We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
Returning starters: Vernon Hargreaves III arrived with tremendous fanfare last summer and immediately became an alpha in the fall. He was easily Florida's best cornerback in coverage and was recognized as a first-team All-SEC selection. Hargreaves continued a recent string of true freshmen success stories, following in the footsteps of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Roberson.
Departures: Roberson and another junior starter, Loucheiz Purifoy, left early to enter the NFL draft where they are expected to be picked somewhere in the first three rounds. Roberson was terrific in coverage, while Purifoy relied on his elite athleticism to make plays all over the field. The Gators also graduated Jaylen Watkins, a cornerback who played out of position at safety during his senior season. Watkins, one of UF's most polished defensive backs in coverage, was a four-year player who made 28 career starts and grew into a strong leadership role. Another important departure was fourth-year junior Cody Riggs, who played at safety in 2013 but, like Watkins, was originally a cornerback. Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame, where he expects to be eligible this fall after graduating from Florida in the spring.
Returning reserves: There's only one, but he's certain to play a significant role in 2014. Rising junior Brian Poole came to UF with the pedigree of a top-10 cornerback prospect and has missed just two games in his first two seasons. He made six starts last fall as Florida's nickel cornerback, which is an important position considering how often the Gators employ five DBs. Poole is versatile, having seen time at safety as well, so there are plenty of options. He's a strong contender for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves, but Poole could also remain at nickel or shift to safety.
Newcomers: The spotlight will shine immediately on Jalen Tabor, the No. 5 cornerback prospect in the Class of 2014 who was also ranked No. 15 in the ESPN 300. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Tabor is on campus and has already commanded the attention of Florida coaches who are enamored with his range and athleticism. Similarly gifted is redshirt freshman Nick Washington, who missed his first season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Washington was a key four-star ESPN 300 recruit in Florida's 2013 class, and expectations are that his athleticism will translate into playing time this fall. Duke Dawson is another freshman already enrolled. He's a bit overshadowed by Tabor, but Dawson might fit better as a safety anyhow with his 5-11, 197-pound frame. Still, Dawson could get a long look at cornerback this spring because of his quick feet, fluid hips and natural feel for coverage techniques.
What to watch: Losing four starters -- including three juniors -- all of whom could play cornerback would likely be a staggering blow to most college teams. But at Florida, cornerback has become a glamour position and there's plenty of talent for the Gators to move forward without skipping a beat. Like Hargreaves the year before, Tabor is an elite prospect who exemplifies the current pipeline of cornerback talent that Florida is able to attract. Now if the coaching staff can coax another star performance out of a true freshman, the Gators suddenly won't look so thin at cornerback. There's plenty of talent, but not all of these players are ideally suited to be corners. One big injury could change the outlook for this position profoundly, so it is important that the Gators have a productive spring session. The top goals are to develop Tabor, see if Poole is ready for a full-time role and get reserves like Washington and Dawson ready for action. When fall camp rolls around, this group will be bolstered by three more true freshmen. J.C. Jackson, the No. 79 overall prospect in the nation, has the talent to be a natural cornerback who can compete for playing time right away. Quincy Wilson can play some cornerback but could ultimately wind up at safety. And Deiondre Porter was a high school quarterback who will get a first look at either corner or safety but seems likely to redshirt. There will undoubtedly be pressure on this group to continue the success of their predecessors, but cornerbacks at Florida play more man coverage than most. Pressure comes with the territory.
With nearly 11,600 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, the Gators narrowly edged Georgia by collecting 36 percent of the vote, while the Bulldogs grabbed 33 percent. Tennessee finished third with 17 percent of the vote, Arkansas was next with 12 percent, and Kentucky finished with two percent.
The hope is that the injury bug won't sink its teeth into the Gators this fall like it did in 2013 and that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's more spread attack will help open things up for quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is coming off of a season-ending leg injury. Adding a trip to Alabama won't make things any easier for Florida in 2014 but having LSU and South Carolina at home will be better.
The Bulldogs have a shot to rebound from their eight-win season by making it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Dawgs have the offensive talent to continue that scoring spree from last season, and there’s a sense that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can sure things up on a unit that was inconsistent.
