Florida Gators: Odell Beckham

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
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 Friday mailbag: Week 7

October, 11, 2013
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Brandon Joyce (@BrandonJoyce_1) writes: What are the Gators’ keys to victory against LSU on Saturday?

Greg Ostendorf: It starts with the defense. Florida is ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217 yards per game. In a season that has been dominated by the offenses in the SEC, the Gators are winning with defense. If anybody can stop or slow down LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season, it’s Florida. They have two NFL-caliber cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and maybe the conference’s best freshman, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. On offense, the Gators need to establish the run early and often. LSU ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. That could mean a big day for running back Matt Jones.


Kevin Paul (@KevinJPaul) writes: Does LSU have the best offense in the conference?

Greg Ostendorf: As good as Florida’s defense has been this season, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop this LSU offense. Sure, Georgia outscored LSU when they met in Athens. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been the most explosive player in the SEC. But how can you argue against the Tigers’ offense? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has turned the page and is looking like a first-round draft pick. They have the top wide receiver tandem in the conference. And if you try to shut down the passing game, they can just hand the ball off to Jeremy Hill. There’s not a more balanced offense in the league. LSU is averaging 291 yards per game through the air, and since the return of Hill they’re rushed for more than 200 yards in three of the last four games.


Jerrod Piker (@d1nonlyhogfan) writes: With or without Clowney, does South Carolina struggle in Fayetteville this weekend? Could this be Bielema’s signature win in season No. 1?

Greg Ostendorf: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to pay for South Carolina this weekend, per his defensive coordinator. However, even with the star defensive end on the field, I think the Gamecocks will get all they can handle from Arkansas. Freshman running back Alex Collins is leading the SEC in rushing with 651 yards through the first half of the season, and he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, South Carolina has struggled in recent weeks against the likes of Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. There's no doubt this would be a signature win for Brett Bielema and put them one step closer to making a bowl game.


Adam Hathcock (@adam_hath) writes: Does Tennessee's bye week help or hurt them?

Greg Ostendorf: It all depends on how the Volunteers respond after a gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. You could argue the bye week would be helpful because the team is still devastated after Saturday’s game and might have come out flat this weekend. However, the overtime loss to the Dawgs seemed to re-energize the program and the fans. Butch Jones & Co. could use the game as a springboard for the rest of the season. Ultimately, I think the off week will be helpful. It gives the players a chance to rest up and get healthy, and they will have extra time to prepare for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come to Neyland Stadium a week from Saturday.


Daniel Badger (@badger_daniel) writes: Is Dan Mullen on the hot seat? If so, who are some possible candidates to replace him after the season?

Greg Ostendorf: It’s hard to argue with what Mullen has done for the Mississippi State program. He has taken the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, which is no easy task. But they have seemed to hit a ceiling of sorts and are in danger of missing the postseason this year. I think it’s too early to fire Mullen, but in this day and age in college football, nothing is out of the question. If he were let go, Mississippi State might look at Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was born in in Mississippi and coached in Starkville once before. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bobby Petrino’s name came up as well.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
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1. Will Clowney play?: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and his last-minute decision to sit out against Kentucky. It didn’t go over well with coach Steve Spurrier based on the postgame comments. However, Spurrier defended his star player this week. Once again, Clowney is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game at Arkansas with a muscle strain near his rib area. He returned to practice on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesJames Franklin and Missouri can prove they're legit SEC contenders with a win at Georgia on Saturday.
2. Health concerns at UGA: The Bulldogs survived a scare in Knoxville last weekend, but they didn’t come out unscathed. They lost both running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending injuries while fellow wide receiver Michael Bennett will miss an extended period of time with a knee injury. Georgia will have to bounce back quickly with No. 25 Missouri coming to town on Saturday.

3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.

5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?

6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.

7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.

8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.

9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.

10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.

