Florida Gators: Isaiah Crowell

We checked on the SEC's 3,000-yard passers from 2012 on Thursday, so we're taking a look at the running backs who hit the coveted 1,000-yard mark last fall.

Last summer, we looked at 10 running backs we thought could eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The SEC had four players reach 1,000 yards on the ground in 2011, and had nine, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, in 2012. I thought it was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback?

Here's how the 10 running backs we looked at last year did in 2012:

1. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia: Well, maybe if he actually played a down for the Bulldogs this year he might have had a chance to reach 1,000 yards. Instead, Crowell was dismissed before the season and spent 2012 rushing for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns at Alabama State.

2. Knile Davis, Arkansas: Davis said he was 100 percent after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury, but he never displayed the explosiveness and strength that made him a star in 2010. Davis was still hesitant at times and carried the ball only 112 times for 377 yards and two touchdowns.

3. James Franklin, Missouri: His laundry list of injuries and a banged-up offensive line didn't really help the dual-threat quarterback when it came to running the ball. A year removed from almost getting to 1,000 yards, Franklin rushed for just 122 yards and averaged 1.4 yards per carry in the process.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp took to the SEC's weekly teleconference on Wednesday morning to talk about the Gators’ game against Georgia on Saturday. He touched on Georgia's running backs, motivation for the Georgia game and what he learned form his first season.

1. Freshmen sensations

Georgia RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have more than capably made up for the loss of RB Isaiah Crowell, and Muschamp is familiar with both players because he recruited them. The two have combined to rush for 1,110 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"Well, both guys are really talented. Gurley and Marshall are guys we recruited, both guys, and very familiar with both of them. Both have top end speed. Obviously Todd’s a little heavier at 6-1, 218 and Keith’s 5-11, about 215, 210. So both are very talented guys, do a nice job as far as the inside running game and getting the ball on the perimeter and have been very dangerous. In every game they’ve played they’ve broken runs. I think it’s a credit to what they’ve done with that offensive line. They lost some good players last year and they’ve done a good job with that."

2. Just another game

Florida can win the SEC’s Eastern Division by beating its biggest rival on Saturday, but despite what’s at stake the coaching staff isn’t doing anything special in terms of preparation or motivation for the game.

"We approach all games the same, and I know no one wants to hear that but that’s the way we do it here. When you consistently approach things the same way you approach consistent performance in your players and you don’t get a lot of peaks and valleys in how they play and how they approach it because all of a sudden, ‘If Coach Muschamp thinks this is the most important game, the next week may not be as important,’ and they all count for one and they’re all critical. We understand what’s at stake. When we got on the practice field on Monday, our guys were excited. You don’t need a bunch of pep talks this week to get them going. You don’t need to find different ways to try to motivate them this week. They’ll be excited to play."

3. Learning process

Muschamp’s second season has obviously been significantly better than his first. Here’s what he learned:

"Well, I think if you continue to do the same thing you’ll get the same results. And I’ve always lived by that. We needed to tweak some things here and there: how we worked, how we practiced, and some of the things we did because we had to. We lacked some depth and some numbers and we had some youth and we needed to continue to work. But the things that we didn’t change is philosophically our core values in the program and what we believe and what we want to be as a football program. That’s what you can’t do. It’s one thing to tweak something, but you can’t start changing every time it doesn’t work for sake of change. We never wavered. I never wavered of the path of the program and where we were headed."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Day 2 of SEC media days sent some media members in to a frenzy, as 24 combined representatives from six teams paraded through The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala.

Arkansas tried to steal the show Wednesday, as Knile Davis anointed himself as the conference's best running back for the second straight year and interim coach John L. Smith sent a barrage of one-liners through the main ballroom.

But get ready for the crowd Friday. That's when Alabama comes to town, meaning a cluster of Crimson Tide faithful will be packing into the Wynfrey and drowning out every bit of noise with a never-ending series of "Roll Tide."

Joining Alabama is Tennessee, Ole Miss and Georgia.

