Florida Gators: Marquez North

For the most part, surprises usually annoy me, but every once in a while, we find some things we like to call "pleasant surprises" that can actually generate smiles and or applause. For example, Auburn and Missouri were pleasant surprises in the SEC last season. The spider that fell from the ceiling and onto my shoulder the other day was not.

Follow me?

Well, resident college football expert Phil Steele has come up with his list of college football's 10 surprise teams Insider for the 2014 season. At the top of his list is Georgia, and Ole Miss and LSU also made the cut.

All three are excellent choices. Georgia has the offense to score close to 100 each week, but its defense has the ability to surrender that as well. Imagine if the defense caught up to a third of what the offense could do.

Ole Miss has playmakers on both sides of the ball, and I have the Rebels pegged as a dark horse to take the West this year. Can quarterback Bo Wallace finally put a consistent season together?

Then there's LSU, which has a load of talent sprinkled about, but we don't know who the quarterback is or who will catch the majority of passes at receiver. Also, is that defensive line going to step up this fall and generate a more intimidating pass rush?

So which other SEC teams could surprise us this fall? I figured I'd take a stab at it:

FLORIDA

If the Gators' offense can get it together under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, this will be a dangerous team when it comes to the East and the SEC as a whole. Florida already has the defense -- arguably the most talented in the SEC East -- but just has to find a pulse on offense. Will Muschamp thinks he'll have more than just a pulse with quarterback Jeff Driskel running a more comfortable spread attack.
  • Why Florida will surprise: Driskel will be a much more threatening quarterback using his legs more in the zone-read. It will open up the running game and will help take a lot of pressure off of what could be a more athletic Gators defense.
  • Why Florida won't: Have you seen that schedule? The Gators go to Alabama and Tennessee before home games against LSU and South Carolina and the annual trip to Jacksonville to play Georgia. Florida gets South Carolina at home, too, but has to travel to Florida State to end the season.
MISSOURI

Wait, the team that won 12 games and the East is in this category? Well, the Tigers aren't getting much love heading into the fall because of some key losses from last year's team. But some of those key spots are getting more than qualified replacements. The confident and experienced Maty Mauk takes over for James Franklin at quarterback, while potential stars Markus Golden and Shane Ray take over for Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Also, watch out for running back Russell Hansbrough.
  • Why Missouri will surprise: Mauk won't have any jitters taking over after starting for the month (and losing just one game) when Franklin was hurt last year. That defensive line could be really fun to watch with good experience and quality ability to keep up the harassment it displayed last season.
  • Why Missouri won't: Mauk is good, but who is he going to throw to? None of Mizzou's returning pass-catchers made more than 26 receptions last year. The loss of Dorial Green-Beckham won't be easy to get over. Two starters are gone at linebacker and the secondary is incredibly inexperienced.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

This team returns 18 starters, including a potential dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott. The defense is experienced, but vastly underrated. The attitude is different and the confidence is soaring in Starkville. This is the most talented team Dan Mullen has had during his tenure with the Bulldogs, and seven wins would be a considered a disappointment.
  • Why Mississippi State will surprise: Prescott did so much in so little time last season and is the ideal quarterback for this offense. Also, his top-five pass catchers from last year are back. The schedule also isn't too daunting, especially with Auburn and Texas A&M at home.
  • Why Mississippi State won't: With the way the schedule sets up, the Bulldogs could have seven wins by mid-November. We've seen this before. In 2012, Mississippi State started 7-0 before dropping three straight and five of its last six. For the most part, the better teams have had their way with the Bulldogs.
TENNESSEE

This team has to completely rebuild its offensive line and defensive line, but there's no doubt that this team has talent at all around and could be sneaky good. The quarterback position has to be figured out, but with receivers such as Marquez North and Josh Malone on the field, any quarterback should be happy.
  • Why Tennessee will surprise: The Vols have playmakers at receiver, running back, linebacker and in the secondary. While there are questions up front on both sides, Tennessee has a pretty good supporting cast around it. Running back Jalen Hurd could be a major player for the Vols.
  • Why Tennessee won't: Quarterback is a major issue, and that's before you look at a line with five new starters. The defensive line lost six seniors and four starters. There are no gimmes on the schedule in September, and road trips to Georgia, Oklahoma, Ole Miss and South Carolina won't help.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

