April 18, 2014

Florida Gators
INSIDE SLANT

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  The final weekend of the SEC's regular-season has produced one of the most unlikely match-ups for the conference title game since the league split into two divisions and began deciding its champion in a one-game, winner-take-all affair in 1992.

Eastern Division champ Missouri and Western winner Auburn were a combined 2-14 in SEC play just a year ago with Mizzou accounting for both of the victories.

Six of Auburn's eight conference losses in 2012 were by double digits, and it didn't score a point in its last two SEC defeats, losing 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama.

Mizzou's two wins came in four overtimes against Tennessee and against Kentucky, which was in the midst of a winless conference season.

But the two teams of Tigers both go by the same nickname roared through 2013 with only one conference loss each and earned their ticket to Atlanta for Saturday's game with dramatic wins on Thanksgiving weekend.

Auburn, of course, stunned No. 1 Alabama 34-28 when senior Chris Davis returned Bama's missed field goal attempt from deep in his own end zone to the other end of the field after time had run out. With the two teams both finishing 7-1 in league play, Auburn won the tiebreaker for the title game berth.

Mizzou capped the evening by rallying past Texas A&M 28-21, scoring the decisive touchdown on junior Henry Josey's 57-yard burst up the middle with 3:34 remaining in the game. That kept Missouri at 7-1 in front of 6-2 South Carolina, which held the tiebreaker between the two.

"How about those Tigers?" Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. "I am so proud of our team and coaches. It was not going to be easy. We played a great second half. We held them to 21 points, which is impossible.

"We scored 21 points in the second half. We did a lot of great things in the fourth quarter."

His counterpart at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, said he didn't really think about the title game berth until after he shook Alabama coach Nick Saban's hand.

"It's what you coach for," he said. "It's what these kids play for, to get a chance to win the SEC championship."

The wins also put both teams in the national championship picture. Both teams are 11-1 headed into their meeting with Auburn's loss by two touchdowns at LSU back in late September and Missouri's in double overtime to South Carolina in late October.

But getting a berth in the BCS title game might be difficult even for a one-loss SEC champion if both Florida State and Ohio State win their conference championship games in the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, to remain unbeaten.

As the weekend just showed, however, one can't take anything for granted when it comes to college football.

ALABAMA (0)

Game: Auburn 34, Alabama 28. The Crimson Tide took a 28-21 lead on senior QB AJ McCarron's 99-yard touchdown pass to sophomore WR Amari Cooper with 10:28 left in the game, but the defense let the Tide down. The Tigers marched 83 yards in the closing minutes, scoring on a 39-yard pass play with just 32 seconds remaining. Alabama coach Nick Saban then made the fateful decision of going for a 57-yard field goal instead of taking a knee to kill the final second or throwing a Hail Mary pass, and Auburn's Chris Davis returned the missed attempt 100 yards for the decisive touchdown.

Takeaway: Uncustomary mistakes were costly for the Tide.

First, there were the four missed field goals, three by senior kicker Cade Foster from very makeable distances.

He did make one from 28 yards, but it was nullified by a false-start penalty against junior left guard Arie Kouandjio. Foster missed the ensuing attempt from 33 yards.

Then there was the blown coverage on Auburn's tying touchdown pass when WR Sammie Coates got wide open down the left sideline.

There was the failure to convert a fourth-and-one from Auburn's 13-yard line in the fourth quarter with the Tide already up by a touchdown.

Finally, there were the problems on third downs. The Tide converted only four of 13.

"I was really proud of the way our guys competed out there today, but the fact of the matter is that we did not make plays when we needed to," coach Nick Saban said. "Whether it was a made field goal with a penalty or a missed field goal after that.

"Going for it on fourth and less than a yard and not being able to make it. Making the decision to do what we did at the end of the game. Not being able to cover the kick. We knew they had a guy back there and that we had to fan and cover it.

"That was not a great way to lose the game, especially for a team that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. It is my responsibility."

Next: Bowl TBA.

ARKANSAS (3-9)

Game: LSU 31, Arkansas 27. The Razorbacks looked to be in prime position after junior punter Sam Irwin-Hill's 65-yard punt backed up the Tigers at their own one-yard line with only 3:15 remaining in the game and LSU senior QB Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury. Arkansas held a 31-27 lead at the time, but the Hogs' defense couldn't keep the Tigers from driving 99 yards. A key mistake proved costly. When CB Jared Collins took one step inside, it freed up LSU freshman WR Traven Dural, and Dural sped down the left sideline to haul in a 49-yard touchdown pass from LSU backup QB Anthony Jennings for the decisive touchdown.

