vanderbilt is 0–7 in the SEC, none of its league games have been decided by fewer than 10 points, and it ranks last in the SEC in total offense and 12th in total defense.
SEC Week 14 Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|LSU at Texas A&M||LSU 21-20||LSU 31-27||LSU 30-20||A&M 21-20|
|Arkansas at Mizzou||UA 24-20||MU 24-21||MU 24-20||MU 24-21|
|Kentucky at Louisville||UL 35-14||UL 31-24||UL 34-20||UL 31-20|
|S. Carolina at Clemson||USC 28-21||CU 27-24||USC 30-27||CU 34-27|
|Ga. Tech at Georgia||UGa 31-21||UGa 34-23||UGa 38-27||UGa 41-24|
|Miss. State at Ole Miss||MSU 35-17||MSU 30-20||MSU 27-24||MSU 28-24|
|Florida at Florida St.||FSU 38-28||FSU 29-21||FSU 30-20||FSU 23-20|
|Tennessee at Vanderbilt||UT 42-14||UT 41-17||UT 34-13||UT 30-17|
|Auburn at Alabama||UA 31-21||UA 37-24||UA 34-24||UA 30-20|
It is difficult to comprehend just how impressive Arkansas has been over the past two weeks.
We knew this team was getting better. We knew their 17-game SEC losing streak would end at some point in the very near future. But no one — not even the most optimistic Razorback fan — could have envisioned a break through of this magnitude.
In the past two weeks, Arkansas has defeated LSU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 47–0.
“I mean, we won two games, but everybody forgets, one was ranked 17 and the other was ranked 8,” second-year coach Bret Bielema said. “These are good teams we're beating. We're not just beating people.”
There’s been nothing flashy about the two wins; in fact, the Hogs’ offense has been quite ordinary of late, averaging 4.1 yards per play against LSU and 4.7 against Ole Miss. It’s been the defense that has spearheaded the recent success. The same unit that gave up 595 yards to Auburn, 523 to Texas A&M and 459 to Mississippi State allowed an average of 219.5 — including 49.5 on the ground — against LSU and Ole Miss.
Turnovers were the difference in Saturday’s win vs. Ole Miss. Arkansas intercepted Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace three times and recovered three fumbles. As a result, the Razorbacks won the all-important battle for field position — their longest scoring drive of the game went for only 52 yards — and they won the game despite being outgained 316 to 311.
Arkansas is now bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the final season of the Bobby Petrino era.
“It feels great,” safety Rohan Gaines said. “I’ve here through tough times. It’s tough not making a bowl game. I think the seniors deserve all of this. We have great senior leadership. I feel like they deserve it all.”
A year ago, Missouri shocked the college football world by winning the SEC East title — and doing so in dominant fashion. The Tigers won their seven league games by an average of 21.0 points, with only one game decided by less than 10 points. And their only loss came in double-overtime to South Carolina in a game in which they led 17–0 entering the fourth quarter.
Clearly, the 2013 Missouri Tigers were an elite team.
The 2014 Tigers? That’s a difficult question. The standings tell us they are one win away from winning the East yet again, but there is no denying this team is not nearly as formidable.
The Tigers’ wins have come by an average of 10.8 points, a number skewed by a 42–13 victory over Florida in which they gained only 119 yards of offense and averaged an astoundingly low 2.4 yards per play. The other five wins have been by 10 points or less — and none has come against a team with a winning record in SEC play.
But the goal in football is to win the game, and the Tigers — despite some offensive limitations — have done that six times in seven conference games and are one win away from a second straight trip to the SEC Championship Game.
The key to Missouri’s success has been a defense that is allowing a league-low 4.19 yards per play against SEC opponents. The Tigers have 25 sacks in seven conference games and have forced 11 turnovers in their last five games.
In Saturday’s win at Tennessee, Missouri limited Tennessee to 279 total yards, including only 53 on the ground. In the Vols’ previous two games — wins over South Carolina and Kentucky — they averaged 578 total yards.
Missouri’s schedule has been kind — the Tigers won’t play any of the four SEC West teams with a winning league record — but this program deserves credit for finding ways to win, especially on the road. The Tigers have won eight straight SEC games away from home, including four this season in very difficult environments — South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
The Tigers now return home to face one of the hottest teams in the nation, Arkansas. The Razorbacks have won two straight games, beating LSU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 47–0. A victory will send Mizzou back to Atlanta. The red-hot Hogs will be a popular pick, but Missouri has made a habit of defying the odds.
It’s the week before rivalry week in the SEC. Translation: There aren’t a ton of compelling games. That said, Missouri vs. Tennessee is an intriguing matchup between two teams playing very well of late. Elsewhere, Arkansas looks to extend its SEC winning streak to two games against Ole Miss; Mississippi State hopes to get back on track against winless (in the SEC) Vanderbilt; and then … not much to get excited about.
Week 13 Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 13 Game Power Rankings
1. Missouri at Tennessee (7:30 ET, ESPN)
There’s plenty at stake for both teams. Missouri remains on top of the SEC East with a 5–1 league record and must beat Tennessee in Knoxville and Arkansas at home to make a second straight trip to Atlanta. Tennessee is one win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. The Vols’ resurgence has coincided with quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ insertion into the lineup. In two-plus games, Dobbs has thrown for 790 yards and seven touchdowns and added 289 yards and four scores on the ground. His ability to make plays with his feet has negated one of Tennessee’s primary weaknesses; the Vols allowed 32 sacks in their first eight games but only one in Dobbs’ two starts. That takes on added significance with Missouri coming to town. Led by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Tigers rank second in the SEC with 32 sacks. The Vols have a ton of momentum, but Missouri just keeps on finding ways to win.
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2. Ole Miss (-3.5) at Arkansas (3:30 ET, CBS)
Arkansas finally broke through with its first SEC win since October 2012, shutting out LSU 17–0 before a delirious crowd in Fayetteville that was starved for a victory. Can the Hogs make it two in a row? It’s possible. After opening the season with seven straight wins, highlighted by a rare victory over Alabama, Ole Miss has lost its last two league games — both in excruciating fashion. The most troubling part for the Rebels, other than the losses, has been the decline of the rushing defense. After allowing no more than 168 yards on the ground in their first four SEC games, they gave up 264 to LSU and 248 to Auburn. Injuries have no doubt contributed, but there are very few healthy teams at this point of the year. Arkansas has been better than expected throwing the ball this season, but this is still a team that prefers to run the ball. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in the SEC in rushing, and both will end the season with over 1,000 yards — barring injury. Slowing down this duo will be key for Ole Miss.
