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.
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 weeklong series continues with a look at a fresh face at an important position that got lost in the 2013 offense's epic struggles.
6-foot-4, 240 pounds
Credentials: Goolsby is already on campus as an early enrollee. He was rated a three-star prospect coming out of high school and was the No. 9 tight end/H-back prospect in the nation. On signing day, Florida coach Will Muschamp called Goolsby "a really good athlete at the tight end position" and noted that he's already put on about 15 pounds.
How he fits: He's not an elite talent, but Goolsby has enough burst and athleticism to be a playmaker. He has good hands, can set up defenders in coverage and has enough speed and wiggle to make them miss. "DeAndre Goolsby is a guy we targeted early on," Muschamp said on signing day. "[Tight ends coach] Derek Lewis went out and evaluated him in the last spring evaluation, really liked his movement skills, his growth potential, his toughness, his point of attack and those things. Excited to have him on campus, and [as] a guy [who] can do some different things for you." The biggest reason Goolsby made this list is because he enrolled in January, which gives him much-needed extra time to learn the playbook and work with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. If Goolsby proves to be a quick study who's coachable, he'll earn loads of opportunity.
Who he's competing with: After a couple of transfers in recent years, the Gators don't have a lot of talent at the tight end position. In some regards, Goolsby won't have much competition this spring. Florida's three incumbent tight ends -- Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook and Colin Thompson -- just aren't natural pass-catchers. Westbrook had three catches last season to lead all Gators tight ends, Burton had one catch, and Thompson was injured for the second straight season. Goolsby will need a lot of work on his in-line blocking technique, but Florida won't bring in any additional receiving tight ends until signees Moral Stephens and C'yontai Lewis arrive this summer.
What needs to happen this spring: It's not easy for true freshmen to make an immediate impact at offensive skill positions, but Muschamp said it best -- "We need some help at the tight end position. [Goolsby] is a guy that’s going to come in here and certainly get his opportunities." To take advantage of the chance to play early, Goolsby needs to keep it simple and worry about learning the plays, running precise routes and catching everything he can. If he can just distinguish himself as the top pass-catcher among UF tight ends this spring, the Gators would call that a success and move forward with plans to involve Goolsby in the offense this fall.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were among the SEC schools that saw changes in coordinators on at least one side of the ball this offseason, and there's no doubt those changes will have an effect on their new programs. But which new coordinators will make the biggest impact? Here's four that catch our eye:
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Much maligned as a head coach, Kiffin has taken his fair share of criticism, which was often justified, during his head coaching stops at Tennessee and USC. But he's not being hired to run the program, just the offense, so most of the pressures that come with being "the man" won't exist for Kiffin as the offensive coordinator. At Alabama, coordinators rarely meet with the media, so there won't be a lot of Kiffin soundbites or quotes out there, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. Nick Saban thinks highly of Kiffin's play-calling ability and offensive mind, and that's an area Kiffin has a strong reputation. The Crimson Tide ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per game (454.1), sixth in red zone efficiency (66 percent) and fourth in points scored per game (38.2). Those are all areas Kiffin can help improve, though he'll have to develop a new quarterback, the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist AJ McCarron. Kiffin was offensive coordinator of a national championship team at USC, which certainly doesn't hurt as he returns to the coordinator role.
Kurt Roper, Florida: Florida's offense has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the league in points scored per game (18.8), yards per game (316.7), red zone efficiency (44.2 percent) and goal-to-go efficiency (43.5 percent). That's where Roper comes in. He helped Duke set a school-record for touchdowns as its offensive coordinator. He has worked with three quarterbacks who have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season, including Eli Manning. He has SEC experience, making stops at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky, and this league is where he has spent the bulk of his assistant coaching career. The Gators will spread it out, and Roper will be charged with developing Jeff Driskel, who hasn't yet lived up to the potential some hoped he would when he signed in the 2011 recruiting class. Expect Roper to have an impact on Driskel and the offense as a whole, and the Gators should be much strong on that side of the ball this fall.