Takeaway: The Razorbacks put together probably their best performance in two months.

It wasn't enough for them to get the win, but it does give some hope for the future.

The Hogs ran for 182 yards against an LSU defense that had held Texas A&M to just 75 yards rushing the week before, and despite an interception in the end zone in the second quarter and a lost fumble on his final play, sophomore QB Brandon Allen had one of his better passing days. He completed 19 of 29 attempts for 178 yards and two touchdowns.

The defense gave up 238 yards on the ground but held the Tigers to 156 yards passing until giving up 76 on LSU's drive for the decisive touchdown.

First-year coach Bret Bielema said he challenged his players after the overtime loss to Mississippi State six days earlier to forget about the past and just prepare for the Tigers.

"I thought they locked in extremely well and played a good football game today, but again something raises up at the end that causes us to lose the game," Bielema said. "But a lot of positives, a lot of good play. A lot of good competing.

"Enough positives that I'd be very shocked if the story of the 2014 season isn't anything but a positive."

Next: Season completed.

AUBURN (11-1)

Game: Auburn 34, Alabama 28. In their first game since their miracle win over Georgia two weeks earlier, the Tigers topped sophomore WR Ricardo Louis' touchdown reception off a deflection when senior CB Chris Davis returned Alabama's missed field goal attempt 100 yards (officially he covered more like 108) for the decisive touchdown as time ran out. After giving up a 99-yard touchdown pass to Alabama early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers tied the game at 28-28 with an 83-yard march capped by junior QB Nick Marshall's 39-yard touchdown pass to sophomore WR Sammie Coates with 32 seconds remaining.

Takeaway: Obviously, Davis' runback will get the most attention, and deservedly so, but one of the major keys to the Tigers' win was their ability to run the football.

They had 296 yards rushing, the first time since 2011 that an opponent has run for over 200 against Bama's defense, and that helped keep the Tigers in position where one play could decide the game.

It also helped set up the tying touchdown as the Tide geared up to stop the run on Auburn's final possession. The Tigers had run it six consecutive plays after taking over at their 17-yard line with 2:32 remaining in the game and Coates was wide open when the Tigers threw it for the first time on the drive.

"First of all, they are a great run-defense, but we felt like for us to win we had to run it," coach Gus Malzahn said. "Our mindset was to run the football.

"I didn't want to change anything. I wanted to do what got us here. If they were good enough to stop it, so be it, but that's what we are good at."

The Tigers nearly had two 100-yard rushers, but Marshall settled for a net of 99 yards after losing nine yards on a sack on his next-to-last series. Junior RB Tre Mason finished with 164 yards on 29 carries.

Next: Vs. Missouri. SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Dec. 7.

FLORIDA (4-8)

Game: Florida State 37, Florida 7. The Gators hung with the second-ranked Seminoles into the second quarter until the 'Noles scored touchdown drives of 96 and 74 yards over the final 10-plus minutes of the period. With the Gators' problems on offense, the game effectively was over when the visiting 'Noles went to the locker room up 17-0 at the halftime break. The Gators avoided a shutout when redshirt freshman QB Skyler Mornhinweg threw a five-yard touchdown pass to junior FB Hunter Joyner to complete an 83-yard march early in the fourth quarter.

Takeaway: The 2013 season, Florida's worst since a 0-10-1 debacle in 1979, came to a merciful close with the Gators' seventh consecutive loss.

"A very frustrating, difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "That's the best way I can sum it up."

Though the Gators managed to avoid the shutout, they rushed for only 78 yards and passed for a mere 115 for just 193 yards in total offense, their second-lowest output of the season. They had only 151 in the loss to Missouri.

Of that total, 50 yards came on one play, senior WR Trey Burton's run from the wildcat formation in the first quarter. Burton landed on his shoulder being tackled, however, and never returned.

So the day essentially was a microcosm of the way the injury-riddled season went for the Gators, who, because of injuries, had only five players start all 12 games.

Muschamp said work on repairing the mess will start immediately, and he got the blessing from his athletic director, Jeremy Foley, afterward.

"I have total confidence in coach Muschamp and have made that clear," Foley said.

The same can't be said of some of Muschamp's staff. The day after the loss to FSU the Associated Press reported that offensive coordinator Brent Pease has been fired, and CBS reported that offensive line coach Tim Davis also has been dismissed.

