Florida Gators: Ellis Johnson

SEC lunchtime links

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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It’s the final week of the regular season in the SEC, and there’s plenty to talk about. Here’s a look at Tuesday’s news and notes from around the league.

In defense of SEC defenses

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
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For a league that has made its mark (and left a few bruises) with bone-crunching defense over the years, this hasn’t necessarily been a season to remember in the SEC on the defensive side of the ball.

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably summed it up best.

“What a crazy year to be on defense in the SEC,” Shoop said.

Some of the numbers on defense are even crazier.

Already, there have been 10 SEC matchups this season where both teams scored 30 or more points. A year ago, there were only five such shootouts for the entire season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Jay SailorsA talented group of quarterbacks and the speed at which they run offenses is stressing SEC defenses.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are only five SEC teams ranked in the top 40 nationally in total defense -- No. 5 Alabama, No. 7 Florida, No. 22 South Carolina, No. 24 LSU and No. 40 Vanderbilt.

By contrast, five SEC teams finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense last season, and four of those -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina -- finished in the top 11.

There’s no question that the quarterback play in the SEC this season, both the caliber and experience of the quarterbacks across the league, has had a huge impact.

And as veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson points out, the NFL draft the last few years has decimated the top defensive fronts and pass rushers in the league.

In the most recent draft, 17 defensive linemen and/or outside linebackers from the SEC were selected. Nine of those players were underclassmen.

“You’ve seen a little dip in this league on defense as far as where it’s going to be in the future because of some of these things,” said Johnson, who’s at his fifth different SEC school as a defensive coordinator.

“But I also think you’re seeing a gradual changing of college football. What’s deteriorating defenses more than anything is the way the offenses are practicing and the way you have to practice against them. You can’t run a fast-paced offense and be extremely physical on defense.”

It’s not just at Auburn, either. Johnson has seen it throughout college football.

“We practice against our scout team, and that deteriorates your fundamentals and deteriorates your physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I understand it because if you’re going to run that style of offense, the only way you can perfect it is to practice that way.

“But you are what you play against every day in practice. We try to hit a hit happy medium here, but it’s never going to be enough to satisfy me. We don’t tackle good backs except on Saturdays, so how good is your tackling going to be?”

At least half of the teams in the SEC are running some form of a hurry-up attack on offense, and it’s no coincidence that the offensive numbers are up.

Nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 430 yards per game in total offense. Of the five who aren’t, only Vanderbilt has a winning record. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all have losing records.

What’s more, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. A year ago, only six averaged more than 30. And in 2011, it was only five.

It’s no secret that Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t a fan of the fast-paced offenses and being able to snap the ball before the defense is lined up or has a chance to make situational substitutions. That said, Saban is also smart enough to realize that playing that way can be a huge advantage for the offense and has even suggested the Tide could look to play faster in the future.

Ferns A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them.

-- Nick Saban
“The offenses are taking advantage of the rules that we have, whether it’s to play fast or keep the defense from being able to do some situational things that it would like to do to create an advantage for themselves,” Saban said. “A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them, whether it’s throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage and being able to block downfield or whatever these things are.

“It’s more difficult to play good defense in this day and age. I don’t know that you reconstitute how you evaluate it. But the way you try to play defense, you have to re-evaluate and try to do a better job against the things that we’re seeing now.”

Five teams in the SEC this season are allowing nearly 30 yards more per game than they did a year ago. Topping that list is Texas A&M, which has seen its total defensive average climb by 64.2 yards per game.

LSU, which lost eight starters on defense, is allowing 46.1 yards more per game than it did last season. Vanderbilt is up 38.6 yards, South Carolina 33.9 yards and Georgia 29.1 yards.

The Bulldogs were also hit with major personnel losses on defense, and their youth on that side of the ball has taken its toll. They’re giving up an average of 30.2 points per game after allowing just 19.6 a year ago.

All but three teams in the SEC this season are giving up more than 350 yards per game. But as first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops notes, some stats matter more than others.

