Florida Gators: Gus Malzahn

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
Dec 13
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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We might not be able to enjoy college football for a few months, but today marks the beginning of the world's greatest sporting event: The World Cup.

Unfortunately, I can't be there with my fellow American Outlaws, but my eyes will be glued to my TV for the next month, watching some pretty compelling games all day long. So in honor of the World Cup, I thought it would be a good idea to see how all 14 SEC teams stack up to 14 World Cup teams. Who are their futbol counterparts?

I had some help from two of my fellow soccer nut friends, Konrad and Dan, so here are your 14 SEC World Cup teams:

ALABAMA

Brazil: Alabama claims something like 100 national titles and Brazil has five World Cup titles of its own. Every year, Alabama is a heavy favorite, just like Brazil. The Crimson Tide play near-perfect football, and Brazil plays the beautiful game. Though neither team is perfect, Brazil has been picked by most to win this year's World Cup, while Alabama is a national championship contender even with a new quarterback and questions on defense. Spain was a possibility, but from a historical standpoint, it didn't work. We'll leave Spain and Florida State to hang out.

ARKANSAS

South Korea: Neither is expected to go far this year, but there are a couple of good players spread out on both rosters. Could they be dangerous? Maybe. Can this year be a good starting point for the future? It's possible. Honestly, it's tough to say what either can do this year, but they won't lack heart in the way they play. Wins? That'll be tough.

AUBURN

Germany: A team that has the talent to compete year in and year out, but has had some rough spots in its history. They've had great success and tradition, but also dropped off before getting back to prominence. A coach has always helped resurrect things. Gene Chizik was the man for the job at one time, and now it's Gus Malzahn. These teams aren't perfect, but they're teams to be feared with so much offense, and could be better this year than the last time they played for a title.

FLORIDA

France: Like Florida, the French have the talent to be contenders, but they've also been underachievers of late. There is a lot of history with these two, and both should never be void of talent. France and Florida have no excuse for not being in contention. The SEC should always be in reach in some fashion for the Gators, and France shouldn't be viewed as underdogs in early rounds, but both have struggled to get back to elite status in the last few years. Argentina would have worked because, well, Will Muschamp and his cousin Lionel Messi.

GEORGIA

Belgium: Here's a team that could make a run and take it all, just like Georgia. But are we ready to say that either can really do it? Both can play offense just fine, but they have questions on defense and just haven't been able to get over the championship hump. Belgium is a nice sleeper pick this year, and the Dawgs could be one too, but there are just so many unknowns with a team that has to figure out so much on defense.

KENTUCKY

Australia: Not going to make a championship push this year, but won't go down -- or out -- without a fight. Mark Stoops is building, and building well, so he knows how tough it's going to be to make any sort of run during his second season with the Wildcats, but this team is better than last year's. An SEC win is on the table, and Kentucky could frustrate the big boys, like Australia, but there's still a ton of work to do.

LSU

Italy: Year in and year out, these two teams have a chance to win it all. They might have holes, which both squads certainly do, but the talent and athleticism out there is something no one wants to deal with. Both teams have, um, interesting figures as the faces of their teams. Italy has Mario Balotelli and LSU has Les Miles. Fear the quirkiness!

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Mexico: A strong finish to World Cup qualifying has Mexico as a threat, just like the Bulldogs after how they ended last season. Mexico is fast and furious, just like Mississippi State figures to be, especially with so much experience coming back on both sides. While Mississippi State isn't banged up like Mexico, an injury or two to this squad could be devastating.

MISSOURI

Netherlands: Teams that have surprised us recently. How did the Netherlands get into the finals of the last World Cup? How did Mizzou make it to last season's SEC championship game? Well, because they were better than we thought they were. Now, they both have some good players to lean on, but there are a lot of new guys at key positions, and these teams are trying to build on past successes.

OLE MISS

Colombia: Like sneaky good Colombia, the Rebels have a lot of fire power on offense, a few stars and some youngsters who could eventually bring a title to Oxford. But also like Colombia, there are a lot of questions for Ole Miss. The offensive line is thin, Bo Wallace has been an injured and inconsistent quarterback, and we don't know if the defense is ready to be a real threatening unit. However, no one wants to play them, and they're both title darkhorses.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Uruguay: It's a team that you've heard of and you know is good, but you have trouble naming a lot of players. You know that they are dangerous, but you just don't know a ton about them. Both of these teams have stars spread out, like Mike Davis for the Gamecocks and Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Both teams have made runs, and could do it again, but winning it all? Just don't see it happening this year.

TENNESSEE

England: So much history and tradition and a great and enthusiastic fan base. But winning just hasn't been there of late. Tennessee won its last national championship at the end of the 1998 season. England hasn't won the World Cup since 1966 -- it's only title. Tennessee boasts five more titles than England, but both should be contenders each year. The fall of both has been rough for both of these teams.

TEXAS A&M

USA: Both have a lot of young talent and could have potent offenses. They both own very, very loud fan bases, and I'd like to think that the USA's following has grown more like that of the Aggies'. Defense is a major question for both and could wreck any sort of run for either. Both teams have a chance to sneak their way through for a successful run, are building for the future after, lost the faces of their teams in Johnny Manziel and Landon Donovan, but could be a tricky team to beat.