Next: Season completed.

GEORGIA (8-4)

Game: Georgia 41, Georgia Tech 34 (OT). The Bulldogs overcame an early 20-0 deficit and then rallied from down 27-17 early in the fourth quarter, scoring on sophomore RB Todd Gurley's two-yard run with 6:37 remaining in regulation and sophomore PK Marshall Morgan's 32-yard field goal at the 4:17 mark of the fourth quarter. Gurley then scored both of Georgia's touchdowns in the overtimes, covering the necessary 25 yards on three carries on the first series and getting all on one run to open the second.

Takeaway: Coach Mark Richt said the Bulldogs challenged Gurley and the offensive line throughout the game and especially in overtime.

Gurley finished with 122 of Georgia's 138 yards on the ground.

"We decided we were going to run our bread-and-butter plays; plays that we believe in the most," Richt said. "We almost threw a pass on the first play of the second possession, but we decided we were going to run that ball on first down one more time and just see."

Gurley also had 36 yards and a touchdown receiving on three catches.

Junior QB Hutson Mason, starting in place of injured senior Aaron Murray, threw for 299 yards and two scores.

"All those times when I thought about transferring and sitting and talking with Coach Richt in his office, this game, this type of game is what I dreamed of," Mason said. "This was the kind of game I dreamed of being a part of.

"I'm so thankful for this opportunity, and I'm just glad to be a Bulldog."

The win over the Yellow Jackets gave the Bulldogs a sweep of their top arch-rivals Tech and Florida, providing them some consolation for what has been an injury-marred, disappointing season.

Next: Bowl TBA.

KENTUCKY (2-10)

Game: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 14. The visiting Vols jumped out early against the Wildcats, scoring on the second play of the game. Tennessee led 20-7 at the half and 27-7 going into the fourth quarter as the Wildcats struggled to gain consistency on offense. Sophomore RB Dyshawn Mobley rushed for a career-high 143 yards, but the Wildcats as a team finished with just 139 yards on the ground after giving up five sacks.

Takeaway: Kentucky finished winless in SEC play for a second consecutive season, but first-year coach Mark Stoops said he believes a foundation has been laid for the future.

"We can all do things better, starting with me, and we intend on doing that," he said. "I really appreciate the seniors and the foundation that they laid for this program.

"It's always difficult, probably most difficult for the seniors that come in, with a coaching change a bunch of new coaches, new schemes, new everything and I thought those guys really handled themselves well."

The Wildcats finished among the bottom three teams in league play in eight major statistical categories scoring, rushing, passing, total offense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass defense, and total defense.

But Stoops still sees progress.

"I know we're progressing," he said. "It's hard for me to define that exactly.

"I know we're improving. There's no doubt in my mind. You know, we're getting better and we need to continue to build this team and, you know, I always accept responsibility. I know I can do better, and the coaches can do better.

Next: Season completed.

LSU (9-3)

Game: LSU 31, Arkansas 27. With senior QB Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury, true freshman QB Anthony Jennings capped off an eight-play, 99-yard drive with a 49-yard touchdown pass to wide open redshirt freshman WR Travin Dural for the game-winner.

Takeaway: It was a most unlikely scenario for a victory with the Tigers taking the field with just over three minutes left in the game and 99 yards between them and the far end zone with a freshman, Jennings, at quarterback, taking snaps from a freshman center, Ethan Pocic, and, of course, another freshman, Dural, getting wide open for a 49-yard touchdown pass for the win.

"I have to tell you something," coach Les Miles said. "If you had told me that was the scenario, I would have said, 'No way.'

"This group, there is just something about them. They're competitive, they want to play, they make plays and, no matter what the scenario, I would never count them out."

The victory kept the Tigers on track for another 10-win season, which would be the seventh for Miles in nine years at LSU.

Mettenberger is expected to be back for the Tigers' bowl game, but if he isn't, Jennings is ready to step in again.

"Zach is our quarterback," Jennings said. "He's the starter and I understand that. He's the quarterback of this team.

"He just happened to get hurt in the fourth quarter. I was the backup and I came in, and I always prepare like a starter."

Next: Bowl TBA.

MISSISSIPPI (7-5)

Game: Mississippi State 17, Ole Miss 10 (OT). The Rebels led 10-7 early in the fourth quarter until the Bulldogs made a quarterback switch and tied the game with 2:21 left. The Rebels then went three-and-out on the ensuing possession but survived to go into overtime when State missed a 39-yard field goal as time ran out. After State scored on a fourth down play to start the overtime, junior QB Bo Wallace seemed headed for a tying touchdown but the ball was knocked from his grasp and State recovered in the end zone.

