Georgia Bulldogs: Alton Howard

It’s going to be a slow week.

The final Saturday in September won’t be a banner day for SEC football. With all due respect to matchups like Arkansas-Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech-Auburn and Vanderbilt-Kentucky, nothing there rises up to the level of true excitement. The games could very well be sellouts and the venues will likely be packed with tailgaters, but it’s not going to draw anyone’s national attention.

We’re going to make do, though. SEC diehards will always find a way. There are only 14 weeks of regular-season football, so you have to make every one count.

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got four weeks down and 10 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 5:

Sept. 27
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
Louisiana Tech at Auburn
Tennessee at Georgia
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
New Mexico State at LSU
Memphis at Ole Miss
Missouri at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Missouri at South Carolina

I might as well get a second office set up in Columbia. In playing our little road trip game here on the SEC blog, I chose stops at South Carolina in Week 1 and Week 2 of the season. And looking over the schedule for Sept. 27, I couldn’t in good conscience go anywhere else.

This game should be a good one, if for nothing other than the rematch angle after last season’s epic double-overtime bash. There was no better game to exemplify quarterback Connor Shaw's illustrious career than when injured, he came off the bench in the fourth quarter to help score 17 unanswered points to tie the score. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth-and-goal in the first overtime was a thing of beauty. His guts were on full display then, as was South Carolina’s defense, whose effort was somewhat lost in the comeback.

The names and faces will be very different this time, but the stakes at play could be much the same. The SEC East is wide open, and both Missouri and South Carolina have reasons to believe they could make it to Atlanta. This could turn out to be a swing game in determining who wins the division.

The Tigers will be a bit of a mystery entering Columbia with so few starters returning on both sides of the ball. But you have to like what you saw from Maty Mauk at quarterback last fall, and Markus Golden has the chance to be a star at defensive end. With games against South Dakota State, Toledo, UCF and Indiana to start the season, Missouri will have a chance to find itself without running the risk of losing a game.

Meanwhile, I have high expectations for South Carolina. Steve Spurrier should have a strong offensive line, a plethora of weapons at receiver and running back, and a veteran under center, even though Dylan Thompson has never been a full-time starter. The Gamecocks will have the edge against Missouri with the game at home, but this should be a hard-fought contest.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: Tennessee at Georgia

Missouri-South Carolina is a good pick, and as tempting as it would be to check out AT&T Stadium for the Arkansas-Texas A&M game, I’m going to stay in the East and head down to Athens for Georgia-Tennessee.

Talk about a good game from 2013 -- these two teams played an instant classic last fall. Tennessee scored twice in the fourth quarter to take a 31-24 lead, only to see Aaron Murray throw a touchdown pass with five seconds left to force overtime. In the extra session, Tennessee's Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled as he tried to stretch the ball over the end-zone pylon on the Vols’ first possession, which set up Georgia's Marshall Morgan for a game-winning 42-yard field goal.

Though Georgia escaped Rocky Top with a victory, it didn’t leave in one piece. The game was remembered more for the amount of devastating knee injuries suffered by the Bulldogs than the final outcome -- and nobody wants to see that again.

Instead, I want to see the combination of a healthy Todd Gurley and a healthy Keith Marshall tearing through SEC defenses. I want to see Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell back and making plays in the passing game. If the Bulldogs are at 100 percent, they make a strong case for the best team in the SEC East and maybe the whole conference.

With that said, I think this Tennessee team will be better than advertised. There will be plenty of question marks, including two glaring ones at quarterback and offensive line, but they’re a young, talented group with loads of potential. I want to see how this heralded recruiting class responds to its first SEC game. I want to see Marquez North because it doesn’t matter who’s throwing him the ball -- he can go get it. The Vols are looking for their first winning season since 2009 and would love nothing more than to steal one on the road.

And honestly, does it get any better than a traditional SEC rivalry between the hedges? It's our first stop there this fall and likely won't be our last.

Four ways for UGA to generate turnovers

October, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo became All-Americans in part because of their abilities to steal the ball from opponents -- Jones with his persistent motor and pass-rush skills and Rambo with his ability to get into position to make drive-killing interceptions.

They led a Georgia defense that generated 62 turnovers over the last two seasons, a total that ranked eighth nationally and second in the SEC behind only LSU's 63. Jones and Rambo are now in the NFL, however, while 10 other contributors from last season's defense are also no longer on the roster.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham went from having one of the league's most experienced defenses to one of the greenest. It's no secret the results have been ugly, with Georgia ranking last in the SEC in scoring defense (33.7 ppg), second to last in third-down defense (43.7 percent) and last in turnovers generated (five).

