Florida Gators: Justin Hunter

It’s Rankings Week at GatorNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Florida football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the Football Bowl Subdivision teams on the Gators’ schedule. On Tuesday we’ll rank the top 10 offensive players Florida will face in the fall.

Ranking the schedule

1. Georgia (Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.): Sure, the Bulldogs lost nine starters on defense, but Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are coming back, and that makes them one of the SEC’s best teams. Georgia scored a school-record 529 points last season behind those three, and the offense figures to be explosive again in 2013. It’ll need to be to carry a rebuilt defense.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
4:00
PM ET
We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
1:39
PM ET
We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.
Marcus RobersonKim Klement/US PresswireGators cornerback Marcus Roberson (5) often huddles up the team before games.
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Florida’s Allstate Sugar Bowl date with Louisville, GatorNation will review the season for a key Gators player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at CB Marcus Roberson.

CB Marcus Roberson
Sophomore
20 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 pass breakups, 1 sack

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With the season winding down, we figured we'd start looking to the future. Like, beyond bowl games future.

We are looking into our crystal ball to check out some of the SEC best who could declare for April's NFL draft early. We've talked to people around the league, those in the know at ESPN when it comes to the NFL draft, and came up with the top 10 underclassmen we feel are the best bets to come out and go the highest in next spring's draft.

Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. updated his Big Board Insider this week and featured 12 SEC players in his top 25. Ten were juniors.

We're going in alphabetical order, so here are 10 SEC underclassmen we feel have the highest draft stock:

[+] EnlargeJustin Hunter
Jim Brown/US PresswireTennessee receiver Justin Hunter has the potential to be a first-round pick in the NFL.
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: Pro scouts have drooled over Hunter's natural ability and his breakaway speed. He was a little hesitant on his knee early after undergoing ACL surgery last year, but he's made nice strides as the season has progressed, catching 65 passes for 979 yards and eight touchdowns. He has four 100-plus-yard receiving games, and some think he could be a mid-first-round draft pick in April.

Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: It's hard to find a better left tackle out there. Joeckel entered the season as a surefire first-round pick and has only helped his draft stock with an excellent junior season. He hasn't been rattled by the speed of opposing SEC ends, and has provided very good protection in the pass game. It sounds like he could be the first tackle off the board if he declares early.

Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: He was the SEC's top defender last season, and has been one of the nation's best pass-rushers the last two years. He really can do it all. He drops into coverage, stops the run and constantly harasses quarterbacks. He also never seems to lose energy. He's been banged up this season, but Kiper still has him No. 1 on his Big Board.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: The Aggies are really getting greedy with their tackles. Matthews has been excellent all season, and could play either right or left tackle in the NFL. He's very powerful and moves well up front. He could be a late first-round pick if he decides to come out.

Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama: He has had some struggles lately in coverage, which could hurt his stock, but he's so athletic and so physical that teams will be all over him if he opts to leave early for the NFL. He can play the run, has tremendous speed and has very good field intelligence. He's defended an SEC-high 16 passes this season.

Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: He might not be burning up the stat books this season, but he might be the nation's fastest pass-rusher. He has been extremely agressive all season against the pass and run. He has great length, and doesn't really have to take on many blocks because of his speed. He entered the season as an early first-round draft pick, and that still seems to be the case.

Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: It's hard to find anyone with the same on-field personality and energy. He might be bigger than Mingo, but he's chased down his fair share of running backs during his career. He has six sacks this season and 11 tackles for loss. He could have left early last year, but decided to stay and still has early first-round potential.

Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: Talk about really breaking out onto the national stage. He was excellent as an outside linebacker last season, but has been an absolute monster at defensive end in his first (and probably only) year in the SEC. He really adjusted to the new 4-3 scheme, and might have played himself into a top-10 pick. He has a team-high 74 tackles, leads the nation with 20 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 12.5 sacks.

Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: Some think he might be better suited for the NFL than Jones because of his speed, athleticism and instincts. He had a rusty start to his season after serving a four-game suspension, but he's been outstanding in recent weeks. He can make plays all over the field, and should be a first-rounder if he decides to leave school early.

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri: He is arguably Missouri's best player, regardless of position. He's constantly taking on double-teams, but figures out a way to blow them up. He leads Mizzou with 70 tackles, has 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He's quick and can disrupt both the run and pass. However, his recent suspension could make his draft stock fall some.

Keep an eye on ...

Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Has all the physical tools to be special in the NFL, but off-field issues could push him out of the first round.

Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida: Has been extremely disruptive all year up front for the Gators, and could hear his name called in the second round.

D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama: Has had a solid season, but he still needs to develop his game more, and there are more NFL-ready tackles ahead of him.

Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn: Was very productive last season, but has fallen a bit this season. Still has all the tools to be a top 40 pick in April.

Predictions: SEC Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
11:30
AM ET
Well, well, well. It looks like The Kid knows a little bit about what he’s yapping about these days.

After two weeks of having identical picks, we have some separation after I correctly picked that Florida would walk into Neyland Stadium and snatch a win away from the Vols. I thought the Gators would win because of their defense -- and that unit did just what I thought it would in the second half -- but I didn’t think Florida’s offense would step up like that. My goodness.

Talk about Rocky Bottom.

That’s exactly where Chris sits heading into Week 4 with a record of 31-4 (.886), which is one game behind my 32-3 (.914) record. We both missed on Kentucky losing to Western Kentucky last week, but the most important thing in my eyes is that I have a one-game lead, and I can tell that Chris is scrambling.

You should have heard our conversation after his alma mater let the Gators off the hook Saturday. The mental games for him started when Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter both dropped those key second-half passes for the Vols. They just fueled his realization that he'd leave the weekend a game behind The Kid.

(Read full post)

Vols melt under the bright spotlight

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
1:40
AM ET


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Good thing the Knoxville Police Department put out that warning earlier in the week about fans rushing the field at Neyland Stadium.

The next time, somebody might want to instead put out a warning about expecting a different ending to a movie we’ve all seen over and over again for much of the last decade.

In this case, it’s eight years and counting.

That’s how many times Florida has beaten Tennessee in a row after the latest flop on Rocky Top, a 37-20 romp by the Gators on Saturday night that spoiled what the Vols had hoped would be their breakout party.

The buildup was as loud as Tennessee’s shade of orange.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in the house. The Vols were ranked nationally for the first time since the beginning of the 2008 season, and Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore even went semi-Joe Namath on us earlier in the week when he said, “I think people want to wait and see how we do against Florida, but I’m here to tell them that we’re going to beat them.”

For a while, it looked like Sentimore might be a prophet and that the Vols would make the splash they were looking for on this big stage.

But a 20-13 Tennessee lead midway through the third quarter turned into one big Gator-chomping party. Florida reeled off 24 unanswered points to rudely remind the Vols of their place in this rivalry, which really hasn’t been much of a rivalry at all for a long time.

Since the SEC’s divisional split in 1992, Florida has won 16 of the 21 meetings between the schools.

“They’re front-runners. They talk a lot,” Florida running back Trey Burton said of the Vols. “As soon as we got up, their fans started leaving. It’s a big win for us.”

Indeed, the anticipated rush of the field became a rush of the aisles, as frustrated Tennessee fans scurried to the exits.

Afterward, the Vols’ coaches and players sounded equally frustrated. They talked about crumbling under the pressure, not responding to adversity, not making the proper checks on defense and being confused at times by what the Gators were doing on offense.

[+] EnlargeDerek Dooley
Randy Sartin/US PresswireCoach Derek Dooley and the Vols brain trust couldn't find any answers during the second-half meltdown.
“Once you get in the heat of battle and once adversity hits, you’ve got to respond to adversity and not crunch under adversity, and that’s what we did,” Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers lamented.