Takeaway: After getting only three points on three trips into the end zone the previous week in a loss to Missouri, the Rebels once again struggled with their offense.

Their offense produced 318 yards overall 117 rushing, 201 passing but managed only three points. Their touchdown came on senior WR Terrell Grant's recovery of a blocked punt in the end zone.

"It was awful," Wallace said. "We were terrible. We are a lot better than what we showed tonight. It was really frustrating.

"We need to get in and go to work and get ready for a bowl game. We can't do this anymore."

Wallace was 26-of-40 passing for 182 yards and was intercepted three times.

"I certainly never want to talk negatively about any of our kids," coach Hugh Freeze said, "but everybody watched the game and knows he didn't have his best game.

"In this league if you turn it over the number of times we did, it's going to be difficult to win games."

The loss left the Rebels 7-5 overall but only 3-5 in the SEC, tied with Mississippi State for fifth place in the Western Division.

Next: Bowl TBA.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (6-6)

Game: Mississippi State 17, Ole Miss 10 (OT). Sophomore QB Dak Prescott, cleared to play medically but not in the starting lineup, came off the bench to rally the Bulldogs to the tying field goal in the fourth quarter, then scored the only touchdown in overtime. State's defense then came up big when senior FS Nickoe Whitley stripped the ball from Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace as he was headed into the end zone on the Rebels' OT possession, and junior CB Jamerson Love recovered in the end zone to secure the win.

Takeaway: The Bulldogs cashed in on only one of three Ole Miss turnovers in the first half for a touchdown, but their defense kept them within striking distance.

But they weren't going to overcome their 10-7 deficit until Prescott relieved freshman Damian Williams in the fourth quarter.

Prescott got only one first down on his first series but on his second put the Bulldogs in position for redshirt freshman PK Evan Sobiesk's 35-yard goal that made it 10-10 with 2:21 remaining.

Prescott got the Bulldogs back into position another field goal on the final play of regulation, but Sobiesk's 39-yard attempt was wide right.

Then, on fourth-and-one from the three-yard line on State's possession in overtime, Prescott asked coach Dan Mullen for the ball, and Prescott repaid Mullen's decision with the touchdown run.

"It was kind of a heroic effort by him to come in in that position," Mullen said of Prescott, who had missed the previous two games with a shoulder injury.

The victory means 6-6 State is eligible for a fourth straight bowl and gave Mullen a 4-1 record against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl series. The Bulldogs finished 3-5 in the SEC, tied for fifth in the Western Division with Ole Miss.

Next: Bowl TBA.

MISSOURI (11-1)

Game: Missouri 28, Texas A&M 21. After scoring the go-ahead touchdown on junior RB Henry Josey's 57-yard run with 3:34 left in the game, the Tigers held the visiting Aggies to a three-and-out, then killed the final two minutes with the help of senior QB James Franklin's pass to senior TE Eric Waters for a 16-yard gain on second-and-seven.

Takeaway: The Tigers trailed 14-7 at the half but scored two third quarter touchdowns to take a 21-14 lead into the final quarter.

"We made some plays," coach Gary Pinkel said. "You have to make plays. It is not magic out there.

"It certainly is a great group of players, I am just so proud of my football team. We are going to enjoy this next 24 hours then get back to work fast."

Aggies QB Johnny Manziel drove the Aggies 98 yards for the tying touchdown with under 11 minutes to go, but overall the Tigers' defense did a good job on the 2012 Heisman winner. Manziel rushed for only a net 21 yards and passed for just 195.

With the win, Pinkel got his 101st victory to tie Don Faurot as Missouri's all-time leader in coaching wins.

"I am surely honored," he said. "but that is not what is nice about that. This is about winning a championship. It is about all the guys in here.

"I am so proud of this football team."

Next: Vs. Auburn, SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Dec. 7.

SOUTH CAROLINA (10-2)

Game: South Carolina 31, Clemson 17. South Carolina's defense forced six Clemson turnovers three on interceptions, three on fumble recoveries but didn't really secure things until scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks had only 318 yards in total offense to Clemson's 352, but held the Tigers to just 68 yards and intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter.

Takeaway: The Gamecocks won the battle in defeating their instate rival, but they lost the war when Missouri beat Texas A&M to capture the Eastern Division title.