Jake Spavital, Texas A&M: Texas A&M's offense was pretty good, which is understandable with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. But Spavital has the challenging task of steering the Aggies' offense post-Johnny Football, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. That's three probable first-round picks leaving the offense, not to mention losing three starting receivers and the team's top running back from last season, Ben Malena. Spavital, who was the Aggies' quarterbacks coach last season, was given the play-calling and offensive coordinator reigns for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and oversaw a unit that produced 52 points in a victory, but this will be his first fall as a full-time college playcaller. Just 28 years old, the up-and-coming Spavital must choose and develop Manziel's successor (either sophomore Kenny Hill, senior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kyle Allen) and figure out who the go-to receiver will be in 2014. The young assistant does have a history of working with or being around great college quarterbacks though, having been at Houston when Case Keenum was there, at Oklahoma State with Brandon Weeden, and at West Virginia with Geno Smith.
- Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines, who is at the NFL combine, isn't the biggest cornerback, but he believes it's more about the plays he makes than the stature of the player.
- Former All-SEC linebacker Travis Williams will return to Auburn to join Gus Malzahn's staff as a defensive analyst.
- If you haven't had enough Jadeveon Clowney talk, here's some more: The potential top overall pick discusses the impact assistant coach Brad Lawing -- who spent two seasons at South Carolina, but is now at Florida -- had on his development.
- Arkansas center Travis Swanson didn't concern himself with what other players at his position were doing at the combine or making proclamations. He focused on his performance in hopes of impressing scouts.
- The "Dream Team" recruiting pitch has been successful in the past for Georgia and Mark Richt said the Bulldogs have thought about using it more.
- Renovations of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium have begun. The 41-year-old stadium is getting a $110 million facelift.
- Ranking the talent level of the SEC rosters heading into 2014.
- What is the first term that pops up from Google's autocomplete function when you type a head coach's name into the search box? A fun look at results from SEC coaches and beyond.
- Recent off-the-field issues involving two defensive players and suspensions dating to last season are somewhat of concern for Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
Watkins ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash and also did 22 reps on the bench press. He played both cornerback and safety for the Gators and also worked some as their nickelback. He doesn't have ideal size to play safety in the NFL (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) but certainly helped himself with his impressive 40 time. When you take into account that he's moved around and played different positions in the secondary, his draft stock coming out of the combine is probably a lot better than anybody would have expected.
On the flip side, his two more heralded cornerback colleagues at Florida -- Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson -- didn't fare as well at the combine. They both ran surprisingly slow 4.61 times in the 40-yard dash. The 5-11, 190-pound Purifoy only did six reps on the bench press, although he did have a vertical jump of 35.5 inches. At one point, Purifoy was thought to be a potential first-round selection. But with a shaky combine performance, he will likely slip into the middle rounds.
Roberson's stock took a hit as well. He did just eight reps on the bench and posted a 37.5-inch vertical leap. The other big question with Roberson is injuries. He missed four games last season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Somehow, Florida coach Will Muschamp has done a good job blocking out the Gator Nation seemingly tumbling down around him.
Only a couple months removed from an embarrassing 4-8 campaign that delivered the Gators' first losing season since 1979 and no bowl appearance for the first time in more than 20 years, Muschamp has stayed steady. He's a prideful man who breathes football and removed himself from last year's tumult almost immediately.
His job is very much on the line in 2014, but as Muschamp walks through Florida's football offices toward his own lavish hideaway, Muschamp's stride is steady, his head up. He greets an assistant with a massive smile before delivering a brawny handshake to a reporter. He's calm, yet still possesses an edge about him -- a certain endearing intensity. His office remains as tidy as any coach would allow, but there's no unnecessary clutter.
That's just the way he wants his coaching life as he enters a critical fourth season and spring in Gainesville. A year ago, he eyed a national championship after an 11-win season and a BCS bowl berth. Now, he's stitching together a squad mangled by injuries and self-doubt.
The hard-nosed, robustly built Muschamp, who was born in Georgia but grew up in Gainesville, insists that isn't occurring. Players are going through the process of improving, shutting out last season to get faster, stronger and turn their attention to 2014.
He knows that outside his program, negativity is pounding at the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, demanding change. Some wanted him fired and everyone wants this storied program fixed. Muschamp, who has gone 22-16 during his three seasons at Florida, knows he must prevent that toxicity from touching his players.
"They understand what's out there," he said. "The biggest thing is to stay process-oriented in what we do and our approach.
"To me, more than anything, is focus in the now, not in the what if. We can't get into the what-ifs of life. Let's just get into the now, and that's going to help us as we move forward."