Here are some things to look out for:
  • Nick Saban hates comparisons, but expect him to receive a few questions about comparing his current defense to the one he had in 2010. He'll certainly love those.
  • He and his players will also get a plenty of questions about the offense, especially with quarterback AJ McCarron returning and Eddie Lacy taking over at running back. Unfortunately, neither will be in attendance.
  • It's no secret that Tennessee coach Derek Dooley's seat is pretty hot in Knoxville, so he should expect to receive questions surrounding his job security. But has he really had enough time to right a ship that was sinking when he arrived and is just now patching up the hole?
  • Tyler Bray will be in the house. He's one of the league's best quarterbacks and he's confident in his ability, but let's see just how much maturing he's done heading into Year 3.
  • Georgia has dealt with a handful of offseason distractions thus far, including losing starting running back Isaiah Crowell. Mark Richt and his players should be prepared to answer questions about moving on and where the running game goes from here.
  • Jarvis Jones and his pursuit to be the nation's best linebacker should be a fun subject to tackle.
  • Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is at SEC media days for the first time. He's asked Rebel Nation for patience and is dealing with a roster that has a lot of holes on it. Can he convince people here that the Rebels are ready to turn things around?

It's almost time for hundreds of media folk to pile into a swanky ballroom and kick off another year of SEC media days.

The festivities begin Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., and last until Thursday afternoon. The event serves as the unofficial kickoff to SEC football season.

So what should we be on the lookout for this year?

Well, the biggest news is all the star power that won't be making the trip. Two of the league's top rushers -- Marcus Lattimore and Christine Michael -- won't be in town. Yes, they are both coming off season-ending injuries, but so is Arkansas' Knile Davis, and he'll be in attendance.

One of the league's best, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray won't be in Hoover, either. Nor will Bulldogs wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.

Some other big names not on the list include Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Missouri quarterback James Franklin.

There are a lot of interesting storylines revolving around all those players, who serve as faces for their respective programs, and it's disappointing that they won't be around this week.

However, some quality names are on this year's roster, including Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.

I'm sure they'll all have plenty to say and should keep us all entertained.

Here are some other things to keep an eye on this week:
  • If you're coming into town, make sure you bring your protective gear for Thursday. That's when Alabama's up, and you'd better believe the lobby will be jam-packed with Tide fans. They come out in full force and expect things to be even tighter this year after that championship.
  • Arkansas players will have to answer a lot of questions surrounding their former coach, Bobby Petrino. How much of a distraction will his exit be this fall?
  • Also, what will new Arkansas coach John L. Smith say? He sure knows how to make a news conference exciting, so don't expect anything to be different in front of all those SEC scribes.
  • One coach not afraid to put on a show while at the podium is South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. The Head Ball Coach has been chirping this year, and he probably won't stop in Hoover.
  • Last year, there were a lot of questions about the quarterback talent in this league. This year, that isn't the case, as the league is as plentiful at the position as it has been in years.
  • Although only Davis will be in town, expect a lot of talk about three of the league's best running backs all coming off major, season-ending injuries.
  • Georgia has had an eventful offseason away from the field, and it's time to see how players and coach Mark Richt are feeling about all of the silly distractions. Also, what's in store for the Bulldogs' running game now that Isaiah Crowell is gone?
  • I wonder how many times Nick Saban and his players will be asked questions about comparisons to the 2010 team. You know how much Saban loves comparison talk. ...
  • Tennessee coach Derek Dooley should field a lot of questions about his job security this week. Regardless of how you feel about the time he's had and all the issues he's had to deal with, his seat is hotter than ever.
  • Texas A&M and Missouri are now officially members of the SEC. How will their players and coaches react to being surrounded by all those SEC writers? And how many more questions will they get about adjusting to their new conference?
  • LSU was on top of the college football world until last year's national championship. The Tigers bring back a boatload of talent, but can they finish things this year?
  • The good news for Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee is their coaches won't have to deal with NCAA questions, unlike last year.

Gators game preview: Georgia

June, 27, 2012
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 Georgia (Oct. 27 in Jacksonville, Fla.).


Mark Richt and Will Muschamp
AP/Photo Stephen MortonGeorgia coach Mark Richt and Florida coach Will Muschamp exchange pleasantries before their first game last year in Jacksonville, Fla.
2011 record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC), lost to Michigan State 33-30 (3 OT) in Outback Bowl.