As for Tennessee and Arkansas, they are looking to find their identities on both sides of the ball. Both have quarterback questions and are looking for valuable offensive playmakers. Both need work in their front sevens and have challenging schedules as well. However, a change of attitude could propel both teams. The Vols have shown it ever since Butch Jones arrived, while the Hogs are still looking to get tougher under Bret Bielema.
Kentucky had talent deficiencies all over the field in 2013, leading to just two wins in Mark Stoops' first year. Like Arkansas and Tennessee, a change in attitude and confidence will go a long way for the Wildcats. Stoops has recruited well and expects to get a lot out of his youngsters. But making sure offensive playmakers emerge, a quarterback takes the lead and the secondary comes together remain Stoops' biggest challenges going forward.
From immediately being compared with all-everything stud Tim Tebow as the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect more than three years ago to now working with his third offensive coordinator, Driskel has been thrown around like a rag doll.
Now, Driskel is entering his fourth spring at Florida coming off a leg injury that ended his 2013 season.
But he doesn't have time to pity himself. He doesn't pout or whine. He's focused on taking on yet another playbook and righting a Florida ship that won just four games last season.
Just looking at Driskel, you can sense things are different. There's no anxiety in his eyes, and his shoulders are slumped. He jokes with a stadium staffer and giggles like a child. He leans back in a chair, legs propped on a desk with his vertical ankle scar visible to the world.
It's a mark that keeps Driskel, who will be a redshirt junior this fall, humble and hungry. It's a constant reminder of how much was taken away when Tennessee defensive lineman Marlon Walls awkwardly landed on Driskel's right leg, breaking his fibula in Florida's third game.
"You wouldn't imagine how much muscle you lose in six weeks in a cast," Driskel said with a laugh as he showed a reporter a picture of his puny right calf.
"It looked like all bone. The bone was sticking out of my skin, is what it looked like. And it was all flopping down here (points to where his calf muscle grew back)."
Driskel powered a one-legged scooter around campus and constructed a makeshift scooter ramp out of 10 computer mats just to get to the front door of his house, which had a pebble driveway.
Fixing a sandwich and taking a shower went from routine to grueling.
"I didn't know how hard it was to go to the kitchen when you can't walk," Driskel said. "It was tough. I had to plan out when I had to go to the bathroom and go to the kitchen. A lot of Netflix."
Driskel said he finished the hit FX show "Sons of Anarchy" in about three weeks, but left "Friday Night Lights" alone because, well, that "Texas forever" scene gets everyone.
When Driskel wasn't scooting or lounging in front of the tube, he was with teammates. He attended film sessions, even with no games to play. He couldn't be on the sideline because he was on crutches, so he made sure he advised backups Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg as much as he could during the week. He also attended every quarterback meeting, even though it wasn't a requirement.
When he finally got into a walking boot seven weeks after surgery, he started going through countless hours of rehab, which started with simply flexing his foot for various periods of time. He returned to the gym a month and a half after his cast came off.
"You wouldn't imagine how stiff you'd get staying in the same spot for six weeks," Driskel said.
"I did just about every calf exercise that you can imagine to get back to where it is now."
Coach Will Muschamp said Driskel is ahead of schedule and has been cleared for spring practice, which was pushed back so he would be 100 percent.
"You could tell after he got hurt that he was determined, he was ready to work," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Now, during the offseason, he's ready to work. You can tell, he's trying to get everybody together and have that bond with his receivers.
"I can tell he's taking another big step, and I think he's going to be fine."
But skepticism lurks. His three interceptions in three starts last season, especially two crippling ones in a bad loss to Miami, overshadow his 10 wins from 2012. He's thrown for more than 200 yards just three times in his career and has thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game only twice.
Driskel is aware of the negativity, but he copes by ignoring and concerning himself with only the people around him.
And those people have seen major strides being made. Muschamp points to the "nine explosive passes" he had against Miami (291 yards) and the comfort he showed running the offense last season.
There have been ugly parts to Driskel's career, but Muschamp has seen enough growth to know what he is capable of.
"Jeff's progressed well as a quarterback and we're going to do more things that fit him well and what he does," Muschamp said. "I'm excited about the year that he's going to have."
That excitement comes from knowing that Driskel will be running more of a spread offense with more no-huddle this fall under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. It fits Driskel's talents and will open up his running ability out of the shotgun, where Driskel said he has a more natural feel and can be more effective with his arm and legs.
