Georgia running back Todd Gurley answers a question during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Georgia, UNC to play in 2016

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs will play North Carolina in their 2016 season opener at the Georgia Dome.

Georgia and North Carolina are the latest SEC and ACC schools to get together for a big nonconference matchup, as it was announced Thursday that the pair will open the 2016 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.

"This will undoubtedly be one of the best games of the 2016 opening weekend and a long-overdue renewal of an old ACC vs. SEC rivalry," Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., said in a release. "Both programs have a rich tradition, devoted fan base, top-notch players and elite coaches."

The game will be played Sept. 3, 2016, in the Georgia Dome.

The schools have played each other 30 times, with the Bulldogs holding a 16-12-2 edge. This will be the first meeting between the schools in 45 years.

"I know our team, coaches, and fans will be looking forward to playing a quality opponent like North Carolina in Atlanta," Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a release. "It will be a national stage for a season opener and generate a lot of excitement for fans not only of both schools but college football fans around the country."

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SEC morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
You can feel the buzz emanating from Indianapolis, can't you?

We know you want to know all about the NFL scouting combine, and we've got you covered. Tweet of the day

One of these things is not like the other ...

Let's be real here.

If ever there were a season in which Georgia wasn't expected to win a championship or play in a big bowl game, that would be news.

So, yes, the Dawgs should absolutely be in the discussion as one of the teams in 2015 who could make a run at a New Year's Six bowl and maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff. They're the early favorite in the SEC's Eastern Division race and are starting to show up with regularity in the top 10 of the early preseason polls.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt's Georgia squad is among the early SEC favorites that could make a run at the College Football Playoffs next year.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that 2015 will be the year it all falls right for Mark Richt, entering his 15th season as Georgia's head coach. He was a big winner this offseason. Not only did he get a raise and an extension, taking him to $4 million per year, but he got a lot more cash for some of his staff members, namely defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who went to $1.3 million annually.

If there were questions about whether Richt was on shaky ground with the upper administration at Georgia, there shouldn't be now.

He has a team returning in 2015 that should again be lights out on offense with sophomore running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning (Keith Marshall, too) and a veteran offensive line that returns four starters.

The Bulldogs were a load running the football last season against everybody, with or without Todd Gurley. Chubb was playing at a different level when the season ended a year ago. Is there a more explosive returning player in the SEC?

Defensively, Pruitt has a lot more pieces to work with, especially in the front seven. The Dawgs have two true freshmen coming in -- defensive tackles Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter -- who should make an impact right away. They're also stacked at outside linebacker with returning veterans Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Jordan Jenkins.

Look for Georgia's defense to be much more disruptive in Pruitt's second season in Athens. The Bulldogs should be as good as they've been in a while, both up front defensively and at outside linebacker.

The schedule also tilts in Georgia's favor. That early-season nonconference game with Clemson comes off, and the Dawgs don't have to play South Carolina until the third game. That's significant because Georgia has suffered at least one loss in its first two games in five of the last six seasons.

What could go wrong

The combination of a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year starter at quarterback is never ideal, but that's what Georgia will be facing in 2015. Brian Schottenheimer replaces Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, and the quarterback battle will come down to third-year sophomore Brice Ramsey and redshirt freshman Jacob Park.

No matter which way Schottenheimer decides to go, he's going to be working with an inexperienced quarterback. Ramsey has a big arm and is more of a pocket passer. Park also throws it well, but is one of those guys who's also comfortable running around and trying to make a play.

With the Bulldogs' running game and offensive line, it should be easier to break in a new quarterback. But problems at the quarterback position usually mean problems for the whole team.

There's also a three-game stretch to kick off October that looks nasty. The good news is that Georgia gets Alabama and Missouri at home, but those games are sandwiched around a trip to what should be an improved Tennessee team on Oct. 10. Getting through that stretch unscathed will be a chore, and there are also trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech in November.

The secondary will bear watching as well, especially with cornerback Damian Swann gone. He wore several different hats for the Dawgs, and there aren't a lot of upperclassmen back there.

Georgia's undoing, more times than not, has been losing a game it had no business losing. See the Florida game a year ago.

We'll see if the Dawgs can keep from falling into that trap in 2015.

