SEC Extra Points: Saban Says Leonard Fournette May Be 'Even Better' Than Ever

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterOctober 26, 2016

LSU RB Leonard Fournette
LSU RB Leonard FournetteJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has two weeks to prepare for star LSU running back Leonard Fournette, and he knows how much of a challenge that is.

Fournette rushed for a school-record 284 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries in last week's 38-21 win over Ole Miss in his first game back from an ankle injury. 

That struck a chord with Saban.

"I haven't really seen a guy dominate a game like he did that game for a long time," Saban said during the coaches' teleconference Wednesday. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and he looks as good as ever, and maybe even better."

The bar was already set pretty high for Fournette through two seasons. Even though his nagging ankle injury has forced him to miss three games, Saban isn't surprised with what the junior from New Orleans is doing.

"The guy is a fantastic player, and he's been a fantastic player for—this is the third year in a row," Saban said.

As for the offense that Fournette thrived in on Saturday night, LSU's return to the Top 25 isn't as much about the minor tweaks that interim head coach Ed Orgeron has made to the offense as much as the unit clicking on all cylinders.

"This is a very challenging team based on the balance that they create and what they do, and they probably play a little more two-tights and two-wides, which is a good thing for them because it features the players that they have," Saban said. "We see some subtle differences in what they're doing. I think the thing about it is, their execution has been really good. That's usually what makes the difference."


Fighting For the Job

LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron
LSU interim head coach Ed OrgeronJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Speaking of LSU...so far, so good for Orgeron.

The Tigers are 3-0 since he took over for Les Miles, have averaged 41.7 points per game over that stretch and have re-established themselves as a threat in the SEC West after September losses to Wisconsin and Auburn.

The resurgence has Orgeron in position to become an attractive target for LSU when it begins its search for a permanent head coach following the season.

"My mindset is to block it out," Orgeron said of the pressure of winning the job on a full-time basis. "Obviously, the natural thing to do is to think about it, but I have to block it out and take the day as it is. Whatever is going to happen over the next four or five weeks is going to happen, and I can't worry about that today."

Orgeron won't say it (nor should he), but LSU's next game will play a huge role in whether he gets the interim tag removed.

Alabama has topped LSU five straight times dating back to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game following the 2011 season, and a win over Alabama a week from Saturday will vault LSU back into the thick of the SEC West title race—something it hasn't won since 2011. 

If Orgeron does that, consider him one of the front-runners to win the job. Even if LSU doesn't top the Tide, an unblemished record the rest of the way would still make him an attractive candidate. 


High Rollers

The USA Today coaching-salary database is out for 2016, and to the surprise of nobody, the SEC West is well-represented. 

All seven division coaches are among the 20 highest-paid head coaches in the country, according to the report, with all seven topping the $4 million-per-year mark. Alabama's Nick Saban leads the way with $6,939,395 and is the second-highest-paid head coach in the country behind Michigan's Jim Harbaugh ($9,004,000).

Here's the full list of SEC coaches:

SEC Coaches' Salaries
Nick SabanAlabama$6,939,395
Kevin SumlinTexas A&M$5,000,000
Gus MalzahnAuburn$4,729,500
Hugh FreezeOle Miss$4,703,500
Les MilesLSU$4,385,567
Jim McElwainFlorida$4,268,325
Dan MullenMississippi State$4,200,000
Bret BielemaArkansas$4,145,000
Butch JonesTennessee$4,110,000
Kirby SmartGeorgia$3,753,600
Mark StoopsKentucky$3,513,600
Will MuschampSouth Carolina$3,002,500
Derek MasonVanderbilt$2,556,877
Barry OdomMissouri$2,350,000
USA Today

They're all worth every penny.

Saban's salary might seem exorbitant, but it isn't considering the market, national championships in four of the last seven years and a profit of $46,491,330 in 2015, according to Aaron Suttles the Tuscaloosa News. Not revenue. Profit. 

Isn't that what a head coach's job is? Winning games on the field and winning on the bottom line?

Without a doubt.

But the lower-tier schools are still spending their money wisely on head coaches.

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen pulled in $4.2 million last season, which may seem a bit steep considering its 2-5 record this year. But can you name other Bulldog coaches who have had them ranked No. 1 at any point? That list has just one name: Dan Mullen.

And Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze? Yep, he's worth that $4,703,500 salary as well.

Despite the 3-4 record and falling out of the national picture in 2016, the Rebels have been a mainstay in that picture for two-and-a-half years and have earned two straight New Year's Six bowl berths. Freeze has built a roster in Oxford that is as competitive as any in the division.

That matters for a team that has never represented the SEC West in the SEC Championship Game, as does the fact that the Rebels ranked 34th in the nation in revenue in 2014-15, according to USA Today.