“Different teams are so explosive, and if you hold them under a certain number of yards and a certain number of points, you feel like that’s maybe as good as you can do with certain teams,” Stoops said. “A lot of statistics matter, and as a defensive guy, every yard and every point is personal.

“Sometimes, the bottom line is just winning games.”

SEC lunchtime links

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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Here we go. It's Alabama-LSU week, which is typically one of the most heavily hyped weeks of the SEC season. This one isn't quite the same as some in the recent past, but it still ranks among the nation's biggest games.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
11:00
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When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, you’re not.

We look back at Week 6 in the SEC.

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesThe Tigers will have QB James Franklin back in the starting lineup as they chase down an SEC East crown starting Saturday at Ole Miss.
SEC quarterbacks: We had a pretty good idea that the big three in the SEC -- Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Georgia’s Aaron Murray -- could stack up with any quarterback triumvirate in the country. But the quarterback play throughout the SEC has been outstanding this season, and the weekend’s games were another example of how deep, versatile and talented this crop of quarterbacks really is. Murray was as clutch as clutch could be in engineering the drive to tie the score at Tennessee (with all of his top playmakers on the bench) and forcing overtime. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger just gets better every game. He was 25-of-29 against Mississippi State for 340 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Don’t forget about Missouri’s James Franklin, either. He has accounted for 15 touchdowns in five games for the unbeaten Tigers and tossed four touchdown passes without an interception at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Is there a tougher and more team-oriented quarterback anywhere than South Carolina’s Connor Shaw? He returned from a sprained throwing shoulder a week earlier and rolled up 312 yards in total offense against Kentucky. Florida’s Tyler Murphy looks as though he has been there the whole way for the Gators. He was 16-of-22 for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Arkansas. Auburn’s Nick Marshall was masterful in executing the zone-read against Ole Miss and rushed for a team-high 140 yards and two touchdowns. Don’t look now, but the SEC suddenly has become a quarterback league.

HOT

Missouri: The first season in the SEC might not have been what Missouri bargained for a year ago with all the injuries and a disappointing 5-7 finish, but the Tigers are cruising right along this season after thumping Vanderbilt 51-28 on the road to remain unbeaten. Missouri wasn’t on much of anybody’s radar to start the season, and that has seemed to fuel the Tigers. They get a chance to make their biggest statement yet this Saturday at No. 7 Georgia.

NOT

Georgia’s health: As feared, the Dawgs lost running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley for the season to ACL tears suffered in the Tennessee game. Receiver Michael Bennett also injured his knee and will be out for a while. Running back Todd Gurley was nursing an injured ankle, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell was lost for the season in the opener with a knee injury after celebrating a long run by Gurley.

HOT

Auburn’s big-play defense: It looks as though the Tigers are beginning to settle in on defense, and you knew they would with Ellis Johnson and that veteran staff. They played much better in the second half two weeks ago at LSU and made one big play after another in the win over Ole Miss -- from Robenson Therezie’s 78-yard interception return for a touchdown, to six sacks (two by freshman end Carl Lawson), to a big stop on fourth down by safety Ryan Smith.

NOT

Mississippi State in the second half: The Bulldogs haven’t had trouble scoring points here lately, but they’ve been a no-show in the second half in all three of their losses. LSU outscored them 31-3 last week after halftime. Counting the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma State, Mississippi State has been outscored 55-10 in the second half in those three games. And in the fourth quarter, it has been even worse. They’ve been outscored 42-0 in their three losses.

HOT

Butch Jones’ message: Lost in Tennessee’s gut-wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia was a message from first-year coach Butch Jones to Vols fans that was unmistakable: He plays to win, and that’s the way it’s going to be on his watch. Tennessee went for it on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter, twice in its own territory, and converted all three. It wasn’t just that the Vols went for it on fourth down, but the play calls were absolute beauties. Tennessee is still a ways off from being an SEC contender, but Jones continues to grind away … and stack those bricks.