The Vols’ defense was torched for 555 total yards, including 336 rushing. Burton’s 80-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat package tied the game at 20-20. Then came a three-play, 70-yard drive by the Gators with Jordan Reed catching a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Driskel.

The Gators’ third touchdown in the decisive spree was Frankie Hammond gathering in a short toss when the Vols came on a corner blitz and then sprinting through the Tennessee secondary for a 75-yard touchdown.

“You can’t give up those in this league and expect to win the football game. You just can’t,” said Derek Dooley, who dropped to 0-11 against nationally ranked teams as Tennessee’s coach.

The truth is that the Vols didn’t do much of anything it takes to win in this league.

Getting gashed for 336 rushing yards is one thing. But the Vols looked slow in trying to recover when they were out of position, and there were more than a few orange-shirted players with their hands hanging for much of the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got to go to work on that and keep guys motivated for 60 minutes,” Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner said.

It wasn’t all on the Tennessee defense, either.

The Vols melted on offense after Florida tied the game at 20-20. They managed just five total yards in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half, was 1-of-10 in the fourth quarter and wasn’t helped much by his two star receivers.

Cordarrelle Patterson couldn’t pull in a deep pass down the left sideline that might have been a touchdown, and Justin Hunter dropped one over the middle on the next possession that would have been a first down.

“It looked like we lost a little juice at the end, on both sides,” Dooley said. “When the ball broke out, it looked like we were lumbering on both sides.”

The Vols also seemed to panic in the play-calling department. They had 67 rushing yards at the half, but forgot about trying to run the football in the second half. In fact, after Florida tied the game at 20-20, Tennessee threw the ball on 11 of its next 13 plays.

“We weren’t responding well,” said Bray, whose intentional grounding penalty after the Vols snuffed out a Florida fake punt in the third quarter was when the game turned in the Gators’ favor.

“We knew that we were going to be the ones that stopped us. We just fell apart.”

Dooley did his best to emphasize that it was just one game. But this was more than just one game for the Vols, who get Akron at home next week before starting a grueling stretch that includes away games at No. 7 Georgia, Mississippi State and No. 9 South Carolina and a home game with No. 1 Alabama.

Nope, this was a chance for Tennessee to make some real noise with the rest of the country watching and serve notice that the Vols were at least on their way back.

The only thing they’re back to is the proverbial drawing board, and Dooley didn’t sound like he had a lot of answers.

“We felt like we were equipped to go toe-to-toe with them for four quarters,” Dooley said. “There’s no excuses. We didn’t get it done and give Florida the credit. They did what they needed to do. I don’t know what else to say.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- These five Florida players have something to prove or need to redeem themselves when the No. 18 Gators play at No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN):

RB/FB Trey Burton: UF coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have raved about Burton’s versatility -- as did the previous coaching staff -- and how much of an impact he could have on the offense. However, through two games Burton has two carries for 1 yard and four catches for 28 yards. He did catch a 3-yard pass on a fake field goal to convert a first down and ran for another first down against A&M, but Pease needs to get Burton more involved so he can make a bigger impact on an offense without a lot of playmakers.

KR/PR Andre Debose: Texas A&M took him out of the game last week by kicking the ball deep into the end zone, which is something he has no control over. However, he misplayed two punts. Instead of making a fair catch he let them bounce. Then, inexplicably, he didn’t get away from the ball as it bounced along the ground, and one time even hit one of the players who were circled around the ball to down it. Had he been hit by the ball it would have been live and A&M could have recovered. Debose has to be smarter in his approach.

