Florida Gators: Andrew Baggett

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?

SEC Saturday roundup

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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This could be moving day in the SEC East. At minimum, we'll be able to trim one team from the list of contenders for the division title.

We know today's marquee game between longtime rivals Georgia and Florida -- both 4-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play -- is an elimination game in the division race. Whoever wins still must get some help to overtake Missouri atop the division standings, but the loser will be relegated to playing out the string after absorbing its third SEC defeat of the season.

Meanwhile, fresh off its first loss of 2013, Mizzou (7-1, 3-1) faces one of its trickier remaining tests in league play. The Tigers will host Tennessee (4-4, 1-3), which gave Georgia a run for its money before falling in overtime and then beat South Carolina. It's tough to tell what to expect from the Volunteers today, however, as they're coming off a resounding loss against Alabama and will start freshman Joshua Dobbs at quarterback since Justin Worley injured his right thumb in the loss to the Crimson Tide.

The Tigers' mental state is also a source of curiosity after they suffered their first loss of the season last week in painful fashion.

The division race was essentially over if they simply held on for a win over South Carolina. Instead, they blew what seemed like a comfortable lead, allowing Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw to come off the bench and lead his team to 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Then at the end of the second overtime, Mizzou kicker Andrew Baggett banked a 24-yard field-goal try off the left upright, giving South Carolina a 27-24 win and the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2), Bulldogs and Gators reason to believe they can still catch the Tigers in the East race.

Missouri must lose at least once more for any of them to have a shot, however, so count on the Tigers' division mates to root passionately for Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M when those teams face Mizzou over the next several weekends.

It's unlikely that today will shed much light on the Western Division race, although Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2) could throw a monkey wrench in South Carolina's plan to run down Missouri -- and push closer toward bowl eligibility -- if the Bulldogs are able to pull an upset today at Williams-Brice.

Auburn (7-1, 3-1) hopes to remain a game behind top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0) in the West standings if the Tigers can earn a victory at Arkansas (3-5, 0-4). The Razorbacks have often looked horrible during their five-game losing streak -- including a 52-7 loss to South Carolina and a 52-0 loss to Alabama in the last two games -- but Fayetteville has sometimes been an unpleasant host to Auburn teams. Arkansas has won its last two games against Auburn there and four of the nine meetings since it joined the SEC in 1992.

Making matters worse, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall could be a game-time decision because of a shoulder injury, which means freshman Jeremy Johnson could be pressed into service. Johnson was impressive in Auburn's nonconference wins against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, but playing at an SEC rival's stadium is a completely different animal -- and that could be a situation to watch closely today.

We'll likely have to wait until next Saturday to see if there is any movement in the West standings, once Alabama and LSU -- both idle this week -- square off in Tuscaloosa and Auburn makes a road trip to face Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.

For now, the focus is on the East and the logjam that could still occur if Missouri struggles to regain its composure following last weekend's implosion. The Tigers still have the upper hand, but the three preseason division favorites are right behind them in the standings, hoping to see them stumble again.

Here's a rundown of today's full SEC schedule:
Mississippi State at South Carolina, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
Georgia vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m., CBS
Auburn at Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Tennessee at Missouri, 7 p.m., ESPN
Alabama State at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., CSS
UTEP at Texas A&M, 9 p.m., ESPN2

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Back in August, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel asked his seniors what they wanted people to say about this football team come January.

Would it be the same team that limped through its first season in the SEC? Or would it make statement to the league -- and the nation -- that it could compete in the toughest conference?

Last year might have been a dud for the Tigers, but through seven games, they are one of the hottest teams in college football after taking Georgia and Florida down in consecutive weeks. After their 36-17 victory against the Gators on Saturday inside Memorial Stadium, it's safe to say people are thinking quite highly of this Mizzou team.

"I thought we were going to be a good football team," Pinkel said. "I don't know why nobody else thought we were going to have a good football team. I don't know, but I love my guys."

