Georgia Bulldogs: Jeff Driskel

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
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The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss

SEC's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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The talk around the SEC today is how three teams from the conference -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennesse -- reached the round of 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And this was supposed to be a down year for the league.

But we're here to discuss football. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league:

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall is talented enough to play the position in the NFL.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith is relishing his new role after playing defensive end as a freshman.

Now healthy, quarterback Brandon Allen is preparing for a position battle at Arkansas.

Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- attempting to return from a torn ACL from last season -- suffered another injury last week, although the Bulldogs' medical staff says he'll be back in time for August practices.

South Carolina offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers could face suspension after his alcohol-related arrest from early Sunday.

The defense had the edge in Vanderbilt's spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Alabama's players like what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is teaching thus far.

Jeff Driskel looked sharp working with the first-team offense in Florida's practice on Saturday, according to the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu.

With Missouri's team on spring break, here is a spring practice reset from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The votes are in, and Florida has been picked by our readers to have the biggest rebound in 2014.

With nearly 11,600 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, the Gators narrowly edged Georgia by collecting 36 percent of the vote, while the Bulldogs grabbed 33 percent. Tennessee finished third with 17 percent of the vote, Arkansas was next with 12 percent, and Kentucky finished with two percent.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAfter a 4-8 season in 2013, Will Muschamp and Florida hope to rebound this fall.
A year removed from winning 11 games and going to a BCS bowl, the Gators succumbed to a rash of injuries and won just four games in 2013. Now, coach Will Muschamp finds himself on the hot seat, and the Gators are looking to vastly improve an offense that ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year.

The hope is that the injury bug won't sink its teeth into the Gators this fall like it did in 2013 and that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's more spread attack will help open things up for quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is coming off of a season-ending leg injury. Adding a trip to Alabama won't make things any easier for Florida in 2014 but having LSU and South Carolina at home will be better.

The Bulldogs have a shot to rebound from their eight-win season by making it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Dawgs have the offensive talent to continue that scoring spree from last season, and there’s a sense that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can sure things up on a unit that was inconsistent.

As for Tennessee and Arkansas, they are looking to find their identities on both sides of the ball. Both have quarterback questions and are looking for valuable offensive playmakers. Both need work in their front sevens and have challenging schedules as well. However, a change of attitude could propel both teams. The Vols have shown it ever since Butch Jones arrived, while the Hogs are still looking to get tougher under Bret Bielema.

Kentucky had talent deficiencies all over the field in 2013, leading to just two wins in Mark Stoops' first year. Like Arkansas and Tennessee, a change in attitude and confidence will go a long way for the Wildcats. Stoops has recruited well and expects to get a lot out of his youngsters. But making sure offensive playmakers emerge, a quarterback takes the lead and the secondary comes together remain Stoops' biggest challenges going forward.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

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

Need a little perspective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.
Earlier this week, our beloved readers let us know that they feel as though the Missouri Tigers will take the biggest dip in 2014. Even after a year of assumed overachieving, the Tigers just can't get much respect from their new brethren.

So if Mizzou is picked to tumble, which team is poised for the biggest turnaround this fall? Which team can add more wins in 2014 and make the biggest jump from where it was in 2013?

Well, you have some worthy contenders, starting with the Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's first year in Fayetteville was forgettable at best, but you have to start somewhere. The Hogs ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in offense and defense last year, lost a school-record nine in a row to close the season and went 0-8 in SEC play for the first time.

After winning only three games in 2013, the Hogs have no choice but to go up, right? Can rising sophomore running back Alex Collins build on a solid freshman campaign? Can the offensive line come together? Can the defensive line replace some valuable pieces? Can a quarterback step up and take control of this offense?

Arkansas still has to go through the rugged SEC Western Division and has to travel to Lubbock, Texas, to take on Texas Tech.

Florida won just four games last year, but coach Will Muschamp still believes he has the pieces in place to make a run to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. After losing 15 players, including 10 starters, to season-ending injuries last season, the Gators have to be healthier in 2014, right? And with Kurt Roper taking over the offense, Florida will run more of a spread scheme, which should help quarterback Jeff Driskel see the field better. But can this team survive a schedule that features trips to Alabama and Florida State and still has LSU, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina on the slate?

Speaking of Georgia, the offense should still be potent even without quarterback Aaron Murray, but how will that defense look under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt? How much will the secondary miss dismissed safety Josh Harvey-Clemons? The Bulldogs still have to play East foes Florida, Missouri and South Carolina, in addition to hosting defending SEC West champ Auburn and one of the ACC's best in Clemson. Getting back to Atlanta is the goal, and this team would love to improve on an eight-win 2013 season.