The last figure is striking considering that three of those turnovers -- muffed punts by Clemson and LSU and a lost fumble for a touchback by Tennessee's Alton "Pig" Howard as he dove for the pylon in overtime -- came either on special teams or by a fluke accident.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia freshman linebacker Leonard Floyd is second on the team in sacks with four.
As with most of Georgia's defensive shortcomings, the turnover drought is largely a product of youth. But there are ways that the Bulldogs can create more turnovers, and they discussed four key factors in generating more takeaways this week:

Mature before our eyes: Georgia's inexperience is the factor that will require the most patience.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt explained that a young defender's first obligation is typically to make the basic play before attempting the explosive play, but the Bulldogs have struggled with both to this point.

“They're still just trying to get lined up right and play the right fundamental and get a guy on the ground or just bat a ball down rather than go for the pick and that type of thing,” Richt said. “So they're learning and as they go. They'll get more comfortable and they'll be able to make more plays.”

Grantham insists turnovers have always been an area of emphasis, but the Bulldogs say they're working on it even more lately.

“We really haven't worked on it as much as we should in practice, so now we're emphasizing it a lot more and working on getting the ball out,” safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said.

Drills only get a player so far, however. For most, increased effectiveness is a byproduct of experience.

“We can work drills till we're blue in the face, but you've got to do it in the heat of the battle,” Richt said. “You've got to keep coaching it, teaching it, show the situation where, 'Hey, in this situation here, you might could have raked the ball out. Instead of just wrapping up the QB, you might could've stripped it out of there.' ”

Strip the quarterback: One of the reasons Jones was dangerous was his ability to not only sack opposing quarterbacks, but to strip the ball from their hands.

He led the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (seven) and frequently capitalized on what Grantham said is the easiest route to a turnover.

“The quarterback fumbles more than anybody else on the team because he's looking down the field, not at a [rusher],” he said. “A runner is looking to know that, 'Hey, they're going to hit me. I'm going to protect the ball.' A quarterback's looking to throw the ball down the field. So from that standpoint, there's a better chance to get the ball out.”

Georgia's defensive linemen and outside linebackers, many of whom are underclassmen and first-time starters, haven't developed such savvy yet.

“Coach is probably going to have us doing drills [this week] trying to get a sack with the ball out, so we're probably going to work on that all this week trying to prepare us for [Vanderbilt],” said freshman outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who is tied for fifth in the SEC with four sacks.

Dislodge the ball: Maybe the most overlooked play in the Bulldogs' 42-10 win against Georgia Tech last fall was when Rambo halted the Yellow Jackets' first drive by ripping the ball out of Robert Godhigh's hands at the goal line and returning the fumble 49 yards to midfield.

Georgia scored another touchdown shortly thereafter and it was quickly 14-0 Bulldogs. Tech never threatened Georgia's lead again that day, although it could have been a different ballgame if not for Rambo's early takeaway.

“I remember Rambo dislodging a couple guys from the ball, kind of learning how to dislodge the ball. There's a technique to it, there's an art to it,” Grantham said.

Swarming to the ball also helps. Once Rambo had help on the Godhigh tackle, he had the confidence to try to rip the ball from the Tech runner's hands.

“We've just got to be around the ball,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who has Georgia's only forced fumble. “If more people are around the ball to make a tackle, then one person can pull it out.”

Better breaks on passes: Another product of youth is that Georgia's defensive backs have broken up a handful of passes that could have been interceptions had they gotten just a split second better break on the ball.

Several members of Georgia's secondary discussed the need to improve their “eye control” -- reading the depth of a quarterback's drop and quickly deciphering how the play might develop based on what they see.

That means not biting on a play-action fake or getting out of their assigned zone -- and again, becoming sound in that area typically comes with experience.

“When you're a pattern match team and you're matching routes, you're reading the eyes of the quarterback and that gives you a chance to break on the ball based upon the distribution of the routes,” Grantham said. “The quicker you can do that, the better break you can get on the ball, which allows you to get the pick.”

What we learned: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
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Saturday's 34-31 overtime win against Tennessee kept Georgia's championship hopes alive, but it might have come at an enormous cost. That's what we'll focus on first in this week's “What we learned.”

