SEC INSIDER

SEC Notebook: Bowl slots getting filled up

Lindyssports.com Staff

November 15, 2015 at 1:47 pm.

Nov 14, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) runs the ball during a play that would result in a touchdown during the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 14, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) runs the ball during a play that would result in a touchdown during the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

With one race already settled (Florida in the East) and another looking like all but a formality (Alabama in the West), this is a good time to assess how the SEC’s postseason picture is shaping up.

The conference has potential for at least 11 postseason spots for 2015 including one of the four berths in the second annual College Football Playoff.

That likely will go to Alabama if the Crimson Tide wins its last two regular-season games and beats Florida in the league title game. The Tide held the No. 2 spot in the last week’s CFP rankings behind unbeaten Clemson.

By contract, the league also will have a guaranteed berth in the Sugar Bowl against an opponent from the Big 12. The CFP Selection Committee also could pick an SEC team for either the Fiesta or Peach bowls and even a second spot in the four playoff berths, though that isn’t likely.

After that, the SEC has tie-ins with the Citrus, Outback, TaxSlayer, Music City, Texas, Belk, Liberty, Birmingham and Independence bowls.

According the conference release, the Citrus Bowl gets first pick after the CFP selection process is completed (which includes the playoff and Sugar Bowl) and the Outback, TaxSlayer, Music City, Texas, Belk, and Liberty all fall into a “pool of six” that will be decided by the conference after consultations with the individual schools.

The Birmingham and Independence follow in the pecking order.

With two weeks to go in the regular season, nine SEC teams have the requisite six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

In addition to Alabama and Florida, other teams already qualified are Georgia (7-3) and Tennessee (6-4) in the East and LSU (7-2), Mississippi (7-3), Texas A&M (7-3), Mississippi State (7-3), and Arkansas (6-4) in the West.

Two other teams need only one more win to qualify.

Missouri improved to 5-5 with its 20-16 win over BYU on Saturday, and even though it lost to Georgia, Auburn also sits at 5-5.

Auburn figures to get its sixth win this week when it is host to a 3-7 Idaho team, but Missouri’s situation is dicey. A lot more dicey. Mizzou still has a home game against Tennessee and a trip to Arkansas remaining.

Vanderbilt and Kentucky also have a shot at getting to six wins.

The Commodores improved to 4-6 by beating the Wildcats, who with the loss fell to 4-6.

Despite Saturday’s result, Kentucky has the better shot at getting to six wins. The Wildcats are home for games against Charlotte and Louisville to finish the regular season. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is home against Texas A&M and must go to Tennessee to finish up.

If everything falls favorably for the teams involved, 13 of the 14 league members could go bowling for the holidays.

The only team potentially left out?

South Carolina, which dropped to 4-7 with its loss to Florida Saturday.

ALABAMA (9-1, 6-1)

Game: Alabama 31, Mississippi State. CB Cyrus Jones’ 69-yard punt return was the first of several big plays that helped the Crimson Tide blow open what had started out as a defensive struggle. The Tide then followed up with three more big plays for touchdowns with RB Derrick Henry scoring on runs of 74 and 65 yards and WR Calvin Ridley scoring on a 60-yard reception.

Takeaway: Alabama ran 32 fewer plays than Mississippi State and had only 379 yards in total offense to State’s 393, but the Tide got the plays on defense when it needed them. “We got them stopped inside the five and a couple of times in the red zone, which I think is important,” coach Nick Saban said. “We didn’t play well on offense in the first half, but I think we played better in the second half. Kind of a weird game in that every touchdown was a big play.” The win keeps Bama on track to win the West Division and advance to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Dec. 5. The Tide’s final conference game is Nov. 28 at Auburn.

Next: Vs. Charleston Southern, Nov. 21.

ARKANSAS (6-4, 4-2)

Game: Arkansas 31, LSU 14. Arkansas jumped out to a 21-0 lead and then, after the Tigers closed the gap to 21-14 early in the third quarter, the Razorbacks finished off the game with a field goal and WR Jared Cornelius’ 69-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The Hogs rushed for 299 yards with RB Alex Collins leading the way with 141 (including an 80-yard touchdown run), RB Kody Walker adding 88 and Cornelius finishing with 71 on two carries.