Kentucky won just two games in Mark Stoops' first year, but the hope is that with improved depth, this team can push a few teams in the East. The Wildcats have to get their quarterback situation figured out, must find more playmakers on offense, and have to find consistency at linebacker and in the secondary. Still, Kentucky showed heart throughout the 2013 season and there are three nonconference wins out there for the Cats this fall. Can they upset an SEC opponent or even new-look Louisville?

Then you have Tennessee. The Vols were a win away from making a bowl last year but still have a lot of questions entering 2014. You can tell the attitude is much different in Knoxville. The confidence is high and the hope is that the talent is improving as the depth rises. Trips to Oklahoma and Ole Miss will be tough additions to the schedule, but getting Florida and Missouri at home could be an advantage for Tennessee. One big question is who will take the snaps at quarterback.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 15, 2014
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The NFL draft early entry deadline is today, and that leads our news roundup of what's happening around the SEC.
Here are five matchups to watch when Florida has the ball in Saturday's game in Jacksonville:

Florida's running game vs. Georgia's front seven: This is perhaps the most important matchup on this side of the ball. Florida's offensive identity is built around pounding the run and controlling the clock, and it made hay in that department with Mike Gillislee toting the rock an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards last season. The results have been highly uneven this year with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones sidelined by season-ending injuries. Georgia native Mack Brown (99-359, 3 TDs) is Florida's leading rusher, but he is not the Gators' scariest ball carrier. That honor goes to freshman Kelvin Taylor (28-172, TD), the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin has played more recently. The problem is that, like most freshman, he is a liability in pass protection. Until he becomes a more consistent blocker, defenses know what Florida likely intends to do when he lines up in the backfield.

Georgia pass rushers vs. depleted Florida line: The Bulldogs' defense hasn't had much to brag about this season, but they have actually applied fairly consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Georgia is tied for third in the SEC with 19 sacks -- many of which have come from the revitalized defensive line. Defensive end Ray Drew leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with five sacks. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four) and Jordan Jenkins (three) are just behind him. Florida has struggled with its pass protection this season, and it could be an even bigger issue on Saturday now that left tackle D.J. Humphries is out of the picture for the next few games. The Gators have allowed 17 sacks this season -- only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (19 apiece) have allowed more among SEC teams -- so their injury-depleted line needs to raise its level of play or Florida's offense might have difficulty moving the ball on Saturday. Jarvis Jones, who wreaked havoc against Florida in each of the last two meetings, is no longer on the roster, but Drew, Jenkins and Floyd are good enough to give the Gators problems.

Tyler Murphy on the edge: Driskel's replacement under center, Murphy, started out well enough, leading the Gators to wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in his first three games. But Murphy took a pounding in the last two games, both losses, and Florida's offense was barely able to generate any scoring punch. He is most effective as a run-pass threat -- Murphy ran 10 times for 84 yards after taking over against Tennessee -- but his Total QBR numbers have fallen off a cliff since his strong start. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murphy posted an outstanding Total QBR of 93.8 in the first three games, completing 72 percent of his passes, but he averaged an 8.9 QBR against LSU and Missouri -- including a 3.0 against Missouri, the lowest QBR by a Florida starter in the last decade. He'll have to make some things happen with his legs for Florida's offense to be effective Saturday, as he leaves a lot to be desired as a pure drop-back passer.

Containing Florida's receivers: The Gators have pretty much stunk in the passing game over the past few seasons, and 2013 has been no different (12th in the SEC in passing at 175.4 ypg). The speedy Solomon Patton (28-426, 4 TDs) -- whom Georgia safety Shawn Williams bulldog tackled just before he reached the first-down marker on a run last season, knocking Patton out of the game -- has been one of the Gators' only consistent receiving weapons. Otherwise, Florida's receiving corps has been a train wreck this season. Andre Debose is out for the year with an injury. Trey Burton (29-336, TD) has the most catches on the team, but hasn't been particularly consistent. Quinton Dunbar (22-301) is the only other Gator with more than 46 receiving yards. Georgia's secondary has been subpar this season -- the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in pass defense (253.4 ypg) -- so the matchup between its defensive backs and Florida's mediocre wideouts pits two weaknesses against one another.