Injuries might be Georgia's undoing: The Bulldogs survived on Saturday ... barely ... but what happened at Neyland Stadium might have dealt a devastating blow to Georgia's championship chances. All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley didn't play and should be back before long, but fellow running back Keith Marshall might not be that lucky. Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley all suffered what appeared to be serious knee injuries. With wideout Malcolm Mitchell already out for the season with a knee injury, the Bulldogs could be without many of their top offensive playmakers for an extended period of time. Coach Mark Richt will likely reveal the extent of the damage -- or as he called it after Saturday's win, “carnage” -- on his Sunday evening teleconference.

Special teams/defensive issues remain: A feeling of impending doom no doubt swept over Georgia's fan base when the numerous injuries caused the Bulldogs' potent offense to start sputtering. That's because the Bulldogs were forced to lean more heavily on their sloppy defensive and special teams units. Tennessee blocked a punt for a touchdown, got a key penalty against Blake Sailors on an impending punt after a third-down stop -- then turned a fourth-and-short run into a 43-yard gain by Rajion Neal -- and built plenty of late momentum against Georgia's defense. The Vols scored 28 points and rolled up 277 yards after halftime and came within inches of scoring a touchdown in overtime, but Alton Howard's dive toward the pylon saw him fumble the ball through the end zone for a touchback just before breaking the goal line.

Freshmen can run: Little-used tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas had to take over with injuries sidelining stars Marshall and Gurley. But the two freshmen delivered, with Green (17 carries, 132 yards) pacing Georgia's running game throughout the afternoon. Douglas scored Georgia's first touchdown of the fourth quarter and also made a key 32-yard catch and run to Tennessee's 13-yard line, setting up Aaron Murray's game-tying touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with 5 seconds remaining. It was a terrible position for the freshmen to be put in on Saturday, but Georgia had to depend on them and they responded with a number of key plays that made a difference in the outcome.

With injuries hitting many of its most important offensive players and Tennessee rallying to take a late lead, No. 6 Georgia barely forced overtime with a game-tying touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to Rantavious Wooten with 5 seconds remaining. After Tennessee's Alton Howard fumbled at the pylon for a touchback to halt the Volunteers' overtime possession, Georgia's Marshall Morgan blasted a 42-yard field goal to help Georgia slip away with a 34-31 victory.

Let's take a quick look at how the Bulldogs earned the win.

It was over when: It was truly anybody's game until Morgan drilled the winning field goal. Tennessee had converted a number of fourth-down attempts, capitalized on big special-teams plays and found a rhythm against the Bulldogs' porous defense. But Howard's fumble gave the Bulldogs the break they had not enjoyed all game and Morgan's kick helped them survive the upset bid.

Gameball goes to: Murray. He started the game without injured All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley after losing top wideout Malcolm Mitchell in the opener. Then Keith Marshall went down early with a knee injury. Then receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley both left with injuries of their own. But somehow Georgia's quarterback drove his team for the tying score -- on a 2-yard pass to Wooten -- and did enough with his skeleton-crew offense to win.

Stat of the game: Georgia was 1-for-9 on third down before its final drive of regulation, but the Bulldogs converted three first downs on the final drive, including Murray's pass to Wooten for the tying score. Georgia finished 4-for-13.

Unsung heroes of the game: Freshman tailback J.J. Green took over when Marshall suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and propelled Georgia's running game with 17 carries for 129 yards in his first extensive playing time of his young career. His fellow freshman tailback Brendan Douglas deserves a nod for his key 32-yard catch that set up Wooten's game-tying touchdown.

What it means: Tennessee came within an eyelash of ending an 18-game losing streak against ranked opponents, but Georgia survived. The Bulldogs' status as the SEC East's overwhelming favorite is now in great doubt, however, after potentially serious injuries to Marshall, Bennett and Scott-Wesley on Saturday.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
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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.

What to watch this weekend 

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
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Will Marshall matter further?
Keith Marshall will likely be a standout on the football field in college, but now that he has committed to Georgia, can the five-star commitment from Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook boost the Bulldogs' 2012 class as recruiting approaches its final stages?

Four-star outside linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons from Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes, four-star defensive end Jordan Jenkins from Hamilton (Ga.) Harris County, and four-star offensive tackle Avery Young from Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High are some of the bigger names on Georgia's board. Young is scheduled to take his official visit to Georgia this weekend.

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