Takeaway: While the offense did its part with QB Brandon Allen throwing for 141 yards and a touchdown to complement the rushing, the Hogs’ defense kept the Tigers in check for most of the night. RB Leonard Fournette was held to just 91 yards rushing — 82 under his average — and the Hogs got to Tigers QB Brandon Harris for five sacks and an interception. They also forced the Tigers into a three-and-out after Collins’ fumble on the first series gave LSU the ball at midfield. Coach Brett Bielema credited defensive coordinator Robb Smith for that performance, which just a week after the Hogs gave up 52 points and 590 yards in the overtime win at Mississippi. “I thought our guys responded well after the fumble there early,” Bielema said. “Our defense really responded well after last week. I had a feeling they would. Anytime Robb and that staff has time to stew on things, I knew they would respond really well.”

Next: Vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 21.

AUBURN (5-5, 2-5)

Game: Georgia 20, Auburn 13. The Tigers seemed very much in control of the game in taking a 10-3 lead at the half, but never could get untracked offensively in the second half. The Tigers went three-and-out on their first four possessions after the break and lost fumbles on their next two before PK Daniel Carlson hit a 38-yard field goal on their last possession.

Takeaway: Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work out. Coach Gus Malzahn replaced starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson with redshirt freshman Sean White in the second half, but White wasn’t able to generate any offense for the Tigers. He completed only one of his five pass attempts, and his fumble helped set up a Georgia final field goal that put the Bulldogs up 20-10 with 6:49 left in the game. “We knew we were going to play both quarterbacks,” Malzahn said. “We made that call before the game, and I just felt it was a good time to put him in there. We felt like we had some good opportunities in the passing game. We went three-and-outs, and it obviously didn’t work out, but that was our thought process.”

Next: Vs. Idaho, Nov. 21.

FLORIDA (9-1, 7-1)

Game: Florida 24, South Carolina 14. Florida responded with a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive after the Gamecocks had closed to within three points late in the fourth quarter to make it a 10-point game again with just over two minutes remaining. RB Kelvin Taylor rushed for 105 yards and RB Jason Cronkrite hauled in two touchdown passes, wresting the ball away from a defender for a 41-yard score on the second one which gave the Gators a 14-0 lead at the half.

Takeaway: Time of possession often can be a misleading or even useless statistic, but it was telling for the Gators, who are not exactly built to produce a lot of points. They had the ball for nearly 40 minutes while running off 76 offensive plays to South Carolina’s 46. “That’s how we’re built,” coach Jim McElwain said. “If you look at the games we win, we’re usually plus turnover and plus time of possession, which allows our defense to be fresh and play really hard.” Both teams in this instance had two takeaways on interceptions, but the Gators generated 404 yards in total offense, more than twice South Carolina’s 201.

Next: Vs. Florida Atlantic, Nov. 21.

GEORGIA (7-3, 5-3)

Game: Georgia 20, Auburn 13. The Bulldogs shut down the Tigers in the second half, allowing only 90 yards in total offense to overcome a 10-3 halftime deficit. WR Isaiah McKenzie, who dropped a key third-down pass earlier, scored on a four-yard run to cap a nine-play, 61-yard drive and then returned a 53-yard punt to the house to break a 10-10 tie.

Takeaway: McKenzie, a sophomore, tied a pair of school records with his punt return. It was the fifth return for a touchdown in his career, tying him with Brandon Boykin (2008-11). One of his returns was on a kickoff, the other four on punt runbacks, the latter tying him with Buzy Rosenberg for the school record in that category. It was his second punt return for a touchdown this season. “It’s great to do that in a rivalry game like this, to score touchdowns or help the team out whichever way you can,” McKenzie told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but this is a big rivalry and everything didn’t go well, but we did what we had to and my teammates are happy and I’m happy. It makes up for some of the pains we’ve felt this season.”

Next: Vs. Georgia Southern, Nov. 21.

KENTUCKY (4-6, 2-6)

Game: Vanderbilt 21, Kentucky 17. Kentucky rushed for 225 yards but quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker combined to pass for only 127 yards with each throwing an interception. The Wildcats had four possessions after trimming their deficit to four points late in the third quarter, but one ended with a missed field goal, the next two were three-and-outs, and the final one was a sack on the final play of the game.

