Florida Gators: Deion Belue

What to watch in the SEC: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
10:15
AM ET
Showcasing two big showdowns between ranked conference teams -- LSU at Georgia and Ole Miss at Alabama -- this looks like a more promising weekend of SEC football than the one that preceded it. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch around the league this Saturday:

1. Another top-10 matchup for Georgia: A common criticism leading into last season's SEC championship game was that Georgia hadn't played anybody. Well the schedule has certainly toughened up since then. Starting with that game against then-No. 2 (and eventual BCS champion) Alabama, the Bulldogs have faced No. 2, No. 16 (Nebraska), No. 8 (Clemson), No. 6 (South Carolina) and now-No. 6 LSU in their last six games. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in those games heading into Saturday's key conference showdown at Sanford Stadium -- LSU's first game this season in an opponent's stadium.

2. Can Ole Miss keep its mojo alive?: Resurgent Ole Miss already has a couple of impressive wins on its resume, winning at Vanderbilt in the closing minutes and running away from Texas in the fourth quarter in Austin. Good luck this weekend, though, Rebels. No. 1 Alabama -- which will host No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday evening -- is in a far different class than the aforementioned opponents. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa only once (1988), and that doesn't figure to change this weekend, even if Alabama's offense has underwhelmed lately.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCan Tyler Murphy keep Florida moving in the right direction?
3. All eyes on Murphy: When Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury last week, little-used backup Tyler Murphy got his first chance to shine. Murphy took advantage of that opportunity, completing 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score in a 31-17 win over Tennessee. Now he's THE guy after watching an assortment of Gators take snaps ahead of him over the last three years. He'll be taking his shots against a Kentucky program that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 years -- the second-longest active series winning streak in the country.

4. Clash of styles in Fayetteville: The offensive approaches in Saturday's Texas A&M-Arkansas game could hardly be more different. On one hand, you have the wide-open Kevin Sumlin offense at A&M, with triggerman Johnny Manziel helping the Aggies post 602.2 yards and 50.2 points per game -- both SEC highs. Arkansas has run the ball effectively (246.0 ypg, third in the SEC), but that's about it. If the Razorbacks have any hope of hanging with A&M, they'd better hope that their impressive running back tandem of Alex Collins (SEC-high 120.2 ypg) and Jonathan Williams (second at 104.5) can extend clock-eating drives that keep Manziel and company on the sideline.

5. Mettenberger's homecoming: One of the most popular storylines this week concerns LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger returning home to Georgia, where he competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job in 2010 before being dismissed from the team after an offseason arrest. Mettenberger's mother is a longtime employee in Georgia's football office, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt gave her the week off to avoid the obvious conflict of interest that accompanies this game week. Players from both sides have answered plenty of Mettenberger-related questions, and the Tigers' quarterback seemed to be getting chapped by the subject by midweek. LSU needs him to play a composed game on Saturday, so this is a distraction that the Tigers didn't need.

6. Can South Carolina finish?: Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 28-0 lead in their last game against Vanderbilt, only to see the Commodores rally to within 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks protected that lead the rest of the way, but it was hardly a positive sign when they had scored only six points in the fourth quarter the week before in a 41-30 loss to Georgia after it was 24-all at halftime. Playing at Central Florida (3-0), which beat Penn State in its last game, South Carolina might not be able to afford another sloppy second half.

7. Alabama's cornerback competition: Nick Saban's defense rotated five cornerbacks last week against Colorado State with two veterans out of the lineup. Deion Belue should be back in the lineup against Ole Miss, but the Rebels' up-tempo offense is much more capable of exploiting defensive vulnerabilities than the Tide's previous opponent. Alabama needs to get its secondary concerns sorted out quickly or the Rebels could make things interesting on Saturday.

8. Mizzou angling for 4-0: Saturday's game against Arkansas State marks the fourth straight nonconference matchup for the Tigers. That means it's all SEC games from here on out, and there are some tough ones on the list. Mizzou has posted some nice yardage totals so far in wins against Murray State, Toledo and Indiana. With a challenging October schedule ahead (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina), quarterback James Franklin and company need to keep the offensive momentum going.

9. Get-well game in Knoxville: Following two straight horrendous showings -- against Oregon and Florida -- things aren't looking too pretty for first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers desperately need a win against South Alabama on Saturday or it could get really ugly in October with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama on the schedule. The first step for Jones is settling on a quarterback, with Justin Worley apparently stepping back into the starting job he lost last week before replacement Nathan Peterman injured his hand against Florida.

10. Will the real Commodores please stand up?: Coach James Franklin raised expectations in Nashville with a nine-win season last year, but Vanderbilt hasn't even looked like a bowl team in the wake of a sexual assault case that rocked the team and campus. Vandy is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in league play coming off last week's underwhelming 24-7 win at UMass. The Commodores reached the 2012 postseason based largely on wins against second-tier foes like Saturday's opponent, UAB. If they want to play in another bowl this season, they need to start getting their act together against the Blazers.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

The SEC's impact transfers in 2012

July, 17, 2012
7/17/12
1:15
PM ET
Transfers can often times be the great equalizer, both junior college transfers and major college transfers.

It’s safe to say that Cam Newton made a difference on Auburn’s 2010 national championship team. And for that matter, so did Nick Fairley. Both were junior college transfers.

[+] Enlarge Jay Prosch
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstIllinois transfer Jay Prosch will be eligible to take the field for Auburn this season.
A year ago, cornerback DeQuan Menzie was a stabilizing force in Alabama’s defensive secondary and one of the Crimson Tide’s most dependable players on their 2011 national championship team. Menzie was also a junior college transfer.

Terrence Cody, yet another junior college transfer, was a major part of Alabama’s 2009 national championship defense.

Who will be those impact transfers in 2012 that make a difference? Here are 10 to watch in the SEC. They’re listed alphabetically:

Denico Autry, DE, Mississippi State: One of the most heralded junior college prospects in the country, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Autry made quite an impression this spring. He’s an explosive pass-rusher the Bulldogs hope will give them the edge pressure they lacked last season.

(Read full post)

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