Burton as wild card: Think back to Florida's 2010 win in Jacksonville. Florida utility man Burton might have been the most effective quarterback on the field that day. Operating out of Florida's Wildcat package, Burton ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, led the team with five receptions and completed two passes for 26 yards. He still operates out of the Wildcat at times, so keep an eye on the versatile senior, who is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.

Happy Halloween in the SEC

October, 31, 2013
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It's that special time of year when it's OK to let your inner ghoul come out. It's when that thing that goes bump in the night is standing right behind you, smiling that sinister smile only nightmares can conjure.

Horror movies cover our TV screens, while candy wrappers litter our streets.

It's Nick Saban's birthday! ... Oh, and it's also Halloween.

Regardless of which one you celebrate, cut off the lights, wrap yourself in a blanket and try not to get scared as we look at the most bone-chilling people in the SEC:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe scariest sight in the SEC is Nick Saban leading the Alabama Crimson Tide onto the field.
Jason Voorhees: Alabama just won't go away. Even after losing at least one game in November the past two years, the Crimson Tide have won consecutive BCS national championships. Since 2010, Saban is 33-2 and is riding a 12-game winning streak. A trip to College Station to face Texas A&M didn't get in his way, and at this rate, nothing might keep him from steamrolling into his third straight BCS title game.

Michael Myers: One of the most feared horror movie villains, Myers terrorized the citizens of Haddonfield, Ill., with his frighteningly slow stalk and superhuman strength. Meet Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who torments quarterbacks with more speed and the reputation of being one of the country's scariest players. He has registered a nation-leading 16 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 10 sacks. He has totaled three sacks in a game three times this year.

Freddy Krueger: This season, sleeping on Auburn has proved costly. The Tigers started the season unranked and under new management with Gus Malzahn, but are 7-1 and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings. The biggest Krueger-esque attack occurred in College Station, when the Tigers upset then-No. 7 Texas A&M 45-41. Two weeks before, Auburn upset No. 24 Ole Miss at home. Could Auburn do the same against Alabama later this month?

The Great Pumpkin: Like Linus waiting in that pumpkin patch on Halloween for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, we've waited for Jadeveon Clowney to return to his old form. Each week, we've been disappointed as Clowney, who entered the season with 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in his career, has just two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Teams have schemed him differently and he has dealt with injuries, but he's just not the same player who had garnered so much attention. At least he has the awesome Predator look going!

The Walking Dead: If anyone looks like a stumbling herd of undead walkers, it's Florida and Georgia. These programs have been ravaged by injuries. Florida has dealt with eight season-ending injuries, including to starters Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley. Nicks and dings have piled up for Florida, too, as just 13 healthy defensive players dressed for the Mizzou game two weeks ago. Georgia watched as running back Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending ACL injuries. Nagging injuries have sprinkled around, and heading into Saturday's game with Florida, receiver Chris Conley (ankle) is doubtful and safety Tray Matthews (hamstring) is questionable.

House of horrors: Opponents might wander into South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium for a fun football game, but few leave with a win. The Gamecocks have an SEC-leading 14-game winning streak at home.

Trick: Under Kevin Sumlin, all of Texas A&M's losses (four) have come at home. This year, the Aggies fell to Alabama and Auburn at Kyle Field by a combined 11 points. Not exactly the most intimidating home-field advantage.

The Joker: Arkham Asylum's most heinous inmate and Batman's arch nemesis, the Joker has the ability to manipulate his foes and wreak utter chaos. Kind of like how Johnny Manziel plays. We thought he wouldn't be focused enough this season, so he has churned out 3,091 yards of offense and 28 touchdowns. Defenders think he's going one way, only for him to go the other. Manziel might have dressed up as Scooby Doo last year, but he's as evil as the Joker on the field.

Thriller: The best game of the year has to be Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU. We saw three lead changes, four ties, 943 yards of offense and 85 points. Aaron Murray's touchdown pass to Scott-Wesley with 1:47 remaining proved to be the difference after LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw four straight incomplete passes on LSU's final drive.

Scary: Texas A&M's defense has been the SEC's most terrifying defense to watch. The Aggies rank 111th nationally in total defense, allowing 473.8 yards per game. They're 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (32.6), last in rushing (210.1), 12th in passing (263.6) and are giving up 6.4 yards per play. A&M has allowed fewer than 400 yards just twice this year.

Best costume: Will Muschamp.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail PartyKevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsTailgaters fill the parking lots in Jacksonville with a sea of red and black, orange and blue.

Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. All eyes on Jacksonville: Don't look now, but the battle formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has some intrigue. Georgia has been decimated by injuries, but Mark Richt continues to send Aaron Murray out to play each Saturday, giving UGA a chance to win. Murray has hung in despite the fact players are dropping like flies around him. If he gets a third consecutive win over rival Florida, it might make it all worthwhile. Florida has dealt with its own set of injuries, but more problematic is the Gators' offensive ineptitude. Quarterback Tyler Murphy will have to find a way to score some points on Saturday. But for two teams with so many problems, whichever gets out of Jacksonville with a win is still in the SEC East race. Missouri's loss last weekend breathed new life into both squads.

2. Can South Carolina keep it up? It would be classic South Carolina to come out on Saturday against unranked Mississippi State and play down to the competition. It's happened so much lately that we've come to expect it. After winning a thriller on the road last weekend against Missouri, the Gamecocks are on upset alert. Without Connor Shaw's fourth-quarter return, South Carolina loses to Missouri by two touchdowns. If he can't start against Mississippi State, will Steve Spurrier's offense sputter again? You have to like Shaw's leadership, and after all he's done you have to believe he'll play on Saturday and play well.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri redshirt freshman Maty Mauk is likely to make his third career start against Tennessee true freshman Josh Dobbs, who will make his first start.
3. Missouri rebound: That was a hard pill to swallow. Missouri was undefeated and ranked in the top five of the BCS Standings at this time last week. Then South Carolina hit the Tigers with a brutal rope-a-dope, pulling Shaw off the bench, down 17 points, for the fourth-quarter comeback. It took two overtimes and a missed field goal for Missouri's perfect season to come to an end. But Gary Pinkel's squad is by no means out of the SEC East race. A win against Tennessee would keep the Tigers in the driver's seat. But watch out for the Vols, who beat South Carolina earlier in the month.

4. Josh Dobbs: Speaking of Tennessee, keep an eye on the true freshman quarterback. Butch Jones burned his redshirt this past weekend, bringing him off the bench in the second half against Alabama. The athletic Dobbs provided a spark to a Vols offense that couldn't move the football to save its life. His ability to get outside the pocket and buy time helped the receivers, and his speed and elusiveness allowed him to pick up yards with his feet. It's too early to say he's won the starting job, but watch closely because a good game against Missouri could propel him to such status. We could very well be looking at Tennessee's future under center.

5. The SEC East race: The field in the SEC East will narrow this weekend. The loser of the Georgia-Florida game is likely out of it, and neither Missouri nor South Carolina have sure-thing wins on their plates. It may appear that no one wants to win the division and be forced to play Alabama in the conference championship, but someone's got to do it.

6. Manziel health watch: The Johnny Manziel watch never ends. But no, I'm not talking about monitoring his off-the-field behavior this time. No, there's still some concern over whether the defending Heisman Trophy winner is healthy. He injured his throwing arm late against Auburn and played well this past weekend against Vanderbilt. But with Texas A&M facing an overmatched UTEP team Saturday, should he play?

7. Bielema versus Malzahn: Boy, did we see a rivalry form at SEC media days when a pair of first-year coaches in the SEC, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Auburn's Gus Malzahn, traded barbs about the safety of the no-huddle offense. Malzahn said he thought it was a joke. Bielema said he wasn't a comedian. It was awesome. Their rivalry was born that day, and this week it sprouted leaves as Bielema accused Auburn of altering the game film it sent to Arkansas in preparation for this week's game between the two programs. The issue even prompted a response from Auburn to the SEC. Man, the Malzahn-Bielema postgame handshake is going to be fun.

8. Jeremy Johnson: Every time Nick Marshall goes down at quarterback for Auburn, Johnson steps right in and doesn't miss a beat. Both times the freshman has played significant reps, he's won SEC Freshman of the Week honors, first against Western Carolina and then last weekend against Florida Atlantic. With Marshall officially "day to day," according to Malzahn, expect the focus to shift to Johnson again.

9. The trainer's table: Playing an SEC schedule will catch up with you. We're starting to see injuries pile up around the league recently as the fatigue of playing physical games week in and week out builds. Tennessee is turning to a true freshman quarterback in place of Justin Worley (injured thumb). Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin is questionable, leaving backup Maty Mauk in a weird state of limbo. South Carolina, meanwhile, is hoping Shaw can continue to play the part of Superman and keep coming back from injury. Oh, and let's not forget Jeff Driskel's prolonged absence at Florida. If another SEC quarterback goes down, we'll have to start calling it an epidemic.