Planning for success: Florida

October, 10, 2013
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Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC) takes its unblemished conference record on the road for a showdown in Baton Rouge, La., against No. 10 LSU. The No. 17 Gators are coming off a solid 30-10 home win over Arkansas and this game will be a pivotal one as the Gators try to stay atop the SEC East standings along with Georgia, which is also 3-0 in league play. Here are five keys for the Gators heading into Saturday afternoon's showdown:

1. Containing the receivers: LSU receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are first and second, respectively, in receptions per game in the SEC. Beckham had a career-high 179 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State, a team that had virtually no answer for him. Both have more than 600 yards receiving and at least six touchdowns. Double-teaming one of them means you run the risk of the other beating you. The best recipe for slowing them down? Rush the passer and get to LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

2. Stop the run: LSU hasn't been dominant statistically rushing the ball (the Tigers are ninth in the SEC with 197.3 yards per game) but they are effective when they do run it, averaging five yards per carry. The Tigers have rushed for 200 or more yards in three of their last four games, with Georgia holding them to 77. That performance by the Bulldogs should be a positive sign for the Gators, who have the best run defense in the conference and the second best in the nation (65 yards allowed per game). If Florida can replicate what Georgia did, it bodes well for the Gators' chances.

3. Keep the big plays coming on D: Loucheiz Purifoy changed the momentum early in the Gators' last game, a 30-10 win over Arkansas, with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown. Purifoy, who blocked a punt against Miami earlier this year, is no stranger to big plays. The defense had six tackles for loss, including two sacks and two forced fumbles with a fumble recovery (defensive back Cody Riggs had 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack while leading the Gators in tackles against the Razorbacks). That kind of effort helped keep Arkansas' offense to 10 points; replicating an effort like that would pay dividends against LSU.

4. Continued success for Murphy: Another week, another solid performance for quarterback Tyler Murphy. So far this season, he has completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 530 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception. He has run for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. He has been poised since stepping in for the injured Jeff Driskel. Can he keep that same poise and level of play on the road against LSU?

5. Seeking redemption: The Gators' last trip to LSU in 2011 wasn't a pretty one. Florida got blasted 41-11 and it's a game players say was a low point. Coach Will Muschamp said not everyone will use that for motivation, but many will, including himself. If that can give the Gators some extra fire heading into Baton Rouge, La., they'll take it.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
12:40
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It's Wednesday which means the SEC coaches and players have turned their attention to Saturday's opponent. See what's being said, who's going to play or not play and how teams are preparing in a sampling of news across the league.
  • Alabama center Ryan Kelly is expected to a miss a couple of weeks with a “stretched” MCL. That means more playing time for Chad Lindsay, who is making the most of his opportunity.
  • Coming off a huge win over LSU, Georgia is still on high alert as it heads to Knoxville this weekend for a matchup with SEC East foe Tennessee.
  • Since Lane Kiffin was fired, there have been rumors linking Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin with the open USC position. He says the rumors are just part of the job as the Aggies head into an open week.
  • LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. muffed a punt against Georgia on Saturday that led to a touchdown. It’s not the first miscue for the dynamic return specialist, but he knows how to respond from a mistake like that.
  • Connor Shaw was expected to miss at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder sprain, but the South Carolina quarterback could play against Kentucky on Saturday.
  • Florida boasts one of the top defenses in college football, so the Gators’ offense has resorted to an old-school approach -- a simple, keep-away philosophy.
  • Ole Miss was shutout last Saturday at Alabama. Head coach Hugh Freeze says it starts with the offensive line, and they will need to play better this weekend against Auburn.
  • Missouri has yet to start SEC play, but through four games, the Tigers’ offense has passed the test under new coordinator Josh Henson.
  • Auburn cornerback Chris Davis has missed the last two games due to injury, but the Tigers are eager to get their “extra spark” back on defense this week against No. 24 Ole Miss.
  • The trash talk has already started between Arkansas and Florida this week. Florida defensive lineman Damien Jacobs called out the Razorbacks’ offensive line, saying they play a little dirty. He singled out Hogs’ center Travis Swanson.

What we learned: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
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The streak continues. Florida made it 27 wins in a row over Kentucky on Saturday, the longest active streak for consecutive wins by one team over a major opponent in an uninterrupted series. Here are three things we learned from the Gators’ 24-7 victory:

Don’t forget about Florida: Everybody just assumes Georgia will win the SEC East after its win against LSU on Saturday, but don’t forget about Florida. The Gators have yet to lose in conference, and although the offense has struggled at times, the defense is good enough to keep them in most games. The real test will come in two weeks when the Gators visit LSU. If quarterback Tyler Murphy continues to improve and the offense plays well, it’s not out of the question for them to win in Death Valley. Florida was a trendy pick to win the East in the preseason, but people gave up when Jeff Driskel went down. The Gators might be better off without him.

