SEC: Missouri Tigers
- When he was at Florida, Urban Meyer touted the SEC's strength of schedule as a reason for his Gators to jump over a Big Ten school to play in the national championship. Can the case he made be used against his Buckeyes this season?
- Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says he has Ohio State ranked No. 2 ... for now. After attending the Iron Bowl last week, he'll be watching Saturday's championship games intently.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn't lobbying for his Tigers' chances to reach the BCS national championship game if they win on Saturday. He's focused on Auburn.
- Two years ago there was some discord over the Alabama-LSU rematch for the national title. Would an Auburn-Alabama rematch draw even more ire this season?
- Florida's search for a new offensive coordinator will continue through bowl season.
- After South Carolina beat Clemson last Saturday, Steve Spurrier declared Connor Shaw the Gamecocks' best QB ever. Now others are agreeing.
- LSU is familiar with the scenario of losing its starting QB just before its bowl game. The same situation occurred in 2005 and 2008.
- Some scouts say Johnny Manziel will be a top-12 NFL draft pick.
- Mississippi State senior safety Nickoe Whitley will miss the Bulldogs' bowl game after surgery on Monday to repair a torn ACL.
- And finally, Georgia WR Chris Conley is a Star Wars nerd. Awesome.
Auburn, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top five of the BCS standings, all have one loss on their records and all are in danger of missing out on the title game in Pasadena, Calif. For a conference that has won seven straight national championships, it has to be an odd feeling being on the outside looking in.
One has to wonder what Gus Malzahn, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel think of the College Football Playoff coming next year and not this postseason. Would we even be having these debates?
Where it all started: Alabama was a given from the start. Before Auburn was a "team of destiny," the top-ranked Crimson Tide was a team eyeing a date with history. A third straight national championship seemed like a foregone conclusion as long as AJ McCarron was throwing passes and C.J. Mosley was leading the defense. Beating Texas A&M and LSU was the only hiccup, and beyond that it was smooth sailing for Alabama as it carved through a relatively easy schedule with a string of seven games that included Colorado State, Ole Miss, Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. Alabama emerged in November undefeated and the presumptive favorite to run the season start to finish No. 1.
For Auburn, it was understood that seven or eight wins would be a good season for Malzahn's first year as coach on The Plains. After what former coach Gene Chizik and his staff left behind -- dissent and an utter lack of confidence being the biggest of baggage -- it would be a miracle if Auburn was simply competitive. But when Nick Marshall transferred from Garden City Community College in August and won the starting quarterback job, everything changed. And the come-from-behind game-winning drive he led against Mississippi State would forever turn the course of the Tigers' season. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told me that if they won maybe "the seasons could have been reversed. We might have had the confidence they're having and the great run they're having right now." Fans and prognosticators didn't fully embrace Auburn's title hopes until wins over Texas A&M and Georgia, though. Both involved coming from behind and both showed the tenacity of a program with a chip on its shoulder. Saturday's win over Alabama further solidified their billing as a "team of destiny" and a serious contender to reach Pasadena.
No one thought Missouri could turn things around so quickly, either. Pinkel's foray into the SEC yielded a mountain of injuries and a smattering of wins -- two to be exact. Missouri looked years away and the preseason polls reflected that. The Tigers weren't in the top 25 and many predicted they'd finish near the bottom of the SEC West. But scheduling helped ease Missouri into contention. Pinkel was able to start the season off 3-0 with easy non-conference wins over Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State. And instead of backfiring, the diminutive competition early on paid off in confidence as the Tigers beat then SEC East powers Georgia and Florida back-to-back to start the conference slate. Wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, coupled with a drop off from the rest of their division, landed the Tigers atop the East and in line for a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Where it went wrong: Missouri has to be kicking itself for losing at home to South Carolina on Oct. 26. It took an overtime period and starting quarterback James Franklin being out, but the Tigers fell. Connor Shaw came off the bench for the Gamecocks and led an improbable comeback, bringing his team back from 13 points down in the fourth quarter. If Missouri had held on, it would be undefeated and there would be a much different conversation going on today as a win over Auburn in the SEC title game would almost automatically mean a trip to the national championship game.
One-loss teams generally have their best shot of making it back into the championship picture when that one loss comes early. And luckily for Auburn, it followed that mold. After early wins against Arkansas State and Mississippi State, the Tigers went on the road to LSU and one of the most difficult visitor's environments in Death Valley. As Les Miles would say, "It was a very stiff, wind-driven dew." In other words, it rained cats and dogs, and Auburn's offense staggered early on. LSU jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and never looked back. Auburn tried to mount a comeback with 21 second-half points, but LSU running back Jeremy Hill & Co. were too much. The loss didn't seem like much at the time -- Auburn was still in the infancy of its title run -- but looking back, it meant everything. Had the game at LSU come later in the year when Auburn had more confidence and Marshall was more familiar with the offense, who knows if it would have turned out differently.