3. Vanderbilt (+29.5) at Mississippi State (7:30 SEC Network)
When these two teams last met in Starkville — in October 2008 — Vanderbilt was 5–0 and ranked No. 13 in the nation while Mississippi State was 1–4 and playing out the string in the final season of the Sylvester Croom era. Vanderbilt lost that game 17–14, the first of a four-game losing streak that finally ended with a win at Kentucky that made the Commodores bowl-eligible for the first time since 1982. Both programs have had their ups and downs in the last six years. Clearly Mississippi State is on the uptick — the Bulldogs are No. xx in the most recent CFB Playoff rankings — while Vanderbilt is struggling through a difficult season under first-year coach Derek Mason. Hence, the nearly 30-point spread. The main issue for Mississippi State will be focus; this game is sandwiched between last week’s emotional loss at Alabama and next week’s trip to Oxford for the Egg Bowl.
4. South Alabama at South Carolina (12 ET Fox SportsSouth)
South Alabama is 6–4 overall and 5–3 in the Sun Belt but lost badly in its only previous game against an SEC opponent. In Week 2, the Jags dropped a 35–3 decision at home to Mississippi State — long before we knew Mississippi State was going to be one of the top teams in the country. USA has been solid on defense — it ranks third in the Sun Belt in yards allowed — but should be no match for South Carolina. The Gamecocks have some new life after rallying to beat Florida in overtime last week. Steve Spurrier’s team needs one more win to become bowl-eligible. They will get it this weekend.
5. Eastern Kentucky at Florida (12 ET, SEC Network+)
Playing for the first time since the school announced Will Muschamp will not be back next season, the Gators will be out to snap a one-game losing streak to FCS opponents. Eastern Kentucky arrives in Gainesville with a 9–2 overall record with losses to Tennessee Tech (by eight) and Jacksonville State (by 14). The Colonels beat the only FBS team they have played, topping Miami (Ohio) 17–10 in Week 2. If the Gators are focused — which might be an issue after an emotional week for the players — they should win this game with ease.
6. Charleston Southern at Georgia (12 ET, SEC Network)
After closing out its SEC season with an impressive 34–7 win over Auburn, Georgia hosts Charleston Southern in a tune-up for next week’s visit from surging Georgia Tech. Charleston Southern runs the triple-option but is also averaging 186.7 passing yards per game. In their one game against an FBS opponent, the Buccaneers had 190 yards passing and 199 yards rushing in a 21–20 loss at Vanderbilt. CSU has done a poor job stopping the run, allowing an average of 252.2 rushing yards per game. Georgia could win this game easily without attempting a pass.
7. Western Carolina at Alabama (4 ET, SEC Network)
This is the sixth straight season Alabama has played an FCS opponent the week prior to the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide has won the previous five, including the last two by identical scores of 49–0. Western Carolina won six of its first eight games but has since lost two of three, including a 51–0 defeat at home to Chattanooga. The Catamounts lost in Week 1 to South Florida, 36–31. This journey into the FBS ranks will not be as close.
8. Samford at Auburn (7 ET, ESPNU)
Auburn has lost two straight games for the first time in the Gus Malzahn era. In Saturday’s loss at Georgia, the Tigers managed only 292 total yards and seven points — by far their least productive offensive performance of the season. With hopes of an SEC West title dashed, Auburn must now focus on the Iron Bowl in two weeks. Samford is 7–3 overall and has won four straight game. The Bulldogs opened the season with a 48–14 loss at TCU.
Week 13 SEC Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|E. Kentucky at Florida||UF 35-7||UF 37-10||UF 34-13||UF 34-10|
|S. Alabama at S. Carolina||USC 42-10||USC 44-10||USC 41-17||USC 44-13|
|Charleston So. at Georgia||UGa 49-14||UGa 51-10||UGa 48-7||UGa 47-14|
|Ole Miss at Arkansas||UA 31-28||UM 27-17||UM 27-20||UM 27-20|
|W. Carolina at Alabama||UA 49-17||UA 41-0||UA 51-3||UA 48-0|
|Samford at Auburn||AU 48-14||AU 38-3||AU 51-10||AU 47-10|
|Mizzou at Tennessee||UT 21-17||MU, 31-27||MU 27-24||MU 27-23|
|Vanderbilt at Miss. State||MSU 35-10||MSU 37-13||MSU 38-13||MSU 30-17|
The month of October belonged to the schools from Mississippi — first Ole Miss following its epic win over Alabama and then Mississippi State with its ascension to the No. 1 ranking.
It’s now November, however, and it’s Alabama’s time to shine. The Crimson Tide seized control of the SEC West race with a 25–20 win over top-ranked Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon. Alabama, at 6–1 in the league, is the only team in the division that controls its own destiny: A victory over Auburn in Tuscaloosa will send the Tide to Atlanta.
Alabama is in this desirable position thanks to an impressive effort from its defense — even on a night it which the Crimson Tide allowed a season-high 428 yards. Mississippi State, statistically the top offense in the SEC, was limited to a season-low 4.86 yards per play and only scored one touchdown in the first 59 minutes of the game. The Bulldogs advanced the ball into the red zone six times but only managed two touchdowns (one with 15 seconds remaining) and two field goals. Alabama forced three turnovers, all on Dak Prescott interceptions.
“This is a really good football team that we played today — they’re really hard to stop,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who is now 7–1 against Mississippi State since taking over in Tuscaloosa. “I think our defense did a fantastic job holding them to what we did.”
Alabama’s offense wasn’t at its best, picking up only 335 yards (on a 5.3-yard average) against an MSU defense that had given up at least 400 yards in its first five SEC games. But the Tide made the plays when it mattered, most notably on a crucial 15-play, 76-yard drive in the fourth quarter that extended the lead to 25–13. Saban was impressed: “That was probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history to go down there and make it a two-score game in the fourth quarter.”
That drive, along with the aforementioned defensive effort, has put Alabama in position to move into the top four — possibly even the top spot — when the CFB selection committee releases its rankings on Tuesday night.
You can argue that Georgia is responsible for two of the most impressive performances by an SEC team this season. No team has looked better than the Bulldogs did on Oct. 11, when they shut out Missouri 34–0 in Columbia. Or last Saturday, when they rolled to a surprisingly easy 34–7 victory over Auburn.
