Alabama's Richardson and Shelley celebrate after they defeated LSU in the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game in New Orleans

SEC spring storylines


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.


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.

Leonard Fournette returns for LSU but late score helps Ole Miss tie things up at halftime

BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 22: Head coach Ed Orgeron of the LSU Tigers talks to head coach Hugh Freeze of the Mississippi Rebels before a game at Tiger Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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Leonard Fournette has spent most of October resting up a litany of injuries that has kept him out of the lineup.

Based on the way he looked Saturday night in helping LSU tie things up 21-all against Ole Miss at halftime, it appears the tailback is finally healthy.

Fournette needed just six carries to cruise over the century mark on the ground and finished the half with 171 yards rushing and two scores — the first on a 59 yarder in which he ran over the Rebels defense, and the latter one a 76 yarder in which he raced away from nearly everybody on the field.

Quarterback Danny Etling didn’t need to do much with big No. 7 toting the rock so well but did manage to pass for 120 yards and a long 40 yard touchdown pass to D.J. Chark.

The Tigers defense also stepped up in slowing the Rebels normally potent offense. Chad Kelly threw one ill-advised interception and nearly tossed a few more as the Ole Miss offense had problems finding much consistency. The team was bailed out by their defense recovering a fumble just before the end of the second quarter that set up their final score to close the gap otherwise Hugh Freeze would have gone into the locker room with a deficit.

LSU has certainly been rejuvenated under the tenure of interim head coach Ed Orgeron and that continued in the first half of their SEC West showdown with his old team. The only question left might be what Fournette can do for an encore after racking up some impressive numbers in the first half against Ole Miss.

Boise State, Western Michigan rejoice as Houston stumbles again

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Greg Ward Jr. #1 of the Houston Cougars is sacked by Demerick Gary #10 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs and Mason Gentry #93 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs in the first half at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Houston’s rather significant loss could prove to be a sizable gain for a couple of fellow Group of Five programs.

Entering Saturday’s game against SMU ranked 13th in the country, the Cougars inexplicably fell behind 21-0 to a Mustangs team that came in at 2-4. Instead of mounting a comeback and righting what’s suddenly become a listing season, the Cougars could get no closer than 14 points (twice) the rest of the way in falling 38-16.

The loss is UH’s second in its last three games, a stumble that came after winning its first five games of the season and moving to as high as sixth in the Associated Press rankings. While Houston hasn’t seen its New Year’s Six bid completely go up in smoke, it’s seen it severely damaged.

Ready to pick up the G5 pieces are Boise State and Western Michigan.

Both of those Broncos exited Week 8 undefeated, the MAC version at 8-0 and the MWC’s 7-0. Boise, which was No. 14 following Week 7, will most certainly leapfrog Houston, while WMU, ranked 20th, should do so as well.

One other G5 team is currently ranked: No. 24 Navy, whose 4-1 record includes a win over Houston that doesn’t look quite as good as it did a couple of weeks ago.  Another of that group received more than one vote in the most recent poll, although those votes will likely evaporate Sunday as USF lost to Temple Friday night.

The first set of rankings that actually matter, the College Football Playoffs, will be released Tuesday, Nov. 1.

Colorado’s reward for huge win over Stanford? In-N-Out Burger

GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 07:  In this photo illustration a man eats a hamburger in a cafe on June 7, 2006 in Glasgow, Scotland. New figures are suggesting that a large proportion of the population is clinically obese.  (Photo Illustration by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Somewhere Mike Riley is smiling and nodding knowingly.

The current Nebraska head coach had somewhat of a tradition while at Oregon State in which he would take his football team to In-N-Out Burger following a particularly big win.  Picking up that burger mantle is Mike MacIntyre, who rewarded his Colorado team with a trip to the famous fast-food joint following their physical, grinding road win over Stanford earlier in the day.

The 10-5 win was deserving of such a reward on a couple of levels.

First, it moved the Buffaloes to 6-2, pushing the football program to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007. Most importantly, however, it allowed CU to keep pace with Utah in the Pac-12 South, with both the Buffs and Utes sitting at 4-1 with four conference games remaining.

One-fourth of that remaining quartet? A clash between in the regular-season finale between those two squads — in Boulder — that’s looking more and more like it will determine the division’s representative in the conference championship game.

No. 5 Washington continues to roll through the Pac-12 North after throttling Oregon State

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 22:  Quarterback Jake Browning #3 of the Washington Huskies passes against linebacker Caleb Saulo #35 of the Oregon State Beavers on October 22, 2016 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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It’s been 16 years since Washington has won a conference title but the Huskies took another step toward their goal of ending that streak on Saturday as they blasted Oregon State in a game that wasn’t even as  close as the 41-17 final score indicated.

While most of the college football world was undoubtedly focused away from the Pacific Northwest, quarterback Jake Browning did not hamper his budding Heisman Trophy campaign by throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns in just over three quarters worth of work (he also added a rushing score). Fellow sophomore Myles Gaskin didn’t need long to top the century mark on the ground, finishing with 128 yards and a touchdown before the fourth quarter began.

Receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis both had big games as well, with each going over 100 receiving yards and recording catches of over 40 yards. Pettis also found the end zone twice.

The Huskies defense also stepped up to turn in another nice outing, recording four sacks and two interceptions while holding the Beavers to just 4-of-13 on third down. It was a tough task for Oregon State quarterback Marcus McMaryion (148 yards in the air) as the team’s third-stringer was making his first start of the year on the road in a difficult environment and facing one of the best defenses west of the Mississippi.

The win keeps Washington undefeated on the year and sets up a big showdown in Salt Lake City against fellow top 25 team Utah, which moved to 7-1 on the season with a nice win over UCLA earlier in the day. While it might be quite unexpected on both sides, it’s probably not a stretch to think that contest is the Pac-12 game of the year and a potential league title game preview given how both sides looked this weekend.