Conversely, Alabama had a loss at the exact moment when it couldn't afford one: the final game of the regular season. By falling to Auburn on the road and losing out on a shot at playing in the SEC Championship Game, Saban's squad has no second chance to impress voters before the bowl games are determined. There will be no opportunity to show the loss to the Tigers was a fluke. Even though it was No. 1 versus No. 4 and the game literally came down to the final second on the road, Alabama won't be forgiven. But such is life when you're the top team in college football.
Where it got back on track: As just noted, there hasn't been a bounce-back moment for Alabama yet. But if you're a fan of the Crimson Tide, you have to appreciate the way your quarterback handled the aftermath of the loss at Auburn. McCarron, as fierce a competitor as he is, provided context to the defeat when he told reporters that at the end of the day it's just a game. When fans came after kicker Cade Foster for missing three field goals, McCarron said, "Times like this people need to realize the sun's going to rise tomorrow." Where it sets, however, remains to be determined. There's a chance Alabama makes it to the Orange Bowl or even the Sugar Bowl, but until Missouri and Auburn play in the SEC Championship Game, it's anyone's guess how it plays out.
Auburn, meanwhile, got back on track almost immediately after losing on the road at LSU. How games against Ole Miss and Western Carolina provided the perfect remedy for defeat as Auburn went 2-0 before heading out to College Station, Texas, to take on the then-top 10 Aggies and Johnny Football. The defense rose up late and Marshall lead the Tigers on the come from behind win that solidified Auburn's standing and vaunted them into the top 15 of most rankings. Winning against Florida Atlantic, Arkansas and Tennessee was a breeze, and last-second wins over Georgia and Alabama were the final dominoes to propel Auburn to an 11-1 record and a berth in the SEC title game.
Give Missouri credit for weathering the storm like it did. Losing to South Carolina at home was bad enough, but it had to move on not knowing when Franklin would be back under center. Maty Mauk didn't let the offense miss a beat, however. Missouri's freshman quarterback came out the next week against Tennessee and threw for 163 yards and three touchdowns, running for 114 yards as well. The next week against Kentucky he passed for 203 yards and five touchdowns. Franklin would come back and lead the offense in wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M to close out the regular season, but without Mauk, who knows where Missouri would be today? Mauk may not play anymore this year, but he'll go down as an unsung hero in the Tigers' run to the SEC title game.
Coming off a rough 5-7 debut season in the league, while dealing with a rash of injuries, the No. 5 Tigers have been one of the surprise stories of the year, not just because they've gone 11-1, but because it only took them two seasons to claim a division title in what is widely considered the nation's premier football conference.
But when you take a look at the Tigers' recent past prior to joining the conference, this season -- or rather, their ability to compete for a divisional championship -- shouldn't come as a surprise at all.
That's what the Tigers have been doing on a regular basis in the Big 12 under coach Gary Pinkel.
"We did in '07, '08," Pinkel said after his team beat Texas A&M on Saturday to secure the SEC East Division title. "[In] 2010 Nebraska had to lose in the end [for us to go to the Big 12 championship game]. This is another shot here. We've had shots at it four of the last seven years. We didn't play as well and lost the two that we played in. This is awesome. This is great."
Pinkel was referring to Missouri's success in the Big 12 North Division. The Tigers won the division in 2007 and 2008 and they were co-champions with Nebraska in 2010, but Nebraska went to the Big 12 title game, not Missouri. Still, this season's SEC East title is the Tigers' fourth division championship or co-championship in seven seasons. The standard for success exists at Missouri, as evidenced by the Tigers' 48-19 record in the five seasons prior to joining the SEC.
Those three Big 12 seasons in particular, the Tigers reached lofty heights. In 2007, when they went 12-2 and won the Big 12 North, the Tigers reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and BCS standings at one point. The Tigers achieved top-10 rankings in 2008 and 2010 also and were ranked in the Top 25 at some point in every season dating back to 2006 prior to their entry into the SEC.
The 2012 season was the year that the ranking streak ended. But the Tigers were no strangers to winning.
I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals. We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down.
-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington
"It's always in our program, as a goal just like it was in the Big 12," Pinkel said Monday of the goal of winning the division. "First of all, to win a national championship, it starts out with winning your division. If you can't win your division, then you can't get to your championship game."
Pinkel is especially thankful for his group of 18 seniors, who played their last game at Faurot Field on Saturday, for setting the standard coming into this season. After the rough 2012 campaign, Pinkel said they came in and discussed raising the expectation level for 2013. That has had a profound impact on the team.
"I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals," senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. "We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down."
Pinkel said so far, the Tigers have hit on every big-picture goal they set before the season.
"It's amazing," he said. "Kind of created a vision for the team.....With kids like that, they do so much, you can't even begin to explain to them the appreciation for the kind of impact they make on the University of Missouri football."