That’s what makes this team’s overall record of 8–2 so maddening. The same team that held Missouri and Auburn to a combined seven points — and also beat Clemson (at full strength) by 24 points and scored 63 points at Kentucky — lost head-scratching games to South Carolina and Florida.
Georgia is clearly good enough to beat any team in the nation but has been unable to play with a sense of urgency on a week-in and week-out basis. There are a lot of teams with the talent to play well against the elite teams on their schedule, but it takes a certain type of mental toughness to handle the weekly grind of an SEC schedule. And it’s not like the Bulldogs are in the SEC West, where you might play three or four top-10 teams in a span of four or five weeks. Georgia’s schedule has been relatively kind — yet Mark Richt’s team still has managed to stub its toe on more than one occasion.
Despite these puzzling setbacks, Georgia is not completely out of the CFB picture. The win over Auburn could vault the Bulldogs — ranked No. 15 last week — back into the top-10. A win over surging Georgia Tech (which has won the ACC Coastal) would add another quality win to the Bulldogs’ résumé. If Missouri loses one of its final two games — at Tennessee and vs. Arkansas — Georgia will find itself back in the SEC Championship Game for the third time in four years. And SEC Champion, even with two losses, will be an attractive candidate for the selection committee.
That all sounds good, but Georgia has yet to show enough consistency to give us reason to believe it can string together two more wins against quality opponents.
The latest installment of the Game of the Year in the SEC takes place in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama hosts No. 1 Mississippi State in a crucial SEC West clash. Elsewhere, Auburn tries to get back on track against Georgia in Athens; Florida hopes to keep its offensive momentum going against South Carolina; Arkansas seeks to break its SEC losing streak against LSU; Tennessee and Kentucky meet in Knoxville; and Missouri visits Texas A&M in a battle of former Big 12 rivals.
Week 12 Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 12 Game Power Rankings
1. Mississippi State (+8.5) at Alabama (3:30 ET, CBS)
These neighboring schools have played 97 times since their first meeting in 1896. Never has so much been at stake. Mississippi State is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Alabama is 8–1 overall and 5–1 in the SEC. The winner will seize control of the SEC West race (though both teams still have significant challenges ahead) and be well-situated for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Alabama probably cannot afford a loss; the Tide simply don’t have enough quality wins (even with a potential win against Auburn) to make the four-team field with two defeats. So this game is obviously vital for Nick Saban’s club. Mississippi State is in better shape, but the Bulldogs have a difficult closing slate, with trips to Alabama and Ole Miss among their final three games. MSU has been outstanding on offense all season but has been mediocre (at best) defensively, allowing 548 yards to UAB, 526 to Texas A&M and 504 to Kentucky. And it will be these deficiencies on defense that will knock Mississippi State from the ranks of the unbeaten.
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2. Auburn (+2.5) at Georgia (7:15 ET, ESPN)
Certain weeks, Georgia looks like a top-five team in the country. Other weeks, the Bulldogs look quite average. Last Saturday was one of the good weeks. Georgia jumped out to a 21–0 lead at Kentucky and cruised to an impressive 63–31 victory. True freshman Nick Chubb was once again brilliant, rushing for 170 yards on only 13 carries — his fourth straight game with at least 140 yards. Chubb will be joined in the backfield this week by Todd Gurley, who was a Heisman Trophy favorite before being slapped with a four-game suspension. Gurley’s return will no doubt help, but it’s not like the running game was an area of weakness while he was out. Auburn must regroup after a shocking loss at home to Texas A&M. The Tigers battled from behind all game and had two opportunities to take the lead in the final minutes but fumbled twice in A&M territory. Many have assumed that loss eliminated Auburn from the Playoff picture, but the Tigers, if they win out, would have road wins at Kansas State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, plus a win at home vs. LSU. That would be by far the most impressive résumé for a two-loss team. Auburn by 3
3. South Carolina (+6.5) at Florida (12 ET, SEC Network)
Florida’s resurgence in recent weeks has coincided with the move from Jeff Driskel to true freshman Treon Harris as the starting quarterback. Harris wasn’t asked to do much in the Gators’ 38–20 win vs. Georgia two weeks ago, but he showed his entire skill set in last week’s 34–10 victory at Vanderbilt. Harris threw for 215 yards on only 13 completions and added 49 yards rushing and two scores on the ground in Florida’s 24-point win. For the first time in several years, the Gators’ offense appears to have an identity. Offense has not been the issue at South Carolina. It’s the Gamecocks’ inability to stop the other team that has led to their current four-game SEC losing streak. In the last two games, they have given up a total of 1,196 total yards, including a staggering 739 on the ground. Not good with the one-two punch of Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor on the horizon.
4. LSU (+2) at Arkansas (8 ET, ESPN 2)
Let’s get this straight: Arkansas, a team that has lost 17 straight SEC games, is favored over LSU, which has won three of its last four league games — with the only lose coming in overtime to Alabama? Do the boys in Vegas believe the Razorbacks are ready to break through, or is this just a lack of faith in a young LSU team that is playing a true road game for only the third time this season? It’s probably a little bit of both. Arkansas has played very well at times this season and could easily have a win or two in the league. And LSU, despite its recent run of success, is still shaky on the offensive side of the ball. Last week, sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings completed only 8-of-26 passes for 76 yards in the loss to Alabama, and he has not completed more than 10 passes in a game since the Tigers’ 36–29 loss vs. Mississippi State in September.
5. Kentucky (+8.5) at Tennessee (4 ET, SEC Network)
The stakes are high for these two programs, both with second-year head coaches and both desperate to reach bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2010. Tennessee, with a softer closing schedule, is in better shape despite having one fewer win than Kentucky. The Vols are rejuvenated after rallying to beat South Carolina in overtime two weeks ago, though coach Butch Jones spent the bye week advising everyone to pump the breaks on the Joshua Dobbs hype. The sophomore quarterback was brilliant at South Carolina but still lacks — according to his coach — the consistency needed to play the position at a high level. Dobbs will have to play well for his team to pick up win No. 5 on Saturday.
6. Missouri (+5.5) at Texas A&M (7:30 ET, SEC Network)
This is quite telling: The SEC East leader (Missouri) is a 5.5-point favorite over a team tied for fifth in the West (Texas A&M). And it’s not surprising. Missouri is 4–1 in the league despite averaging no more than 4.1 yards per offensive play in four of its five league games. The Tigers have gotten it done with a high-level pass rush, by forcing turnovers and by making clutch plays on offense down the stretch. Texas A&M got its swagger back last week with a stunning win at Auburn. With Mizzou and LSU both visiting Kyle Field down the stretch, a nine-win regular season is suddenly within reach.