Takeaway: Turnovers and a couple of fourth-down gambles that went wrong proved fatal to Kentucky’s chances. The Commodores needed to navigate only four yards for their first touchdown after RB Stanley “Boom” Williams lost a fumble, and they needed to go only 51 yards when Barker threw incomplete on fourth-and-one at Vandy’s 49-yard line for the third. In between, FS Oren Burks returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown for the Commodores. “In hindsight, to do it over again, I’d kick it in a tight game down there, but I’m OK with the goal-line one,” Stoops said of the fourth-down failures. “I’m disappointed with the one at midfield. We thought we had them one-on-one and we could take a shot right there, and it was a poor decision.”

Next: Vs. Charlotte, Nov. 21.

LSU (7-2, 4-2)

Game: Arkansas 31, LSU 14. The Tigers managed to get back into the game after falling behind 21-0 in the second quarter when RB Leonard Fournette capped a 67-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run early in the second half to cut LSU’s deficit down to 21-14. But Arkansas got its lead back to double digits with a field goal and then added a touchdown on a two-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter to clinch it.

Takeaway: Despite closing to within a touchdown in the third quarter, the Tigers never really recovered from Arkansas’ opening shots. “You start a game off with the defense playing hard,” coach Les Miles said. “Offensively, you have to move the football. We just didn’t. We faltered at the start of the game and really gained no rhythm.” No, Miles emphasized, there were no lingering aftereffects from the loss at Alabama the previous week. “Anyne who would think this is a hangover from the Alabama game,” he said, “that is absolutely untrue.”

Next: At Mississippi, Nov. 21.

MISSISSIPPI (7-3, 4-2)

Game: Idle.

Next: Vs. LSU, Nov. 21.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (7-3, 3-3)

Game: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 6. The Bulldogs outgained the Crimson Tide with 393 yards in total offense to Bama’s 379, but gave up far too many big plays. Bama RB Derrick Henry scored on touchdown runs of 74 and 65 yards, WR Calvin Ridley scored on a 60-yard reception, and CB Cyrus Jones scored on a 69-yard punt return to turn what was a scoreless game for a quarter into a comfortable Bama victory.

Takeaway: Coach Dan Mullen lamented the big plays his Bulldogs gave up that led to the game getting out of hand. “You’re looking at 69-, 60-, 74- and 65-yard touchdowns,” he said. “You’re not going to win doing that.” Red zone failures also haunted the Bulldogs. QB Dak Prescott threw three incompletions after reaching first-and-10 at Bama’s 10-yard line in the second quarter. Then in the third quarter, State had a first down at Bama’s 7-yard line but was backed up by a false start penalty and consecutive sacks before Prescott threw incomplete on third down. The Bulldogs settled for field goals each time. They also turned the ball over on downs when Prescott was thrown for a yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line on their second possession.

Next: At Arkansas, Nov. 21.

MISSOURI (5-5, 1-5)

Game: Missouri 21, BYU 16. The Tigers rallied from a 10-6 third quarter deficit with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but just as impressive as the two scores was their final drive. Taking over with 4:02 left, the Tigers started at their own 25-yard line and methodically moved 70 yards in nine plays to kill the clock, converting two third-and-three situations, to keep the ball away from BYU’s dangerous big-play offense.

Takeaway: The victory over BYU ended a week of turmoil for the Missouri program that started with a number of players threatening to boycott the game as part of an on-campus protest over racial issues and included coach Gary Pinkel’s retirement announcement the day before the game. “I was an absolute wreck emotionally just being honest with those guys,” Pinkel was quoted as saying in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. “I really felt bad because I didn’t know walking out of there if our guys would be able to focus enough to win a football game against a good team like this. I walked out and felt bad. I felt I blew it.”

Next: Vs. Tennessee, Nov. 21.

SOUTH CAROLINA (3-7, 1-7)

Game: Florida 24, South Carolina 14. The Gamecocks couldn’t generate much in the way of offense early, and by the time they did, it was too little and far too late. Down 17-0 entering the fourth quarter, they cut their deficit to three points with under five minutes left but couldn’t keep the Gators from scoring an insurance touchdown on a six-play, 75-yard drive on the ensuing possession.

Takeaway: The script for this one had a familiar look about it for South Carolina. For the third consecutive game, the Gamecocks fell behind and saw a late rally come up short. “This has been the story of our football team the last few weeks,” interim coach Shawn Elliott said. “We don’t start off very quick, but we finish strong and today wasn’t any different, other than the fact that I thought our defense played very well in the first half and kept us in the ballgame. They made a couple of mistakes here and there in the first half, but they played a tremendous game I thought.” With the loss, the Gamecocks now are eliminated from postseason consideration with seven defeats.