Coach: Mark Richt, 12th season (106-40).

Series record: Georgia leads 47-40-2 (Note: Georgia records indicate Bulldogs lead 47-39-2).

Top returners: QB Aaron Murray (238-403-14, 3,149 yards, 35 TDs); RB Isaiah Crowell (850 yards, 5 TDs); LB Jarvis Jones (70 tackles, 13.5 sacks); S Bacarri Rambo (55 tackles, 8 INTs).

Did you know? Murray needs just 14 more TD passes to surpass David Greene's school record (72).

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SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.

3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.

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SEC newcomers to watch

April, 3, 2012
Newcomers come in all shapes and sizes.

There are freshmen newcomers, junior college transfers and regular transfers. Regardless, they all come in with the expectations of playing immediately. JUCO standouts and transfers maybe more so than rookies, but the days of automatically redshirting true freshmen are over. Like, dead.

Last year, the SEC saw a few newcomers make immediate impacts. A great example is Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, who transferred from USC back in 2010, but didn't play until last fall. All he did was lead the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. There was Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, who came from the JUCO ranks to be one of the Hogs' most productive linebackers.

Freshman Isaiah Crowell had an up-and-down season, but was sixth in the SEC rushing, and was named the SEC's freshman of the year. His classmate, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, wasn't too bad, either. You also can't forget about South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was seventh in the SEC with eight sacks.

So, as spring practice begins to wind down around the conference, we're taking a look at five newcomers to keep an eye on in 2012. Some are on campuses, some aren't. Some are obvious choices, and you could be surprised by a couple. Top newcomers can be top league players, or players who will make big impacts on their teams at a position of need.

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Josh Cardiello visits UGA, plans UF visit 

March, 26, 2012
One of the Bulldogs' top O-line targets was in town Saturday for his second visit this month, and some players and coaches in Athens hoped he would decide to make March 24 even more special for him than it already is.

“They all told me happy birthday and put a little pressure on me, but not too much,” Josh Cardiello (Buford, Ga./Buford) said. “Shaq Wiggins was telling me to commit on my birthday so that would be my birthday present to myself.”

While Cardiello did not commit, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound interior lineman did see a lot that he liked while on campus, including watching the Bulldogs practice.

Spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 24, 2012
Now that you've seen what to watch in the SEC Western Division, let's check out the East:


Spring practice start date: March 14
Spring game: April 7

What to watch:

Finding offensive playmakers: Year 2 of the Will Muschamp era begins with the team trying to find someone who can make a few plays for this fall. New offensive coordinator Brent Pease has a host of unproven offensive talent to work with. Wide receiver Andre Debose was Florida's best deep threat last year, and the coaches raved about receiver Quinton Dunbar's potential, but neither was consistent enough in 2011. Maybe Florida can finally turn to bigger backs Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown in the playmaking department.

Toughening up the offensive line: The Gators' line struggled throughout the 2011 season. It wasn't always at 100 percent, but Florida's line also just wasn't tough enough -- mentally or physically. The Gators couldn't get the tough yards on the ground and didn't exactly protect quarterback John Brantley enough. The line should get a boost with early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the top offensive line prospect in the 2012 class, and Jessamen Dunker, but Florida will have to get improvement from players who return to a line that lost just one starter from last season.

Quarterback battle: Brantley is gone, leaving rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy. Brissett replaced Driskel as Florida's No. 2 quarterback last year, while Murphy has yet to take a college snap. Brissett and Driskel had plenty of down moments last fall but should get a chance to reinvent themselves this spring with new leadership and more practice reps. This spring will be extremely important for all three quarterbacks as they try to improve a position that struggled mightily the past two years.

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Post-signing day SEC Power Rankings

February, 6, 2012
Now that national signing day is out of the way, we're going to take another look at our SEC power rankings.

You won't see any change really, but we have more confidence in some teams now than we did before:

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide hauled in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class last week and not only did Nick Saban sign a handful of top-rated players, but he met all of Alabama's major needs with the 2012 class. There are a few freshmen who could make early impacts in Tuscaloosa, including athlete Eddie Williams (Panama City, Fla./Arnold), and wide receivers Chris Black (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast) and Amari Cooper (Miami, Fla./Miami Northwestern).