Week 12 SEC Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|S. Carolina at Florida||USC 24-21||UF 24-21||UF 27-24||UF 34-25|
|Miss State at Alabama||UA 31-21||UA 30-20||UA 27-20||UA 20-17|
|Kentucky at Tennessee||UT 28-14||UT 38-31||UT 31-24||UT 24-20|
|Auburn at Georgia||AU 35-31||UGa 38-35||UGa 34-31||AU 30-24|
|Missouri at Texas A&M||A&M 30-21||A&M 40-31||A&M 31-27||A&M 31-20|
|LSU at Arkansas||LSU 21-17||LSU 23-20||UA 24-20||UA 20-13|
Florida has found its quarterback of the future.
One week after “managing” his team to an improbable win over Georgia when he only attempted six passes, Treon Harris showed his playmaking ability in the Gators’ 34–10 win at Vanderbilt. The diminutive true freshman — Harris is listed at 5-11 — completed 13-of-21 passes for 215 yards while adding 49 yards and two scores on the ground.
Harris averaged 10.2 yards on his 21 passes against Vanderbilt and is now up to an SEC-high 11.2 yards per attempt for the season. The player he replaced, Jeff Driskel, ranks last in the league with only 5.0 yards per attempt.
“We have all the confidence in him moving forward,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after his team improved to 4–3 in the SEC. “The thing that strikes me is his maturity. He doesn’t get fazed. He’s been accurate in practice so that’s nothing that shocks me there. The maturity of carrying it to a game has been outstanding.”
The Florida coaching staff is doing its best to keep Driskel, the former starter, engaged in the offense. Driskel was on the field for five snaps Saturday night, netting 10 yards on four runs (most near the goal line) and badly misfiring on a short-passing attempting. But it’s clear this offense operates far more efficiently with Harris at quarterback. Maybe the offensive line has played better in the past two weeks — as Muschamp maintains — but it can’t be a coincidence that Florida has averaged 437 yards and 6.3 yards per play since the staff made the move at quarterback.
“He’s a special player,” says Gator All-America cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. “As a freshman just to come in and do whatever the coach asks, whether it’s handing the ball off six times or throwing the ball however many times he did today, he does it to a high level and that’s impressive for a freshman.”
It’s always dangerous to throw out the word “luck” in sports. Are teams lucky, or do good teams make their own luck? Are teams unlucky, or do bad teams simply not make enough big plays at the right time?
Whatever your thoughts on this issue might be, you’d have to agree that Auburn has been quite fortunate since Gus Malzahan took over as its head coach. The Tigers have clearly been one of the elite programs in the past two years, but it’s undeniable the ball has bounced the right way in critical times. From the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” to the “Kick Six” miracles that helped Auburn reach the 2013 BCS National Championship Game to Laquon Treadwell’s fumble at the goal line in the thrilling win at Ole Miss two weeks ago, the football gods have been smiling on the Tigers.
That all changed Saturday afternoon, when Auburn had two unforced turnovers — one an a bad exchange between quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne inside the 5-yard line and the other on premature snap by center Reese Disumkes at the 28-yard line — in the final minutes of a stunning 41–38 loss at home to Texas A&M.
“We just didn’t get it done when we usually do,” Malzahn said after the game. “Like I sad, we aren’t going to blame anybody. That is just how it goes, and we will be better next time.”
The loss was a significant blow to Auburn’s chances of reaching the College Football Playoff, though it’s a bit early to eliminate the Tigers from the postseason picture. If chaos ensues in the final few weeks of the regular season, there is a possibility that a two-loss team could sneak into the four-team field. And you could argue that no two–loss team would have a more impressive resume than a 10–2 Auburn team that would claim wins at Kansas State, vs. LSU, at Ole Miss, at Georgia and at Alabama.
So Auburn, despite a crushing loss to a mediocre Texas A&M team, could still find a way into the national title hunt — with a little luck, of course.
The annual Nick Saban vs. Les Miles showdown highlights the Week 11 slate in the SEC. Elsewhere, Georgia looks to get back on track against Kentucky; struggling Texas A&M visits red-hot Auburn; and Florida hopes to make it two straight SEC wins as it visits Vanderbilt.
Week 11 Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 11 Game Power Rankings
1. Alabama (-6.5) at LSU
8 ET, CBS
This matchup is always appointment viewing, but LSU’s recent rise — the Tigers have won three straight after an 0–2 start in the SEC — has made this game far more dangerous for Alabama. LSU has leaned on its running attack of late, averaging 254 rushing yards in wins over Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss. During this three-game stretch, the Tigers have completed a total of 25 passes for 372 yards. This plan of attack has worked well — though two of the wins were by only three points — but the Tigers will have to be a bit more balanced against an Alabama team that has been dominant against the run. Nick Saban’s club is allowing only 78.1 yards rushing per game and 2.7 yards per rushing attempt — both No. 1 in the SEC by a wide margin. At some point, LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings will need to make a big play in the passing game.
2. Georgia (-10) at Kentucky
12 ET, ESPN
Georgia’s hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff took a huge hit with last Saturday’s loss to Florida, but the SEC East title is still a very realistic goal. To reach Atlanta, Georgia likely will need to win its final two SEC games (at Kentucky, vs. Auburn) and Missouri must lose at least once. The Tigers still have games at Texas A&M and Tennessee and close the season at home against Arkansas. Kentucky fans were talking about the SEC East title after their team beat South Carolina in early October to improve to 2–1 in the league. Now, after three straight losses, the Wildcats are simply hoping to become bowl-eligible. And with a tough closing slate — vs. Georgia, at Tennessee, at Louisville — the odds might be against Kentucky hitting the six-win mark for the first time since 2010.
Listen to the Week 11 predictions podcast:
3. Texas A&M at Auburn (-21.5)
3:30 ET, CBS
Auburn stamped itself as a serious contender in the SEC West last season when it went to College Station in mid-October and rolled up 615 yards in a 45–41 over Texas A&M. The Tigers’ offense hasn’t slowed down since. This Saturday, Auburn should have little trouble moving the ball and scoring points against an Aggie defense that is allowing 483.2 yards per game and 7.0 yards per play against SEC opponents. Texas A&M, for the first time in the Kevin Sumlin era, is struggling on the offensive side of the ball. The Aggies were held to 172 yards in a stunning 59–0 loss to Alabama on Oct. 18 and then managed only 243 yards (and 3.5 per play) in a too-close-for-comfort 21–16 win over ULM. True freshman Kyle Allen, who completed only 13-of-28 for 106 yards last week, will make his second career start.