It's easy for observers to qualify Missouri's ascent by citing the struggles of other teams in the SEC East this season (Georgia and Florida in particular), but the truth of the matter is that this is a senior-laden, talented team with playmakers on both sides of the football, strong leadership on and off the field and, with the exception of one bad fourth quarter against South Carolina, the Tigers have answered the call at every turn. That's why they are here. Considering where they have been, it shouldn't be a major surprise.
"We've been doubted," junior running back Henry Josey said. "We've been an underdog, and we've done what nobody thought we could do. We've just showed up and earned everything we wanted this year, and that's something that's very important."
A year ago, both programs were drowning without bowl games or much life. Injuries ravaged a Missouri team making its SEC debut, while two years removed from a national championship, the Gene Chizik-led Auburn Tigers had one of the nation's most inept offenses and slinked through a disappointing 3-9 season that got Chizik fired.
Fast-forward to right now, and both of these teams are standing tall and looking down at the rest of their conference mates who had higher hopes and expectations for 2013. They both have high-powered offenses and went 4-1 against ranked opponents. Missouri took down Texas A&M to clinch its spot in Atlanta after defeating traditional SEC Eastern Division power Florida and Georgia, while Auburn has had a bit more flare for the dramatic with its nail-biting wins over Georgia and Alabama.
Both rank in the top four of the SEC in total offense and are scoring a little more than 38 points a game. And both teams have a lot of momentum rolling into the Georgia Dome.
This sport can be cruel to its participants, but for Auburn and Missouri, they beat the odds to play in the sport's toughest championship game and are right on the cusp of a trip to the Vizio BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.
"Last year was our first losing season in the last nine years," Pinkel said. "It was all of a sudden, we're not going to be very good.
"Obviously, coming off of spring football, I thought we were going to be good. I thought it was important to stay healthy.
"It was one of our goals, getting to Atlanta."
Mizzou's offense couldn't leave the infirmary last season. Even before the year began, the Tigers started to see their offensive line crumble to the injury bug. Eventually, only freshman Evan Boehm made it through the entire season healthy on the offensive line.
The most crippling casualty was quarterback James Franklin. He dealt with a shoulder injury, a concussion and a knee injury that kept him on the field for just nine games. With him in and out of the lineup, Mizzou finished the season with the SEC's No. 11 offense.
This year, a healthy Mizzou team ate up SEC defenses. Even with Franklin suffering another shoulder injury that sidelined him for a month, the Tigers still finished the regular season averaging 489.5 yards per game, which is 133 more than last season.
"We knew that last year we didn't handle injuries very well on both sides of the ball," Franklin said. "Lot of frustration. We weren't working together very well, and that helped us for this year when we did have a couple of injuries on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. We worked together as a team, and learned to pull through and not go against each other and be frustrated with each other, but help lift each other up.
"Coming into this season, we knew that if we could do that and stay healthy, even if we did have injuries, still remain positive and have each other's back, then we could have some success this year."
For Auburn, it was left beaten mentally from the storm that was 2012. While Gus Malzahn was a very familiar face on the Plains, the embarrassment and pain that came with last season stuck with this team during the early part of Malzahn's tenure.
There were sluggish spring practices, anger, frustration and sloppy effort, but Malzahn kept pushing guys. His goal from the start was to complete college football's biggest turnaround. Slowly -- and quietly -- the wins started to pile up after a tough loss at LSU. There were thrillers against Ole Miss and Texas A&M before blowouts over Arkansas and Tennessee.
Then, Auburn pulled some magic with unthinkable finishes in wins over Georgia and Alabama to win eight straight.
"For us in January we got together and Coach Malzahn got with us and he said it's going to be a new day," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said.
"We just want to make sure that the young guys are playing for us and we're playing for them. We've just got a bunch of guys that are playing for each other. We're hungry. Just from what happened last year, guys learned a lot from it, and they're willing to go out there and fight for one another."
Both of these programs were overlooked as legitimate SEC contenders this season, and both proved everyone wrong. The talent that seemed buried behind injuries and poor execution shined this season. They clawed their way out when trapped against the wall and stunned the country with their special runs.
"Our situations are pretty much identical," Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "It's really exciting. It's what SEC ball is all about. If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game, people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference."
Looking over the newly released ESPN JC 50, there are several recruits on that list already committed to SEC schools. There are also many that still remain undecided. With signing day quickly approaching, here’s a closer look at five prospects, who’s destination is still unknown.
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- Of course, Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis is now the big man on Auburn's campus. He received a standing ovation in class on Monday. Also, head coach Gus Malzahn stumped for his star quarterback, Nick Marshall, to be included in the Heisman Trophy discussion.
- Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel wants to guard against the kind of letdown his team experienced in the Big 12 championship game in 2007. Meanwhile, the school sold out of its allotment of 16,000 tickets by 8 a.m. on Monday.
- Get ready for Saturday with some SEC championship numbers to know.
- Vanderbilt fans are breathing easier about coach James Franklin after Washington's Steve Sarkisian was hired to take over at Southern Cal. Franklin reportedly was a finalist at USC.