More zone-read is coming, meaning the onus will be on Driskel to be more efficient. More runs and passes will go through him, and he welcomes that. He wants the pressure and he wants the responsibility.
"The quarterback is the most important person on the offense," he said. "Being asked to carry the ball more is something that is fun for me, that's what I've grown up doing. I can't wait to do it this fall.
"Hopefully I won't be gimping around."
- There are mixed opinions on new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, but some of his former players believe he’ll do well with the Tide, calling him an ‘offensive guru.’
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who accepted the Bobby Bowden Coach of the Year Award on Sunday night, saw a role model in the former coaching legend.
- More than half the teams in the SEC will be looking to replace their quarterback in 2014, which sets up some great battles beginning this spring.
- Florida is not happy about former coach Urban Meyer turning Tim Tebow into a recruiting tool for Ohio State.
- Johnny Manziel is gone, but Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital says the offense will remain dynamic no matter who the quarterback is.
- Both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Mark Richt want officiating crews to dictate the tempo of games, similar to how they do in the NFL.
- Michael Sam is the one in the headlines, but fellow defensive end Kony Ealy should be Missouri’s next first-round pick.
- When spring practice begins in Knoxville later this week, Tennessee will start the process of replacing its entire offensive line.
We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This weeklong series opens with a look at the much-maligned wide receivers corps.
Departures: Senior Solomon Patton had a breakthrough season with 44 catches, 556 yards and six touchdowns -- all team-leading numbers among receivers. Senior Trey Burton had his best season as a pass-catcher with 38 receptions for 445 yards and one TD. Both are hoping to find a place in the NFL, which leaves the Gators with a very inexperienced group of receivers.
Returning reserves: Senior Andre Debose, who missed last season with a torn ACL, has applied for a medical hardship to return for a sixth season. Although he has been wildly inconsistent, Debose has the ability to be the big-play deep threat Florida desperately needs to scare defenses. Rising sophomores Ahmad Fulwood (17 catches, 127 yards), Demarcus Robinson (five catches, 23 yards) and Chris Thompson (two catches, 13 yards) got experience as true freshmen in 2013 and will be counted on to fight for starting jobs. It's now or never for rising juniors Latroy Pittman (two catches, 18 yards) and Raphael Andrades (no catches in two games).
Newcomers: Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins are redshirt freshmen hoping to make a splash in their first spring practices. Both are talented four-star ESPN 300 prospects. Florida also signed a pair of three-star prospects, Ryan Sousa and C.J. Worton, who will arrive this summer and have already been designated as slot receivers for fall camp.
What to watch: Like Florida's offense in general, the wide receiver position has been in disrepair since 2009. The Gators are determined to climb out of the cellar of FBS offenses, and the passing game is clearly the biggest area for improvement. A big factor in Florida's favor is the presence of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who returns for his second year to give much-needed continuity. Phillips is a well-seasoned offensive coach with a solid track record of producing wideouts. In 2014, it will be time for everyone involved to take their games to another level, and that begins in earnest on March 19. Dunbar must be a leader on and off the field this spring, as Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel needs a go-to receiver. But Dunbar will need at least one sidekick. In fact, Florida has enough talented wide receivers that the coaching staff is hoping for a true star to emerge and perhaps surpass Dunbar. Will Debose finally be healthy and consistent? Will either of UF's immensely talented sophomores, Fulwood and Robinson, seize a starting position? Or will we see another spring star flash (only to disappear in the fall) like Pittman did two years ago? There are question marks everywhere you look when it comes to this group of receivers. Given the talent the Gators have been recruiting, surely it's just a matter of time before they truly strike gold and find a wide receiver who brings some fireworks back to the offense.
Spring start: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
- Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
- Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
- Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
- Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
Spring start: March 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
- Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
- Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
- Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
- Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
- A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
- Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
- QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
- Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
- Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
- But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes in each conference. For the full series, click here.
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating uptempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.
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You know, the absurd number of injuries the Georgia football team dealt with in 2013 started with the head coach. Mark Richt, who had hip replacement surgery last year, wasn’t in the best of spirits when I visited his office in April. Rehab was tough and he wasn’t moving all that well. He seemed much more upbeat when I talked with him last week.