4. Florida (-14.5) at Vanderbilt
7:30 ET, SEC Network
Florida heads to Nashville fresh off the most improbable win of the Will Muschamp era — a 38–20 victory that featured an astounding 418 rushing yards by the Gators (more than they had in the previous three games combined). The game plan doesn’t figure to change too much. Vanderbilt has allowed at least 200 yards rushing in three of its last four SEC games, including 244 in a 24–14 loss at Missouri two weeks ago. On a positive note, Vanderbilt finally has some stability at the quarterback position. Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary has completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 646 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the last two-plus games.
5. Presbyterian at Ole Miss
12 ET, SEC Network
Ole Miss is wounded — both physically and emotionally — after dropping consecutive games to LSU and Auburn by a combined seven points. The Blue Hose from Presbyterian will allow the Rebels to heal. They are a respectable 5–2 against FCS competition but lost their two games against FBS opponents (Northern Illinois and NC State) by a combined score of 97–3.
6. UT Martin at Mississippi State
4 ET, SEC Network
Mississippi State steps out of the SEC for a week before its big trip to Alabama. UT Martin has had a strange season; the Skyhawks opened the year with a 1–5 record (with the win coming against Cumberland, an NAIA school) but have since won four straight, all against OVC opponents. They opened the season with a 59–14 loss at Kentucky. This will not be close.
SEC Week 11 Predictions
|Alabama (-6.5) at LSU||Alabama 28-14||Alabama 31-21||Alabama 27-17||Alabama 28-17|
|Georgia (-10) at UK||UGA 21-17||UGA 34-27||UGA 31-24||UGA 28-24|
|TAMU at Auburn (-21.5)||Auburn 38-21||Auburn 38-24||Auburn 48-24||Auburn 44-24|
|Florida (-14.5) at Vandy||UF 21-7||UF 20-9||UF 27-17||UF 24-16|
|Presbyterian at Ole Miss||OM 38-7||OM 40-7||OM 55-3||OM 41-0|
|UTM at Miss. State||MSU 42-10||MSU 44-7||MSU 58-7||MSU 44-10|
They are the defending SEC champs. They came one defensive stop away from winning the 2013 national title.
Yet the Auburn Tigers are seemingly a forgotten team in the SEC in 2014. The story of the season, until recently, had been the improbable rise of the Mississippi schools. Ole Miss’ recent losses — one to Auburn on Saturday night — has altered script, but Mississippi State is still undefeated and the darling of the college football word. Alabama, despite being ranked below Auburn, is far more-talked about than its in-state rivals from western part of the state. Many people, including the boys in Vegas, consider the Crimson Tide to be the best team in the nation — despite the fact that Alabama lost at Ole Miss, a team that now has two losses.
Auburn, meanwhile, simply goes about its business against an absolutely brutal schedule that features road games at Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers have navigated this slate with only one blemish to date, a 38–23 setback at Mississippi State. This team has proven its worth on many occasions this fall, beginning with a 24-point win over Arkansas in Week 1 and continuing with solid road wins at K-State and Ole Miss and a dominant win at home over LSU.
Auburn will once again be included among the all-important top four when the CFB selection committee releases its top 25 on Tuesday night. The Tigers won’t be among the top two spots — it’s hard to argue that they should be ranked ahead of Mississippi State and Florida State — but they have built a résumé that should leave doubt they are the best one-loss team in the nation.
There were snarky comments on Twitter — imagine that — when some images were posted late Saturday night of students celebrating on the Tennessee campus.
I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of the tweets poked fun at Volunteer fans for making such a big deal about beating a South Carolina team that hasn’t won an SEC game in six weeks and is now 2–5 in the league.
My take: It was a big deal. A huge deal — and a cause for celebration.
Butch Jones has done a terrific job rebuilding the Tennessee program but has had very few tangible results on the field. Before Saturday’s improbable win in Columbia, Jones had won only two of his first 12 SEC games. Sure, the schedule has been tough, but it’s hard to argue that a team with a 2–10 record in league play is making progress.
Jones needed a breakthrough win. And he got it. Yes, South Carolina is struggling right now, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But the Gamecocks, with an 18–6 record in the league from 2011-13, have been one of the elite teams in the SEC in recent seasons. And now Jones and the Vols have recorded wins over Steve Spurrier’s program in consecutive seasons.
Saturday’s win was extra special for two reasons: It came on the road (UT’s first SEC road win against a team other than Vanderbilt or Kentucky since 2007) and it came after the Vols trailed by 14 points with under five minutes to play.
Joshua Dobbs, who was planning to redshirt as recently as nine days ago, threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 166 yards and three scores to lead an offense that rolled up 645 yards. On the final drive in regulation, the Vols went 85 yards on nine plays without a timeout. The defense had it struggles — South Carolina had 625 yards — but flexed its muscles with a dominant series in overtime.
This program is not ready to compete with the elite in the SEC on a consistent basis, but Tennessee took a major step forward on Saturday night.
And it was a cause for celebration.
The Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings get together in Oxford this weekend. The winner will stay in the thick of the SEC West race; the loser is probably out of the Playoff race. Elsewhere, Florida and Georgia meet in Jacksonville in a game that could go a long way in determining Will Muschamp’s future with the Gators; Tennessee heads to South Carolina desperate for its first SEC win of the season; top-ranked Mississippi State hosts Arkansas; and Kentucky visits Missouri.
Week 10 Previews and Predictions
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 10 Game Power Rankings
1. Auburn (+2) at Ole Miss (7 ET, ESPN)
When these two schools last met in Oxford, Ole Miss was riding a 16-game SEC losing streak and Auburn was in the midst of an 0–8 SEC season. Now, two short years later, they are among the elite in college football and in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ole Miss’ dreams of an undefeated season ended Saturday night in Baton Rouge thanks in part to some shaky late-game management. Still, Ole Miss might be in the best position of the four contenders in the SEC West thanks to a schedule that is a bit more forgiving. Yes, the Rebs still have to play Auburn and Mississippi State, but both games are at home. Auburn, on the other hand, still has games at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers are good enough to beat all three teams, but it’s not likely they can make it through this gauntlet without a loss.