RB Mike Gillislee: He has already proven that he’s capable of carrying Florida’s offense (he leads the SEC with 231 yards rushing) but the biggest question about Gillislee was if he would be able to stay healthy throughout the season because he’s been injured the past two seasons. Well, two games in and he’s got a groin strain. He practiced this week, and UF coach Will Muschamp said he’ll be able to play against the Vols, but how effective can he be? Backups Matt Jones and Mack Brown are averaging 3.4 and 2.9 yards per carry, respectively, and have a combined 18 carries. Gillislee has to prove he can be counted on all season.

WR Frankie Hammond: Muschamp called Hammond the Gators’ most consistent receiver throughout the spring and August, but the redshirt senior has nearly as many drops (three) as catches (five) in two games. He missed what would have been a touchdown pass against Texas A&M on a slant pattern when Jeff Driskel’s pass went through his hands at the goal line. Hammond has to become a more reliable player, because the Gators certainly don’t have many of those at receiver.

CB Marcus Roberson: Roberson had a hard time against the Vols last season, committing two of the Gators’ six pass interference penalties, including one which wiped out what would have been his first career interception. Roberson will again have his hands full with UT’s big receivers (6-foot-4 Justin Hunter and 6-3 Cordarrelle Patterson) on Saturday. Roberson has to be smarter in how he plays those two. It’s OK to be physical, but he’s got to make sure he doesn’t become overly aggressive and help keep drives alive for the Vols.

Florida-Tennessee game preview

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
8:00
AM ET
No. 18 Florida (2-0, 1-0 SEC) at No. 23 Tennessee (2-0, 0-0 SEC)
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
ESPN, WatchESPN

Three storylines

[+] EnlargeMike Gillislee
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREThe SEC's leading rusher is Florida's Mike Gillislee, who has 231 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries.
1. Ground and pound: The team that has rushed for more yardage has won 20 of the last 22 meetings in the series. During UF’s seven-game winning streak, the Gators have out-rushed the Vols by an average of 108.3 yards per game. UF’s Mike Gillislee leads the SEC in rushing (231 yards). UT has struggled to run the ball the past several seasons but is averaging 187.5 yards per game rushing behind a huge offensive line that averages 318 pounds.

2. Rivalry renewed? During the 1990s, this game was the top rivalry in the Southeastern Conference. It has lost a lot of luster since then, mainly because Florida has dominated the series over the last seven years, and Tennessee has been struggling to remain relevant in the Eastern Division. But both teams enter the game ranked for the first time since 2007 and College GameDay is in Knoxville for the first time since 2004. The Vols have looked impressive in their first two games while the Gators have won close games and UT fans can smell the upset brewing. So too, apparently, can city officials. The Knoxville Police Department posted a warning on its Facebook page than anyone who rushes the field will be arrested.

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Vols unleash new version of Double Trouble

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
1:46
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There’s a reason Tennessee used to be known as Wide Receiver U.

The Vols cranked out explosive deep threats in the passing game the way the Hawaiian Islands did world-class surfers.

That pipeline to the NFL has slowed somewhat over the years, but it looks like it’s about to pick back up with the game-changing tandem of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson making an early claim to being the two best receivers in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeCordarrelle Patterson
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireCordarrelle Patterson has already had three plays of over 40 yards this season.
“It’s like being a kid in a candy shop with two guys like that to throw to,” Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said. “You drop back and know that nine times out of 10 the defense isn’t going to be able to cover them both.”

The Vols’ passing game was supposed to be a three-headed monster this season, but Da’Rick Rogers was dismissed from the team in August after failing multiple drug tests.

Rogers led the SEC with 67 catches last season and was second with 1,040 receiving yards.

But in Patterson, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior college transfer who’s been clocked at 10.3 in the 100 meters, the Vols have essentially replaced Rogers with somebody who’s just as big, just as sure-handed and even faster.

On his 67-yard reverse for a touchdown against North Carolina State in the opener, Patterson cut back across the field with his galloping strides and made everybody on defense look like they were running backward.

“From the first day I saw him in seven-on-sevens, I knew what we were getting,” Hunter said. “I just looked at our DBs and said ‘Good luck.’”