That's why workout intensity has surged and offensive players and coaches are learning a new scheme under a new coordinator. That's why the mentality is about getting better, not winning anything. Victories won't come without vast improvement, both physically and mentally.
"I think we're coming around as a team," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the 2013 season with a broken leg. "I don't think we're coming around an individual or a new coach. I see a lot of guys who are embarrassed about last year and are ready to get back on track and win some games because we all know that the Florida Gators aren't supposed to be a 4-8 program."
Muschamp can see leaders forming. Adversity, including a historically humiliating home loss to FCS Georgia Southern and a seven-game losing streak to end 2013, pummeled this program last year. Through any sort of adversity this team has faced during his tenure, Muschamp said he's found guys he could really depend on. Last season might muddle the vision, but Muschamp sees the right pieces for a turnaround.
"It's kind of like when there's water in a boat," he said. "When the water starts leaking in the bottom of the boat, those rats float to the top and you start to see those rats. And those rats are not here anymore, so we need to move forward.
"When you start questioning their effort, that's when you start questioning the buy in. I never saw that [last season]. I see a lot of guys who have lot of pride about playing at the University of Florida and understand about competing and moving forward. We have a bunch of guys committed to this program."
That commitment stretches beyond players. Coaches are held accountable, too. For all the injuries Florida suffered, the absolute necessity for the Gators in 2014 is enhancing every aspect of the offense. That's why Brent Pease was replaced by Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator. The former Duke coach is installing more of a spread approach with more shotgun, tempo and zone-read in hopes of rectifying an offense that has ranked in the 100s nationally in each of Muschamp's three seasons.
Roper's scheme won't get away from Florida's rugged rushing approach, but it should help Driskel, who will be 100 percent for spring practice, be more comfortable, see the field better and be an actual throwing threat. It'll also help him use his legs more, an element that has always made Florida's offense more potent.
"Moving forward, we're in a better situation for them," Muschamp said of his offense.
Really, Muschamp feels that way about his entire team. The Monday following Florida's season-ending 37-7 loss to Florida State, Muschamp called a team meeting to discuss Florida's present and future and said he immediately felt his team's resolve and sensed the woe-is-me attitude disintegrating after delivering a "very to-the-point and matter-of-fact" message about the state of the program.
There's still too much to fix in Gainesville for one meeting and one offseason training regimen to handle, but the chemistry is evolving. Players are responding and appear to be quietly rallying inside the Swamp.
"We're going to bounce back from it," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Sometimes you need things like that just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody's humble, everybody's ready, everybody's a team guy. I'm really looking forward to it. It should be fun."
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 weeklong series continues with a look at one of the most talented wide receivers on the team.
6-foot-2, 201 pounds
Credentials: Robinson arrived at Florida a little more than a year ago as a much-anticipated early entry freshman. He was the No. 7 wideout in the nation and the No. 53 overall player in the ESPN 300. He got a head-start by going through spring practice and playing in the spring game, but expectations for his freshman season went through the roof after Robinson was a standout in fall practice.
How he fits: The tools Robinson brings are obvious. He has great athleticism to go along with good size, two much-needed traits in a wide receiver corps that has fallen far short of expectations since 2009. That's a long time that the Gators and their fans have been waiting for a big-time talent to emerge. Robinson has that kind of talent, but he couldn't get on the field consistently as a freshman and had just five catches for 23 yards. His work ethic and maturity were called into question, and he was suspended twice. Not a good start, but Robinson is clearly worth whatever extra attention the coaching staff is giving him.
Who he's competing with: It's not like Florida's entire wide receiver corps is devoid of talent, but the unit is very unproven and it lost two starters from 2013 in Solomon Patton and Trey Burton. Patton was a speedy jitterbug and as much of a deep threat as there could be in Florida's dysfunctional offense. But Burton was a possession receiver, so there's definitely playing time available for a big guy like Robinson who is capable of making plays all over the field. The Gators return starter Quinton Dunbar, another possession guy. Sixth-year senior Andre Debose will also be in the mix coming off a torn ACL last year. But Robinson's biggest competition might come from Ahmad Fulwood, another rising sophomore who outplayed and passed Robinson on the depth chart last fall. By the end of the season, true freshman Chris Thompson was also garnering playing time. Redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins will go through their first spring practices. While two other holdovers, Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, typify UF's situation at receiver -- there's depth and talent but little in the way of a proven threat. There's clearly opportunity for someone -- anyone -- to step forward and grab.