Listen to the Week 10 preview podcast:
2. Florida (+13) vs. Georgia (3:30 ET, CBS)
Georgia is in great position in the SEC East and could make a big move on the national scene in the next month. The Bulldogs basically have to win two games to reach the College Football Playoff — beat Auburn at home on Nov. 15 and upset the SEC West champ in the league title game. First things first: Florida awaits in Jacksonville in desperate need of a win. Treon Harris will be the second true freshman quarterback to start against Georgia this season, joining Vanderbilt’s Wade Freebeck. Harris has played well in limited duty, completing 66.7 percent of his passes and averaging a gaudy 14.6 yards per attempt. He will have to deal with a quality Georgia defensive front that includes one of the league’s top pass-rushers in Leonard Floyd.
3. Tennessee (+7) at South Carolina (7:30 SEC Network)
South Carolina has not won a conference game since beating Vanderbilt on Sept. 20 in Nashville. The Gamecocks can snap their three-game SEC skid against another team from the Volunteer State that is winless in league play. Tennessee played admirably — after falling behind 27–0 — against Alabama last week, but it was yet another loss for a program that has not entered November with more than one SEC win since 2009. The Volunteers need to win three of their final four games to become bowl-eligible in Butch Jones’ second season on the job. We are not quite sure who will be at quarterback for the Vols; Justin Worley’s health (shoulder) is in doubt, but even if he’s ready to go, Tennessee could opt to go with sophomore Joshua Dobbs, who played well in relief against Alabama. Dobbs offers more mobility, something that comes in handy while operating behind a suspect offensive line.
4. Arkansas (+10.5) at Mississippi State (7:15 ESPN2)
Mississippi State remains unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country, but the Bulldogs are living on the edge. Last weekend, they gave up 505 yards to a Kentucky team that had 217 yards against LSU, 352 against ULM and 384 against Vanderbilt. Despite MSU’s overall struggles on defense, the Dogs have been solid against the run (against all teams not named Auburn) — and that’s a good sign with Arkansas on the horizon. The Hogs are much-improved in the passing game, but this team is at its best when talented tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are the focal points of the game plan. Arkansas does not want to get into a shootout in Starkville.
5. Kentucky (+6.5) at Missouri (4 ET, SEC Network)
Missouri is somehow 3–1 in the SEC even though its offense is averaging only 232.8 yards per game and 4.0 yards per play against league competition. The Tigers have been outstanding on defense and special teams, and they have the good fortune of playing in the SEC East (despite being located west of the Mississippi River). Kentucky played well last week in a 45–31 loss at home to No. 1 Mississippi State. Patrick Towles was outstanding at quarterback, throwing for 390 yards (without an INT) and adding 76 yards on the ground. He is developing into an All-SEC-caliber quarterback who will continue to thrive under Neal Brown.
6. ULM (+32.5) at Texas A&M (12 ET, SEC Network)
ULM enjoyed a nice run for a few years when Kolton Browning was at quarterback, but the Warhawks have slipped back to the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt. They have been good on defense (first in the Sun Belt) and bad on offense (last on the Sun Belt). Texas A&M is eager to get back into the win column after going 0–3 in the month of October. Kenny Hill, the star of Week 1 in college football, is now fighting for his starting job with true freshman Kyle Allen. Whoever plays quarterback this week should put up big numbers; the bigger test will be in two weeks at Auburn.
7. Old Dominion (+7) at Vanderbilt (7 ET, ESPNU)
After playing relatively well in last week’s 24–14 loss at Missouri, Johnny McCrary will get the start at quarterback once again for Vanderbilt. Patton Robinette, who was medically cleared late last week after dealing with a concussion, also is expected to play. Both quarterbacks will have to play well because Vanderbilt will have to score some points to win this game. Old Dominion is averaging 33.1 points per game and scored 34 vs. NC State (in a loss), 45 vs. Rice (in a win) and 51 vs. Western Kentucky (in a loss). The Commodores’ offense should be able to do its part, but don’t forget this team only scored 21 points three weeks ago against Charleston Southern.
SEC Week 10 Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|ULM at Texas A&M||A&M 42-21||A&M 41-20||A&M 50-20||A&M 47-10|
|Florida vs. Georgia||UGa 34-10||UGa 27-13||UGa 31-13||UGa 31-13|
|Kentucky at Mizzou||UK 21-20||MU 31-24||MU 27-24||UK 27-20|
|ODU at Vanderbilt||VU 28-21||VU 24-20||VU 34-24||VU 28-13|
|Auburn at Ole Miss||AU 35-21||AU 27-21||OM 27-24||AU 28-20|
|Arkansas at Miss. St.||MSU 35-28||MSU 40-28||MSU 41-27||MSU 41-30|
|Tenn. at S. Carolina||USC 31-21||USC 35-31||USC 30-20||USC 27-21|
Joshua Dobbs was a forgotten man in Knoxville. After starting four games as a true freshman in 2013, the Alpharetta, Ga., native slipped behind Justin Worley on the depth chart in preseason camp and was destined for a redshirt season.
With four-star recruit Quinten Dormandy arriving from Texas next season, most Volunteer fans no longer considered Dobbs the team’s quarterback of the future. Sure, Dobbs might be in the hunt in 2015 when Worley would be gone and Dormandy would be a true freshman, but he would be no more than a stop gap.
Well, opinions might have changed around the Volunteer State on Saturday night. With Worley sidelined with an injury and Nathan Peterman struggling, Butch Jones went to his bullpen in the first quarter (with his team trailing 13–0) and opted to play Dobbs for the first time this season.
It turned out to be the right decision. Dobbs provided a much-needed spark due in large part to his ability to make plays with his feet. He was productive on the ground — rushing 19 times for a net of 75 yards — but it was also the threat of a running quarterback that softened the Alabama defense and allowed the Vols to pick up some yards in the passing game. Dobbs completed 19-of-32 passes for 192 yard with two touchdowns and one interception. He missed some throws, including one into the end zone late in the game with the Vols down 17 points, but he looked better than at any point last season.
Dobbs is now clearly ahead of Peterman on the depth chart, but Jones must decided who will get the start when Worley returns from his shoulder injury — assuming he does return. Worley was having a solid senior season, but his lack of mobility was becoming a problem, especially playing in front of the Vols’ struggling offensive line.