NOT

Vanderbilt’s defense: The Commodores offense also was slow to get out of the gate in the 51-28 loss to Missouri, but it has been a struggle on defense in all three SEC losses. Vanderbilt has given up at least 35 points in all three games and was barely even a speed bump for the Tigers, who didn’t trot out their punter until there were 10 minutes to play in the game.

HOT

Florida’s defense: Everybody is talking about all the big offensive numbers in the SEC this season, but Florida just might have the best defense in the country. The Gators uncharacteristically gave up a long drive to Arkansas to start Saturday’s game, but held the Hogs to 7 rushing yards in the second half. Florida ranks second nationally in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. The Gators have now gone 13 consecutive SEC games where they’ve held opponents to 21 or fewer points. Nobody else in the league has gone longer than one game.

NOT

South Carolina’s killer instinct: The Gamecocks can’t put anybody away, and that’s bound to catch up with them, especially with three straight road games in the next three weeks starting with Arkansas on Saturday in Fayetteville. They led Kentucky 27-7 entering the fourth quarter, but hung on to win by a touchdown. It was a similar story with UCF two weeks ago after giving up two late touchdowns, and Vanderbilt stormed back from a 28-0 deficit in Columbia the third week of the season.

FREEZER BURN

Avoiding off-the-field drama: It has not been the best run for the SEC in terms of staying out of the headlines off the field. Last week, Alabama placed an assistant strength coach on administrative leave after he loaned safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix some money this summer. The Tide have filed a waiver to have Clinton-Dix’s eligibility reinstated. There was also an uproar at Ole Miss when allegations surfaced that members of the football team were making homophobic slurs at a play on campus based on the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student. Ole Miss officials investigated and said they found no evidence that players used any anti-gay slurs. You had the whole Johnny Manziel circus during the offseason and reports that he signed autographs for money. Alabama kicked four players off the team in February after they were arrested for robbing a student on campus. A Yahoo! Sports report in September alleged several former SEC players, including Alabama’s D.J. Fluker, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, received extra benefits from former Alabama player Luther Davis, who was acting as a runner. Current Tennessee defensive tackle Maurice Couch was suspended after also being named in the report. The Vanderbilt rape investigation also remains open, and five players have been dismissed from the team.

SEC predictions: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
9:00
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Well, it's that time again. With the start of the college football season, which literally kicks off in a few hours, we are back to our weekly SEC predictions.

I mean, it's no big deal or anything, but I completely dominated the picks last year. The ATL Kid showed no mercy. Chris just didn't have the focus that you'd expect from a veteran. He started covering this league when I still had training wheels on my bike and chocolate stains on my shirts. (OK, those are still there.)

I spent the entire offseason gloating over how my beautiful 107-15 (.877) record looked down at Chris' 100-22 (.820) record and scoffed. But I also did some homework. I studied film. I might have had the championship belt around my waist, but today is a new day -- a new season.

Last year's picks mean nothing (except in the realm of blogger pride), so I have to start over. I'll starting lifting and running more in the mornings in order to get my mind and body right for the days ahead.

One championship was nice, but I'm looking for more rings and more bragging rights, and that all starts with a strong Week 1.

Let's get onto the picks:

THURSDAY

NORTH CAROLINA AT SOUTH CAROLINA

Chris Low: It’s the Battle of the Carolinas, or as the Head Ball Coach would say, South Carolina vs. “Dabo’s Carolina.” Not sure Dabo’s Carolina will be able to block Mr. Clowney. Then again, can anybody? ... South Carolina 30, North Carolina 17

Edward Aschoff: This could be the team that gets Steve Spurrier back to the SEC championship game. Jadeveon Clowney and that talented defensive line will make things miserable for UNC's offense all night. ... South Carolina 31, North Carolina 17

OLE MISS AT VANDERBILT

Chris Low: There’s no getting around the rape case and how it will impact the Commodores, especially with junior receiver Chris Boyd being suspended. The Rebels are for real and will finally figure out a way to beat the Commodores after losing five of the last six in this series. ... Ole Miss 24, Vanderbilt 20

Edward Aschoff: Both of these teams are on the rise in the SEC and have higher expectations than usual entering the season. While the Rebels have struggled recently with the Commodores, there's more pressure on Vandy, and Ole Miss will claim its redemption. ... Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 24

SATURDAY

WESTERN KENTUCKY VS KENTUCKY (in Nashville, Tenn.)

