Georgia Bulldogs: Solomon Patton

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

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

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

Special teams position rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
12:15
PM ET
Three SEC teams begin spring practice on Tuesday, and there's a host of news and nuggets, including a bit of the off-the-field variety, in today's lunch links:

Ten SEC surprise players in 2013

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:40
AM ET
Today, we're looking at 10 players who surprised us in the SEC.

These are players who didn't enter the season with a ton of hype, weren't big-time recruits in the 2013 recruiting class or made big splashes after pedestrian 2012 seasons.

There were a lot of names that could have made it onto this list, but we put our SEC brains together and came up with these 10:

1. Serderius Bryant, LB, Ole Miss: Heading into the season, Bryant was listed as a reserve behind Denzel Nkemdiche. But after Nkemdiche injured his knee in the season opener, Bryant went on a tear for the Rebels. He started nine games and is tied for the team lead with 70 tackles, leads the Rebels with 10.5 tackles for loss and is second with three sacks.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coates
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSammie Coates emerged as a playmaker in Auburn's high-scoring offense.
2. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: Before the season, no one was quite sure who would be catching the brunt of passes in Auburn's offense. Well, Coates took the lead and went from six catches in 2012 to a team-high 38 with 841 yards and seven touchdowns. The Tigers didn't throw a lot, but when they did, Coates was usually the top target.

3. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Everyone knew he was going to be the guy to replace Marcus Lattimore, but Davis looked like a seasoned veteran on the field this season, rushing for 1,134 and 11 touchdowns. He was also very good in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 342 yards.

4. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: Fellow linebacker Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the star on defense, but Floyd looked like the Bulldogs' best pass rusher at times. The former prep schooler led Georgia with 6.5 sacks and finished the year with 8.5 tackles for loss and 47 total tackles.

5. Markus Golden, DT, Missouri: After registering just 10 tackles last season, Golden was one of the Tigers' most active defensive players. He got tons of push up the middle and was second on the team with 13 tackles for loss and had 6.5 sacks. He also took an interception 70 yards for a touchdown.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia defensive back was one of the nation's biggest surprises. He wasn't asked to do a lot with his arm, but made some big-time throws and got more comfortable with his arm as the season went on. Marshall passed for 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns, but did most of his damage with that deadly read option, rushing for 1,023 yards and 11 more scores on his way to leading Auburn to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxWR Solomon Patton was one of the few bright spots in a down year for the Florida offense.
7. Solomon Patton, WR, Florida: Like Auburn, no one knew who would be the top pass catcher in Gainesville. But after spending most of his career as a role player and more of a gimmick guy, Patton was Florida's most dangerous receiver and the go-to guy for whichever quarterback lined up under center. He was a big-play threat and finished the season leading the Gators with 44 catches, 556 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also registered 642 yards and a touchdown on kick returns.

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: In a year in which the Bulldogs spent a lot of time rotating guys in at the quarterback spot, Prescott came up big when he was in. A reserve in 2012, Prescott led Mississippi State with 1,657 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Where Prescott really did his damage was on the ground, where he bullied his way to 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.

9. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Last year, Robinson started in 11 games last year, but he exploded in 2013. Helping to protect the nation's best running game, he pushed his way to being an All-American, All-SEC member and someone who could be an early pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he decides to leave school.

10. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: He was easily the biggest surprise of the league for most of the season. A year after starting nine games and recording 3.5 sacks, Sam took the SEC by storm with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Both led the SEC. The consensus All-American was named the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
12:00
PM ET
We’re 24 hours away from opening kick in Week 10, so let’s take one last look around the SEC in Friday’s edition of the lunch links.
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.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
9:00
AM ET
Let's hand out some recognition for outstanding play on Saturday with this week's SEC helmet stickers.

Nick Marshall: Auburn's quarterback led the Tigers to their first win over a ranked opponent under Gus Malzahn by rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in a 30-22 win against No. 24 Ole Miss. Marshall was clearly bothered by a leg injury that kept him from running as Ole Miss attempted a late comeback, but his earlier rushing yards -- plus an 11-for-17 passing performance for 93 yards -- allowed the Tigers to hold on for a win.

Missouri's offense: There was more than enough reason to question what unbeaten Missouri had accomplished thus far before jumping into SEC play at Vanderbilt on Saturday. But the Tigers' offensive explosion in a 51-28 win in Nashville showed what they can do. James Franklin passed for 278 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 63 more, and the Tigers totaled 245 rushing yards to move to 5-0 with a trip to Georgia on deck next weekend.

Solomon Patton: Undersized senior receiver Patton came into Florida's game against Arkansas with just 303 career receiving yards and two touchdowns, but he made some of the biggest plays in the Gators' 30-10 victory. Patton hauled in touchdown passes of 51 and 38 yards and finished with six catches for 124 yards. The Gators' stout defense did a good job limiting Arkansas' powerful rushing attack and Patton provided enough of an offensive spark to help the Gators to pull away in the second half.

Aaron Murray: With All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley already sidelined by injury, Murray lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley to apparently serious injuries during Saturday's game against Tennessee. But somehow Georgia's senior quarterback led his cobbled-together offense to just enough points to win 34-31 in overtime. Murray broke David Greene's SEC career passing record in the first half and led the Bulldogs to the game-tying touchdown with a 2-yard pass to Rantavious Wooten with 5 seconds remaining. Murray finished 19 of 35 for 196 yards and three touchdowns and also set up a key second-half touchdown with a 57-yard run.