“I’ve about kicked it,” Richt said, laughing. “I don’t have to run or play on it, so I’ll be OK.”
Like Richt, the Bulldogs are on the mend -- and they do have to run and play on their healing parts. Florida, which also endured an inordinate number of major injuries last year, is likewise hopeful of a rebound.
Those regular SEC East contenders lead off our discussion of important spring injuries. Some teams are getting players back, while others will be missing pieces for their upcoming practices.
Richt aside, the medical omens were evident for both the Bulldogs and Gators. Freshman corner Reggie Wilkerson, who was likely going to be in the rotation for Georgia, tore his ACL in preseason camp. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell then did the same during the Clemson game, celebrating UGA’s first touchdown of the year. It was the most damaging flying butt bump in football history.
Meanwhile, when I visited Gainesville a few days before the Gators’ opener, they announced that vital offensive tackle Chaz Green had torn his ACL. From there, as you know, things spiraled. Georgia finished 8-5, Florida 4-8 and neither flirted with the division crown for which they fought head-to-head the season before.
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Need a little perspective?
The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.
“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.
Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.
So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.
The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.
Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.
The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.
The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.
“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.
“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”
While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.
Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.
“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.
The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.
There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.
Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.
The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.
Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.
Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”
With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.
We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.
We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This week-long series concludes with a look at a sleeper candidate at running back.
5-foot-7, 222 pounds
Credentials: Lane came out of Winter Haven (Fla.) High School as the No. 15-ranked running back prospect in the Class of 2013. A four-star recruit, he was ranked No. 173 overall in the ESPN 300. But those rankings could have been higher had he not broken his leg and missed his entire junior season in 2011. The first pledge in Florida's 2013 class, Lane came back from that injury to run 205 times for 1,624 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2012.
How he fits: He's been compared to Maurice Jones-Drew, and one look at Lane's body explains it. He's compact, built like a bowling ball, and he runs like one. Lane has enough speed to make defenders miss but really frustrates opponents when he hides behind linemen before exploding to the next level. He's strong enough to initiate contact and drag defenders and strong enough to win a state weightlifting title in his senior year of high school (he benched 415 pounds). Lane is unlikely to suddenly compete for the starting tailback job at UF after redshirting last season, but his running style gives him a great chance to find niche in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's still-developing scheme.
Who he's competing with: Florida has no shortage of options at tailback. Matt Jones was the starter last season, but torn cartilage in his knee required two surgeries. He's expected to be healthy and a big factor in the competition this fall but will sit out the spring. When Jones got hurt last season, true freshman Kelvin Taylor became the starter and improved throughout the second half of the season. Considering Jones' health, Taylor is the prohibitive favorite to be Florida's starter in 2014. Then there's senior Mack Brown and junior Valdez Showers. Brown proved he can be a reliable backup last season, while Showers made a successful conversion from safety to running back and showed promise as a change-of-pace back who can be a threat catching passes out of the backfield. Finally, true freshman early enrollee Brandon Powell hopes to use spring football practices to give the Gators something they lack -- an explosive home-run threat who can stretch the field in every direction.
What needs to happen this spring: The outlook at tailback is rather muddled. Lane has plenty of competition, so he'll have to stand out in spring practice and be consistent in order to carve out a role. The ideal situation for Lane, and for Florida to take advantage of so much talent at the position, would be a committee. Good thing the reins are in the hands of Roper, who did just that at Duke. Last season the Blue Devils made use of four running backs (two primary ball-carriers and two complementary backs) as well as two quarterbacks who could run. That kind of committee approach could work perfectly at UF this season. Of course the Gators would be just as thrilled to lean mostly on one back if Taylor becomes a star or if Jones gets healthy and taps his vast potential. But one thing is certain: Florida is going to run, run and run some more in 2014.
Urban Meyer was eating lunch with Tim Tebow last March when the Ohio State coach's phone rang.
It was a recruit on the other end. Despite entertaining Tebow, friends and family, Meyer wasn't too busy to answer the phone.
Meyer and Tebow, his former quarterback at Florida and now an ESPN analyst, weren't talking about recruiting, and Meyer said he wasn't trying to lure linebacker Clifton Garrett to the Buckeyes when the coach handed Tebow the phone.