Ultimate ESPN 300: Top surprises in the SEC 

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
When the Ultimate ESPN 300 was released on Monday, there were some noticeable surprises. Some players shot to near the top of the list early on in their careers, while other players weren’t ranked high coming out of college but now appear on this prestigious list. Here’s a closer look at some of the top surprises in the SEC.

Roquan Smith got it right by waiting

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
1. So Roquan Smith went on ESPNU on signing day and put on a pair of UCLA gloves to announce his decision, and 10 days or so later, he signed with Georgia. The fact is, the description of Smith and the other saviors riding to the rescue of their nationally-ranked teams, didn't match what ESPNU televised, which was a lot of wide-eyed 17-year-olds scared to death of being on a national television stage. They were, essentially, a lot of boys pretending to be men. Good for Smith -- he had the luck to do his second-guessing before he sent in his paperwork.

2. The NCAA Football Rules Committee recommended that the distance that offensive linemen may go downfield to block on a pass be trimmed from 3 yards to 1 yard, and every defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 yelled, “Halleluyah!” No teams have done a better job of turning that 3 yards into 5 or 7 than Oregon and Arizona. NCAA rules editor Rogers Redding said that officials had a tough time keeping an eye on where the linemen were while seeing when the quarterback released the ball. It will be interesting to see if this change impinges on the offenses, or merely makes it easier for the striped shirts to do their jobs.

3. Charlie Weis didn't win enough at Notre Dame and he went to Kansas, which, if it's not a dead-end job, is certainly a cul de sac, and didn't win at all. He's been getting $2 million a year not to coach Notre Dame since he was fired five years ago. He's still getting $2.5 million from Kansas, where he's no longer the coach. Did he coach himself out of the game? Of course. He could latch on as an assistant, but he told the South Bend Tribune he'd rather go try to do some good somewhere. Good for him -- he has the money and the time to do so. I still believe, all things being equal, Weis would prefer to do his good on the practice field. The Weis I know would rather coach.
COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- The 2015 Pylon 7-on-7 tournament at Cocoa Beach High drew many of the top prospects in Florida in the 2016 class Saturday. More than 15 skill players in the ESPN Junior 300 competed throughout the day, including nationally recruited juniors such as Trayvon Mullen, Darnell Salomon and quarterback Ervin “Woody” Barrett.

Here are notes on some of the top players in attendance:

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COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- The Pylon 7-on-7 2015 tournament at Cocoa Beach High drew many of the top prospects in Florida and beyond in the 2016, 2017 and even 2018 classes Saturday. More than 15 skill players in the ESPN Junior 300 competed throughout the day, including nationally-recruited juniors such as Trayvon Mullen, Dredrick Snelson and quarterback Ervin “Woody” Barrett.

Here is the latest on several Sunshine State prospects.

Eli Stove, WR
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 80

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Predicting the preseason AP top 10

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13

In each of the past six years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. I do this by taking several different factors into account:

• Most AP voters usually look at a couple of criteria when they evaluate a team for the upcoming season. First, they look at the number of returning starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. A team that returns its starting quarterback and a combination of its running backs and wide receivers, for example, is often more highly regarded than a team that loses its starting quarterback but returns its entire offensive line. Similarly, a team that returns most of its starters on offense but loses a lot of its defensive playmakers is usually more highly regarded than a team that returns a majority of its defensive starters but loses its skill-position players on offense. 

• Another factor weighed heavily is the performance of the team in its bowl game, which is undoubtedly the lasting image voters carry with them during the offseason. A team coming off a huge bowl win is usually more highly regarded than a team that is coming off a bowl loss, regardless of what its schedule looks like for the upcoming season.

• Also weighed heavily is where the teams finished the previous year. Naturally, teams that finished somewhere in the rankings (top 25) have a much better chance of being preseason top 10 than a team that finished unranked last year.

Using these factors -- and a few others, such as strength of schedule -- I project the preseason AP top 10 every year at the start of February, which in most cases is six months in advance of the poll's release. Now, as you all know, a lot can happen between February and August, including injuries, suspensions and transfers. But over the past six years, I have been very successful using this method, correctly projecting 56 of 60 teams (93.3 percent), including a perfect 10-for-10 again in 2014.