A Mizzou loss would have given the Gamecocks not only a share of the division title but the berth in the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks, who finished conference play a couple of weeks earlier with a 6-2 record, held the tiebreaker over Mizzou, which finished 7-1 in league play.

There were many upsides to the night for the Gamecocks, however.

The win over Clemson extended South Carolina's home winning streak to 18 games, its streak over non-conference opponents to 14, and its domination over Clemson to five games, its longest in the 111-year history of the rivalry.

"It's pretty neat to go 10-2 with this team that was one time called the youngest team in America," said coach Steve Spurrier, who is in his ninth year with the Gamecocks after stints at Duke and Florida. "They've really achieved, and I'm really proud of this team.

"I was thinking back of all the teams I've had, these guys may have achieved the most for such a young bunch of guys that haven't played all that much and don't have that much experience."

Next: Bowl TBA.

TENNESSEE (5-7)

Game: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 7. The Vols got out to a quick start when senior RB Raijon Neal ran 60 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the game, and the defense kept Kentucky in check after that. The Vols were up 20-7 at the half and 27-7 after three quarters before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown. Neal rushed for 134 to finish with 1,124 for the season. Junior WR Devin Young also had a big game with 66 yards on four receptions, two kickoff returns for 67 yards, and a punt return for 18.

Takeaway: Defense dominated for the Vols.

After recording just one sack in its four-game losing streak, the Vols had five against Kentucky with senior DE Corey Miller credited with 4.5. He entered the game with just five in his career.

The defense also was able to stop Kentucky on two consecutive shots from inside the one-yard line late in the third quarter to keep the Wildcats from scoring.

"I thought our kids really showed up and played winning football I thought defensively, obviously, the goal line stand and the resiliency they showed tonight.," coach Butch Jones said. "Then we had some big plays offensively."

Jones appreciated finishing with a win but promises better things to come.

"We'll enjoy this one, but Monday we're back in the weight room getting ready for next season," Jones said. "I want to continue to stay positive and move forward, but it's expected that we go to bowl games from here on out.

"That's our goal."

Next: Season completed.

TEXAS A&M (8-4)

Game: Missouri 28, Texas A&M 21. The Aggies had a 14-7 lead at the half but gave up two touchdowns in the third quarter. After tying it early in the fourth quarter when QB Johnny Manziel directed a 98-yard scoring drive, the Aggies had the opportunity to regain the lead but were forced to punt. The Tigers responded with a three-play, 66-yard drive with RB Henry Josey scoring on a 57-yard run.

Takeaway: The Aggies' bowl stock has taken a dip after the last two games with the back-to-back losses to LSU and Missouri to finish the regular season.

"I'm not happy about what has happened the last couple of weeks, obviously," coach Kevin Sumlin said, "but we still have one more opportunity to go out and play, and it's probably going to be another really good team."

The Aggies had their chances against the Tigers, but Manziel didn't have the magic he has been accustomed to down the stretch.

Though he has denied it has had an effect on his game, it seemed apparent his throwing hand, injured in the win over Mississippi State earlier in the month, was hurting at times.

He completed 24 of 35 passes for 195 yards, but many were short tosses, and he rushed for only 21 yards on 11 carries.

Sumlin wasn't using that as an excuse.

"If he wasn't healthy enough to play," Sumlin said, "he wouldn't have played the rest of the game."

Next: Bowl TBA.

VANDERBILT (8-4)

Game: Vanderbilt 23, Wake Forest 21. Senior Carey Spear's 38-yard field goal with 39 seconds left gave the Commodores the win.

Takeaway: Vandy now has eight-win seasons in back-to-back years for the first time since 1927 and 1928 and will be headed for a bowl game for a third straight season for the first time in program history.

Where that bowl game will be won't be determined, of course, until later. The Commodores haven't left the state of Tennessee for their last two, beating North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl in their hometown of Nashville last year and losing to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 2011.

Coach James Franklin doesn't care.

"We are not bowl snobs," he said. "Wherever they tell us to go, we will be happy to go there."

Though the Commodores were bowl eligible after their victory over Kentucky on Nov. 16, they no doubt have enhanced their position with their comeback wins at Tennessee and over Wake the last two games.

Neither of those last two wins came easy.

The Commodores needed the replay official to overturn a fourth down spot that originally denied them a first down to keep alive their winning drive against the Vols, and they got a big sack from senior DE Walker May to thwart Wake's final drive after Spears' late field goal.

Next: Bowl TBA