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

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

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

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

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

SEC's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

SEC Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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We're inching closer and closer to the finish line, and our No. 1 doesn't look to be budging anytime soon:

1. Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide faced its biggest test since Texas A&M and passed with flying colors Saturday night with a resounding 38-17 win over LSU. Alabama didn't need a lot of yards, but the defense stood tall, holding LSU to a season-low 284 yards and 17 points. People continue to wonder if this truly is the No. 1 team in the country, but Alabama has tackled every obstacle that has come its way. Also, Phil Knight was decked out in Alabama gear in Tuscaloosa, so clearly the bandwagon still has room.

2. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 2): It seems like Auburn is getting better and better each week. The Tigers weren't intimidated at all by the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium and walked out with a commanding 55-23 win over Tennessee. The offense rolled up 444 rushing yards, and the defense is getting better and better -- just in time for this week's showdown with Georgia on the Plains.

3. Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 5): These Tigers continue to impress and had no problem handling a weary Kentucky team on the road. Maty Mauk is growing for the future, and Dorial Green-Beckham showed us all why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year with his school-record four touchdown catches in Mizzou's 48-17 thumping of the Wildcats. This upcoming bye week should give quarterback James Franklin even more time to rest his shoulder before a trip to Ole Miss.

4. Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC; LW: 3): We all know the Aggies can score at will when Johnny Manziel is under center, but the defense took a few steps back (again) in A&M's 51-41 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Right when you think that unit is getting better, it starts to lag behind, like surrendering 556 total yards to the Bulldogs. Still, the Aggies won in spite of the defense and get a bye week before taking on LSU and Mizzou on the road.

5. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks were off this weekend, which should help them rest any nicks or bruises. South Carolina is approaching its final SEC game, which is big, because a win over Florida on Saturday would get the Gamecocks one step closer to Atlanta. South Carolina still needs help, but the Gamecocks will have every opportunity to take care of business against a struggling Florida team.

6. Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): The Bulldogs had a nice tuneup game before facing Auburn on the road. Even after a sluggish start, the Bulldogs routed Appalachian State 45-6. If Georgia wants a shot at the SEC Eastern Division title, the Bulldogs have to beat Auburn and hope for Mizzou to fall off late. Aaron Murray continues to rack up records, and this offense regained its form Saturday. The defense will have to be at its best against a very good Auburn running game.

7. Ole Miss (6-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 8): After winning just six combined games from 2010-11, the Rebels are going bowling for the second straight year. Coach Hugh Freeze has led a very impressive turnaround in Oxford. Ole Miss let things get a bit interesting in its 34-24 win over Arkansas, but the outcome never really seemed in doubt. The Rebels go for win No. 7 against Troy before hosting Missouri.

8. LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 6): It really has been a season of what-ifs for the Bayou Bengals. Turnovers and mental errors have plagued this team in its three losses, and Saturday's 21-point loss to Alabama was no different. Fumbles by J.C. Copeland and Zach Mettenberger proved costly, as they created a 10-point swing that didn't go in LSU's favor. The Tigers were left scratching their heads in Tuscaloosa and get another bye week to stew over it.

9. Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 SEC; LW: 11): Remember when head coach James Franklin said you'd never see the old Vanderbilt again under his watch? Well, after taking the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, Saturday's 34-17 win over Florida marked the first time the Commodores have beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1945, and the first time ever the Dores beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. Vandy's blowout win in the Swamp came thanks to four takeaways by the Commodores and only 183 yards of offense, and Vandy is a win away from making its third-straight bowl.

10. Florida (4-5, 3-4 SEC; LW: 9): It has been a challenging season in Gainesville, and Saturday's ugly loss to Vandy (snapping a 22-game winning streak over the Dores) didn't help. The injuries have piled up, Florida has lost four straight and the Gators are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1990. Coach Will Muschamp said his team has a "woe is me" attitude right now, and the fans are restless. Seeing all those empty seats and hearing all those boos told you everything you need to know about the state of Florida football.

11. Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC; LW: 10): It was another long day for head coach Butch Jones and his Vols. Auburn ran up 444 rushing yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry, and had the game well in hand before the second quarter even ended. Tennessee has to be encouraged by the growth of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and receiver Marquez North, but it's just not enough right now. Five times this year Tennessee has given up 400 yards and gained less than 350.

12. Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 12): Hats off to quarterback Dak Prescott for going out and playing Saturday just days after his mother passed away after her battle with cancer. He and his Bulldogs didn't beat Texas A&M, but they never quit. Still, this has been a trying year for Mississippi State, which has to win two of its last three games in order to keep its three-year bowl streak going.

13. Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 SEC; LW: 13): Another weekend, another loss for the hapless Hogs. Arkansas' 34-24 loss to Ole Miss marked the seventh straight for Bret Bielema and his squad. It's the longest of Bielema's coaching career, and the Razorbacks are officially out of the bowl hunt for the second straight year. Arkansas has the SEC's No. 12 offense and a defense that ranks 11th in the league, after surrendering 531 yards to Ole Miss.

14. Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 SEC; LW: 14): For the third straight year, the Wildcats aren't going bowling. They certainly have shown heart, but the talent on both sides of the ball just isn't there right now for Kentucky to actually compete week in and week out against its SEC foes. Kentucky has now lost 13 straight SEC games.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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Well, a lot has has changed in the SEC after just one weekend. Our No. 1 team is clear, but after that, well, it's a bit murky. That just makes it that much more fun, but we are finally seeing the SEC actually beat up on itself in the final year of the BCS era:

1. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC; last week: 1): Say what you will about the lack of competition Alabama has faced since the Ole Miss game, but the Crimson Tide are doing exactly what they need to develop and build momentum. For the second straight year, the Tide blanked an overmatched Arkansas team 52-0 and appear to be the SEC's biggest hope for bringing the conference its eighth straight national championship.

2. Missouri (7-0, 3-0 SEC; LW: 4): So this is what Missouri's offense is supposed to look like when guys are healthy. Well, even with James Franklin out and Maty Mauk running things, the offense is pretty deadly. The Tigers are the surprise of the conference and crushed Florida 36-17 over the weekend with 500 yards of offense and a smothering defense that allowed just 151 yards. A win over South Carolina this weekend would essentially clinch the SEC Eastern Division for the Tigers.

3. Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 8): It's clear that Gus Malzahn was the right choice for this team. The Tigers marched into Kyle Field on Saturday and shocked the nation with a thrilling 45-41 win over Texas A&M. The offense churned out more than 600 yards, including 379 rushing yards. The Tigers might be a bad first half against LSU away from being undefeated. Auburn is now averaging a league-high 300.1 rushing yards per game, which is 65.7 more than Missouri's No. 2 rushing offense.

4. Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC; LW: 2): Not even the great Johnny Manziel could rescue the Aggies against Auburn. Despite playing with a bad shoulder and throwing for 454 yards and four touchdowns, Manziel wasn't enough. Why wasn't he enough? Well, look at the Aggies' pitiful defensive performance. They surrendered 615 yards of offense, allowed Auburn to convert 7 of 14 third downs and gave up 7.2 yards per play. I've never seen a team so great offensively yet so bad defensively.

5. LSU (6-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 3): Just when we thought LSU was really figuring things out, the defense gets gashed in Oxford, Zach Mettenberger reverts back to his bad habits throwing the ball and the Tigers get outplayed in a rivalry game. LSU fell to Ole Miss 27-24 on Saturday and looked as though it didn't want it as much as the Rebels. Mettenberger was flustered all night, throwing three interceptions and registering a QBR of 33.2

6. South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 6): The Gamecocks looked like a team ready to make a charge through the SEC, but that sight was short-lived after Saturday's 23-21 loss to Tennessee on a last-second field goal. It was a bad loss that might knock the Gamecocks out of contention for the East title, and quarterback Connor Shaw left the game with a knee sprain. South Carolina's only hope for the East crown is to win at Missouri this weekend.

7. Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 5): As the injuries continue to pile up in Athens, so do the losses. Georgia surrendered a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, allowing Vanderbilt to score 17 straight in the Commodores' 31-27 upset. Now, top receiver Chris Conley and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons could be out against Florida in two weeks with injuries. This was Georgia's worst offensive showing of the year, registering just 221 yards of total offense and turning it over three times.

8. Ole Miss (4-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 9): Right when it looked like the honeymoon with Hugh Freeze was starting to lose its luster, the Rebels shocked LSU with a 27-24 win after losing three straight in conference play. The mistakes that had plagued this team during its three-game losing streak vanished as Ole Miss outplayed the Tigers at home.

9. Florida (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 7): A week ago, coach Will Muschamp said his defense shouldn't worry about the offense. On Saturday, the defense gave up 500 yards and 36 points but got absolutely no help from an inept offense that has generated just 391 yards, 16 points and one touchdown in the past two games combined. The defense was gashed, but fatigue had to set in with a sputtering offense barely staying on the field. It'll be a long two weeks in Gainesville before next week's game against Georgia.

10. Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC; LW: 11): Something tells me those guys in the Knoxville are really digging what new coach Butch Jones has to say. After some shaky play and some over-coaching early, the Vols put together back-to-back solid games against SEC East heavyweights and really shook things up with their 23-21 shocker over South Carolina. Keep an eye on freshman wide receiver Marquez North. The kid has some talent.

11. Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3 SEC; LW: 10): If Vanderbilt was truly going to take the next step under coach James Franklin, the Commodores had to beat one of the big guys in the SEC East. Well, that finally happened after the Dores upset Georgia 31-27 in Nashville on Saturday. With backup quarterback Patton Robinette in, Vanderbilt erased a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to end the game on a 17-0 run.

12. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): After a close call against a scrappy Bowling Green team, the Bulldogs were off over the weekend. They'll face a hurting Kentucky team Thursday, which is an important game in the realm of bowl talk for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs haven't been very flashy this season, but the defense hasn't been half bad, ranking fourth in the SEC in total defense (364.5 yards allowed per game) and allowing just 23 points per game.

13. Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 SEC; LW: 13): It has been a nightmare of a start to the Bret Bielema era in Fayetteville. It seems like ages ago that the Hogs were sitting at 3-0. Now, after Alabama destroyed this team in every area of the game over the weekend, Arkansas has lost five straight. The past three losses (all in conference play) have been by a combined 117 points.

14. Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off this past weekend after getting thumped 48-7 by Alabama the previous week. Coach Mark Stoops said after the game that neither he nor his players would give up after a rough first half. Kentucky enters Thursday's matchup with Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC in total offense and defense.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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Saturday was full of upsets, injuries and last-second finishes -- just another day in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from action in Week 8.

Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter dominating Florida, Missouri (yes, Missouri) is on a collision course with Alabama to face off in the SEC title game.
Collision course: The only two teams that didn't slip up Saturday were the two unbeatens in the SEC: Alabama and Missouri. Now, the Crimson Tide and Tigers are on a collision course headed for Atlanta and the SEC championship game. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the two-time defending national champions are in this position, but who would've guessed Missouri would still be perfect this late in the season? The Tigers dominated Florida on Saturday, putting up 500 yards of offense to the Gators' 151. Quarterback Maty Mauk didn't miss a beat in his first start in place of James Franklin. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 15 yards and a score.

Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.

Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.

Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.

SEC's lunchtime links

August, 26, 2013
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Game week has arrived. No more waiting for the action because it all starts this week. Here are some links from around the SEC to whet your football appetite as game day nears:
SAN ANTONIO -- In recruiting, players can hate the process one day, love it the next.

ESPN 300 defensive end Joe Mathis (Upland, Calif./Upland) has seen both sides, but is looking to make the process a past discussion.

[+] EnlargeJoe Mathis
Damon Sayles/ESPNESPN 300 DE Joe Mathis is expected to commit on Saturday at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl
Mathis is one of seven players expected to announce where they’ll play college football during Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. While many feel he’s leaning toward one school, Mathis said he’s eyed four schools fairly evenly.

“Truthfully, I really like Alabama, USC, UCLA and Washington,” Mathis said. “They’re like all even. Everybody thinks Washington is in front, but I really like them all.”