- More than two dozen members of the media voted in their weekly Heisman poll, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel received just two second-place votes.
- The Crimson Tide are taking the week off of practice to regroup and get over the shock of losing the Iron Bowl in historic, last-second fashion.
- The Gamecocks are likely headed to one of three bowl games -- either the Capital One Bowl, the Outback Bowl or the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
- Georgia's AD is confident that Bulldog Nation will travel well to whatever bowl game they end up with. ... The players are feeling good after winning yet another close game.
- Florida lost to archrival FSU on the field but got some payback on the recruiting trail Monday as the Gators flipped four-star WR Ryan Sousa, who had been committed to the Seminoles since June.
- Bowl-eligible for the fourth straight year, Mississippi State is hoping for either the AutoZone Liberty Bowl or the BBVA Compass Bowl.
- The Razorbacks’ 31-27 loss to LSU last week was just more evidence of Arkansas' fourth-quarter troubles.
- Even after a winless season in the SEC, there are reasons for optimism at Kentucky.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When Henry Josey burst through the line of scrimmage and sped toward the south end zone at Faurot Field like a heat-seeking missile headed for its target, he didn't stop to think about everything he had been through.
He didn't take the moment to reflect on all the heartache from the three major knee surgeries, the pain he suffered when the injury occurred two years ago or the doubts he had on the road to recovery of whether he'd ever come back. As the capacity crowd exploded in jubilation, sensing history for the soon-to-be SEC East Division champion Missouri Tigers, Josey could only think one thing after scoring his 57-yard, go-ahead touchdown run, which eventually proved to be the game-winner against Texas A&M and the points that secured Missouri's spot in Atlanta this weekend.
"Oh man, I thought, 'Defense, just stop them so we can get out of here [with a win]," Josey said of his thought process at the moment. "Everybody was just jumping up and down and I was excited about it, but I tried to stay focused because I knew I'd have to go back in and bleed the clock out some more."
By now, many people who follow college football know the story. On Nov. 12, 2011 when the Tigers hosted Texas, Josey suffered a gruesome knee injury. The severity of it was cause for concern; some wondered if the Angleton, Texas, product would play again. The eventual surgeries would repair his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), meniscus and patellar tendon. It ended a stellar sophomore season for Josey, one in which he rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
The road to recovery was long. He sat out the entire 2012 season, made even tougher by the fact that many of his teammates were bit by the injury bug and Missouri struggled to a 5-7 campaign in its first SEC season. Josey admitted he had doubts along the way as to whether he would play again.
"There was a lot of doubt," Josey said. "Asking, 'Why am I here?' There are so many things that go through your head. 'Am I going to be the same guy that I was?'"
Finis Vanover, his head coach at Angleton High School, knew that if Josey decided to commit himself to return, he would do so triumphantly. Having coached Josey for four years at Angleton, Vanover knows as well as anybody the type of character and determination the running back possesses. It's partially why Vanover moved a 14-year-old Josey up to Angleton's varsity squad as a freshman. Vanover knew he had something special.
"There was no doubt in my mind, that if he chose to do so, he would find a way to come back," Vanover said. "No question at all. He is a warrior in the truest sense of the word. ... His character is impeccable. I can't say enough good things about him."
Throughout his rehabilitation, Josey said he relied on his faith to carry him through. Tangibly, he said it's his 2-year-old son, Henry Jr., he turns to every day for comfort. Fatherhood has changed him, he admits, and on Saturday after his 96-yard rushing performance and etched-in-Missouri-history touchdown run, it was Henry Jr. whom Josey was spending his quality time with post game in the Tigers' locker room.
"He understands every single thing that I'm going through," Josey said of his son. "He was excited, he was clapping and he probably gave me the biggest hug he's ever given me after the game."
His teammates have seen Josey go through it all. Senior quarterback James Franklin said Josey, a junior, "feels like a senior" and that he was happy to see Josey have the opportunity for such a moment. Many teammates echoed that sentiment, as did coach Gary Pinkel.
"It was fitting," Pinkel said. "It's fitting of Henry Josey, the kind of year he has had, who he is and what he's about. He's sacred to our Mizzou fans."
Josey's return has certainly been a productive one. This season has offered no major setbacks for him physically, he has played in every game and he is closing in on the 1,000-yard mark again (he has 951 yards and 13 touchdowns). He'll help lead the No. 5 Tigers into the Georgia Dome when they meet No. 3 Auburn for the SEC title Saturday.
Vanover, who is now a head coach at Tomball Memorial High School just north of Houston, was at home with about 20 family members and friends watching Missouri's 28-21 win over Texas A&M on Saturday with great interest. He's had several of his former players go on to college and have success (current Texas defensive back Quandre Diggs is another Angleton product Vanover coached), so he takes joy in watching them on perform on Saturdays.
When the Tigers had third-and-1 and handed the ball to Josey, Vanover knew as soon as his former back hit the line of scrimmage that he was taking it to the house.