2. LSU: The Tigers' class wasn't as highly rated as some recent ones, but Les Miles and his coaches brought in a solid group and there are a few defense players who might see some playing time early. Three starting linebackers need to be replaced and a few freshmen will get their chances. While LSU lost Torshiro Davis ((Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) flipped to Texas, the Tigers brought in ESPNU 150 linebackers Kwon Alexander (Oxford, Ala.) and Ronnie Feist (Edgard, La./West Saint John).

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs needed to get bigger up front and add a couple of playmaking linebackers. Georgia did just that with the handful of athletic defensive linemen signed and grabbed top outside linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes), who should thrive in Todd Grantham's 3-4. Georgia's offense could be even better this fall with Keith Marshall (Raleigh, N.C./Millbrook) helping Isaiah Crowell, and the wide receiver depth returning.

4. South Carolina: Talk about underrated. South Carolina didn't make much noise at all on national signing day, but the Gamecocks brought in a very balanced class and have a few players who should contribute early to a team that will yet again compete for the SEC East title. Two freshmen to keep an eye on in 2012 are wide receiver Shaq Roland (Lexington, S.C.) and safety Chaz Elder (College Park, Ga./Benjamin E. Banneker).

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UF needs Matt Jones to spark offense 

February, 6, 2012
[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Courtesy T.J. LaFlamboyMatt Jones, ESPNU's No. 11 running back in the nation, sports some Florida gear at his signing day ceremony on Wednesday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The pressure is on running back Matt Jones.

Florida coach Will Muschamp won't admit it, but it's pretty clear that the signee from Seffner, Fla./Armwood High School has to be pretty good next season or the Gators' running game will be even worse than it was this past season.

Muschamp wants the Gators to become a power-running team, and that requires a big, bruising back who has the capability to run between the tackles. UF didn’t have that with small speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, while Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown have struggled picking up the offense. That leaves the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Jones, who rushed for 896 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games this past season, as UF's No. 1 option at tailback in 2012.

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You've already seen Chris Low's to-do lists for the Western Division teams, so now it's time to check out what the East teams need to take care of before next fall:

  • Two major areas new offensive coordinator Brent Pease needs to hit during his first offseason with the Gators is running back and wide receiver. Florida must find a downhill running back for Pease's offense, and a reliable go-to wide receiver -- two things Florida lacked in 2011.
  • With quarterback John Brantley graduating, Pease must find a new starting quarterback. That means developing rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, who struggled in relief of Brantley at times last season, and Tyler Murphy, who has yet to take a snap.
  • Toughen up mentally and physically. The Gators ranked 89th nationally in penalties, and were called out by coach Will Muschamp as being too soft in his first season. Soft can't win in the SEC.

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What to watch in the SEC: Week 12

November, 17, 2011
It’s the unofficial week to schedule scrimmages in the SEC.

Even so, we look closer at Week 12 in the league:

1. Winning the East: Even when Georgia was 0-2 back on Sept. 10, coach Mark Richt was trying to tell people that the Bulldogs weren’t out of it and that he felt good about his football team. Obviously, Richt knew what he was talking about. The Bulldogs never panicked, took advantage of a softer schedule the rest of the way and made the necessary improvements to get to where they are right now. They’ve won eight straight games and can secure their first trip to the SEC championship game since 2005 on Saturday by beating Kentucky at home.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Crowell
Dale Zanine/US PresswireIsaiah Crowell won't reach his vast potential until he gets used to the rigors of a full SEC schedule.
2. Crowell’s toughness: There’s still another level of toughness, both physical and mental, that Georgia freshman running back Isaiah Crowell needs to get to if he’s going to reach his vast potential. He’s an exceptional talent and bearing down on a 1,000-yard season. It’s not every day that a true freshman in this league rushes for 1,000 yards, but Crowell has a chance to be special once he understands that playing with bumps and bruises and being dog-tired in the fourth quarter is simply part of the game. Here’s betting he reports to preseason camp in better shape next season. He’s already had a very good season. But these next three or four games are when Georgia really needs him to turn it up a few notches.