Chris Low: OK, no jokes about Bobby Petrino riding his motorcycle to the game. He gets his first of two straight chances to take down SEC teams, but the Wildcats will stand their ground in Mark Stoops’ debut. ... Kentucky 28, Western Kentucky 21

Edward Aschoff: Mark Stoops doesn't get a cupcake for his first game as Kentucky's new coach. I think it actually benefits him because he'll have a better idea of what he really has. And what he'll have is an opening-day winner. ... Kentucky 24, Western Kentucky 20

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE AT ARKANSAS

Chris Low: Louisiana-Monroe sent the Hogs reeling last season. Now, it’s Louisiana (the Ragin’ Cajuns) who’d like to get a little slice of Pig Sooie. Arkansas is too strong up front defensively to stumble in this one. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana 17

Edward Aschoff: Bret Bielema and his Hogs are dealing with a lot of injuries, but he'll still have more talent on the field Saturday. We won't know a ton about this team, but starting off 1-0 ain't bad. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana-Lafayette 17

AUSTIN PEAY AT TENNESSEE

Chris Low: There won’t be many breathers for Butch Jones in his first season at Tennessee, but the only drama in this one will be whether or not the Pride of the Southland Band has enough stamina to still be playing “Rocky Top” in the fourth quarter. ... Tennessee 45, Austin Peay 7

Edward Aschoff: Another new coach makes his debut with a team shrouded in mystery. Jones has a lot of inexperience to work with on offense and it'll be interesting to see how that up-tempo offense looks. ... Tennessee 31, Austin Peay 14

MURRAY STATE AT MISSOURI

Chris Low: It sounds like Henry Josey is healthy again, and all those SEC fans who didn’t get a chance to see him last season while he was sidelined are in for a treat. It won’t be a lot of fun for Murray State trying to tackle him. ... Missouri 38, Murray State 14

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers are healthier and carrying a big chip on their shoulders this season. A more complete Missouri team should take the field this weekend. ... Missouri 41, Murray State 13

WASHINGTON STATE at AUBURN

Chris Low: We know that Mike Leach thinks the bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC. Here’s his chance to prove it, although the Tigers should be greatly improved this season. ... Auburn 34, Washington State 21

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers have no choice but to get better with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. You should see lots of points in Malzahn's debut as the head coach. ... Auburn 38, Washington State 20

TOLEDO AT FLORIDA

Chris Low: The latest blow to the Gators was offensive tackle Chaz Green going down for the season, joining already injured running back Matt Jones and guard Jon Halapio. But when you don’t give up any touchdowns, it’s hard to lose. ... Florida 24, Toledo 6

Edward Aschoff: The Gators enter with a banged-up offense that already had a lot of questions. Toledo is far from a pushover, but Florida has the muscle to get by a tricky opening opponent. ... Florida 27, Toledo 10

RICE AT TEXAS A&M

Chris Low: By order of Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, I will not make any comments concerning a certain Aggies’ quarterback. What I will say is that the Aggies will roll despite No. 2 being on the bench for a half. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 10

Edward Aschoff: Johnny Football might be sitting out a half, but it wouldn't matter if he were sitting out the entire game. It's finally time for A&M to get back on the playing field. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 17

MISSISSIPPI STATE VS OKLAHOMA STATE (Houston, Texas)

Chris Low: The Bulldogs want to bring more pressure on defense this season. They’re going to need to in this one, but they will have a hard time scoring with the Cowboys. ... Oklahoma State 37, Mississippi State 24

Edward Aschoff: A lot of questions remain for the Bulldogs, and it won't be easy for this defense to slow down Oklahoma State's high-powered passing game. ... Oklahoma State 34, Mississippi State 21

