Florida Gators: Dak Prescott

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
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Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a burning question or hot debate facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Spring practice is alive and well, but we're all immersed in the madness that is March with the NCAA tournament in full swing. And in keeping with the Big Dance theme, it's time to talk Cinderellas.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of playing SEC Cinderella in 2014 -- Florida or Mississippi State?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff: Honestly, the SEC as a whole is going to be so much fun to watch this fall because of all the uncertainty when it comes to finding a true frontrunner. But when it comes to finding this year's Cinderella, I'm leaning toward the Gators. A year removed from a disastrous 4-8 season that set records in ineptitude in Gainesville, Florida will break through and challenge for the SEC this fall. Remember when injuries crushed Missouri's offensive hopes in 2012 and the Tigers took the SEC East by storm a year later? Well, the Gators will be similar with the return of starters Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.

The Gators ranked last in the SEC in scoring and total offense in 2013, struggling without key parts on both sides of the ball. Having Driskel back is huge, but the biggest thing for him is that he'll be manning a new offense that actually suits his skill set better. Kurt Roper's more spread approach that will feature a lot more shotgun and zone-read will open things up for Driskel and allow him to use his feet more. It'll make Florida's run game more dangerous and should get receivers more involved. The key, of course, is Driskel knowing this offense backward and forward before spring practice ends so that he can teach, teach, teach during summer and fall workouts.

The defense will be fine. There were inconsistencies during the second half of the season, but it's tough when a defense has to stay on the field for so long. Will Muschamp has recruited well enough during his tenure that the defense will suffer only a few hits from the loss of some 2013 studs.

Florida has the advantage of playing LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home.

Take 2: Chris Low: First, I'd like to point out that we had this same debate a year ago at this time, and the two teams we selected were ... Auburn and Missouri. So we nailed it last year. Let's see if we can make it two years in a row.

It's always a gamble to pick a Cinderella out of the Western Division, which is easily the most rugged division in all of college football. Each of the last five national championship games has included a team from the West, with Auburn losing to Florida State last season in Pasadena. Alabama and LSU played each other for the title in 2011. And, now, with Texas A&M in the mix, it's a big-boy division if there ever was one and only getting stronger. According to ESPN's recruiting rankings in February, Alabama's class was No. 1 nationally, LSU's No. 2, Texas A&M's No. 4 and Auburn's No. 8.

Even though Mississippi State hasn't been a regular among the recruiting heavyweights, Dan Mullen has assembled and developed a nice nucleus of talent entering the 2014 season, and this has a chance to be his best team in Starkville. It starts with junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who's the type of run-pass option that puts so much pressure on opposing defenses. The Bulldogs need to keep him healthy. They also have an underrated group of receivers around Prescott, led by senior Jameon Lewis, who was the star of the Bulldogs' bowl win last season.

Defensively, the Bulldogs should be a load in their front seven. They have depth, and good luck to anybody trying to block 6-5, 300-pound Chris Jones, who's a force at both end and tackle. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are also playmakers. The cornerback tandem of Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love produced six interceptions last season, and the Bulldogs also expect to get back senior safety Jay Hughes, who was injured in 2013. The secondary could be the deepest unit on the team.

The key game, if the Bulldogs are going to make some serious noise in the West, is at LSU on Sept. 20. They get a week off after that game before coming back home to face Texas A&M and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Mullen has guided Mississippi State to four straight winning seasons, beaten rival Ole Miss four of his five years on the job and engineered three bowl victories. The next step is knocking off one or two of the "big boys" in the West. And even though the Bulldogs have struggled against nationally-ranked foes (they've lost 15 in a row), this is the year that changes.
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

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.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

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.
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

Ten SEC surprise players in 2013

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:40
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Today, we're looking at 10 players who surprised us in the SEC.

These are players who didn't enter the season with a ton of hype, weren't big-time recruits in the 2013 recruiting class or made big splashes after pedestrian 2012 seasons.

There were a lot of names that could have made it onto this list, but we put our SEC brains together and came up with these 10:

1. Serderius Bryant, LB, Ole Miss: Heading into the season, Bryant was listed as a reserve behind Denzel Nkemdiche. But after Nkemdiche injured his knee in the season opener, Bryant went on a tear for the Rebels. He started nine games and is tied for the team lead with 70 tackles, leads the Rebels with 10.5 tackles for loss and is second with three sacks.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coates
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSammie Coates emerged as a playmaker in Auburn's high-scoring offense.
2. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: Before the season, no one was quite sure who would be catching the brunt of passes in Auburn's offense. Well, Coates took the lead and went from six catches in 2012 to a team-high 38 with 841 yards and seven touchdowns. The Tigers didn't throw a lot, but when they did, Coates was usually the top target.

3. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Everyone knew he was going to be the guy to replace Marcus Lattimore, but Davis looked like a seasoned veteran on the field this season, rushing for 1,134 and 11 touchdowns. He was also very good in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 342 yards.

4. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: Fellow linebacker Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the star on defense, but Floyd looked like the Bulldogs' best pass rusher at times. The former prep schooler led Georgia with 6.5 sacks and finished the year with 8.5 tackles for loss and 47 total tackles.

5. Markus Golden, DT, Missouri: After registering just 10 tackles last season, Golden was one of the Tigers' most active defensive players. He got tons of push up the middle and was second on the team with 13 tackles for loss and had 6.5 sacks. He also took an interception 70 yards for a touchdown.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia defensive back was one of the nation's biggest surprises. He wasn't asked to do a lot with his arm, but made some big-time throws and got more comfortable with his arm as the season went on. Marshall passed for 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns, but did most of his damage with that deadly read option, rushing for 1,023 yards and 11 more scores on his way to leading Auburn to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxWR Solomon Patton was one of the few bright spots in a down year for the Florida offense.
7. Solomon Patton, WR, Florida: Like Auburn, no one knew who would be the top pass catcher in Gainesville. But after spending most of his career as a role player and more of a gimmick guy, Patton was Florida's most dangerous receiver and the go-to guy for whichever quarterback lined up under center. He was a big-play threat and finished the season leading the Gators with 44 catches, 556 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also registered 642 yards and a touchdown on kick returns.

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: In a year in which the Bulldogs spent a lot of time rotating guys in at the quarterback spot, Prescott came up big when he was in. A reserve in 2012, Prescott led Mississippi State with 1,657 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Where Prescott really did his damage was on the ground, where he bullied his way to 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.

9. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Last year, Robinson started in 11 games last year, but he exploded in 2013. Helping to protect the nation's best running game, he pushed his way to being an All-American, All-SEC member and someone who could be an early pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he decides to leave school.

10. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: He was easily the biggest surprise of the league for most of the season. A year after starting nine games and recording 3.5 sacks, Sam took the SEC by storm with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Both led the SEC. The consensus All-American was named the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
9:00
AM ET
We have a new No. 1 in our Power Rankings, and there's a chance that either of the top two teams on this list could back its way into the BCS title game:

1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.

2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.

3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.

4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
12:00
PM ET
It was a good start to Week 13 with a thriller in the Egg Bowl. There still are plenty of games to be played, including Saturday’s Iron Bowl. Let’s take a look around the SEC:

SEC lunchtime links

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
12:00
PM ET
Lots of good stuff out there from around the SEC today. Let's dive into some of the best headlines in the lunch links:

SEC lunchtime links

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
12:00
PM ET
Plenty of goings-on in the SEC today. Let's dive right into it:

What to watch in the SEC: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:15
AM ET
The season is winding down, but the drama is ratcheting up. Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Auburn's revenge tour: It's not Alabama-LSU, but this week's marquee matchup does have one of those cool SEC nicknames -- "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" -- and a boatload of history. No. 25 Georgia pays a visit to No. 7 Auburn, "The Loveliest Village On The Plains" (there's another one of those nicknames). The rivalry dates back to 1892 with 116 meetings, and it couldn't be more hotly contested. The series is tied 54-54-8. This season, both teams have plenty to play for, as Auburn (9-1, 5-1 in the SEC) controls its destiny in the SEC West, and Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is still alive in the East. But the surprising Tigers clearly have momentum and something to prove to themselves, the SEC and rivals such as Georgia. That's right, this one is personal. Auburn's winless SEC season in 2012 was sealed by embarrassing losses to Georgia (38-0) and Alabama (49-0). The Bulldogs also have won six of the past seven games against Auburn.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Jeff Vest/Icon SMIConnor Shaw and the Gamecocks hope to keep their SEC East dreams alive with a win over Florida on Saturday.
2. Precursor to the SEC East conclusion: Missouri (9-1, 5-1) is in the driver's seat and is resting up this weekend before a fascinating final stretch that features two of its tougher challenges on the schedule -- at Ole Miss and versus Texas A&M. The Tigers are not to be taken lightly, but those matchups leave open the possibility of South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) or Georgia sneaking into Atlanta if Mizzou slips up. With a win in their final SEC game Saturday night against Florida, the Gamecocks could sit back and root against Missouri. The Bulldogs would be doing much of the same if they upset Auburn on the road and then close out their SEC slate with a win against Kentucky.

3. Style points for Saban? Somehow Alabama's win against LSU last weekend didn't resonate with the college football-viewing public, even though the Tide scored more points (38) than any game in the series since a 41-12 victory in 1947. Oh well, Nick Saban's perpetual pursuit of perfection persists. Perhaps he can convince the the nation's No. 1 team to be on guard for a letdown against Mississippi State, a team Bama has dominated during a five-game winning streak with a combined score of 155-34.