"The minute he hit the line of scrimmage I said 'He's gone, they're not going to catch him,'" Vanover said. "He hit that other gear and it was over with. It was a great, great moment. It really was."
The heat is still rising from some of the things that happened around the league on Saturday.
So let’s dive right in to our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not.
SEC lobbying: The SEC is going to need some serious help to keep alive its national championship streak. Auburn and Missouri still have a heartbeat, and they will meet Saturday in the SEC championship game. The best scenario for the winner of that game would be for either No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State to be upset in its respective conference championship game. Florida State faces Duke in the ACC title game and is a four-touchdown favorite, while Ohio State takes on Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and is a six-point favorite. In the meantime, you’re going to hear some pretty passionate lobbying from SEC folks about how there’s no way a one-loss SEC champion should be kept out of the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Already, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said it would be a “disservice to the nation” if the Tigers were left out of the big game similar to what happened to them in 2004 when they were unbeaten and didn’t get a chance to play for the national title. If Florida State or Ohio State win this weekend then the winner of the Auburn-Missouri game is going to have to hope several voters in the coaches’ poll and Harris poll have a change of heart on their final ballots and vote a one-loss SEC champion ahead of Ohio State. Auburn, which is No. 3 this week in the BCS standings, probably has the best shot, but would need to win impressively over Missouri to leapfrog an unbeaten Ohio State team and then have the Buckeyes struggle this weekend. Even then, it’s not likely enough voters would change their minds. Should Auburn beat Missouri, it would be difficult to dismiss the Tigers’ resume. They would own four wins over top 25 teams in this week’s BCS standings, including a win over the team that has won the past two national championships. That would compare to two wins over top 25 teams by the Buckeyes, assuming they beat the Spartans.
Alabama’s streak: The Crimson Tide had won 15 straight games and two straight national championships. Going back to the 2009 season, when they won their first of three national championships under Nick Saban, it’s the kind of run we probably won’t see again anytime soon in the SEC. When historic streaks die, they typically die hard. Losing the way Alabama did last week at Auburn will cut deeply for some time.
Tennessee defensive end Corey Miller: Entering his final college game at Kentucky, Miller had five career sacks in 48 games. He exploded for a school-record 4.5 sacks in the 27-14 win over the Wildcats. And whose record did he break? Hall of Famer Reggie White had four sacks in a game as a senior at Tennessee in 1983. That’s some pretty impressive company.
Cowardly fans: It’s always a select few who screw it up for everybody else. But enough with hitting up players who miss field goals and lose key fumbles with nasty emails and messages, almost always behind the cloak of anonymity. Good to see the Alabama players come to kicker Cade Foster’s defense. Too bad some of these so-called “grown” fans don’t have the same kind of perspective the 20- and 21-year-old kids who are actually playing the game do about losing a football game.
Beating up on Vanderbilt in November: Once upon a time, Vanderbilt probably considered canceling the month of November. But not anymore. The Commodores have won nine straight games in the month of November, another telltale sign that this is a program that only gets better under James Franklin as the season goes on. Before Franklin arrived, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November in the previous 10 years. Defensively, Vanderbilt really turned it on down the stretch and played lights out in November. The Commodores suffered some key injuries and struggled early, but ended up 25th nationally in total defense -- their third straight season in the top 25 under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. And during this last month, Vanderbilt allowed just 11.8 points per game and 277 yards of total offense per game while forcing 12 turnovers. Opposing teams managed just one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions against the Commodores in November.
Preseason predictions: If anybody -- coaches, media or fans -- had Auburn and Missouri in the SEC championship game in August, I want to see the ballot. Auburn was picked fifth in the West and Missouri sixth in the East at the SEC media days. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel thanked everybody Sunday for picking the Tigers so low because it only served as motivation for his players. And get this: Neither Auburn nor Missouri received a single vote at the SEC media days to win the league championship. Let’s face it, though. Given the media’s shoddy track record for getting the eventual SEC champion right, if you’re picked to win it in Hoover, Ala., during the summer, you might as well plan on not winning it. Only twice in the past 18 years has the media correctly predicted the SEC champion. Still, had anybody picked Auburn or Missouri this year, that would have been a story in itself at the time. Auburn didn’t win a single SEC game a year ago and lost 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama in its previous two SEC games. Missouri won two SEC games a year ago in its first season in the league, and with so many injuries along the offensive line, looked overwhelmed at times.
1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.
2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.
3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.
As the regular season winds down, there was a lot of news around the SEC over the weekend. Texas A&M received a big commitment on Thanksgiving at a position of need, and Auburn hosted several visitors for its incredible last-second victory over Alabama. Here’s a closer look at some of the top storylines in the SEC this weekend.
Biggest commitment: Though Texas A&M suffered a tough loss to Missouri on Saturday night, the Aggies did have something to be thankful for when junior college offensive tackle Avery Gennesy (Southhaven, Miss./East Mississippi CC) verbally committed to Texas A&M on Thursday.