Next: Vs. The Citadel, Nov. 21.

TENNESSEE (6-4, 3-3)

Game: Tennessee 24, North Texas 0. RB Alvin Kamara ran for 127 yards on just 15 carries and the defense limited the visiting Mean Green to just 199 yards of total offense as the Vols became bowl eligible for the second consecutive season. Kamara scored on runs of 27 and 15 yards while posting his second 100-yard rushing game of the season.

Takeaway: Although their defense kept the visitors bottled up, aside from Kamara the Vols never really got their offense going against one of the worst defenses in the country. North Texas is ranked No. 123 out of 127 FBS teams in total defense and No. 125 in scoring defense. “We have to play better, but again, we won the football game,” coach Butch Jones said. “I don’t ever want to diminish that. Winning is fragile, as we know. We will look through everything, and I won’t know a little bit more until I watch the video. It’s hard to really tell from the sideline on a lot of things.” QB Joshua Dobbs was 15-of-23 passing for only 136 yards with an interception that stopped a drive in North Texas territory.

Next: At Missouri, Nov. 21.

TEXAS A&M (7-3, 3-3)

Game: Texas A&M 41, Western Carolina 14. The Aggies rolled up 583 yards in total offense against the Catamounts, including 304 on the ground, with RBs Tra Carson (109 yards) and Bruce Dolezal (84) combining for 193. QB Kyle Murray was 22-of-39 passing for 191 yards and three touchdowns but had two interceptions and QB Kyle Allen came off the bench to go 6-of-6 for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Takeaway: What was supposed to be a walkover for the Aggies against an FCS opponent proved a little more difficult than expected early on. When Western Carolina DE Avery Worsham picked up WR Christian Kirk’s fumbled kickoff return and ran it 11 yards into the end zone, it gave the Catamounts a 14-14 tie early in the second quarter. But that seemed to wake up the Aggies, and they scored 30 unanswered points before the visitors got on the scoreboard again with a field goal early in the fourth quarter. “We had two freak plays,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We were up 14-0 and they busted a 65-yard run and hit Christian on a kickoff and (he) fumbled and the score. So that got 14 points back for them. Really, it was two plays and 14 points is the way I looked at. We started with the ball in the second half and just settled down. I don’t know that our guys panicked or anything like that.”

Next: At Vanderbilt, Nov. 21.

VANDERBILT (4-6, 2-5)

Game: Vanderbilt 21, Kentucky 17. Vandy scored a touchdown on a trick play just before the halftime break to take a 21-10 lead into the second half, and the Commodores rode that cushion to the win. The key touchdown came when WR Caleb Scott was unnoticed and undefended at Kentucky’s 37-yard line as his teammates huddled out on the field after a timeout, and he hauled in QB Kyle Shurmur’s pass for the score.

Takeaway: As usual, the Commodores never got much from their offense — just 301 yards — but also as usual, their defense came through. Though they gave up 225 rushing to the Wildcats, the Commodores came up with three turnovers that led to two touchdowns with FS Oren Burkes returning an interception 30 yards for one and DL Jay Woods’ fumble recovery setting them up at Kentucky’s 4-yard line for another. “They did a good job at standing up and anchoring down,” coach Derek Mason said of his defensive players. “These guys are very prideful about their red zone defense. We need to continue to forge ahead. These guys will get stingier and stingier.”

Next: Vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 21.

NOTES, QUOTES

–Alabama coach Nick Saban figured before Saturday’s game that his team’s defensive line had an advantage over Mississippi State’s offensive line, and the fact the Crimson Tide recorded a season-high nine sacks of QB Dak Prescott is prima facia evidence he figured correctly.

“We did most of it with four guys rushing,” Saban said. “Every time we rushed more than four and played man-to-man, he got rid of the ball and he made a couple of big plays.

“They all did a good job of pushing the pocket. I think that was a real key to the game.”

The nine sacks were the most for the Tide since it registered nine against Vanderbilt on Sept. 12, 1998.

Junior DE Jonathan Allen led the way a career-high three for the game. Junior DT A’Shawn Robinson was credited with 2.5, also a career-high and all came in the first half. Junior LB Ryan Anderson notched two.