LSU VS TCU (in Arlington, Texas)

Chris Low: Les Miles isn’t saying whether Jeremy Hill will play in the opener. He’s “withholding” that information. Something else that will be withheld is TCU touchdowns. This LSU defense might be young, but it’s not lacking talent. ... LSU 28, TCU 16

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers might be the must undervalued team in the SEC. Miles always has his teams prepared for these out-of-conference games, and you'll see a more explosive offense that's fast and athletic and will overpower the Horned Frogs. ... LSU 31, TCU 17

ALABAMA VS VIRGINIA TECH (in Atlanta)

Chris Low: This is not your father’s Virginia Tech team. The Hokies simply don’t have enough firepower to keep it close against the two-time defending national champions. ... Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10

Edward Aschoff: Alabama likes these big openers. The process is strong with Crimson Tide players and Virginia Tech is hurting. Alabama comes in more talented, and the Hokies just don't have the horses to keep up in Atlanta. ... Alabama 38, Virginia Tech 13

GEORGIA AT CLEMSON

Chris Low: It’s the most compelling opener of the season and should also be the most entertaining. If you like points, sit back and enjoy. The Dawgs will hold up a little better in the secondary and sneak out with a win. ... Georgia 35, Clemson 31

Edward Aschoff: This is the main event. Both teams have high-octane offenses and both have defenses littered with questions. Georgia has a lot of talent on defense, but it's young. This game is going to come down to which defense makes a play late -- and home-field advantage. ... Clemson 34, Georgia 31

SEC preseason power rankings

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
9:00
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It's officially game week! We all thought it wouldn't come, but it's finally here, and in just three days we'll have our first college football games of the 2013 season!

And what's a better way to kick off one of the most glorious weeks of the year than debuting the first set of power rankings for the season?

Here's where all 14 SEC teams rank in my eyes heading into the first weekend of the season:

1. Alabama: The two-time defending national champion brings back an extremely talented defense and an All-American candidate at quarterback who will have a slew of weapons to work with. The question is if there's a team not named Alabama that can stop the Tide from winning its third straight BCS national title.

2. Texas A&M: Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has received all the wrong kinds of attention this year, but as long as he's the Aggies' quarterback, A&M should again contend for the SEC West. Even with an ongoing investigation swirling around Johnny Football and his autographs, it doesn't sound like A&M plans to sit its star for Saturday's opener against Rice.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a wealth of defensive experience from last year's team, but they still will operate with one of the nation's best offenses. There should be no shortage of points in Georgia's opening matchup against Clemson on Saturday, and it'll provide a nice test for the Dawgs' young defense.

4. South Carolina: There are questions at linebacker and in the secondary, but having arguably the SEC's best defensive line could help mask some issues behind it early. Oh, and Jadeveon Clowney is still roaming around out there. The Gamecocks also should have quite the balanced offense to work with this fall, even if two quarterbacks are sharing snaps at times.

5. Florida: The defense lost some key starters from last year, but it looks like year's defense won't miss much of a beat given the quality reps returners got last year. The offense is still a mystery, especially the passing game, as a consistent receiving target has to emerge. Also, not having running back Matt Jones after the first week would be a major blow.

6. LSU: The return of running back Jeremy Hill and the maturation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger mean the Tigers should have a better and more explosive offense in 2013. It'll help to have a solid line and all of Mettenberger's top receiving targets returning, but can that rebuilt defense help get LSU back into BCS contention this fall?

7. Vanderbilt: Off-field distractions could be clouding the minds of these players, but coach James Franklin has made sure to keep his guys as focused as possible. Expectations are higher than ever, as a very good -- and underrated -- defense returns, while the offense has the potential to be very explosive again. However, if starting receiver Chris Boyd misses time due to his suspension, Vanderbilt could be in trouble.

8. Ole Miss: The expectations are higher in Oxford than they have been in years, but second-year coach Hugh Freeze would like those tempered a bit. Nineteen starters return, including All-SEC candidates Donte Moncrief and Bo Wallace. It's hard not to think the Rebels will build off the success Freeze had in his first year. Depth is still an issue in certain areas, and the start of the schedule is brutal.