3. Richardson’s campaign: Alabama running back Trent Richardson isn’t going to garner a lot of Heisman Trophy votes this week with the Crimson Tide going against Georgia Southern, but it might be a chance for him to get a little rest heading into next week’s regular-season finale with Auburn and whatever comes after that. The best news for Richardson is that it sounds as if Eddie Lacy is healthier, which means Alabama fans might see more of No. 42 on Saturday. He’s averaging 7.8 yards every time he carries the ball.

4. Running back by committee: There’s such a thing as running back by committee, and then there’s what LSU has done this season. The No. 1 Tigers have four running backs, and they’re using them all. What’s more, with Jordan Jefferson stepping into the starting role at quarterback last week and his ability to run the ball, LSU has a fresh set of legs carrying the ball on every possession. In the last two weeks, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue have gotten more of the work, but 240-pound freshman Kenny Hilliard was the star of the Auburn game a few weeks ago. And until his suspension, Spencer Ware was the workhorse. The bottom line is that LSU is averaging 195.1 rushing yards per game and has three different players (Ware, Ford and Blue) with more than 350 yards. Again, they just keep coming at you with fresh legs.

5. Miles can do without the advice: Speaking of LSU’s quarterback situation, LSU coach Les Miles understands and respects that there are all sorts of opinions out there about who should be starting for the Tigers and how Miles should handle his quarterback situation. Jefferson started last week after Lee had started the previous nine games. Miles said he gets that fans and media are going to analyze the whole quarterback dynamic at LSU, but added. “They’re entitled to their opinion, but that opinion has little effect on the decisions that are made within this program.”

6. Nutt’s last stand: Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt coaches in his final game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday, at least as the Rebels’ head coach, and does so against No. 1 LSU. Nutt has pulled off some of his biggest wins in the past in this type of situation. It’s a little different this time, though. The Rebels already had several players injured, and a few more, including quarterback Randall Mackey, were suspended for this game. With Nutt on his way out, everybody in Oxford wants to know who’s going to replace him. One of the guys to keep an eye on is Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora.

7. Bulldogs’ secondary vs. Hogs’ receivers: One of the most intriguing matchups of the weekend should be Arkansas’ receivers against Mississippi State’s defensive backs. The Hogs have been ripping through pass defenses with Jarius Wright and Joe Adams leading the way, although it hardly stops with just those two. The Bulldogs will counter with a couple of ball hawks in their secondary. Junior cornerback Johnthan Banks is having an All-SEC season with five interceptions and 14 passes defended, while sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley has four picks.

8. Bray’s way: How healthy will Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray be Saturday? Well, his coach, Derek Dooley, has said Bray hasn’t been close to his old self in practice this week after missing five games with a broken thumb. Bray’s teammates have painted a more positive picture, and Bray was ready to go last week against Arkanasas. It remains to be seen how rusty he is, but he had 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions before suffering the injury against Georgia. Even at 75 or 80 percent, he gives the Vols a better chance.

9. Vanderbilt’s offensive awakening: It’s been impressive what first-year coach James Franklin has been able to do with the Commodores’ program this season. They’re one win away from qualifying for a bowl game. Just don’t tell him that. That’s not even on his radar. What has been on his radar is an offense that’s made dramatic improvement during the course of the season. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers deserves a lot of the credit, but the offensive line has gotten much better. Running back Zac Stacy is closing in on the first 1,000-yard rushing season at Vanderbilt since 1995, and sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews has emerged as that big-play threat down the field for the Commodores. This doesn’t look like the same team that was kept out of the end zone in two straight games against South Carolina and Alabama.

10. Blowout City: We’ll end with a trivia question of sorts: How many of the eight games this weekend will be under 30 points? The over/under has been set at two, and that might be a tad high. In fact, we could see four or five in the 40-point range, which is what happens when you have four of your teams (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and South Carolina) playing FCS schools.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

November, 3, 2011
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.


McElwain discusses new Florida football
SEC Network's Greg McElory and Booger McFarland sit down to discuss the future of Florida football with head coach Jim McElwain.