Before I go into the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is NOT my preseason top 10 for next season, but rather what I am projecting the AP top 10 will look like to start the season. If you're familiar with my college football preview magazine, you will know that every year I tend to go out on a limb for a couple of teams in my top 10, and this year will be no different.

Now, let's take a look at this year¹s projected preseason AP top 10 teams.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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Roquan SmithTom Hauck for Student SportsElite players like Roquan Smith may opt to sign financial aid agreements instead of letters of intent.
Roquan Smith has made a decision, and he's sticking with it.

Or so he says.

Smith, a heralded linebacker prospect who announced his plans to attend UCLA as part of the "ESPNU National Signing Day Special" last week, announced his new choice to play at Georgia on Friday.

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There was a lot of turnover at the coordinator ranks in the SEC this offseason. If you're keeping score at home -- and we know you are SEC fanatics -- 14 coordinating changes took place.

Before anyone runs a route in practice or sets up for blocking drills, debates will rage about which schools made the best hires. We will also debate who enters 2015 with the biggest target on his back and the most pressure to deal with.

That's what we will focus on right now: pressure. Honestly, with so much movement, you could have a field day with who you think has the smallest margin for error in his new home. Take Will Muschamp and John Chavis for instance. Both are considered defensive wizards, but their moves this offseason come with hefty expectations. Muschamp moved from being the head coach at Florida to trying to repair an Auburn defense that has been awful the past two seasons. Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M with the responsibility to turn around yet another cringe-worthy defense.

[+] EnlargeBrian Schottenheimer
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonGeorgia's new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will have a veteran offensive line and plenty of weapons at his disposal in his first season.
Oh, and both broke the bank with their contracts. If they fail to make any sort of immediate improvement with two units that can only go up, and you better believe they will be viewed as major disappointments.

You also have head coach Derek Mason taking over defensive responsibilities at Vanderbilt, and Doug Nussmeier pegged as what feels like the 10th coach in the past five years to resurrect Florida's offense. And what about the interesting hire of Mike DeBord at Tennessee? He hasn't coached any football since 2012, and has to keep an upstart offense going.

All of these guys will feel some sort of heat if they don't excite fans or get the ball rolling early. But the coordinator feeling the most pressure in Year 1 at his new digs is Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Yes, the man picked to replace the enigmatic -- but very successful -- Mike Bobo can't afford to slip one bit in his first year in Athens. Though he has to figure out who his quarterback will be, Schottenheimer, who served as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator the past three seasons, has the benefit of returning four experienced offensive line starters, a solid receiving corps led by vets Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and possibly the nation's best running back in sophomore Nick Chubb. He has weapons at his disposal, but he still has to get them in the right position.

With so many questions in the SEC Eastern Division (again), Georgia is the early and maybe obvious favorite to take the division. This team has enough depth and talent coming back on both sides of the ball to win more than just the SEC East, but we've certainly seen this movie before when it comes to Georgia. Getting out of its own way has been a major issue for Georgia, but excuses won't really fly this season ... not with how last season ended.

With the way defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt burst onto the scene with a very successful first year in Athens, fans won't approve of a drop-off from Schottenheimer, who wasn't exactly the "wow hire" fans were looking for. The Rams' offense, which did endure some tough injuries, ranked 28th in the NFL in total offense last season, and his bouncing around the NFL has been met with mixed reviews.

But Georgia's offensive philosophy won't change under Schottenheimer. Though Bobo endured a lot of criticism from fans, his offenses were some of the best in the SEC for much of his Georgia tenure. The Bulldogs' offense has ranked among the top four of the SEC the past four seasons, and Bobo's final season ended with Georgia ranking fourth in the league, averaging 457.8 yards per game and a conference-high 6.79 yards per play.

With Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Schottenheimer's first option will -- and should -- be to hand the ball off, as he helps groom a new quarterback. Though this offense should be Chubb-centric, Schottenheimer must help create a more explosive passing game this season. Georgia's passing fell off during the transition from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason, and the Dawgs just can't endure another average year through the air. There needs to be a legitimate threat of the deep ball.

Georgia's offense, while predicated on running the ball, is very balanced, and Schottenheimer can't stray away from that mindset. Not in a year in which the Bulldogs should be on top of the East and maybe making a playoff run.