4. Nick Marshall vs. Georgia: Auburn's quarterback stood on the other sideline two seasons ago, as a defensive back, when his Georgia Bulldogs dismantled the Tigers 45-7. That game was in Athens, Ga., about three hours north of Marshall's hometown of Pineview, Ga. After he was dismissed by the Bulldogs for a violation of team rules in February 2012, Marshall went the juco route, became a QB and resurfaced at Auburn. It has been a pretty good move, as Marshall leads SEC quarterbacks with 734 rushing yards and ran for a career-high 214 yards last week, the highest individual rushing total in the conference this season and third all time among Auburn QBs. While Georgia's run defense has improved to fourth in the conference (giving up 126 yards a game), UGA has surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns. The Tigers have to be salivating at the thought of Marshall and the third-best rushing attack in the nation facing his old mates.

5. Sleeping giant could awaken: Speculate all you want about why South Carolina's all-everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney isn't producing his usual havoc and statistics consistently this season -- teams are running away from him, he's facing double- and triple-teams, he's trying not to get hurt and risk the payday everyone expects in May. Whatever. Clowney doesn't have to worry about any of that against the wounded Florida offensive line Saturday. The Gators have lost three starting offensive tackles this fall and have moved 6-foot-4, 307-pound left guard Max Garcia into Clowney's line of fire at left tackle.

6. Streakin' Dores: Not much can top what Vanderbilt has already achieved this season, beating traditional East powers Georgia and Florida in two of its past three games. But a win against lowly Kentucky on Saturday would qualify the 5-4 Commodores for their third consecutive bowl game. Let's put that into perspective: Before back-to-back bowl appearances in the past two seasons, Vanderbilt had been to four bowl games in 120 years of football. Winning out -- which is certainly possible for a confident team that finishes with UK, Tennessee and Wake Forest -- would give Vandy 23 wins (with a bowl game still to play) in the past three seasons. That would be the best three-year stretch in VU history since Hall of Fame coach Dan McGugin went 24-4-2 from 1926-28.

7. Under-the-radar Rebels: Last week, Ole Miss became the latest team to handle a foundering Arkansas program that is winless in the SEC. It was the Rebels' third straight win, a streak that started with a signature upset of LSU and has given Hugh Freeze's upstart bunch a ton of momentum. The Rebs have been able to shake off the disappointment of three straight losses to three of this fall's SEC West heavyweights -- Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. Now Mississippi has a solid chance to finish the season with six straight wins and 9-3 overall record. The task is not implausible, as Ole Miss plays host to Troy on Saturday, welcomes Missouri on Nov. 23 and wraps up its season with the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State on Nov. 28.

8. More pain for MSU? A difficult season could get tougher Saturday, as Mississippi State hosts No. 1 Alabama. The Tide will be the Bulldogs' sixth opponent currently among the top 18 in the AP poll, and the first five meetings didn't go so well. They gave up 85 points in the past two losses to two of the SEC's best offenses in South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs did put up a good fight against the Aggies with 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 51-41 loss, but inspirational quarterback Dak Prescott (elbow) is questionable this week.

9. Whither James Franklin? Vanderbilt is no doubt relishing a breakthrough season, but might the Commodores be flying just a bit too close to the sun? Head coach James Franklin already has done what few could envision -- winning and recruiting at a school previously known for raising the collective GPA of the conference. But there could very well be a price for that success, as his name is popping up in early coaching searches. Franklin already has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the USC Trojans job. If you live in Nashville, Tenn., keep an eye on the silly season this December.

10. It's almost over: Five teams have their final bye of the season this weekend. Missouri is resting up to make its final push for an SEC East crown. LSU and Texas A&M are licking various wounds and lamenting the end of their West division hopes. Tennessee is looking to regroup after three straight losses, win its last two games and go to a bowl for the first time since 2010. And Arkansas is simply trying to find a way back into the win column after seven straight losses.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
11:55
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Now that Week 11 is behind us, we’ll break out our weekly thermometer in the SEC.

It’s that time again. Who’s hot and who’s not?

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIDak Prescott put together a heroic effort against Texas A&M just days after his mother died of cancer.
Dak Prescott’s courage: Less than a week after his mother, Peggy, lost her courageous battle with colon cancer, Prescott honored his late mother with a courageous performance on Saturday against Texas A&M. Mississippi State lost the game 51-41, but Prescott won a lot of hearts and even more respect with the way he dug down deep, channeled his emotions and played lights out against the Aggies. He came off the bench in the first quarter and kept the Bulldogs in the game with 303 yards of total offense. Prescott passed for 149 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 154 yards on 16 carries. A couple of different times in the game, Prescott took pretty good hits and was slow to get up, but he kept getting back up and kept making plays for his team. Prescott spent most of last week in Louisiana with his family and attended his mother’s funeral on Wednesday. But he was right back with the Bulldogs on Thursday and determined to honor his mother’s memory by being there for his teammates. Prescott tweeted last week, “Heaven gained an Angel.” You can bet that Angel is one proud mom.