Is there pressure with the high salaries? 

Of course.

Not living up to the expectations that those salaries created was a big reason why Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin ($5,000,000) and Auburn's Gus Malzahn ($4,729,500) entered the season on the hot seat (and have subsequently coached themselves off it).

But that pressure separates the good coaches from those who can't cut it. Based on the fact that every SEC West team has been ranked in the Top 20 at some point over the last three years, all seven are earning their paychecks.


Ain't No Party Like a Cocktail Party

Florida and Georgia will square off this week in Jacksonville in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Oh, wait—or is it the River City Showdown, as in this screenshot of a shirt courtesy of Jim Weber of LostLettermen.com?

Jim Weber @JimMWeber

1st Red River Shootout became Red River Showdown. Now The World's Largest Cocktail Party is THIS?! #MakeCollegeRivalryNicknamesGreatAgain https://t.co/brfwnJGJJW

According to the schools, it's neither.

"Licensees have used a number of references in the past around the game on product (including this one)," Alan Thomas, Georgia's associate athletic director for external affairs said in a quote provided by the Georgia sports information department. "Georgia and Florida have not designated any kind of naming to the game in any manner other than allowing licensees to create product bearing the marks in association with their other (artwork)."

Who are we kidding, though?

Of course the name of the rivalry game is the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."

For those who haven't experienced it, when you drive over the St. Johns River and onto Commodore Point, you see a sea of orange, blue, red and black. You see fans enjoying what looks more like a fair than a football game. 

You see—dare I say—a party.

Even the coaches involved know that this is more of an event rather than just a normal game.

"It's unique," said Kirby Smart, who played for Georgia in this game and is in his first season as the Bulldogs' head coach. "You only hear about it, you don't know about it until you see it and live it. It's pretty different, and it's really cool.

Instead of forcing change, leave the name of the rivalry alone. 


Back to the Future

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett LashleeJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Auburn is riding a four-game winning streak since offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took over the play-calling duties from head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing at 302.86 yards per game and racked up a whopping 543 last time out in a 56-3 win over Arkansas.

That rushing attack plays directly into the weakness of Ole Miss, which hosts the Tigers on Saturday night.

The Rebels gave up 200 yards on the ground to Arkansas in a loss two weeks ago, and it's become abundantly clear over the three conference losses that the Rebel defensive line is nowhere near the best in the SEC. Last week, it was on the receiving end of Fournette's historic performance.

Freeze expects another tough test on the ground this weekend.

"Gus taught Rhett, and Rhett is doing a phenomenal job of calling the game now," said Freeze. "They really remind me of the Tre Mason days now, to where they were just so committed to what they do and who they are. It's the same stuff that I've seen from Gus over the years, and now Rhett is just carrying it on."

The "Tre Mason days," more specifically, refers to the 2013 season in which Auburn lost a late September game to a conference foe, found its stride on the ground in October and early November and then rallied late to win the SEC.

Auburn Rushing Stats By Month—2013 vs. 2016
Rush YPGYPCAtt/GameRush TDRush First Downs Per Game
Aug./Sept. 2013232.255.0546.0811.75
Aug./Sept. 2016234.754.5651.5611.75
Oct. 2013398.507.5952.51617.75
Oct. 2016393.676.6059.671518.33

This season is taking a similar path, with the major difference being Auburn's season-opening loss to out-of-conference opponent Clemson this year rather than the somewhat sluggish season-opening win it had over out-of-conference foe Washington State in 2013. 

This season might not result in the SEC title for Auburn, but it's looking more and more like a legitimate contender in the SEC West. 

The Leader Tennessee Needs

All is not well on Rocky Top.

The Vols have lost two straight, several key players are out with injuries (including running back Alvin Kamara and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin) and need to win out and have Florida stumble to make their first SEC Championship Game since 2007.

Luckily, they have veteran leaders such as senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs to guide them through the rough times.

"Constant and never-ending growth," head coach Butch Jones said of Dobbs. "Not just as a football player, but as a leader. Josh is one of those individuals who, when he speaks, everybody listens. He chooses his words very carefully. He chooses when he needs to be vocal, and it's always at the appropriate time. He always has a sense of calmness to him and is very, very confident."

Tennessee needs that kind of leader.

With two conference losses on the resume, Tennessee likely needs to win out over South Carolina this week, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to put itself in position to win the division. While that's not a rocky road by any stretch, Tennessee has made a habit of playing down to its competition this year, including an overtime win against Appalachian State and a sluggish performance versus Ohio.

Dobbs endured all of it. Having him around to navigate the ever-evolving Vol depth chart through the final month of the season should be all Tennessee needs to put itself in position to go to Atlanta. 

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee QB Joshua DobbsChristopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports


Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.


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