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.

No. 13 Notre Dame rolling early to take big halftime lead over turnover-prone USC

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There are bad starts, and there are starts like what No. 11 USC had in the first half of their rivalry game against No. 13 Notre Dame.

Fumble on the first drive? Check. Shank a short field goal? Yep. Muff a punt? Indeed. Throw an interception. Thumbs up.

As a result, the Irish fed off an electric atmosphere in South Bend to jump out to a hot start against their intersectional rival and went to the locker room up 28-0 at halftime in a game that seems over given the way the two sides are playing at the moment.

Proving that a few weeks off were indeed plenty to get back to 100 percent, quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked sharp in taking advantage of all those USC miscues. He finished the half with two touchdown passes (one to Kevin Stepherson, the other to Equanimeous St. Brown) and ran for 76 yards and another score despite that balky foot injury that kept him out for several weeks.

Running back Josh Adams didn’t get a ton of work given all the quick end zone trips (just 14 carries), but also gave a boost to his low-key Heisman campaign by running for 68 yards and a touchdown.

As many positives as you could come up with for Notre Dame in the half, you could just about double it and come up with the number of negatives for USC. Sam Darnold had one of his worst halves in cardinal and gold, fumbling on the opening drive and throwing an interception late in the second quarter. He wound up with 107 yards as the only source of offense for the Trojans after Ronald Jones was bottled up to the tune of just five yards on seven carries.

USC has authored several second half comebacks already this year but, based on the way they played so far in Notre Dame Stadium, they’re going to need a comeback just to avoid getting blown out. The flip side is another strong showing like that and all the College Football Playoff talk surrounding the Irish will start to become very, very real come Sunday.

Penn State starts fast, but Michigan hanging around

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On a white out night in State College, Penn State threatened to blowout Michigan early, but the Wolverines battled back to a 21-13 deficit at the break.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead pulled out a wrinkle on the Nittany Lions’ second play from scrimmage, and it worked to perfection. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley shifted pre-snap, and Barkley took the direct snap and raced 69 yards untouched for a touchdown.

After forcing a three-and-out, Penn State moved 78 yards in four plays, keyed by a 35-yard rainbow heave from McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley scored his second touchdown of the first quarter one play later, a 15-yard burst around the right side. 

But Penn State’s offense stalled from there. The Lions’ next possession ended in a McSorley interception, and the possession after that was a three-and-out that lost nine yards. Penn State penetrated Michigan territory midway through the second quarter, but Barkley dropped a wheel route that would’ve put the Lions inside the red zone. Penn State turned the ball over on downs two plays later.

Meanwhile, Michigan turned McSorley’s interception into an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard Karan Higdon run on fourth-and-goal. Quinn Nordin missed the ensuing PAT.

After the turnover on downs, Michigan marched 67 yards on a series of John O’Korn plays — a 14-yard rush, an 18-yard strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and 23 yards to Kekoa CrawfordTy Isaac powered in from six yards out to pull the Wolverines within one with 1:45 to play before the half. 

Threatened for the first time of the evening, Penn State ended its streak of three straight unsuccessful drives with a 7-play, 75-yard march that consumed only 52 seconds. McSorley accounted for 68 yards on the drive, including a 3-yard rush to put the home team back up eight.

O’Korn closed the half hitting 7-of-9 passes for 63 yards, while a host of Wolverines runners combined to rush 22 times for 78 yards.

McSorley hit 10-of-18 passes for 159 yards with an interception with five carries for 26 yards and a score. Barkley rushed 11 times for 109 yards and two scores, while DaeSean Hamilton caught three passes for 69 yards.

Michigan will receive to open the second half.

Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden apologizes for flipping off Alabama fans

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It would take someone in need of Mr. Magoo-level corrective lenses to not see this one coming.

As you no doubt know by now, Alabama took Tennessee to the woodshed Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.  The Vols did save a slight sliver of their collective manhood as they scored a touchdown for the first time since the second quarter of the Sept. 23 win over previously winless UMass, a span that stretched nearly 13 full quarters of playing time.

In the aftermath of that defensive touchdown, however, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden decided to offer up a double-digit, middle-finger salute to the Crimson Tide student section that resulted in a 15-yard penalty.  In the aftermath of that gesture, Gaulden offered up an apology.

“I would like to issue an apology to the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama for my gesture after the pick-six by (Daniel) Bituli,” Gaulden said. “That remark that I showed was very out of character. That’s not how my parents raised me. That’s not how a leader of the team should show their emotions on the field.

“I really, sincerely apologize to the student section at Alabama for disrespecting them.”

Beleaguered head coach Butch Jones, who is likely out at some point after the end of the regular season if not sooner, certainly didn’t need something like this shedding even more negative light on his flailing football program.  Jones stated that any punishment meted out to Gaulden will be handled internally.

“That’s something that will be dealt with internally in our football program, but that’s not who we are, that’s not what we’re about,” Jones said. “But, he knew that. We spoke about it, and he feels awful about it. It’s one of those things of overall just being a mature football team. But, again, that’s something that we don’t accept in this program and he understands that.”

Since we here, we’ll go ahead and offer this up as the current state of the once-proud UT football program.

Late heroics save No. 9 Oklahoma on the road at Kansas State after wild second half

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Just before the end of the first half, everybody was wondering if Baker Mayfield was 100 percent healthy. Just before the end of the second half, it became pretty clear he was doing just fine. The Sooners’ star quarterback was dazzling once again to power a last minute comeback on the road, leading No. 9 Oklahoma to a 42-35 win against a pesky Kansas State squad that was looking to pull an upset before some late heroics on the final drive.

The signal-caller appeared to get injured during a scramble late in the second quarter and was taken out in the red zone on the ensuing possession, used only as a decoy on a few wildcat snaps. As it turned out, that seemed to be a coaching strategy as OU rotated in backup Kyler Murray several times on ensuing possessions. Mayfield eventually wound up with an efficient 32-of-41 for 410 yards and two touchdowns passing while rushing for two scores and 69 yards as well.

Most importantly, he also got the win after perfectly executing a two minute drive that led to tailback Rodney Anderson (147 yards, two scores) hitting the corner for the game-winning touchdown.

That was all despite the best efforts of his counterpart Alex Delton, who was making just his second start behind center for the Wildcats. While he was solid as a passer (144 yards, one TD, one interception), the dual-threat was incredible on the ground and ran for 161 yards and three touchdowns. That led to quite the combination in the backfield as Alex Barnes managed 108 yards — 75 of which came on a touchdown run on the second snap of the game.

The close victory on the road keeps Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff race, even if the effort was less than impressive given the early struggles. The meeting between the youngest and oldest coaches in FBS proved to be quite the thriller in the end too, as Lincoln Riley claimed the ‘W’ over the Wizard himself Bill Snyder in what will surely be a memorable game for both sides.