9. Auburn: With Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson working with the defense, the Tigers have the recipe to be better in 2013. No longer will coaches be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole on offense, and Johnson has proved to be a great at developing talent. Those are two things that lacked in last year's team. Also, Malzahn has said he's very comfortable with junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who fits his offense perfectly.

10. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen is looking to take the Bulldogs to their fourth straight bowl game. The talent is certainly there to do it, but the road to the postseason will be challenging. Mississippi State has to replace its top four receiving threats and three starters in the secondary, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. Having veterans Tyler Russell and LaDarius Perkins working behind a solid offensive line will help, but this team has to generate more pressure from its defensive line.

11. Missouri: The Tigers' SEC debut didn't go well at all last year, but injuries were a major factor. The offensive line is healthier, but communication issues in the spring really hurt the offense's growth. The hope is that the talent at receiver lives up to its potential, while the defense has to make strides at linebacker and in the secondary.

12. Tennessee: New coach Butch Jones has brought a lot of excitement to the program, and he's building for the future. But in the present, a lot of questions remain, especially on offense. So much receiving talent is gone, and recently named starting quarterback Justin Worley has little experience. The defense returns a lot of experience and should be better-suited to run John Jancek's 4-3 defensive scheme.

13. Arkansas: There's no question Bret Bielema's presence in Fayetteville has generated some much-needed excitement, but the personnel has to match Bielema's intensity. Right now, the name of the game is making sure players adapt to Bielema's more physical style. The inexperienced receiving corps has been ravaged by injuries plus a transfer, and the defense still has a lot of questions at linebacker and in the secondary.

14. Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has known since day one that fixing the problems at the offensive skill positions was going to be tough. A quarterback has to be found, consistency at receiver must develop, and the running backs have to stay healthy. Defensively, the line is one of the SEC's best, but there are holes at linebacker and in the secondary. A turnaround is possible, but this team has a long way to go.
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.
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

Scouting report: South Carolina

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 3 Florida, which sits atop the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, plays host to No. 9 South Carolina on Saturday at Florida Field. Here’s a look at the Gamecocks:

SOUTH CAROLINA

Record: 6-1 (4-1 SEC).

Coach: Steve Spurrier, eighth season (61-36); 23rd season overall (203-76-2).

Series record: Florida leads 23-6-3.

Top players: QB Connor Shaw (75-108-4, 910 yards, 9 TDs; 280 yards, 1 TDs rushing); RB Marcus Lattimore (584 yards, 10 TDs); DE Jadeveon Clowney (31 tackles, 6.5 sacks); LB Shaq Wilson (44 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 2 INTs).

Scouting the offense: Lattimore shows no sign of any lingering effects of the torn ACL he suffered in the seventh game of the 2011 season. He’s averaging 83.4 yards per game rushing. Shaw struggled in last week’s loss to LSU, but the junior has been solid this season. He’s not a great passer, but he’s getting the job done thanks to a couple of good receivers in Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders, both of whom have 17 catches. Lattimore is also a big factor in the passing game (team-high 22 catches). The Gamecocks are playing similar offensive football to Florida. They want to be physical and run the ball and make just enough plays in the passing game to keep teams from selling out to stop the run.

Scouting the defense: The defense ranked third nationally in total defense last season but lost defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to Southern Mississippi. New coordinator Lorenzo Ward has picked up right where Johnson left off, though. The Gamecocks are giving up just 12.3 points per game (second in the SEC) and allowing teams only 296.3 yards per game (third in the SEC). South Carolina leads the SEC in sacks (26), with Clowney leading the way. He’s a force on either end of the line and the Gamecocks like to move him around. The Gamecocks have only given up three touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns, numbers which are bested only by Alabama in the SEC.