The 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle chose the Aggies over Ole Miss, Tennessee and Ohio State.
Texas A&M now has 18 commitments, including 10 from in the ESPN 300. The Aggies have the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country.
Georgia, Tennessee lose commitments: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Dontavius Russell (Carrollton, Ga./Carrollton), after visiting Auburn over the weekend, decided to open back up his recruitment. The four-star defensive lineman announced his decision on Twitter.
I'm reopening my Recruitment.Auburn now appears to be the team to beat for Russell. Tennessee lost another wide receiver commit from ESPN 300 wideout Dominique Booth (Indianapolis/Pike) on Sunday. Booth is the third pass-catcher to decommit from the Vols this year. Junior college prospects Eric Lauderdale (Fayettville, Ga./Saddlebrook) and Kameel Jackson (Arlington, Texas/Blinn) also backed off their pledges to Tennessee earlier in the season.
— Dontavius Russell (@Russ_Dont98) December 2, 2013
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Alabama is not out of the picture either. If this crazy season keeps spinning off its axis, next week's games could feature another slew of upsets and surprises. For now, we'll pencil the Tide into the Sugar Bowl. By beating Texas A&M on Saturday, Missouri actually has a chance to get into the national championship debate as well, but it has to start by beating Auburn this week in Atlanta. If that doesn't happen, a two-loss Missouri might still have raised its national profile enough to be an attractive choice for the Capital One Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl picks next, and while many see the potential for a Johnny Manziel draw, A&M's four losses now move it behind LSU in the pecking order. The Bayou Bengals have plenty of pull at ticket offices in their neighboring Lone Star State, by the way.
The rest of the SEC projections haven't changed. Georgia is clinging to a New Year's Day bowl thanks to a double-overtime win against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Ole Miss is still holding on to its spot in Nashville thanks to its seven wins this year. Vanderbilt is stuck with the Liberty Bowl because the Music City Bowl is not expected to make the Dores repeat last year's appearance. And Mississippi State is now bowl eligible thanks to its upset in Thursday's Egg Bowl.
VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 6: Auburn
Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2: Alabama
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Missouri
AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3: LSU
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Ole Miss
AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31: Vanderbilt
BBVA Compass Bowl, Jan. 4: Mississippi State
It was the kind of ending A&M would have loved to experienced for itself. Coming into the season with a preseason top-10 ranking, those were the goals the Aggies set for themselves.
The primary goal was simple: Get to Atlanta.
After the impressive 11-2 debut season in the SEC that the Aggies put together in 2012, you probably would have been hard pressed to find anyone predicting that Mizzou would be getting to the Georgia Dome before Texas A&M. But that's how quickly things can change in college football.
Rather than play for a championship, the Aggies finished a somewhat underwhelming 8-4 overall and 4-4 in SEC play. They didn't beat a single ranked team this season. They lost their final two games, both on pretty big stages. That's the cold reality of the situation. Now they're simply left to play in whatever bowl game they wind up in, possibly the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but not quite a BCS bowl like they once hoped.
"We're going to have one more opportunity with this group of guys to go out and win a football game, and we're not happy about what happened the last couple of weeks, obviously," head coach Kevin Sumlin said late Saturday. "But we've still got one more opportunity and it's probably going to be [against] another really, really good team."
There are a few reasons why the Aggies faltered at certain points this season. The young defense, which was inconsistent and downright bad in several games, made the offense work in losses to Alabama and Auburn.
However, in the past two weeks, the unit began to make some strides. Considering how high-powered the Aggies offense has been the past two seasons, the defense played well enough -- at least in the first half of the past two games -- to give Texas A&M a chance to take control of the game. But the offense sputtered, having an ugly showing at LSU and simply being inconsistent against Missouri.
Johnny Manziel's health status didn't help. The Heisman Trophy winner is not 100 percent -- though many players aren't at this point in the season -- and even Missouri players noticed that he was hurting. With a nagging thumb injury on his throwing hand and a pair of taped ankles, Johnny Football looked human the past two weeks, not like the magician that has captivated the college football world for two seasons. If he was too hurt, Sumlin wasn't saying it.
"If he wasn't healthy enough to play, he wouldn't have played," Sumlin said.
A player as talented as Manziel can help mask deficiencies. Seemingly unable to do so these past two weeks, it uncovered several issues against two talented defenses. LSU and Missouri were certainly quality defensive teams that made life difficult for Manziel.
"He's had better performances, he's had worse performances," Sumlin said. "There's a lot of pressure on him to perform at a high level all the time. I've said before, quarterbacks are like the head coach. You get too much credit when you win, you get most of the blame when you lose. Whenever you don't win, everything focuses on that. There's a lot of people out there playing besides him. For us to be effective, there has to be more than one guy that's going to have to make plays. We made some, we didn't make some, and that was across the board."