As dynamic as the Hunter-Patterson combo has looked the first two weeks, the real test comes Saturday against Florida. The Gators shut out Texas A&M in the second half last week on the road and aren’t shy about manning up against receivers and letting their front seven go get the quarterback.

The Vols’ reaction this week has been predictable: Bring it on.

“I’ve always been taught that if somebody plays you man-on-man, you’ve got to go out there and beat them,” Hunter said. “So your eyes have to light up when you get that kind of coverage.”

Patterson also expects to see Florida cornerbacks pressing him, although he’s not sure that’s a very good idea.

“If they key in on me, they’re going to leave Justin open,” Patterson said. “I don’t think they want to do that.

“This is what everybody is waiting for, the game everybody wants to play in. Either it’s going to expose you or let everybody know you’re ready for this.”

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter has been counting down the days to Saturday’s game ever since going down with a torn ACL on the fourth play of the game last season against the Gators.

[+] EnlargeJustin Hunter
Jim Brown/US PresswireJustin Hunter showed he was back in a big way against Georgia State, scoring three TDs.
“I just wished I could have been there for my team,” Hunter said. “It seems like this game came the fastest, even faster than the first game this season. I’m ready, just ready to get out there and do what I didn’t have a chance to do last year.”

Patterson, who’s originally from Rock Hill, S.C., took a circuitous route to Tennessee. His last year of high school ball was the 2008 season, and he went to North Carolina Tech from there, although he didn’t play football during the 2009 season. He spent the next two seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and blossomed into one of the top junior college prospects in the country.

When he arrived on Tennessee’s campus this summer, the hype surrounding him was circus-like.

Even Patterson laughs about it now.

“Yeah, I heard it, but I didn’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “I knew I had to come in here and compete. I wasn’t going to let it go to my head.”

It didn’t take Patterson long to show that the hype was warranted. He scored twice from long distance in the opener against NC State and is averaging 18.2 yards per catch on nine receptions through the first two games.

Hunter caught three touchdown passes last week against Georgia State after being shut out in the opener. He has 17 catches in his first two games and looks like he’s shaken off any rust that might have been there from missing most of last season.

“I think it was just that I was anxious to get out there the first game and try to do too much and show people that I was back,” said Hunter, who has 12 touchdown catches in 18 career games. “The second game, I was more confident and more comfortable.”

The loss of Hunter so early in last season’s game was a huge downer for the Vols. Bray still finished with 288 passing yards and three touchdowns in the 33-23 loss, but ended up throwing it 48 times and was intercepted twice in the second half. The Vols finished with minus-9 rushing yards.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said it’s important that the Vols find some more balance than they did a year ago in Gainesville, but they’re not going to get away from what they do best.

“We’ve got to do a good job of mixing it up, but we’ve got to throw and catch pretty good, too,” Dooley said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to score points.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
10:15
AM ET
We're heading into Week 3 in the SEC, so here's what to watch:

1. Quarterback health: The statuses of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and South Carolina's Connor Shaw are still unknown. Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, while Shaw is still nursing a bruised shoulder from Week 1. For the Gamecocks, losing Shaw for the second straight week won't really hurt South Carolina's offense. It was just fine without him against East Carolina. However, Arkansas isn't in the same position. Brandon Allen completed just 6 of 20 passes against Louisiana-Monroe in place of Wilson. Not having Wilson will make Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama that much tougher for the Razorbacks.

2. Arkansas' defense: Speaking of the Razorbacks, what has happened to that defense? It was supposed to be more aggressive and more disciplined under Paul Haynes. We saw neither in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe, as the Razorbacks blew a 21-point lead. The defense was shredded against a lesser opponent and now has to play one of the most balanced attacks in the SEC. Last year, Alabama wore down this defense. If Arkansas is going to pick itself up, it has to play much tougher than it has in the first two games. Alabama has far more talent than Arkansas' first opponents and has the capability to really beat this unit down.