Three keys to watch:

Shaw was yet another mobile quarterback who hurt the Gators last season, rushing for 88 yards and two TDs in the Gamecocks’ 17-12 victory. UF has been much better against mobile QBs this season, though. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel hurt the Gators in the first half, but UF bottled him up in the second half and have been much more disciplined since then. Vandy QB Jordan Rodgers hurt the Gators with his feet last season but was no factor on Saturday. UF needs to contain Shaw and force him to throw because that’s a matchup the Gators should win. Even with the emergence of Sanders and Ellington, the Gators have the advantage because of how well the secondary has been playing.

LSU limited Lattimore to 35 yards and one touchdown, and the Gators need to mimic the Tigers’ approach: Gang tackle, don’t give up double-digit yardage runs, and make him work for every yard he gets. That means the defensive line is going to have to play better than it did against Vanderbilt. The Commodores pushed the Gators around a bit and ended up rushing for 126 yards.

UF’s offensive tackles (Chaz Green and Xavier Nixon/D.J. Humphries) are going to have to play as well as they did against LSU to keep Clowney from setting up camp in the backfield. LSU’s embattled offensive line did a good job against the Gamecocks and Clowney. They had just one sack and it wasn’t from Clowney. With Nixon’s status up in the air because of an upper body injury, expect the Gamecocks to pick on Humphries and line up Clowney against the true freshman as much as possible.

 
ESPN’s GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. For 30 weekdays we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- GatorNation is previewing each of Florida’s 2012 opponents. Today is South Carolina (Oct. 20 in Gainesville).

Steve Spurrier and Connor Shaw
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackIn Connor Shaw, Steve Spurrier may have his best fit at quarterback since he's been at South Carolina.
SOUTH CAROLINA

2011 record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC), beat Nebraska 30-13 in Capital One Bowl.

Coach: Steve Spurrier, eighth season (55-35); 23rd season overall (197-75-2).

Series record: Florida leads 23-6-3.

Top returners: QB Connor Shaw (123-188-6, 1,448 yards, 14 TDs; 525 yards, 8 TDs rushing); RB Marcus Lattimore (818 yards, 10 TDs); DE Jadeveon Clowney (36 tackles, 8 sacks); FS D.J. Swearinger (80 tackles, 3 INTs).

Did you know? The Gamecocks are 8-0 over the past two seasons against rivals Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson.

(Read full post)

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
10:50
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There's a rumor floating around that there's a pretty big game in Tuscaloosa this week.

Here's a look at what to watch around the league in Week 10:

1. Winning up front: With all the focus on the two defenses in the Alabama and LSU game, keep a close eye on who gets it done up front on offense, especially in the second half. Both of these offensive lines have a way of imposing their will on teams after halftime. They should be healthy, too. Guard Anthony Steen is expected back for Alabama after missing time with a concussion, and LSU will get back center P.J. Lonergan, who didn’t play in either of the Tigers’ last two games while recovering from an ankle injury. The team that plays the best on the offensive line is the team that’s going to win this game.

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMILSU receiver Rueben Randle will most likely play a big role in Saturday's game at Alabama.
2.Big-play receivers: With both the Alabama and LSU defenses being so stout, it makes sense that the team that wins is going to have to hit a few big plays in the passing game. It was Jarrett Lee completing the third-down bomb to Rueben Randle last season to ice the game for the Tigers, and two years ago, it was Julio Jones’ 73-yard catch and run that put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay. LSU’s Randle has been one of the best big-play receivers in the league this season. He has seven touchdown receptions and is averaging 19.3 yards per catch. Russell Shepard is somebody else to watch for the Tigers, while Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are also plenty capable of striking from long distance for the Crimson Tide.

3. Settling the East: It’s not an Eastern Division game, but South Carolina could take a huge step toward wrapping up its second consecutive East crown by winning in Fayetteville. The Gamecocks would then have one SEC game remaining at home against Florida. South Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Georgia, but the Bulldogs get both of their remaining SEC games at home against Auburn and Kentucky. The Gamecocks haven’t matched up well in recent years against the Hogs, but need to get over that hump if they’re going to get back to Atlanta.