It would have been impossible to make this statement a season ago when the Aggies were all the rage and Missouri was getting through a 5-7 season, but the Tigers are where the Aggies want to be. Across the sideline they saw a savvy, veteran group, led by strong seniors and playmakers on both sides of the football. The Tigers, who lead the SEC in sacks and interceptions, have an athletic front seven and a solid secondary.
Offensively, senior quarterback James Franklin provides a steady hand and gets the ball to the myriad playmakers around him, running back Henry Josey and receivers L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham among them. Coach Gary Pinkel has provided stability as the head coach, having been with the Tigers for 13 years now. They won three division titles in their final five years in the Big 12, so Saturday's victory is just continued success under Pinkel, albeit in a new league.
The good news for the Aggies? The fact that finishing 8-4 is a disappointment speaks to the progress that the program has made in a short time under Sumlin. Expectations have been raised significantly in Aggieland, and that will continue after Sumlin agreed to a new six-year contract on Saturday. The last time the Aggies even won eight games in back-to-back seasons was 1998 and 1999.
Sumlin's on the way to signing his second consecutive top-10 recruiting class. The school has begun work on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, and the Aggies continue to improve facilities. So the commitment to getting where they want to be is there.
Now, it's simply a matter of making it happen. But for now, Missouri gets the bragging rights among the SEC newbies because it's the Tigers who will be playing for a championship in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
It will take some time for the Aggies to write the ending they're looking for.
The SEC saved the best for last. In the final week of the regular season, Alabama and Auburn played the game of the year in college football. The stakes were high. The rivalry is fierce. And the game was decided by a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown on the final play of the game. How do you write a better script than that?
The matchup is now set for next weekend’s SEC title game, but let’s look back at five things we learned from Saturday’s action.
The ride continues: Auburn trailed Alabama for most of Saturday’s game, but the Tigers found a way to win in the fourth quarter, as they always do. It’s been that way all season, and it was no different against the nation’s No. 1 team in the Iron Bowl. What coach Gus Malzahn has been able to do in his first season on the Plains has been nothing short of remarkable. He took over a team that was 3-9 and winless in the SEC in 2012, and he has them playing for a conference championship. It’s reminiscent of the 2010 season, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a BCS national championship, but this isn't over yet. Saturday was a monumental victory for Malzahn and this Auburn team, but now they must start preparing for Missouri.
No three-peat: Alabama’s quest for a third consecutive BCS title fell short on Saturday, and the Crimson Tide had only themselves to blame. They had been able to overcome turnovers, penalties and other mistakes all season long, but the miscues finally caught up to them against Auburn. It started with a missed field goal. AJ McCarron and his receivers didn’t look to be in sync early in the game. Then there was a blocked punt. With all of those errors, Alabama still jumped out to a 21-7 lead. But in the second half, the Tide missed three more field goals, and the last one proved to be the difference-maker as Auburn returned it 109 yards for the game-winning score. UA kicker Cade Foster drilled one of the attempts only to see the points taken away by a false start penalty. The stakes were high, and Alabama failed to play its best football. It cost the Crimson Tide.
QBs to the rescue: LSU and Mississippi State both won in dramatic fashion this weekend, and both have reserve quarterbacks to thank for it. In Mississippi State’s case, it was regular starter Dak Prescott who took over in the fourth quarter and led the Bulldogs past archrival Ole Miss in overtime. Prescott missed the two previous games with an injury and wasn’t expected to play Thursday. But Dan Mullen rolled the dice, and it worked. Mississippi State became bowl eligible with the win. LSU turned to freshman signal-caller Anthony Jennings out of necessity when Zach Mettenberger got hurt in the fourth quarter. Jennings led a 99-yard drive in the final minutes, throwing a 49-yard touchdown to push the Tigers past Arkansas.
No SEC in the BCS: It was a wild weekend in the SEC, but Saturday’s Iron Bowl could leave the conference out of the BCS title game for the first time since 2005. Alabama was the favorite to reach Pasadena and win a third straight national championship, but the Tide’s aspirations fell short against Auburn. Now it will likely be Florida State and Ohio State at the top with both Auburn and Missouri on the outside looking in. The SEC’s only hope is that either the Seminoles or the Buckeyes lose next weekend in their conference championship games or that the winner of the SEC title game will have a strong enough résumé to overcome one loss and jump an undefeated Ohio State team. If not, the league's seven-year reign might be over.
Tre Mason, Auburn: Chris Davis will forever live in Auburn lore for his game-winning 109-yard missed field goal return as time expired, but Mason deserves some big-time credit for a big-time performance. The junior running back was productive all day against the Alabama defense, finishing with 164 rushing yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and had a 40-yard run on the day. He's been one of the SEC's best all season.
Connor Shaw, South Carolina: The senior quarterback threw for 152 yards and a touchdown but ran for 94 more yards and another score to lead the Gamecocks to a 31-17 win over No. 6 Clemson. Shaw embodies toughness, and he also has been money at home, concluding his career with a 17-0 record in Williams-Brice Stadium and capping it off with a big win over a rival.