The pieces are in place for Schottenheimer to make a smooth transition, but there will be very little leeway from a fan base thirsty for a championship and still trying to feel out its new coordinator.

SEC morning links

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
1. While it's been an offseason for getting paid in the SEC, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen still doesn't have a contract extension to speak of. Well, not yet, anyway. Athletic director Scott Stricklin sounds pretty confident that a contract extension for the coach who guided the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999 this past year is coming. It's more of a "when" issue than an "if" issue. That's great news for the program because Mullen has completely changed the culture at Mississippi State. He has 46 wins in six years and deserves both a raise and an extension, and he'll get it.

2. Alabama hasn't exactly been hurting for running back help over the past few years. Actually, ever since Nick Saban took over in 2007, running the ball has been the Crimson Tide's staple. But with the Tide losing T.J. Yeldon to the NFL, Altee Tenpenny transferring and Tyren Jones being suspended, Alabama finds itself a little thin at the running back position. With that said, Saban is prepared, and now freshman Bo Scarbrough has a chance to see a bigger role immediately. He's already on campus, and don't think for a second that Saban won't give him every chance to earn his keep this spring.

3. The horrific details of the sexual assault case involving four former Vanderbilt football players cast an ugly light on the sport of college football. It was a nightmare of a situation, and's Jessica Luther took a very complex look at the incident that left two former players convicted of multiple counts of sexual battery and aggravated rape and a community reeling.

Around the SEC
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Too soon, Jon. Too soon ...

Roquan Smith to announce Friday 

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
The recruitment of ESPN 300 linebacker Roquan Smith will officially come to an end Friday. The four-star prospect, ranked No. 29 overall in the 2015 class, committed to UCLA live on ESPNU on national signing day, but did not sign a letter of intent with the after word that Bruins defensive coordinator and primary recruiter Jeff Ulbrich was likely headed to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

In the days following his commitment and subsequent backing off his verbal pledge, the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game outside linebacker did speak with all four schools that were recruiting him. Smith has taken the time since signing day to think about a decision, and he's now prepared to announce.

Smith will choose between Georgia, Michigan, Texas A&M and UCLA, but the Peach State star says not all four are currently under consideration.

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Chuks Amaechi is out to prove a lot with his new team.

Fresh from the dry desert climate in Arizona, Amaechi is in Athens to play. And he doesn't want to just play around or bide his time. No, Georgia's new junior college transfer linebacker trekked 2,000-plus miles to earn a starting job. Actually, he'd prefer to earn his starting spot this spring, but he'll settle for the Bulldogs' spring game on April 11.

“Just find a way to get on the field and play, and help the team," Amaechi said.

Now, that's a modest line for someone whose confidence was oozing through his Georgia polo shirt on national signing day, but the truth is that Amaechi understands the situation he's fallen into with the Bulldogs. He isn't looking for a handout, either. Amaechi wants to earn everything.

Georgia will be Amaechi's fourth school in as many years, but the opportunity in front of him could pay dividends. With linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera gone, two spots just happen to be open on defense, one of them being at the middle linebacker spot Wilson left and Amaechi hopes to inherit. The loss of Wilson and Herrera takes away a lot of production, including 225 tackles from last year. Amaechi views the task of replacing one of those guys as a delicious challenge. His eyes lit up when he talked about finding a starting spot in Georgia's defense and there was no sense of anxiety for Amaechi when he spoke about earning his keep with the Dawgs.

“I see it as motivation too," Amaechi said. "I’m trying to come into their shoes and try to get more than 100 tackles -- 120, if I can. Anything I can do.”

But Amaechi doesn't just have the itch to get on the field early, he carries a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove that spending the better part of his life away from southern football doesn't mean he can't cut it in the country's toughest conference. That's why he picked Georgia after a stint at Arizona Western College. Thanks to his defensive coordinator knowing Georgia inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler from his USC days, Amaechi's name was able to trickle Georgia's way.

Ekeler got wind of Amaechi's talents and headed out to Arizona to check him out last fall. After watching and recording about an hour's worth of Amaechi's practice, Ekeler headed back to Athens and showed coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt Amaechi's film. With all three impressed with what they were watching, Amaechi was offered on Oct. 17, and he committed almost immediately.