“Dak is probably the best mobile quarterback in the country with the way he moves,” senior LB Reggie Ragland said. “Anytime you keep him contained and he can’t make plays with his feet or his arms, you did a great job of stopping him.”

–Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a touchdown in the Commodores’ 21-17 win over Kentucky.

After a Vandy timeout, WR Caleb Scott briefly went onto the field with his teammates, then jogged to the sideline, stopping before going out-of-bounds and squatting down. Kentucky never covered him, and at the snap, Scott sprinted down the sideline and hauled in a pass from QB Kyle Shurmur to give Vandy a 21-10 lead in the closing seconds of the first half.

“We repped it in practice all week,” Scott said. “We did it against our defense and it worked. I got down, no one was covering, so I knew the ball was going to be there. The ball felt like forever to get there.”

–LSU coach Les Miles accepted the blame for his team’s 31-14 loss to Arkansas.

Why?

“I just look at it as that I like my quarterback, I like my running back,” he said, referring to Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette, respectively. “I think this offensive line is pretty good. It has to be something that I am not getting done.”

The problem is on offense, he said.

“Defensively, I think we are giving great effort and energy,” he said. “You look at the defensive film. Except for three plays, they played their butts off.

“They just needed an offense to take the ball and go down the field.”

It is the second consecutive year the Tigers have lost big to an Arkansas team that came into the game as an underdog. The Razorbacks shut out the Tigers 17-0 last year

“I can’t explain,” Miles said. “The quality team happens to show up at a time we are mistake-ridden as opposed to another spot on our schedule. It just happens. We have to play better. We have to get it fixed, and that’s me.”

–Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has talked for the last month about how things are different for his Wildcats this season, but after their losing streak was extended to five games with the 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt, Stoops acknowledged his team had reached a low point.

“I think that’s fair to say,” he said. “That’s what I just said to the team. We all need to accept it, starting with myself. I know I’ve gotta make better decisions and put my team in a better position to be successful. That goes with the territory.

“We’re not going anywhere. We’re going back to work. That’s the only way we’ve ever approached things. I love the way they prepare.”

–The scoring summary for South Carolina in the Gamecocks’ 24-14 loss to Florida had an unusual look. It shows QB Perry Orth catching a 17-yard touchdown pass from WR Pharoh Cooper with 8:59 left in the game and then Cooper scoring on a 38-yard reception from Orth with 4:49 left.

It was Cooper’s first touchdown pass of the season and fourth of the junior’s career. It was Orth’s first reception of his career.

Cooper had two other receptions against the Gators for a total of three for 40 yards. He has six touchdown catches among his 51 receptions for 696 yards.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “He throws it, he runs it — I’m sure he can kick it — he catches it. He probably does their postgame meal, too.” — Florida coach Jim McElwain on South Carolina WR Pharoh Cooper, who caught and threw a touchdown pass and also led the Gamecocks in rushing with just 16 yards on three carries in his team’s 24-14 loss to the Gators.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 11 IN THE SEC:

1. Arkansas might like a do-over for September. After losing three of their first four games, the Razorbacks have come back with five wins in their last six outings with the lone loss a 27-14 setback at Alabama.

2. RB Derrick Henry has assumed the favorite’s role as far as the SEC’s Heisman’s candidates. The Alabama running back rushed for 204 yards against No. 17 Mississippi State, giving him an average of 178.7 yards a game against the six ranked teams Bama has faced while LSU’s Leonard Fournette failed to reach the 100 mark for a second consecutive game with 91 yards rushing in a loss to Arkansas.

3. Can Florida get enough offense to win out with QB Treon Harris at the helm? Harris is 56-of-108 passing (51.9 percent) for 840 yards with three interceptions against four touchdown passes in four starts (3-1) since taking over for suspended QB Will Grier.

4. Arkansas QB Brandon Allen deserves a little love when it comes to all-conference consideration. Most concede that honor will go to Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, but Allen is making his case after going 75-of-111 passing for 1,061 yards with 12 touchdowns against only two interceptions during the Razorbacks’ four-game winning streak.

5. Does anybody play it closer to the vest than Vanderbilt? The Commodores scored more than 20 points for the first time this season against an FBS opponent in their 21-17 win over Kentucky and kept an FBS foe under 20 points for the sixth time this season.