10. Who isn't playing: Give Alabama and LSU credit because they know how to make a schedule. The rivalry game between the two schools isn't until Nov. 9, so they're taking the week off. But unfortunately for the rest of the SEC, those teams' bye weeks leave the league to play without two of its best. Where's the fun in that? We're even deprived of seeing Hugh Freeze and his up-tempo offense at Ole Miss. The SEC East is busy this weekend, but the West is noticeably boring.
ATHENS, Ga. -- The moment Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett's 24-yard overtime field goal attempt dinged off the right upright at Faurot Field on Saturday night, three fan bases exploded.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt and his Bulldogs look to stay in the SEC East race with a win over rival Florida.
Clearly, one was South Carolina, which had just pulled off the 27-24, come-from-behind win, but at the exact same moment, Florida and Georgia fans, players and coaches celebrated at once, as they climbed right back into the SEC Eastern Division race.

"I felt like we had just won a game," said Georgia wide receiver Rhett McGowan, sporting the same boyish smile he likely had late Saturday night.

While both programs, which face each other in their annual Outdoor Party in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, are unranked with identical 4-3 (3-2 SEC) records, they scored major victories without playing a down. Mizzou's loss resurrected the Dawgs and Gators, even though they're both a game back of the Tigers, who own head-to-head tiebreakers over both.

Still, if both teams win out and see a couple more Mizzou losses, the winner of Saturday's game could sneak into Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

"It gave us a little hope," Florida defensive back Cody Riggs said. "I went crazy. I was jumping around the house. I actually called [safety] Jaylen [Watkins], I was like ‘We’re back in it! We’re back!’ We’ve still got a chance."

The chances are slim, but they are there. It doesn't help either that both will literally limp into EverBank Field, as injuries have ravaged the two this season.

Florida is dealing with eight season-ending injuries (four starters), including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley, while Georgia has watched nearly every capable skill player go down. Running back Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley are all out for the year with ACL injuries, while receiver Chris Conley (ankle) is doubtful for Saturday.

"I don't think there's any other team besides the [New England] Patriots that's more beat up than us and Florida," Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said.

Even coach Mark Richt had to chuckle at the sight of his depth chart Tuesday. Standing in front of a throng of media members, Richt released a sarcastic snicker when he looked at the available receivers on this week's depth chart.

"Kenny Towns will be available to play," Richt said.

"Also, [Michael] Erdman -- Erdman is ready.”

Not exactly Mitchell or Conley.

The good news is that receiver Michael Bennett (knee) and running back Todd Gurley (ankle) should be available on Saturday, but safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons are still in limbo.

Then there's Florida.

Linebacker Ronald Powell (ankle) is questionable, while linebacker Darrin Kitchens (shoulder) and tight end Colin Thompson (foot) are doubtful. Florida will get defensive tackle Damien Jacobs (head) back, and quarterback Tyler Murphy (shoulder) should be fine.

Outside of injuries, on-field play has hampered those two as well. Florida's offense has stalled in each of its three losses, while Georgia's young, inexperienced defense has had plenty of growing pains.

Because of that, both will face each other on a two-game losing streak for the first time since 1926 and unranked for the second time since 1979.

For the Gators, the past two games have been an offensive nightmare. After averaging 393.4 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play during the first five games, Florida has averaged 195.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per play while converting just 28.1 percent of its third downs since.

Georgia's defense ranks 58th nationally (390.1 yards per game) and is giving up 5.5 yards per play. It has registered just seven turnovers this season, tied for last in the SEC. To put that into perspective, former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones forced three fumbles and recovered two in his two games against Florida.

This game has lost some of its luster nationally, and neither will be playing for a national championship this season, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. A war of attrition will replace the party in Jacksonville, but that won't stop each side from seething at the sight of the other's color combination.

"If you can’t get excited about playing Florida in that venue, you shouldn’t be a Bulldog. Period," Richt said. "We all understand that. I think everybody is going to get their blood pumping for that.

"Both of us are just fighting like mad to stay in the race. With another loss, I don’t know if mathematically or not it knocks us out, but it’d be pretty tough.”

Added Murphy: "It’s kind of like a one-game playoff. If you lose, your season is kind of done or down in the dumps. Both teams are going to come out hungry and ready to go."

Lynch called the Florida-Georgia rivalry the midseason "gauntlet of college football." This has major East implications and it's a bitter rivalry. They both celebrated Saturday's victory, but when they see each other, true disdain will emerge, which should be motivation enough.