What needs to happen this spring: The Gators desperately need an explosive threat at wide receiver, someone they can get the ball to in space and then sit back and watch the fireworks. It has been a long time since Percy Harvin did that for Florida, but the bar isn't necessarily that high. UF coaches will settle for reliable pass-catchers who understand the scheme and can get open consistently. Robinson has to win people over this spring. If he can show the maturity he was lacking last season, he'll have plenty of chances to shine on the field. So if he can stay focused and learn the playbook, Robinson could be that breakout wide receiver Florida so badly needs.
Spotlight: Quarterback Jeff Driskel, 6-foot-4, 239 pounds, redshirt junior
The skinny: Despite what many might think about Driskel's limited time on the field in 2013, he showed flashes of growth before his leg injury against the Vols. Coach Will Muschamp points to the Miami game as Driskel's best passing game yet because of his ability to throw the ball downfield. He passed for 291 yards in that game, but also had two costly interceptions. Driskel hasn't lived up to the hype of being the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2011 class, but he's also about to work with his third offensive coordinator in his time at Florida. The good news for Driskel is that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's spread attack will have him in the shotgun more, which is similar to what he did in high school. Running more zone-read plays should also help him see more of the field and use his legs more. But he has to show that he's still a top leader on this team, he has to develop even better chemistry with his receivers and he has to make better decisions in the pocket. Driskel has gotten into a habit of getting careless with where he puts the ball and taking too long in the pocket. That can't happen if the Gators are going to rebound from a 4-8 2013 season. There's a lot of pressure on Driskel, and home fans turned on him at times in 2013. He's shaken that off, but wants to prove himself. He'll also get some good competition from true freshman Will Grier, who is already on campus, and incoming freshman Treon Harris, who ran a similar offense in high school to what Roper ran while at Duke. This is easily Driskel's most important offseason with the Gators.
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
Spring practice begins at Texas A&M on Friday and will open throughout the SEC in the weeks to come. And while it’s a tad premature to be asking the question, we’re doing it anyways: Who will be the top defensive linemen in the league next season?
Chris Low, my colleague on the SEC blog, gave his pick for the best offensive linemen last week, and we figured it best not to leave out their combatants in the trenches.
With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-four defensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:
Trey Flowers, Arkansas
He’s been doing his thing for a while now so you should know his name. Flowers hasn’t won many games in his career at Arkansas, but that’s not his fault. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end has quietly become a premier lineman in the league, beginning with a rookie campaign that landed him on the SEC All-freshman team in 2011. Last season, he was second-team All-SEC after recording five sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. He also forced three fumbles, hauled in an interception and had two pass breakups. Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of wins his first season at Arkansas, but convincing Flowers to return for his senior season was one of them.
To be fair, he does play some standing up at linebacker. But Fowler, at 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, is all pass-rusher in coach Will Muschamp’s defense. The All-SEC second team selection led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and finished with 3.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to do more in 2014, and the former four-star prospect has the tools to pull it off. The lightning-quick rising sophomore will need some help, though. If a second pass-rusher emerges to take away double-teams, look for Fowler to take off.
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
You might not have known his name as a recruit, but Jones has worked his way into the conversation as one of the most talented young defensive players in the SEC. Dan Mullen and his coaching staff found themselves a gem at Mississippi State. Jones was a late bloomer in high school but came on quickly in college, developing into an SEC All-freshman team selection with the size (6-5, 305 pounds) to play on the interior of the line and the speed and burst to play outside at end. His seven tackles-for-loss and three sacks only serve to underscore his team-leading 10 quarterback hurries. For perspectives sake, the former No. 1 recruit in the country at the “School Up North” had just three quarterback hurries.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Yes, that player was Nkemdiche, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300. And while his numbers weren’t quite as impressive as his counterpart at Mississippi State (isn’t that rivalry going to be fun?) Nkemdiche did nothing to disappoint in his first season at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete showed why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He not only played both end and tackle for the Rebels, he also carried the ball at running back a few times. Eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks should just be the tip of the iceberg in his career under coach Hugh Freeze.
Four more to watch
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