Mathis said many feel he’s a Washington lean because of his recent official visit to Seattle and the campus. He left the trip wearing a Washington beanie, but not because of what some fans believe.

“I took an official up there, and I left my hat because it’s cold up north, so I got a nice beanie,” Mathis said. “Since then, people think I’m Washington.”

Mathis, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound end, has an idea of which school he wants to choose, but he said he will take his decision all the way to the morning of the game -- possibly even through his scheduled time to announce.

“It’s going to be a hard decision,” he said. “I mean, it’s the next four years of my life.”

Mathis said he is being recruited by offensive line coach James Cregg (USC), secondary coach Demetrice Martin (UCLA), defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi (Washington) and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (Alabama).

Newsmaker: ESPN 150 wide receiver Marquez North (Charlotte, N.C./Mallard Creek) and ESPN 150 quarterback Asiantii Woulard (Winter Park, Fla./Winter Park) arrived in San Antonio around lunchtime on Thursday. However, neither player will play in the game per bowl officials.

North (6-3, 210) is the No. 12 receiver and No. 133 player overall. There have been whispers that he could announce at the game. He has taken official visits to Florida (Oct. 5) and Tennessee (Oct. 19). North also has offers from Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon and others.

There have also been whispers that Woulard (6-3, 205), the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the country, could also announce. Woulard took an official visit to NC State on Nov. 9. In addition to the Wolfpack, he also has offers from Boston College, Cincinnati, Ole Miss, Pitt, South Florida, Syracuse, among others.

Notable: Alabama commitment Tyren Jones (Marietta, Ga./Walton) didn’t think he would make the trip to San Antonio because of a pre-existing knee injury. However, he decided to fly in Thursday and will be at Saturday’ game but will not play. … After a shortened afternoon practice for the West, ESPN 150 quarterback Max Browne (Sammamish, Wash./Skyline) and three-star wide receiver Corey Robinson (San Antonio/San Antonio Christian) were spotted getting some extra work in by running routes. Browne, a December high school graduate, has signed his scholarship papers to USC, while Robinson, the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson, is committed to Notre Dame. … Top-rated offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla./Columbia) didn’t participate in much of practice because of illness. Tunsil, who suits up for the East, is expected to be ready for the game.

SAN ANTONIO -- Wednesday was a day off for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl teams. Instead of working out and participating in drills, the players took in visits around the city -- including a stop at the Alamodome for photo opportunities and to see their game apparel -- and used the day to recover from two days of practice.

The teams will return to the fields on Thursday in arguably the most important practice of the week. Here are five things to keep an eye on for Thursday’s practice:

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Recruiting mailbag: Phillips, Brown, LBs 

December, 5, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s time to dip into the GatorNation recruiting mailbag and answer your questions. Because of the amount of questions we’ve received, we won’t be able to get to all of them today -- but we encourage you to post your questions on our Insider fan forum, The Chompions Club.

xtremecheezhead: How will the addition of Joker Phillips impact WR recruiting?

A: There is no question in my mind this will have a very big impact in recruiting for Florida. It might not be this year because the Gators already have four wide receiver commits and might only take one more receiver. Phillips has helped develop several top receivers including Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers, and he should able to sell that to recruits. As I said in my update on Monday, the Gators are still in the picture for several receivers, and the Phillips addition will only help Florida's cause.

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Familiar name will help Gators' recruit 

December, 3, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla.-- The Florida Gators announced the addition of former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips as the new wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator on Monday afternoon.

Florida struggled at wideout this season and Phillips will bring a well-known name as well as extensive experience coaching the position.

Phillips, though, won't be left with an empty cupboard on the recruiting trail. The Gators have commitments from four wide receivers including Ahmad Fulwood (Jacksonville, Fla./Bishop Kenny), Alvin Bailey (Seffner, Fla./Armwood), Marqui Hawkins (Columbus, Ga./Carver) and Chris Thompson (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville).

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UF-UGA recruiting battles for 2013 

October, 25, 2012
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GatorNation's Derek Tyson and DawgNation's Kipp Adams look at five key recruiting battles remaining between Florida and Georgia for the Class of 2013.

OL Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla./Columbia)

CONSIDERING: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Florida State

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