SEC spring storylines

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Six straight BCS championships later, the SEC is undeniably the king’s conference of college football. There’s just one problem: the SEC’s vice grip on the BCS championship is going to end.

(Eventually)

Captain obvious, I know, but it’s just not wise to be picking against the SEC these days — especially the SEC West, which is home to the last three national champs and could very well make a run for its fourth in 2012. Alabama, Arkansas and LSU will all be in the limelight again as Top 10 teams.

Where the SEC needs some help is the overall depth of the conference, specifically in the East division. When traditional powers are good, the perception of the conference rises, and no team needs to elevate their game like Tennessee. The Vols are in a horrible slump and if Derek Dooley doesn’t turn it around soon, the heat beneath his coaching seat will be rising fast.

But there’s a lot to look forward to this spring in the SEC, including the new additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. Here’s what we’re watching:

The newbies 
Duh. The latest round of conference realignment started at the end of last summer when Texas A&M “resurrected its courtship” with the SEC, which resulted in the Aggies and Missouri joining as the conference’s 13th and 14th members. But now it’s about to get real. Can the former Big 12 members succeed in the SEC? It’ll be a tougher road for A&M right away; the Aggies are breaking in a new coach in Kevin Sumlin and replacing some key starters in what will undoubtedly be the toughest division — again — in college football. Missouri is a foreigner, a Midwest school going to places like Columbia and Gainesville. As spring practices commence, folks in SEC country are going to have a lot of interest in how Mizzou and A&M look.

Memo to the SEC East: let’s be a little more competitive, okay?
The SEC East posted a 6-13 record against the West last season, with half of those wins coming from East division champ Georgia. Granted, the West was top-heavy, housing three of the best five or six teams in college football and the bottom of the East was atrocious. But the last time the SEC East did anything significant was Florida’s 2008-09 BCS championship run. It’s uncertain if the East will improve this year, but it has the potential. Georgia and South Carolina will, again, be getting the preseason pub, but Florida, Vanderbilt — yes, the Commodores — and Missouri can all be considered in that next tier mix. Of course, everybody comes out of spring feeling pretty optimistic, but we’ll be watching to see if any team actually looks like they can challenge the West for the SEC crown — as tough as that may be to gauge.

Arkansas “offensive” O-line 
The Razorbacks managed to net just under 1,800 yards on the ground last season without Knile Davis, who sat out 2011 because of an ankle injury. Not bad for a group run by committee through an offensive line that had its fair share of struggles. Also, the fact that quarterback Tyler Wilson isn’t currently in iron lung after the shots he took last season is a feat within itself. If Arkansas is going to stay par for the course with their offensive production, they need Wilson to stay healthy, which means the O-line has to do a better job of protecting him while providing plenty of holes for the returning Davis. O-line improvement is a must for the Hogs this spring.

Copied and pasted from last year: Alabama, LSU favorites again 
Anyone ready for round two? Or, I guess, round three, maybe four? Months after meeting in the BCS championship game, all eyes will be on the defending national champion, Alabama, and the team that beat the Tide during the regular season but eventually lost when it matter most, LSU. Both lose a ton of talent to the NFL, especially on defense, but there always seems to be plenty of able and willing replacements to step in to starting roles. The quarterback situation for the Tide and Tigers is interesting, too. AJ McCarron showed remarkable improvement in the BCS championship and may be more than a “game manager” for Bama in 2012, and Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger appears to be the favorite to lead LSU out of its quarterback slump.

Doo(ley) or Die time in Knoxville?
It’s sort of wild to think that Derek Dooley could be out after three years at Tennessee if he doesn’t turn it around and fast, but that seems to be the feeling as the Vols enter spring practice. After a decent inaugural year for Dooley that included a Music City bowl appearance, things took a turn for the worse last season when Tennessee went 5-7, finished last in the SEC East and lost to Kentucky. Woof. The Vols are filled with young talent, not to mention plenty of new coaches, but things haven’t completely come together yet. It’s a shame, too. Dooley’s a likeable (and quotable) coach, but mercy isn’t exactly at the front of everyone’s minds in Knoxville. Plus, there’s a new athletic director in town… who didn’t hire Dooley. It’s time to impress.

Buffalo clinches bowl eligibility with three-game winning streak

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In his third season as Buffalo’s head coach, Lance Leipold is taking the program bowling. And how they got there is commendable. Entering the month of November with a record of 3-6, the Bulls had no margin for error. A three-game winning streak to close out the regular season seemed like a reach, but on Friday afternoon the Bulls put the finishing touches on just such a winning streak.

Buffalo (6-6, 4-4 MAC) rushed out of the gates to a 24-7 lead on Ohio (9-4, 5-3 MAC) on their home field, but the Bulls needed a big play on special teams and defense to close the books on a bowl-clinching 31-24 victory. Tied at 24-24 in the fourth quarter, Ohio was forced to punt from their own seven-yard line. K.J. Osborn returned the punt 39 yards to the Ohio six-yard line. Two plays later, Emmanuel Reed gave the Bulls the lead with a short touchdown run. Then the game was put in the hands of the defense.