Jones must weigh several factors; he desperately wants to get his second Tennessee team to a bowl game (UT needs to win three of its final four to reach six wins), but he also wants to set his team up for success in 2015. If the latter is more important, than naming Dobbs the starting quarterback for the rest of the season is the only move to make. If it’s the former, Jones has a difficult decision to make: Go with Worley, the seasoned veteran, or Dobbs, who gives the offense a different dimension but lacks polish in the passing game.
The guess here is that Dobbs will take over as Tennessee’s starting quarterback for the remained of the season.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first top 25 of the season on Tuesday night. Mississippi State and Florida State are almost certain to be among the top four. After that? It’s anyone’s guess — due largely to the craziness that is the SEC West.
I think we all agree that Mississippi State should be at the top of any ranking of SEC teams at this point of the season. The Bulldogs are 4–0 in the league, with a 15-point victory over Auburn and two quality road wins (LSU and Kentucky). This spot is tenuous — they still have to play at Alabama and at Ole Miss — but right now the Dogs claim the No. 1 ranking.
After that? Well, reasonable minds can differ, but I’ve got Ole Miss No. 2 despite the Rebels’ loss at LSU on Saturday. You can make a strong case that Auburn and Alabama are both better — and more complete — teams right now, but Ole Miss has a win over Alabama in its back pocket. I understand that you have to look at a team’s entire body of work — and that matters more when the season is complete — but the results on the field still matter.
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Alabama gets the nod over Auburn for the No. 3 spot in the power rankings. This one was extremely close. The résumés are very similar: Both teams have loss on the road to an elite team (Alabama at Ole Miss; Auburn at Mississippi State); both teams have very good non-conference win (Alabama over West Virginia; Auburn at Kansas State); and both teams have been a bit inconsistent in their other SEC wins (Alabama struggled with Arkansas; Auburns struggled at home against South Carolina). If these two teams played on a neutral field next week, I would favor Alabama (slightly). As a result, Nick Saban’s team gets my No. 3 ranking.
So that leaves Auburn at No. 4. And here’s the crazy part: You can make a very strong case that Auburn should be ranked No. 3 in the nation yet I have them No. 4 in my SEC West rankings.
For the sanity of the college football world, let’s hope things become a bit more clear when the season is over. Each of the top four teams in the SEC West still has to play two games against the other three elite teams, and Alabama still has to play at LSU, and Auburn has a road date at Georgia.
The Week 9 slate is highlighted by Ole Miss’ trip to Baton Rouge to face an LSU team that has won two straight games. Elsewhere, Kentucky returns home after a sobering loss in Baton Rouge to host the No. 1 team in the nation, Mississippi State; Alabama heads to Tennessee seeking its eighth straight win over the Volunteers; Auburn hosts a South Carolina team that is seeking to get back to .500 in the SEC; and Missouri will look to improve to 3–1 in the league against struggling Vanderbilt.
SEC Week 9 Game Power Rankings
1. Ole Miss (-3.5) at LSU (7:15 ET, ESPN)
Ole Miss is set to embark on the toughest two-game stretch of its season, with a trip to resurgent LSU followed up with a home date against Auburn. The Rebels will be in a great position — both in the SEC West and on the national scene — if they manage to win both games. LSU has won two straight to even its SEC record at 2–2 — but it’s a bit early to assume this edition of the Tigers is among the elite teams in the league. LSU’s wins have come against Florida (by three points) and at home against an improved-but-not-quite-ready-for-primetime Kentucky team. The Tigers still have issues at quarterback — Anthony Jennings is only 17-of-35 with 230 yards in the last two weeks — and you cannot be one-dimensional against the Ole Miss defense. The Rebels lead the nation in scoring defense (10.6 ppg, seven touchdowns allowed in seven games) and rank third nationally by allowing only 4.2 yards per play.
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2. Mississippi State (-13.5) at Kentucky (3:30 ET, CBS)
This game looked a lot more appealing a few weeks ago — maybe that’s why CBS tabbed it as the No. 1 game in the SEC — but has lost a bit of its intrigue after Kentucky’s 41–3 loss at LSU on Saturday night. Still, it’s a big game in Lexington, where the locals will be eager to see the Wildcats tangle with the No. 1 team in the nation. Kentucky is 5–0 at home against a soft schedule — South Carolina is by far the best team the Cats have played at Commonwealth — and could have a hard time finding that sixth win against a backloaded schedule. Mississippi State has passed every test in what has been a magical season to date. This could be a tricky spot, however; Mississippi State has been surprisingly vulnerable on defense — the Bulldogs rank 10th in the SEC, allowing 5.4 yards per play — and Kentucky has some quality playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.
3. Alabama (-17) at Tennessee (7:30 ESPN2)
Alabama has dominated this series of late, winning the last seven by an average margin of 26.3 points. Only one of the games — a 12–10 Bama win in 2009 — was decided by fewer than 20 points. The 2014 Crimson Tide are fresh off one of the most impressive performances of the Nick Saban era, a 59–0 victory over Texas A&M. This team has lacked consistency — especially on the offensive side of the ball — but is clearly talented enough to win a national title. Tennessee has talent as well but lacks the depth of teams like Alabama and is painfully young. The Volunteers did some good thing offensively against Georgia (401 yards and 32 points) but has averaged only 245.6 yards and 7.3 points in its three other games against Power 5 conference teams. It’s tough to envision Tennessee scoring more than 14 points in this game.
4. South Carolina (+17.5) at Auburn (7:30 SEC Network)
It’s been over a month since South Carolina last won an SEC game. And barring a major surprise, the Gamecocks will have to wait at least another week to get back into the win column. South Carolina, which is allowing a league-high 6.2 yards per play, has not shown the ability to slow down quality offenses. And Auburn, of course, possesses one of the top offensive teams in the league. The Tigers do more of their damage on the ground, but they are more than capable of making big plays in the passing game. Auburn is averaging 225.8 passing yards per game, up from 173.0 last season. It will be a challenge for South Carolina to keep the Tigers from scoring at least 30 points.