VANDERBILT

Cameroon: Past success by both teams has them as trendy picks to pull an upset or two. But can either get back to where they once were during their magical runs? Vanderbilt might not have a Samuel Eto'o-type player on its team, but it has the talent to be a frustrating opponent for other SEC East teams. Like Cameroon, being in a tough group doesn't bode well for another special run in 2014.

SEC's lunch links

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
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How was your weekend? If you were out on the lake, you might have seen Alabama coach Nick Saban taking his players around on a boat. If not, you can still see it here. For more news and notes around the SEC, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 29, 2014
May 29
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The SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, are winding down, but college football news from around the conference continues to roll out. As always, we've got you covered.

SEC's lunchtime links

May, 28, 2014
May 28
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With the SEC spring meetings in full swing in Destin, Florida, there is plenty of league-related reading material floating around the Internet. Let's take a look at some of the headlines coming out of Destin.

SEC's lunch links

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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The College Football Hall of Fame is announcing its 2014 inductees today at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch it live at footballfoundation.org. Here's a breakdown of this year's nominees from the SEC.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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Football has taken a back seat this week to the storms that have ravaged parts of the Southeast, but in case you missed anything, here’s a look at the latest news and notes across the SEC.
  • Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron says NFL teams are telling him he could be a first-round pick.
  • Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will serve as the honorary pace car driver for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
  • Florida is ranked worse than 100th nationally in passing offense the past two years, but coach Will Muschamp believes this year’s wide receivers can help change that.
  • Hutson Mason has established himself as the starting quarterback for Georgia, but who will back him up?
  • The SEC athletic directors voted to keep the eight-game conference schedule, but an argument can be made for both the ACC and the SEC to go to 10-game schedules.
  • Quarterback Patrick Towles arrived at Kentucky with high expectations, but when the Mr. Football winner had to make mechanical changes, he didn’t flinch.
  • Former LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson displays his golden pipes by signing a draft tune (video).
  • With the new policy requiring SEC schools to schedule a 'Big 5' opponent, Mississippi State has a small window to add a marquee game for 2016.
  • Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is one of the top rivalries in the country and "the best rivalry in the SEC."

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
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We've arrived at the final weekend in April, which is somewhat bittersweet for SEC football fans. It's a weekend – and that's always a good thing – but it's also the final weekend for the conference's spring football games (Arkansas and Kentucky both play Saturday), meaning no more SEC football until late August.

Enjoy it while it lasts before the long summer – and take a quick look at today's lunchtime links before it begins.

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Let them eat a late lunch!
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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Three SEC teams begin spring practice on Tuesday, and there's a host of news and nuggets, including a bit of the off-the-field variety, in today's lunch links:
Whether or not the much debated 10-second rule passes or not on Thursday (or even goes to a vote), it’s clear that the pace of the game in college football and the number of plays being run has been the topic du jour this offseason.

The coaches who want to go fast frown at the thought of a restrictor plate being placed on their offenses, while a few defensive-minded coaches, namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, are concerned that player safety is compromised by increasing the number of plays in a game.

“This is the only game in history of any sport where the college game is longer than the pro game,” Saban said.

Compared to the rest of the country, the SEC wasn’t a league last season that necessarily lived in the fast lane, at least as a whole.

Ole Miss averaged the most offensive plays per game (79.8), but only ranked 21st nationally. Texas Tech was first nationally with an average of 90.3 plays per game.

Not surprisingly, Alabama and Arkansas were at the bottom of the SEC. The Crimson Tide averaged 65.9 plays and the Hogs 64.7 plays.

Auburn, which is renowned for its hurry-up, no-huddle attack under Gus Malzahn, was tied for fifth in the SEC along with Texas A&M with an average of 73.8 plays per game.

In 2012, before to Malzahn’s arrival as head coach, Auburn averaged just 60.5 plays per game, which ranked last among 124 FBS teams.

The Aggies went the other way in Kevin Sumlin’s second season in College Station. They averaged 83.5 plays per game in 2012 and dipped to 73.8 last season, a difference of nearly 10 plays per game.

Here’s a rundown of the entire SEC in the last two seasons in terms of offensive snaps per game:

2013

1. Ole Miss: 79.8
2. Missouri: 75.5
3. Georgia: 74.6
4. Mississippi State: 74.2
5. Auburn: 73.8
6. Texas A&M: 73.8
7. South Carolina: 72.5
8. Vanderbilt: 70.8
9. Florida: 68.9
10. LSU: 67.7
11. Tennessee: 67.7
12. Kentucky: 66.8
13. Alabama: 65.9
14. Arkansas: 64.7

2012

1. Texas A&M: 83.5
2. Ole Miss: 76.2
3. Missouri: 75.7
4. Tennessee: 75.1
5. LSU: 70.8
6. Arkansas: 70.5
7. Vanderbilt: 69.2
8. South Carolina: 69
9. Georgia: 67.8
10. Florida: 67.2
11. Kentucky: 67
12. Mississippi State: 66.8
13. Alabama: 66.3
14. Auburn: 60.5

SEC's lunch links

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
12:24
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Spring practice kicks off for four more teams in the SEC this week. Here’s a look at the latest news and notes around the league in today’s lunch links.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

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

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

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

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

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