Odell Beckham Jr.: He had a critical fumble in last week's loss to Georgia, but Beckham Jr. was nearly unstoppable in Saturday's 59-26 win against Mississippi State. He sparked LSU's 28-0 run to close the game with a 33-yard touchdown catch and run from Zach Mettenberger, who was also outstanding with 340 yards on 25 of 29 passing. Beckham finished with nine catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns, with his first a leaping 14-yard grab with 17 seconds left until halftime, giving the Tigers a 28-23 edge at the break.

Expect excitement from the SEC East

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
11:45
PM ET
Georgia's thrilling 41-30 win over No. 6 South Carolina inside Sanford Stadium Saturday night set a familiar tone for the SEC Eastern Division: No lead or team is safe.

The 12th-ranked Bulldogs (1-1) went from being outmuscled a week prior in their heartbreaking loss to ACC foe Clemson, to doing most of the pushing around, as the Bulldogs catapulted themselves to the top of the East standings.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall, Aaron Murray, Kolton Houston
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia had plenty to celebrate in its win over South Carolina, but there's a long way to go before the Dawgs can think about celebrating an SEC East title.
"The team that loses this game is waiting for the other's bus to break down," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Saturday. "We've been chasing them the last three years. South Carolina has a very good team, and this year, we get a chance to sit in the driver's seat. … We haven't been 1-0 in the league in a while because South Carolina's been getting us. Today, we got them, and I'm so thankful."

The road to Atlanta for the SEC championship game yet again has to go through Athens, but the Bulldogs are far from perfect ... just like the top contenders looking up at the Dawgs.

While Georgia's defense has given up 68 points and allowed an average of 460.5 yards to opposing offenses in the first two games of the season, South Carolina's defense struggled mightily on Saturday after Florida's offense developed a fear of the red zone in its unsettling 21-16 loss to Miami.

Georgia is in the driver's seat for its third consecutive SEC East title, but the East certainly hasn't been won two weeks into the season. If anyone should know that, it's Georgia.

The Bulldogs have a lot of flaws on defense. Things cleaned up against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks (1-1) still churned out 454 yards of offense, including 226 rushing yards, Saturday night. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw continues to show that he's a true gamer and he's helping those receivers grow more and more.

On the flip side, the Bulldogs showed that they can hang with anyone in any SEC shootout. Georgia piled up 538 total yards, watched Aaron Murray throw four touchdowns, and have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Todd Gurley (132 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries). Scoring points won't be a problem for the Bulldogs, but stopping them could be.

That's the opposite predicament No. 12 Florida (1-1) finds itself in after a bad loss to the Hurricanes. There's no question that the Gators have an elite defense, but even it couldn't save the offense like it did so many times last season. The offense, which registered 413 yards of offense (the most by Florida since gaining 403 yards against Vanderbilt on Oct. 13 last year), was totally inept inside the red zone.

The Gators took six trips inside Miami's 20-yard line and came away with just nine points and four turnovers. Two were Jeff Driskel interceptions, one was a Trey Burton fumble and another was a turnover on downs on a very questionable fourth-and-1 call.

Adding more salt to the Gators' wound, they missed a puzzling two-point conversion after their first touchdown.

"We moved the ball. We had more than 400 yards, mixed the run and pass well, did some good things at times,'' Florida coach Will Muschamp told reporters after Saturday's loss. "Bottom line, you can't continue to shoot yourself in the foot and give another team an opportunity, especially on the road."

Those shots came in the form of three lost fumbles, two interceptions and red zone failures. While Florida rediscovered the art of actually moving the ball down the field (and might have found capable receiving targets in Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Burton), mistakes and poor play calling ruined the Gators' chances of beating a less-talented Miami team.

But fear not Gators fans! The East is still in reach. A Miami loss means nothing in conference standings and that defense is only going to get better. By the looks of what Georgia and South Carolina did defensively, the Gators have a chance to squeak out some points against them.

For now, the attention is on Georgia and South Carolina because they have offenses that don't shrink near the goal line (well, minus that failed fourth-and-1 by the Gamecocks late Saturday). They have capable quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. We still don't know if the Gators do. But without a loss in conference play, Florida actually has the advantage over South Carolina, which now has to root for two Georgia losses.

However, the trio at the top still has some other hurdles to conquer. You have to wonder if Vanderbilt or even Missouri or Tennessee can help derail their trains to Atlanta. Nonconference cupcakes aside, Missouri and Tennessee are the only unbeaten teams in the East.

We know Vandy will challenge everyone going forward, but Mizzou and Tennessee still remain relative enigmas this early in the season. With far from perfect teams at the top, any one of these three could serve as a pesky pothole on the road to Atlanta. South Carolina gets its first taste of the rest of the East next week with a visit from Vandy.

Then there's the obstacle that is LSU that Florida and Georgia both face. The Tigers look like they could challenge for the Western Division title and should pose threats both offensively and defensively for the Gators and Dawgs.

Georgia is ahead of the pack, but if we've learned anything from the past few years, the East race to Atlanta is far from being paved in red and black.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

CFL Extra: Gurley Or Cooper?
Danny Kanell and Joey Galloway debate which player they would start up a team with: Todd Gurley or Amari Cooper.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 9/27