HOT

Missouri receiver Dorial-Green Beckham: Sort of flying along under the radar this season, Green-Beckham delivered a record-breaking day on Saturday in the 48-17 win over Kentucky. Green-Beckham set a school record with four touchdown catches. In just one game, he nearly doubled his touchdown output for the entire season. He came into the game with five touchdown catches in his previous nine contests.

NOT

Tennessee’s run defense: The Vols are bringing up the rear in the SEC when it comes to stopping the run, and by a wide margin. They gave up 444 yards on the ground last week in a 55-23 loss to Auburn and 339 yards the week before in a 31-3 loss to Missouri. That’s 783 yards in two games. The Vols are allowing 225.9 yards per game on the ground, which is 27 more yards per game than they averaged giving up a year ago in what was one of the worst defensive performances in school history.

HOT

Alabama’s schedule: Until last weekend, Alabama’s schedule was an easy target. The Crimson Tide really hadn’t beaten anybody other than Texas A&M, and perhaps tired of hearing about their cushy schedule, they went out and beat up on then-No. 13 LSU 38-17 thanks to a dominant second half. To be fair to the Tide, when you look at their entire schedule and extend it out through a potential SEC championship game appearance, it will end up being more demanding than the schedules of the other unbeaten contenders in the national championship race. Alabama has already played two top-15 teams in the BCS standings (LSU and Texas A&M) and could face two more -- No. 7 Auburn and either No. 9 Missouri or No. 10 South Carolina in the SEC championship game. Compare that with Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor.

NOT

Manziel’s chances to return: Nobody is really coming out and saying it, but Johnny Manziel’s five-touchdown performance last week in the win over Mississippi State was almost certainly his final game at Kyle Field. For that matter, it was likely the last game star receiver Mike Evans will play at Kyle Field as well. Even back in the summer, the feeling in and around the Texas A&M program was that Manziel would take his shot at the NFL following this season. I’m not sure Kyle Field will ever see another one quite like Johnny Football. The only thing more fun than watching him play would be partying with him. That is, assuming you’re a partier.

HOT

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesVanderbilt celebrates its first win in Gainesville since 1945.
Vanderbilt’s resolve: A lot of people might have counted Vanderbilt down and out a couple of different times this season, especially with that rape investigation hanging over the program. But third-year coach James Franklin is one tough dude and so is his football team. These Commodores have personified resolve, and now they’re in great position to go to a bowl game for the third straight season. They hadn’t won at Florida since 1945, and this also marks the first time in school history that they’ve beaten both Florida and Georgia in the same season.

NOT

LSU’s ball security: The Tigers have lost their last two SEC games, to Alabama and Ole Miss, and have turned the ball over five times in those two losses. Three of the five turnovers have come with LSU driving, too. J.C. Copeland’s fumble against Alabama came on second-and-goal at the 3 and completely changed the complexion of that game. Against Ole Miss, two of Zach Mettenberger’s three interceptions occurred in the end zone for touchbacks, both coming on first down.

FREEZER BURN

Florida’s bowl streak: This is obviously not what anybody is used to at Florida right now. The reeling Gators are 4-5 and have lost four straight after losing 34-17 at home last weekend to Vanderbilt, Florida’s first loss at home to Vanderbilt since the end of World War II. The Gators’ 22-year bowl streak -- the longest in the SEC -- is in serious jeopardy. They will need to win two of their last three games to qualify for a bowl, which means they would have to upset No. 10 South Carolina in Columbia this Saturday and then take down No. 2 Florida State at home the final weekend of the regular season. In other words, the Gators can plan to spend this postseason at home. Of course, given the halfhearted turnout by Florida fans at the Sugar Bowl last season, I can’t imagine they will be stewing over not having the chance to spend a few days in Memphis or Birmingham this December. But what they are stewing over is the direction of the program right now, and in particular the continued struggles on offense. It’s not just the offense, either. Some of the dumb penalties have been inexplicable. Third-year coach Will Muschamp is as mentally tough as they come, but he faces an uphill climb. Unless there’s a sudden change of heart at the top at Florida, Muschamp is going to get a fourth year. And with all the injuries the Gators have suffered this season, he should get a fourth year. Muschamp and his staff did a super job in 2012 of squeezing out 11 wins and getting to a BCS bowl game. But now he has to prove to athletic director Jeremy Foley that he’s the long-term answer for this program. That’s going to take some doing, but at the very least, it appears that Muschamp is going to get a fourth year to prove it.

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