But the ensuing eight-second conversation was a minor violation of NCAA rules, one that Ohio State self-reported to the NCAA in 2013 among other secondary infractions, according to documents obtained by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The violation went public when Garrett, who ultimately committed to LSU, later tweeted about it.
- Clifton Garrett CG3™ (@CG340) March 9, 2013
According to the newspaper report, Meyer told Garrett he was on vacation and having lunch with friends and family, which included Tebow. Garrett then asked Meyer whether he could wish Tebow luck on the upcoming NFL season, and Meyer obliged.
So if Mizzou is picked to tumble, which team is poised for the biggest turnaround this fall? Which team can add more wins in 2014 and make the biggest jump from where it was in 2013?
Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's first year in Fayetteville was forgettable at best, but you have to start somewhere. The Hogs ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in offense and defense last year, lost a school-record nine in a row to close the season and went 0-8 in SEC play for the first time.
After winning only three games in 2013, the Hogs have no choice but to go up, right? Can rising sophomore running back Alex Collins build on a solid freshman campaign? Can the offensive line come together? Can the defensive line replace some valuable pieces? Can a quarterback step up and take control of this offense?
Arkansas still has to go through the rugged SEC Western Division and has to travel to Lubbock, Texas, to take on Texas Tech.
Florida won just four games last year, but coach Will Muschamp still believes he has the pieces in place to make a run to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. After losing 15 players, including 10 starters, to season-ending injuries last season, the Gators have to be healthier in 2014, right? And with Kurt Roper taking over the offense, Florida will run more of a spread scheme, which should help quarterback Jeff Driskel see the field better. But can this team survive a schedule that features trips to Alabama and Florida State and still has LSU, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina on the slate?
Speaking of Georgia, the offense should still be potent even without quarterback Aaron Murray, but how will that defense look under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt? How much will the secondary miss dismissed safety Josh Harvey-Clemons? The Bulldogs still have to play East foes Florida, Missouri and South Carolina, in addition to hosting defending SEC West champ Auburn and one of the ACC's best in Clemson. Getting back to Atlanta is the goal, and this team would love to improve on an eight-win 2013 season.
Kentucky won just two games in Mark Stoops' first year, but the hope is that with improved depth, this team can push a few teams in the East. The Wildcats have to get their quarterback situation figured out, must find more playmakers on offense, and have to find consistency at linebacker and in the secondary. Still, Kentucky showed heart throughout the 2013 season and there are three nonconference wins out there for the Cats this fall. Can they upset an SEC opponent or even new-look Louisville?
Then you have Tennessee. The Vols were a win away from making a bowl last year but still have a lot of questions entering 2014. You can tell the attitude is much different in Knoxville. The confidence is high and the hope is that the talent is improving as the depth rises. Trips to Oklahoma and Ole Miss will be tough additions to the schedule, but getting Florida and Missouri at home could be an advantage for Tennessee. One big question is who will take the snaps at quarterback.
- Grantland take a look at the winners and losers from the the NFL scouting Ccmbine, including mention of several SEC players.
- Is the NCAA going to limit in-season full-contract practices? There could be as few as one per week via a national mandate.
- Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson had an impressive performance at the NFL combine and makes a case for being the NFL draft's top offensive tackle.
- Florida and Florida State extended their annual football series through 2018, and the Gators also added a 2015 game against East Carolina.
- A look which Alabama prospects are up and which are down in terms of NFL draft stock after the combine.
- After a string of injuries, Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready for a strong senior season.
- Ole Miss left guard Aaron Morris and defensive end C.J. Johnson, who both had season-ending injuries in 2013, were granted medical redshirts.
- Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay did not have a negative effect on his team at Missouri, but there has been a lot of debate whether it will be a distraction when he joins an NFL team.
The current contract between the rivals expires after the 2014 season, but there was never a doubt the series would be renewed. Their matchup has become a fixture as the regular-season finale for both schools.
Florida State and Florida have played every year since 1958 and have grown their rivalry into one of the fiercest in college football. From 1990-2000 both schools were ranked in the AP Top 10 when they played each other.
Florida leads the overall series 34-22-2 but the Seminoles have won three of the last four matchups.
The Early Offer: March 12
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35