Matt Jones is healthy again: Before the Tennessee game, Jones came out and said he was ready to put this Florida team on his back. He only received 12 carries and rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown. Evidently, the staff felt he needed one more week before it was ready to give him a full workload. Against Kentucky, he got 28 carries and rushed for a career-high 176 yards with a touchdown. It was the first time he’d ever rushed for over 100 yards in a game. It’s clear that the sophomore running back is back from a viral infection that kept him out of fall camp and forced him to miss the first game. He’s back and ready to carry the offense.

The SEC’s best CB might be a freshman: All Vernon Hargreaves III does is make plays. It’s easy to forget he’s just a freshman. In just his fourth college game, the Florida cornerback locked down his side of the field and pulled down another interception, his third in four games. The pick came in his own end zone, ending one of the few opportunities Kentucky had to score. He’s making a case for the best cornerback in the league, and he might be the best player on the Gators’ defense. He’ll be tested in two weeks when he has to go against LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
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 top 10 offensive players the Gators will face this season. On Wednesday we’ll rank the top 10 defensive players Florida will face in the fall.

Ranking the offensive players

1. QB Aaron Murray (Georgia): Murray led the SEC in passing yards (3,893) and touchdown passes (36) and guided the Bulldogs to a school-record 529 points. He’s got plenty of weapons around him, so similar numbers in 2013 wouldn’t be out of the question. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder hasn’t always played well against Florida, but he has won back-to-back games against the Gators. The last time Georgia beat Florida in consecutive seasons was 1987-89.

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireCovering Jordan Matthews (left) has been a chore for Gators defensive backs the past two seasons.
2. WR Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt): Matthews led the SEC in receptions (94) and finished second in receiving yards (1,323) last season. He had Jordan Rodgers throwing to him last season -- which won't happen in 2013 -- but he is still one of the league’s most dangerous players. The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so high on this list because he has absolutely owned Florida in the past two meetings, catching eight passes for 131 yards and one touchdown last season and nine passes for 170 yards and one touchdown in 2011.

3. RB Todd Gurley (Georgia): Gurley finished second in the SEC in rushing (1,385 yards) and rushing touchdowns (17) last season as a freshman. The 6-1, 218-pound Gurley has the power to run inside and breakaway speed. The combination of him and fellow sophomore back Keith Marshall (759 yards last season) -- Bulldogs fans have nicknamed the combo Gurshall -- gives Georgia perhaps the best backfield tandem in the SEC.

4. QB Stephen Morris (Miami): Morris threw for 3345 yards and 21 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season. He should be even better in 2013 with the addition of new offensive coordinator James Coley. Morris threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ spring game and the offense hummed along better than it did much of last season.

5. RB Duke Johnson (Miami): Johnson ran for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and picked up right where he left off by gaining 120 yards on only 10 carries in Miami's spring game. The 5-9, 183-pound Johnson never carried the ball more than 16 times a game last season but he’s going to get more work in 2013.

6. RB Henry Josey (Missouri): He was one of the Big 12’s best players in 2011 before a devastating knee injury forced him to miss the last year-and-a-half. The 5-10, 190-pound Josey ran for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns before his injury and is capable of putting up similar numbers now that he’s completely healthy.

7. WR Rashad Greene (FSU): Greene caught 57 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore. He also flashed some big-play ability, too. Having a dependable target that can turn a short pass into a long gain or get deep and make a big play will be a huge help to new quarterback Jameis Winston.


8. WR Odell Beckham (LSU): Beckham was LSU’s between-the-20s big-play receiver in 2012, averaging 16.6 yards per catch. He caught 43 passes for 713 yards but only two touchdowns (Jarvis Landry led the Tigers with five TD catches). New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron likes to throw the ball down the field, which should mean bigger numbers for the 5-11, 183-pound Beckham.

9. WR Bruce Ellington (South Carolina): Ellington wasn’t the dual-threat that many thought he’d be, but he did lead the Gamecocks with 600 yards receiving last season -- 69 more than Ace Sanders, a fourth-round draft pick. He averaged 15.0 yards per catch and should be the Gamecocks’ top weapon in the passing game.

10. WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri): Green-Beckham was the nation’s top recruit in 2012 and finished his freshman season with 28 catches for 395 yards. He did catch five touchdown passes though, meaning that roughly one out of every six catches went for a TD. He’s got the size (6-6, 220 pounds), speed, and athleticism to be one of the country’s top receivers.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Which Florida players made the biggest contributions on the field in 2012?

GatorNation told you after every game. Now that the season’s over, here are the final rankings of the players who are responsible for the Gators’ 11-2 record:

1. RB Mike Gillislee: The Gators needed him to stay healthy and be a feature back capable of handling 20-plus carries per game. He delivered. Though he got banged up -- he hurt his groin against Texas A&M on a TD run but stayed in the game -- he played in every game and ran for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs. He averaged 18.7 carries and 4.7 yards per game.
Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday through Jan. 31, 2013, GatorNation will break down each position. We’ll look at 2013, of course, but also try and give you a peek beyond next season, too. Today is safety. We will profile offensive tackle on Jan. 8.

SAFETY

Matt Elam
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter three productive seasons at Florida, safety Matt Elam is moving on to the NFL.
Two-deep: Junior Matt Elam and senior Josh Evans have started every game this season and played their best football. Elam had a team-high four interceptions to go along with five pass breakups and 65 tackles and was named a first-team All-American. He made perhaps the season’s most important play when he stripped LSU WR Odell Beckham after a long gain. Evans is the team’s leading tackler (79) and was the Gators’ most improved player. Behind those two are junior Jaylen Watkins, who is a starting cornerback, and sophomore Jabari Gorman.

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Florida-Louisville game preview

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
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No. 3 Florida (11-1) vs. No. 21 Louisville (10-2)
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Mercedes-Benz Sugar Bowl, New Orleans
ESPN

Gators to watch

QB Jeff Driskel: The 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore played his best game of the season in the regular-season finale against Florida State. Even though he was still bothered by an ankle injury, Driskel remained composed -- despite being sacked four times and harassed by a pair of NFL defensive ends -- and hurt the Seminoles on rollout passes. It’ll be interesting to see how much he has benefitted from the 15 bowl practices in which he didn’t have to evenly split reps with Jacoby Brissett. A lot of players make significant jumps during the bowl practices, as CB Loucheiz Purifoy did last season. Is Driskel next?

DT Sharrif Floyd: This might be Floyd’s final game with the Gators because the 6-3, 303-pound junior is considering leaving early for the NFL. Floyd has been a disruptive force all season, with 11 tackles for loss, a sack, and six quarterback hurries (one shy of the team lead). He’ll be matched up against a pair of sophomore guards, John Miller and Jake Smith. The Cardinals average just 127.1 yards per game rushing and are without RB Senorise Perry, who tore his right ACL. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and still leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns. Floyd will be a big part of the Gators’ plan to make the Cardinals one-dimensional.

S Matt Elam: Elam is another player who could be appearing in his last game for Florida. The 5-10, 202-pound junior also is considering leaving early for the NFL after putting together an All-American season (65 tackles, four interceptions). He’s a rarity in that he can play safety but also has the one-on-one coverage skills to line up at nickel back. He made perhaps the biggest play of the season when he stripped LSU WR Odell Beckham after a 56-yard gain. The Gators went on to score a game-clinching touchdown and beat the Tigers.

Cardinals to watch

QB Teddy Bridgewater: The 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore ended the regular season ranked eighth nationally in pass efficiency. He was named the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns. He was fantastic in the regular-season finale against Rutgers, when he came off the bench and rallied the Cardinals to a 20-17 victory to win the Big East title in one of the gutsiest performances of the season. Bridgewater had a broken left wrist and a severely sprained left ankle but he still managed to complete 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns.

CB Adrian Bushell: Bushell transferred from Florida after the 2009 season, spent a year at a junior college, and enrolled at Louisville just before the Cardinals started practices in 2011. It turned out to be a good move for the 5-11, 184-pounder from DeSoto, Texas, and the Cardinals. Bushell is a two-time first-team All-Big East selection and had a team-high 11 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, and an interception to go along with 59 tackles.