It was easy to write off Mizzou before the season after that less-than-impressive 2012 campaign. Injuries were catastrophic, but the perception was that this team was never tough enough to survive in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports In his first career start, Missouri freshman Maty Mauk threw for 295 yards in a win against East foe Florida.
Now, the Tigers (7-0, 3-0 SEC) are sizzling. Their 36 points against Florida were the most the Gators have given up in league play since surrendering 41 to LSU in October 2011. That also snapped Florida's 13-game streak of allowing 20 points or less in SEC play. Mizzou's 500 yards of offense were the most against Florida since the Gators gave up 512 to Kentucky in October 2007.

Backup quarterback Maty Mauk filled in for James Franklin (shoulder) swimmingly with 295 yards and a touchdown. Henry Josey ran for 136 yards and a score, while the defense gave up just 2.5 yards per play and had six sacks.

In three SEC games, Mizzou has averaged 466 yards and outscored teams 128-71. With Saturday losses by Georgia and South Carolina, Mizzou has a two-game lead over the SEC East powers heading into next week's visit from the Gamecocks.

As injuries pile up, Mizzou is getting all three division heavyweights at the most opportunistic of times, but it's time to give the Tigers credit. This is a good team that could be one win away from essentially clinching the SEC Eastern Division in its second year in the league.

"We have a lot of guys who are good football players," Pinkel said. "You can be as competitive as you want, but if you're not a good football player it's not going to matter.

"We have guys making plays. These aren't just average guys out there."

Added Mauk: "We want to be that team that Coach Pinkel talks about."

It's on its way, but the Tigers aren't quite popping bottles of Gatorade. They're happy, but their goals are much bigger than just beating Florida.

Wide receiver L'Damian Washington said he and the seniors went to the coaches before the season and said they wanted more than just a bowl game. During SEC media days, Washington said the goal for 2013 was 11 wins or more. He was laughed at, even by a local radio station, he said, but he knew this team was capable of a special rebound.

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri running back Henry Josey scores on a 6-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"We said, 'Let's not be complacent. Let's not talk bowl games,' " Washington said. "A bowl game is cool, but let's talk BCS, let's talk national championships.

"We believed in ourselves, and that's all that matters."

While the Tigers are believing, you have to wonder what's going through the Gators' minds. In back-to-back games, the offensive has been totally inept, gaining just 391 yards combined with 16 offensive points and one touchdown. Florida's 151 yards Saturday were its lowest since registering 114 against Alabama in the 1999 SEC championship game.

Mizzou kicker Andrew Baggett even outscored Florida, 18-17, with five field goals and three extra points.

"We are just not really a good football team," Florida coach Will Muschamp said, "certainly not today. That's all on my shoulders.

"I am pretty disappointed that we have not had more positive strides offensively at this point of the season."

These programs are now going in opposite directions. Mizzou has a stranglehold on the SEC East and controls its destiny to Atlanta. Florida (4-3, 3-2) is two games back and has a regressing offense.

Mizzou players are excited, but cautious. The road to Atlanta is clear, but obstacles still remain, and a slip-up next week to a reeling South Carolina squad could kill momentum. As good as this team is, it's all about hunger and humility from here on out.

"You have to act like you've been there at one point in your life," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "You can't get your head full of air and be up in the clouds or you will get knocked down to the ground really fast. You have to stay humble."

Top SEC performer: Kicker

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
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Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning place-kickers.

Past producers: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Sacks | Tackles | Interceptions

The SEC returns eight of the top 10 kickers from last season. We decided to go by field goals made over percentage, because a few players had higher percentages, but didn't have as many attempts. The top kicker is back, but when it comes to field-goal kicking, the crown is always always up for grabs.

Here's a look at the top returning kicker when it comes to field goals made:

Caleb Sturgis, Florida: He connected on 22 of 26 field goal attempts for a kicking percentage of 84.6 last season. He hit 19 of 21 kicks within 50 yards, and was 3-for-5 from 50 yards and beyond, including hitting a long of 55. Sturgis also nailed all 31 of his extra-point attempts. Sturgis, who was finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to college football's best placekicker, did all of that after suffering a very serious back in 2010. The injury cost him the final nine games of the season. Sturgis has one of the strongest legs in the country, and really improved his accuracy in 2011. He will likely receive a few preseason accolades this fall, and should yet again be in the conversation as the nation's top kicker.

The SEC returns seven more of the top 10 kickers from 2011:

(Read full post)

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