James Franklin, Missouri: In a 28-21 win over Texas A&M, the senior quarterback had a productive day. Franklin finished with 233 passing yards and two touchdowns and ran for 80 yards to help the Tigers clinch the SEC East Division title outright and a spot in the SEC Championship Game next week. Now fully healthy, the steady Franklin played a smart game and didn't make any noticeable mistakes to put his team in a bad spot.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Speaking of tough, like the aforementioned Shaw, Prescott has also symbolized this trait. The sophomore quarterback was initially ruled out in this game by head coach Dan Mullen because of injury. However, after getting some good feedback from doctors in pregame, Mullen decided to go to the playmaker late in the game and it paid off. After coming in, Prescott threw for 115 yards and ran for 29, including the game-winning 3-yard touchdown run in overtime to give the Bulldogs the Egg Bowl victory and clinch bowl eligibility for his team.
Todd Gurley, Georgia: When he's been healthy, he's been one of the nation's best. The sophomore running back had 122 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries in Georgia's 41-34 comeback win over rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs fell behind 20-0 in the first half but came roaring back thanks in large part to Gurley. He was huge late in the game, scoring touchdowns in the fourth quarter and the game-winner in the second overtime.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- About 10 minutes after the clock hit triple zeroes, as thousands of Missouri fans covered Faurot Field after rushing it in celebration of the Tigers' historic victory on a cool, crisp, clear November night they'll never forget, five words played over the stadium loudspeakers that led those fans to swoon.
"Georgia. Georgia ... the whole day through."
"Wow," coach Gary Pinkel said after plopping down in front of the microphone to meet with the media.
The scenario that led to this sequence of events seemed impossible two years ago, because the Tigers and Aggies had yet to even enter the SEC and though they were on their way, many thought it would be a long time before either would have marked success or would play for the kind of stakes the Tigers did on Saturday night.
After a rough 2012 season that was marred by injuries, the Tigers heard the whispers. They weren't SEC-worthy. They didn't belong. They were in over their heads.
Saturday night -- and this entire season -- has been Missouri's way of silencing the critics. Even after putting the finishing touches on an 11-1 regular season, one that had the Tigers ranked fifth in the country heading into the weekend, there might be some who qualify Missouri's magical season by claiming it was a "down year" for the SEC East with Florida and Georgia not meeting preseason expectations.
Don't listen to them. This Missouri team is legitimate and worthy of being in the position it is in. It has done nothing but prove it week in and week out. With much more good fortune on the injury front this year than last, the Tigers have simply answered the bell at every turn with a lone exception, when they allowed a late lead to slip away in an overtime loss to South Carolina.
As heartbreaking as that loss was, the Tigers didn't allow it to snowball into something worse. Missouri had done enough good work in the first half of the season that it still controlled its own destiny in the division race. And down the stretch the Tigers did what they had to do -- win every game -- to secure their spot in the Georgia Dome.
For Missouri fans who are accustomed to having their hearts ripped out -- think "Five downs" against Colorado in 1990 or the kicked-ball touchdown against Nebraska in 1997 and all the "north end zone" heartbreak -- it's forgivable if their optimism was of the cautious type. But Saturday night, even when trailing, the Tigers didn't panic and they didn't collapse. They responded the way a championship team does.
Down 14-7 at halftime, the Tigers came out and made a statement drive to start the second half, coasting 75 yards down the field in seven plays and 2:45 to tie the game. Then, after a defensive stop, they covered 57 yards in eight plays to take a 21-14 lead. With the steady play of senior quarterback James Franklin (233 passing yards, 80 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and big-time plays from guys like L'Damian Washington and Marcus Murphy, the Tigers were in good hands.
"We were relentless in the effort," Pinkel said. "Our defensive line wanted him so bad. They wanted a piece of him every chance they got. He's a great, great player, one of the best players [I've seen]."
With 3:34 left, junior Henry Josey burst through the line of scrimmage and broke free for a 57-yard touchdown and the game-winning points. It was a fitting way to cap the victory, as Josey has been through catastrophic damage to his left knee after gruesomely injuring it in November 2011 and missing all of 2012.
"It's really special," Franklin said. "I kind of see Henry as senior. We've been together since the beginning."
As the clock wound down and Missouri ran its final few plays to secure its win, fans around the stadium could be heard chanting "S-E-C! S-E-C!" While their first campaign wasn't exactly what Pinkel and Co. had hoped, the second stanza has been one for the ages in Columbia.
Trying to digest the magnitude of the moment in the aftermath, Pinkel recalled words from his mentor and a coach he long admired, the late Don James, as Pinkel pondered the next challenge ahead against Auburn.
"This is awesome," Pinkel said. "This is great. The most important thing -- I know what Coach James would say right now -- he'd say 'Get the guys back fast. Get their heads back fast.'
"Honestly, I'm so happy and so excited for my players and team."