WR DeVante Parker: Parker has 38 catches for 712 yards and nine touchdowns this season. That’s a team-high 18.7 yards per catch. The 6-3, 204-pound sophomore is a touchdown machine. He has 15 touchdown catches on only 56 career receptions, which means he’s averaging a touchdown every 3.7 receptions. He’s also a big-play machine, because his 15 touchdown catches are averaging 29.5 yards.

Key matchup

Florida RB Mike Gillislee vs. Louisville LB Preston Brown

Expect a heavy dose of Gillislee today, especially with the state of the Cardinals’ rush defense. Louisville is giving up an average of 151.1 yards per game rushing and opponents have rushed for at least 196 yards in five of the past eight games. The 6-0, 257-pound Brown, who anchors the middle and leads the team with 96 tackles, is averaging 11.3 tackles in his last six games. Gillislee, a first-team All-SEC selection, has rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF back to surpass 1,000 yards since 2004. Gillislee is coming off his best performance: 140 yards and two TDs against Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 rush defense.

By the numbers

2 -- Number of victories Louisville has posted over top-five teams. The Cardinals beat No. 3 West Virginia in 2006 and No. 4 Florida State in 2002.

3 -- Number of victories for Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators are 3-5, with victories over West Virginia (1994), Florida State (1997) and Cincinnati (2010).

12.9 -- Number of points per game Florida is allowing. It’s the fewest allowed in a season since 1964 (9.8).
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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Top moments: Elam's strip

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
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Editor’s note: GatorNation is counting down the top five moments of Florida’s 2012 season this week. They could be plays, drives, quarters or decisions, but regardless of what they are, they are the significant moments that shaped the season.

We finish with No. 1: Elam’s strip

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Kim Klement/US PresswireMatt Elam's forced fumble off Odell Beckham Jr. was the turning point for more than just UF's win over LSU.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All S Matt Elam wanted to do was make a tackle.

He wasn’t thinking about momentum or last October or the rest of the season. He just wanted to get LSU WR Odell Beckham on the ground and save a touchdown.

Instead, he made what turned out to be the biggest play of Florida’s season.

Elam ran down Beckham and ripped the ball loose after a 56-yard gain. Florida’s De’Ante Saunders recovered, and the Gators went on to score a clinching touchdown to upset No. 4 LSU 14-6 on Oct. 6 at Florida Field.

"I felt like I had to make a play," Elam said. "My plan was to stop him from getting into the end zone. More came out of it, so thank God for that."

It was a lot more than just a forced fumble. It was the turning point in the season.

Florida had just taken a 7-6 lead late in the third quarter, but LSU squashed any momentum the Gators had generated when QB Zach Mettenberger hit a wide-open Beckham down the right sideline to convert a third-and-7. At the very worst, the big gain was going to set up the Tigers for a go-ahead field goal.

Nothing, apparently, had changed from October 2011. The Gators went 0-4 in the month, starting with a loss to LSU. It looked like this October was going to start the same way. Score a go-ahead TD and then almost immediately give up a big play? Same old, same old.

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No. 4 Florida (5-0, 4-0 SEC) at Vanderbilt (2-3, 1-2 SEC)
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.
ESPNU

Three storylines

1. Maintain and even keel: This game is sandwiched between LSU and No. 3 South Carolina, so Florida has to be careful to maintain the same emotional level it has had for the past few weeks. The Gators can’t get caught looking ahead to the South Carolina game. Good teams win these kinds of games with little fuss.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAfter facing LSU last week, Florida QB Jeff Driskel will have a chance to get back on track against Vanderbilt.
2. Get Jeff Driskel back into a groove: The passing game struggled against LSU and Driskel had his worst game of the season. He had made steady progression since he started his first game against Texas A&M but hadn’t faced a defense as good as the Tigers. He reverted back to holding onto the ball too long and pressed a bit. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease needs to get Driskel going again by calling some short, quick timing passes to get him back into a rhythm.

3. Contain QB Jordan Rodgers: Rodgers hurt the Gators last season with his feet, both as a runner and in keeping plays alive with scrambles. But UF did a good job against Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel in the second half this season after the Gators did a better job of being disciplined in their rush lanes, so that should help against Rodgers.

Gators to watch

S Matt Elam: He had a big game against LSU and made the game’s key play when he stripped WR Odell Beckham after a long gain. He’s having the best season of his career and has become the playmaker the defense has needed in the secondary.

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