4. Pressuring with four: South Carolina’s defense has been excellent the last five games. The Gamecocks haven’t given up more than 16 points during that stretch. Their defensive front has been a big reason why, although assistant head coach for the defense, Ellis Johnson, said the real test will come Saturday against Arkansas. South Carolina leads the SEC with 26 forced turnovers, but Johnson said the key against the Hogs will be getting pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson with the Gamecocks’ front four and not having to blitz a whole lot. The Hogs have struggled to protect Wilson in some games this season.

5. Playing two halves: Arkansas got away with it last week against Vanderbilt. The Hogs did the same two weeks ago against Ole Miss. Make that ditto for the Texas A&M game a month ago. The Hogs simply haven’t answered the bell in the first half, but have found ways to battle back in the second half and win games. That’s a dangerous script to follow if you’re going to beat South Carolina. The Hogs have been one of the best teams in the league when it comes to making big plays on offense, which would be the easiest way to get off to a good start. But the Gamecocks haven’t given up big plays this season. In fact, they haven’t allowed one all season that was longer than 33 yards.

6. A different Vanderbilt: The Commodores last won at the Swamp (Florida Field) in 1945. So it’s been a while. But it’s obvious that this isn’t the same old Vandy. It’s also not the same old Florida. The Gators have lost four in a row and went winless in the month of October. It’s been a tough season for first-year coach Will Muschamp, especially with quarterback John Brantley missing much of October. But it will go from a tough season to an unbearable season if Vanderbilt comes into the Swamp and wins. The Commodores lost in the final minutes to both Arkansas and Georgia in their last two outings. They’ve been very good all season on defense and are improving on offense, but they’re still looking for their first win away from home.

7. Ending the misery: Between them, Kentucky and Ole Miss have lost nine conference games this season. The Rebels have lost 11 in a row going back to last season. Something’s gotta give Saturday when they meet up in Commonwealth Stadium. Both teams had their chances last week. In fact, Ole Miss has been in position to win each of the last two weeks, but couldn’t finish the game against Auburn or Arkansas. It looks like the Wildcats will be going with freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith in this game. Morgan Newton is battling an ankle injury. Smith came in last week against Mississippi State and showed some promise.

8. New faces for Dawgs: Get ready to see several new faces on Saturday in Georgia’s offensive backfield. The Bulldogs suspended three running backs this week, including freshman Isaiah Crowell, after they failed drug tests. Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome were also suspended for the New Mexico State game. Making matters worse, Richard Samuel will miss the rest of the regular season with a foot injury after running as hard and as well as he has in a long time last week against Florida. So who’s going to carry the football for the Dawgs? Former walk-on Brandon Harton is the leader in the clubhouse followed by freshman walk-on Kyle Karempelis. Don’t be surprised if you see the likes of Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith back there some, too.

9. Another shot for Worley: Tennessee true freshman quarterback Justin Worley will make his second straight start Saturday after suffering through a rough outing last week against South Carolina. There are never any guarantees, but going up against Middle Tennessee’s defense figures to be a little less stressful than dealing with the Gamecocks on defense. It wasn’t all on Worley last week, either. He threw a couple of nice passes, but the players around him didn’t play very well. In particular, sophomore receiver Da’Rick Rogers dropped what would have been a touchdown pass. Rogers said he told Worley after the play, “I owe you. I owe you a bunch of stuff.”

10. Russell’s impact: Mississippi State was one of the SEC’s top rushing teams each of the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs have been more successful with the pass here lately. The biggest change has been Tyler Russell and his ability to throw the football. He’s a pocket passer with a big arm, and the Bulldogs have tweaked things when he’s in the game to play to his strengths. In the 28-16 win over Kentucky last week, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen rotated Chris Relf and Russell, and they combined for 264 passing yards and two touchdowns. It looks like the Bulldogs are going to stick with the quarterback rotation. They’ve generated more passing yards than rushing yards in their last four games and are averaging 204.6 passing yards per game, which is the most they’ve averaged through the air in eight seasons.

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