3. Tennessee’s passing game vs. Florida’s secondary: This game always comes down to the running game, but the difference this time will be Tennessee's passing game against Florida’s secondary. The Gators are loaded with talent back there and made tremendous strides during the second half of the Texas A&M game, while Tennessee might have the best passing game in the SEC, led by quarterback Tyler Bray. The matchups between Justin Hunter and Marcus Roberson and Cordarrelle Patterson and Loucheiz Purifoy should be great. Zach Rogers is another deep threat the Gators have to be careful about, but Matt Elam has the ability to take the deep ball away for Florida. Should be fun.

(Read full post)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 18 Florida plays at No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday, with a very early lead in the SEC's Eastern Division on the line. The Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) have won seven in a row in the series, which includes three victories in Knoxville. It's the first time since 2007 that both teams come into the game ranked.

Here's five storylines for the game:

1. Run game is key: The team that has run for more yardage has won 20 of the last 22 meetings (2000 and 2002 were the exceptions), and UF has outrushed UT by an average of 154.7 yards to 46.4 during the Gators' seven-game win streak. Both teams have run the ball well through the first two weeks of the season. Tennessee is averaging 187.5 yards per game while Florida is averaging 181.0 yards per game. Florida RB Mike Gillislee is the SEC's leading rusher (231 yards) but he's dealing with a groin injury, although he practiced this week and UF coach Will Muschamp said Gillislee would be fine. UT is getting good production out of Rajion Neal (118 yards) and Marlin Lane (106 yards).

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SEC power rankings: Week 2

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
9:00
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The first weekend of the college football season brought some changes to our power rankings. As we enter Week 2, some teams are trending down, while others are on the up. And some look pretty much like we thought they'd look in their first games.

It's still early, but this weekend could help to better shape the conference race, especially in the SEC East where Florida travels to Texas A&M and Georgia heads to Missouri. Also, keep an eye on Mississippi State's home game with Auburn.

OK, time for the rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0): The Crimson Tide made quite the statement by absolutely dominating No. 8 Michigan inside Cowboys Stadium. The defense, which lost a host of top talent from last year's national championship team, took Denard Robinson out of the game from the start. The offense should be fun to watch this fall with freshman T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy carrying the ball and AJ McCarron throwing to those young, explosive receivers.

(Read full post)

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:15
AM ET
It's here.

After hundreds of days of having to watch and follow inferior sports, take up new hobbies and do extra cute things with your better half just to pass the time, we are finally here.

It's college football season, again! The helmets are perfectly shined. The jerseys are hung so neatly and ironed so sweetly. You've gone to the store in advance to prep for the artery-bursting feast that awaits this weekend. Some are even lucky enough to be tailgating as we speak!

Cue up the bands, the grills and the fryers and the big-screen TVs. It's football season, and here's what to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is one of three star running backs to keep an eye on this weekend.
1. Running backs return: If not for Texas A&M’s game getting postponed, we’d get to see three elite running backs returning to the field after injuries cut their 2011 seasons short. Christine Michael's debut will have to wait, but we’ll still get to see how South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis do with the ball in their hands. When they’re 100 percent, it’s hard to find two better running backs out there.

2. Quarterback battles: Florida and Ole Miss still don’t know who their starting quarterbacks will be. Florida coach Will Muschamp said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will alternate quarters to start Saturday’s game, while Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze anticipates playing both Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti in the opener. This could be the final round of competition at both schools.

3. Questionable offensive lines: So many offensive lines have questions entering the fall. Keep an eye on Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Auburn and Georgia are working in a few new parts, while Florida is hoping most of the parts from last year’s line have improved. Mizzou has all sorts of injury issues and Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy are just hoping to stay healthy because depth is an issue for all three.

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SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
11:00
AM ET
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.

A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.

For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.

Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:

1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.

2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.

(Read full post)

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