Ohio has a masterful drive rolling out, spanning 62 yards over 13 plays and wasting away nearly all of the clock after starting the drive with 8:10 to play. On 4th and 12 at the Buffalo 13-yard line, Nathan Rourke‘s pass was picked off by Khalil Hodge in the endzone with a little more than a minute to play. Ohio could call two timeouts to stop the clock, but the Bulls still managed to pick up a first down to close out the game.

While not to discredit Buffalo for their achievement here, it is worth noting Ohio’s fate in the MAC East Division race was settled earlier this week. The Bobcats were eliminated from clinching the division after Akron wrapped up the division with a win earlier this week. Had Akron lost, Ohio could have clinched the division with a win against Buffalo.

The MAC now has seven teams that have met the six-win minimum to go to a bowl game this season. This is Buffalo’s first bowl season since 2013, but Leipold is no stranger to a college football postseason. Leipold won six Division 3 national championships with Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2007 through 2014, and his D3 powerhouse program only missed the postseason once during that run.

Arkansas blows 21-7 lead as Drew Lock leads Mizzou’s rally for halftime lead

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It was a tale of two quarters between Missouri and Arkansas, with Arkansas rushing out of the gates for a 21-7 lead only to see Missouri battle back to take a 31-28 lead into halftime. Missouri kicker Tucker McCann kicked a 37-yard field goal in the final minute of the half to give Missouri the lead.

Arkansas cashed in on an interception by Missouri quarterback Drew Lock on the game’s opening possession by traveling 70 yards on five plays to take a 7-0 lead with a Devwah Whaley goal line run. Mizzou’s Ish Witter capped a 92-yard drive later in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-7, but the Razorbacks stormed right back with a quick four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive highlighted by Austin Allen‘s 57-yard pass to Jordan Jones for the score. Moments later, a good punt return by Henre’ Toliver gave the Razorbacks the ball at the Missouri 29-yard line and two plays later David Williams ran in from 16 yards out for a score to push the lead to 21-7.

Lock led a second-quarter charge for the Tigers with three touchdown passes, including one from 55 yards and another from 56 yards as the big plays doomed Arkansas.

No. 12 TCU locks up Big 12 title game date with Oklahoma

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After a few-year sabbatical, the inaugural renewal of the Big 12 championship game is officially set.

Needing just to get past one-win Baylor, No. 12 TCU did just that as the Horned Frogs outlasted the feisty Bears 45-22 in Fort Worth.  With the win, TCU locks up the other spot in the conference title game opposite Oklahoma, with that matchup going down in Jerry’s World next Saturday.  The Sooners have already beaten the Horned Frogs this season, 38-20 in Norman two weeks ago; a second win over the same team will likely push OU into the playoffs.

TCU finishes the 2017 season 7-2 in conference play.  Iowa State (5-3) needed a win over Kansas State Saturday plus a TCU loss today plus a couple of the other 5-3 Big 12 teams to win in order to send them to the league title game.

Kenny Hill paced the Horned Frogs once again, passing for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the win.  His 26 completions (in 36 attempts) went to 11 different receivers.  The quarterback added another touchdown on the ground.

A little bit of a concern, especially with Baker Mayfield and the high-powered OU offense looming, TCU gave up 314 yards passing, including 301 from freshman signal-caller Charlie Brewer.  Conversely, they did hold the Bears to just 2.7 yards per rushing attempt.

Pitt stuns No. 2 Miami, ends Hurricanes’ perfect season

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Pitt’s done gone and done it again.

On Dec. 1, 2007, a 4-7 Pitt team stunned second-ranked West Virginia in a 13-9 upset in Morgantown, costing the Mountaineers a spot in the BCS title game.  Just a week shy of the 10th anniversary of that upset, 4-7 Pitt played host to second-ranked Miami — and the Panthers did it again, jumping out to a 10-7 halftime lead before holding on away for a 24-14 win.  The loss ends the Hurricanes’ nation’s-best winning streak at 16 games in a row.

Thanks in very large part to Pitt’s defense, Miami’s offense could muster next to nothing on the day, churning out just 176 yards of offense while the game was still within reach (they finished with 234).  True freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, however, seemingly put the game out of reach when, on a fourth-and-five, scampered nearly untouched on a naked bootleg for a 22-yard touchdown that made it a three-score game with just under three minutes remaining.

However, a U touchdown less a minute later made it a 10-point deficit with 2:16 left in the fourth, with the Hurricanes recovering an onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff to give them a flicker of hope; a Malik Rosier fumble on that next possession snuffed out said flicker.

This is actually the third time in a decade the Panthers have knocked off the No. 2 team in the country, including last year’s dumping of Clemson — a fact that head coach Pat Narduzzi used in calling his shot to his team at halftime.

For The U, it’s a potentially crippling loss.  Or, it could mean almost nothing.

Playing with fire for most of the season — they trailed at the half in five of their 11 games, including today — the Hurricanes finally got burned; whether it’s a first-, second- or third-degree burn remains to be seen.  The good news for The U is they will still face No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game next weekend, with the winner likely (maybe) (possibly) earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.  This loss, though, erases any margin of error the Hurricanes had heading into that game as they won’t make the playoffs as a two-loss at-large team.