"It's not a one-way street, they legitimately hate us too," Lynch said. "It's nothing like I've ever seen before.

"I'll raise my kids to hate Florida just as anyone else. Even if they go play football at Brown, they'll still root for Georgia over Florida. That's just how it is."

Injuries now 'The Question' for Richt

October, 25, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- For most of his time at Georgia, this was the time of year where Mark Richt started having to answer “the question.” Fortunately for Richt, a two-game winning streak against rival Florida has made for a refreshing change in that department – but that nuisance has only been replaced by a different set of bothersome questions.

“It's nice not to have to hear that question,” Richt told reporters after Thursday's practice. “Year after year, 'When are you going to beat Florida?' that gets pretty old. So that isn't the big topic of conversation this year. Everybody wants to talk about, what did we talk about injuries for the first 80 percent of this meeting so far? That's what everybody's talking about, but it's been the dominating story.”

Richt is one of the most consistent winners among active FBS coaches, but his subpar record against Florida was one of the black marks on an otherwise sterling resume in his first decade as the Bulldogs' coach. Georgia beat the Gators just twice in its first 10 tries under Richt before winning in both 2011 and 2012 -- giving the Bulldogs their first back-to-back wins against the Gators since 1988-89.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt doesn't want injuries to become the story of the year at Georgia.
But he's right. The topic du jour leading into next week's Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville is not so much the Bulldogs' chance to run its winning streak to three games as it is the debilitating injuries that have struck both programs, forcing both out of the top 25 following losses over the weekend.

The Gators announced this week that linebacker Jeremi Powell is out for the rest of the season, making him the eighth Florida player to suffer a season-ending injury -- a list that also includes starters Jeff Driskel, Dominique Easley, Chaz Green and Matt Jones.

Georgia has played the last two games -- both losses -- without most of its most dangerous offensive weapons, which is why Richt spent the first several minutes of Thursday's post-practice press gathering discussing injuries, how they have impacted his team and whether some of the injured players might return for the Florida game.

UGA director of sports medicine Ron Courson delivered the team's lengthy injury report to the sports medicine office while Richt was speaking to reporters . The list included 24 players and 12 who have started at least once this season.

Richt addressed some of those concerns -- most notably All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley's return to practice this week following a three-game absence with an ankle injury -- after Thursday's final practice of the open week:

On Gurley: “He practiced. He made it till the end. He ran sprints with everybody at the end. He did scout work, which is really all we asked him to do. But he did fundamental work -- the run polish and that kind of thing. He did good. I'm encouraged.”

On receiver Michael Bennett (knee): “He wasn't trying to break a land-speed record or anything, but he was sprinting and striding out pretty good and he looked fine. The drill I saw him do was kind of a sprint-jog-sprint-jog kind of thing down the field and he looked good. I would think he'll be practicing Monday.”

On center David Andrews (foot): “I think we expect him to play, but he did not go today. Dallas [Lee] was playing center with the first group. … We're hoping it's such a temporary thing you don't think much about it, but we had Kolton [Houston] playing the left guard spot where Dallas was. Kolton's a good player, so I think we'd be OK, but we're better with [Andrews] at center.”

On safety Josh Harvey-Clemons (foot) and receiver Chris Conley (ankle), who both left last Saturday's Vanderbilt loss with injuries: “Neither one of them practiced. I would guess Josh Harvey is closer than Chris and I don't know if Josh will practice Monday or not.”

On freshman linebacker Reggie Carter (knee): “Reggie was not out there. Reggie hurt his knee Tuesday in practice. Don't know how severe yet.”

Bennett and safety Tray Matthews (hamstring) worked on the side with trainers, away from the team, during the portion of practice that was open to the media.

Gurley and fellow tailbacks J.J. Green (right shoulder contusion, left shoulder sprain) and Brendan Douglas (right knee sprain, left wrist sprain) worked in team drills while wearing green non-contact jerseys. Receivers Rhett McGowan (ankle), Michael Erdman (shoulder) and Tramel Terry (shoulder) also practiced in green, joining the lengthy list of players dealing with some physical ailment.

“We don't want to make it the story of the year,” Richt said. “We want to win ballgames. We want to prepare to win with who we have available. We want guys to get well as fast as they can get well. We want some guys that know they're going to miss the season, we want them to be ready as fast as they can so they can have a great year next year. But obviously that's been the thing that most people have talked about because it's been a little unusual in that regard.”

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