Amaechi, a 2014 first-team All-Western States Football League team member and second-team All-NJCAA selection, registered 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. He was lucky to find his way over to the SEC, but fate has a funny way of making things work out, and now he wants to show that he truly belongs with two years of eligibility remaining.

“Coming from Arizona, people don’t think people from the West Coast can ball like people from the South, so I’m just trying to make a point to the people down South that the West Coast ball is the same," he said.
The days of waiting for youngsters to make impact in college football are over. If you're a top freshman prospect, you're expected to come in and contribute.

So much for slacking on your training before prom.

But more and more, freshmen are proving to be up for the task of immediate playing time and immediate pressure. Coaches aren't afraid to throw these guys into the fire, and it's working out all around the country.

So who are some freshmen to keep an eye on in the SEC from the 2015 class?

Edward Aschoff: DT Trenton Thompson, Georgia
What the Bulldogs needed in this class were hefty, intimidating, athletic defensive linemen. Georgia got all of that in Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 311-pound behemoth who could see immediate playing time for a Bulldogs team in need of help at the defensive tackle spot. With only five scholarship defensive linemen returning, Thompson will have every opportunity to compete for a starting spot. The five-star was the No. 2-rated defensive tackle nationally, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and was named the 2014 Maxwell Football Club’s National High School Player of the Year. Georgia needs a quality plug in the middle who can stop the run and harass quarterbacks. Thompson has everything needed to be that in 2015.

David Ching: DE Arden Key, LSU
I touched on this subject from an LSU perspective earlier this week. The first player I listed in that post was Key, ESPN’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 defensive end, because he can help address an immediate need. LSU must replace starting defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. There is some talent returning – Tashawn Bower seems to be a leading candidate to take over one of the starting spots – but nobody has proven himself as a college player yet. LSU struggled to generate sacks last season, finishing 102nd nationally with just 19. Les Miles and his assistants believe Key can help address that issue right away.

Sam Khan Jr.: S Deionte Thompson, Alabama
The ESPN 300 prospect has good size (6-2, 180) and speed and the advantage of being an early enrollee. Thompson, the nation's No. 3 safety and the No. 65 player overall in the ESPN 300, is a versatile athlete (he was a talented high school track and field athlete) and given the departures at safety for Alabama (two graduated plus Landon Collins declared for the draft) there will be spots available. Don't be shocked if Thompson works his way into one of them and plays well.

Greg Ostendorf: S Jamal Peters, Mississippi State
Peters, ranked No. 40 in the ESPN 300, is the highest-ranked player to sign at Mississippi State since Dan Mullen took over, slightly surpassing current defensive lineman Chris Jones (No. 46). Last week, Mullen was already raving about his new toy at his signing day news conference. With Jay Hughes graduating, there’s an opening at the strong safety spot that’s perfect for Peters to come in and play right away. It’s not an easy position to play early, but Peters has the size and athletic ability to do it. The rest he can learn along the way.

Alex Scarborough: RB Damien Harris, Alabama
I'm tempted to go with Kyler Murray here because I believe he could win the job outright, but the QB position is just too hard to predict. So instead I'll turn to a position that does lend itself to making an impact early: running back. I'm going way down the list of the top players in the country to No. 36 Harris. The nation's No. 2 running back has a chance to make a significant impact from Day 1 with Alabama. T.J. Yeldon and Jalston Fowler off to the NFL, remember, and Kenyan Drake is coming off an injury, Altee Tenpenny has transferred out and Tyren Jones has a history of ending up in the doghouse. If Harris, a well-rounded back, can grasp the offense, he could be a dangerous change of pace to the bruising Derrick Henry.

Derek Tyson: DE Byron Cowart, Auburn
The Auburn defense was tied for 92nd in the FBS in sacks by getting to the quarterback only 21 times last season. That was a point of emphasis for new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and no player was bigger than the No. 1 defensive end and No. 1 player overall, Cowart. The five-star prospect was absolutely dominant during the Under Armour All-America game week of practice. At 6-3, 258 pounds, he is already big and athletic enough to see the field early on in his career at Auburn.


Easiest Path To The 2015 College Football Playoff
Heather Dinich takes a look at which schools have the easiest path to the 2015 College Football Playoffs.