5. Vanderbilt (+21) at Missouri (4 ET, SEC Network)
If all goes according to plan, Vanderbilt will start its fourth different quarterback of the season — and this is only the Commodores’ eighth game. Johnny McCrary, a redshirt freshman, is expected to get the nod after he came off the bench and played relatively well in the Dores’ 21–20 win over Charleston Southern two weeks ago. McCrary is more mobile than the only other healthy option — true freshman Wade Freeback — and that could come in handy against a Missouri defense that leads the SEC with 24 sacks. Missouri is 2–1 in the SEC despite only averaging 182.0 yards of offense in those three games. The Tigers are searching for more consistency from quarterback Maty Mauk and better play from the offensive line.
6. UAB (+23.5) at Arkansas (12 ET, SEC Network)
UAB has done some good things under first-year coach Bill Clark, a former high school coach in the Birmingham area who is bringing stability to the program. This, however, is a tough matchup. The Blazers have struggled to stop the run — they gave up 292 yards to Mississippi State, 184 to Western Kentucky and 229 to Middle Tennessee — which does not bode well for this trip to Arkansas. The Razorbacks are averaging 256.9 rushing yards per game. Expect them to hit the 300 mark this weekend.
Week 9 SEC Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|UAB at Arkansas||UA 30-10||UA 36-14||UA 45-24||UA 41-17|
|Miss State at Kentucky||MSU 38-10||MSU 41-28||MSU 38-24||MSU 38-30|
|Vanderbilt at Mizzou||MU 42-7||MU 34-13||MU 30-13||MU 24-14|
|Ole Miss at LSU||UM 24-21||LSU 24-23||UM 24-10||UM 20-7|
|S. Carolina at Auburn||UA 35-14||AU 41-21||AU 38-27||AU 34-12|
|Alabama at Tenneesee||UA 42-10||UA 41-17||UA 38-7||UA 30-10|
This past weekend in the SEC lacked some of the drama we had seen in previous weeks, but there were some very interesting results. Alabama was a heavy favorite over Texas A&M, but who could have predicted such a dominant performance from the Tide? And how about Georgia? Many had the Dawgs on upset alert at Arkansas, but Mark Richt’s team was very impressive in its methodical beatdown against Arkansas. Here are some interesting stats from the week that was in the SEC.
10 Amazing College Football Stats from Week 8 in the SEC
Interceptions thrown by Bo Wallace, in 108 attempts, against SEC competition in 2014. In his first two seasons at Ole Miss, Wallace threw a combined 20 INTs in 567 attempts against SEC opponents. In all games this season, Wallace ranks second in the league in passing yards per game (271.3), second in touchdown passes (17) and third in yards per attempt (9.1).
Yards per play allowed by the Mississippi State defense, ranking 64th nationally. Among teams in the current AP top 10, only Oregon (5.59) has allowed more. The Bulldogs have given up more than 5.0 yards per play in all three SEC games and allowed UAB to average 7.12 per snap in State’s 47–34 win in Week 2.
Times this season Alabama has had at least 600 yards of total offense in a game — 602 vs. Texas A&M, 672 vs. Florida and 620 vs. Florida Atlantic. The Crimson Tide hit the 600-yard mark a total of three times in Nick Saban’s first seven years in Tuscaloosa — 668 vs. Kentucky in 2013, 615 vs. Ole Miss in 2011 and 626 vs. Duke in 2010.
Years since Tennessee has won back-to-back SEC games. The Vols won consecutive games against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in November 2010 in the first season of the Derek Dooley era. Since that stretch, Tennessee is 4–23 in league games.
Rushing attempts by Georgia freshman Nick Chubb in the last two games. No player in a Power 5 conference has more carries over a two-game stretch this season. Chubb had a total of 31 rushing attempts in five games before Todd Gurley was suspended.
Times Florida has thrown for at least 300 yards against an SEC opponent in Will Muschamp’s three-plus years at Florida. The Gators had 305 yards passing in last year’s 34–17 loss at home to Vanderbilt.
Yards per play averaged by the Missouri offense in three games against SEC opponents — yet the Tigers are 2–1 in the league with wins at South Carolina and Florida. Nationally, only Wake Forest is averaging fewer yards per play (2.24) against its league competition.
Total points scored by Texas A&M in its past two games — 59–0 at Alabama and 35–20 to Ole Miss. It is the fewest scored by the Aggies in a two-game stretch since the end of the 2004 season when they lost to Texas 26–17 in the regular-season finale and 38–7 to Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
Completed passes by the LSU offense, the fewest in the SEC. The Tigers have also attempted the fewest passes per game (22.0) in the league. Among non-option-based teams, only Boston College (20.7) and Minnesota (17.3) have attempted fewer passes per game.
Touchdown-scoring drives of at least 70 yards by the Arkansas offense against Georgia on Saturday. In its first six games, Georgia had allowed a total of only seven such drives — one vs. Vanderbilt, and two vs. Tennessee, South Carolina and Clemson.
Saturday night in Gainesville, we witnessed a statistical anomaly when Missouri somehow scored 42 points despite gaining only 119 yards of offense in a 29-point win at The Swamp.
Earlier that day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama also won in convincing fashion, but the Crimson Tide scored their points in a more conventional fashion — by matriculating the ball down the field (to steal a phrase from the great Hank Stram) with stunning ease. On the heels of a sluggish performance in a one-point win at Arkansas the previous week, the Alabama offense rolled up a staggering 602 total yards in a 59–0 win over Texas A&M.
The Crimson Tide opened the game with a field goal (after a 71-yard drive) and then proceeded to score a touchdown on their next seven possessions, with all but one drive covering at least 57 yards. For the game, Alabama averaged 7.5 yards on its 80 snaps and came two rushing yards shy of accumulating 300 yards on the ground and 300 yards through the air.
Quarterback Blake Sims averaged 9.9 yards per passing attempt, and the top two running backs, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, combined to average 8.0 yards on their 23 carries. Amari Cooper, the team’s best offensive weapon, averaged 17.5 yards on eight catches and scored two touchdowns.
The skill players were responsible for the flashy highlights, but the key — according to coach Nick Saban — was the play of the Alabama offensive line.
“We had a little gathering with the offensive line this week and said, ‘Look guys, you guys are starting to feel pressure and you’re being criticized. You’re not being the sergeant-at-arms that we need you to be in terms of how you control the line of scrimmage and how you dominate the line of scrimmage. Really, our guys aren’t going to make plays unless you do that. I believe in you, and I trust in you.’”
Alabama has now topped the 600-yard mark on three occasions this season, something that happened only three times total in the first seven years of the Nick Saban era. The Tide have also run at least 80 plays from scrimmage in three games under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Previously, that happened only once — last year vs. Kentucky — under Saban.