Georgia Bulldogs: Tyler Murphy

SEC predictions: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
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The ATL Kid and I were both too soft to pick Vanderbilt last week in an upset that several others around the country were predicting.

Sure enough, the Commodores went into the Swamp and made an already forgettable season for Florida that much worse.

That’s the only game we missed last week, both of us going 6-1. Something told me to pick the Commodores. But in my old age, I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

Picking Vanderbilt to win at Florida would be like picking the ATL Kid to get in before 2 o’clock in the morning one night. It just doesn’t happen.

And now that he’s branching out and covering the entire SEC, I will say that he’s become quite the country music fan. We were both bopping to a little “Dixieland Delight” last Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Kid even knew some of the words.

I’m proud of him. He’s truly evolving and still leading by a game in our picks contest. He’s 79-12 (.868) on the season, and I’m 78-13 (.857).

But these next few weeks are where you make your “jingle” in this business.

Here’s the way we see this week’s games going:

TROY at OLE MISS

Chris Low: After winning seven games a year ago in Hugh Freeze’s first season, Ole Miss is thinking bigger and better things this season. The Rebels will extend their winning streak to four straight games Saturday with a victory over Troy, setting up what will be a critical finish against Missouri and Mississippi State. … Ole Miss 47, Troy 17

Edward Aschoff: The Rebels are rolling with both their offense and defense clicking. The last time Troy played an SEC team, the Trojans were throttled by 55. Expect another SEC rout. … Ole Miss 51, Troy 13

KENTUCKY at VANDERBILT

Low: There used to be a time when Vanderbilt hated to see the month of November coming. The Commodores were always too beaten down physically to finish the season with any pop. Those days are long gone, as James Franklin has guided this program to six straight wins in November. Vanderbilt will make it seven in a row Saturday at home against Kentucky. … Vanderbilt 31, Kentucky 17

Aschoff: These programs are going in opposite directions right now. Vandy is riding high after its first win at Florida since 1945, while the Wildcats will miss a bowl game for the third straight year. Vandy will inch closer to potentially having back-to-back eight-win seasons. … Vanderbilt 38, Kentucky 14

ALABAMA at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Low: After watching Alabama in the second half last week against LSU and the way the Crimson Tide broke the Tigers mentally and physically, how could you possibly pick against the two-time defending national champions at this point? Nobody has come within 21 points of them since the 49-42 win at Texas A&M back on Sept. 15. Look for that trend to continue this weekend in Starkville. … Alabama 34, Mississippi State 7

Aschoff: Alabama passed another big test with a commanding win over LSU last week. The Crimson Tide are playing at their best, and Mississippi State has dropped two straight during the gauntlet that is November. People think this could be a trap game, but Nick Saban will have his squad in top shape for the Bulldogs. … Alabama 38, Mississippi State 10

FLORIDA at SOUTH CAROLINA

Low: The injuries and the losses just keep mounting in this nightmare of a season for Florida, which is in danger of having its first losing season since 1979. South Carolina, meanwhile, is rested, coming off a bye and hoping to stay in the Eastern Division race. The Gamecocks also remember the beating they got in Gainesville last season. … South Carolina 31, Florida 13

Aschoff: The Gamecocks are still very much in the SEC Eastern Division hunt, while Florida is fighting for its postseason life. The Gators haven't missed out on a bowl game in 23 years, but with the injuries piling up, Tyler Murphy possibly out and South Carolina playing at another level, the Gamecocks will roll at home. … South Carolina 27, Florida 10

GEORGIA at AUBURN

Low: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has ramifications in both the Eastern Division and Western Division races. Auburn has won six in a row and is eyeing a possible Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama with the West title on the line. Georgia is still hanging around in the East race, but needs some help. Both teams can put up points in bunches, but the nod goes to the Tigers and the SEC’s top running game. … Auburn 35, Georgia 28

Aschoff: The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has a lot on the line this weekend. The Plains will be rocking, as Auburn is still in the SEC West hunt and sniffing a BCS bowl berth. Georgia is barely hanging on in the East, but the Bulldogs are certainly a player. This one will come down to which defense can stop the run. Right now, Auburn's running game has been too much for anyone, as the Tigers have rushed for 280-plus yards seven times this season. … Auburn 34, Georgia 30
ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham made one point abundantly clear in 2010 as soon as he arrived at Georgia to become the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. He was here to beat Florida, because beating the Gators is the jumping-off point for every goal the Bulldogs hope to achieve in any given season.

“When we go to recruit a guy, the first thing I ask is, 'Can we beat Florida with this guy?' Because if you beat Florida, your chance of winning the SEC East got a whole lot better,” Grantham said after Saturday's 23-20 win over Florida extended Georgia's series winning streak to three games.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Paul AbellTodd Grantham's defensive unit is a big reason why the Bulldogs have won three straight games against Florida.
Let's put that in perspective. The Georgia-Florida rivalry wasn't even competitive when Grantham joined Mark Richt's staff. Even Florida's mediocre teams found ways to win in Jacksonville -- like when the 2002 Gators who would finish with an 8-5 record handed Georgia its only loss that season and cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS title.

Dating back to 1990, Florida had won 17 out of 20 games against Georgia when Grantham arrived and seven of nine since Richt took over in 2001. And in the last two games in the series that Willie Martinez served as Georgia's defensive coordinator, Florida's 2008 and 2009 teams beat Georgia by a combined 90-27 margin.

The common theme in each of Georgia's three straight series wins, however? Grantham's defense made big plays when it mattered most and kept Florida out of the end zone. Although they did not turn the ball over on Saturday, the Gators totaled eight turnovers in the teams' previous two meetings, and they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in the last three meetings in Jacksonville.

“Like I said when I first came here, I think I understand who the fans want to beat when you're playing here, and I know that Florida's one of the teams that they want to beat,” Grantham said. “So that's why we make it a big game with our players. I think that's one of the reasons that we've had guys step up, meaning Jarvis [Jones] two years ago, Corey Moore made a play today. I've seen Damian Swann make a play, Amarlo [Herrera], Ramik [Wilson] – a lot of guys made some plays, but they know it's time to man up and go play.”

Perhaps the biggest defensive play of Saturday's win came midway through the fourth quarter, when Grantham decided to blitz safety Moore when Florida faced third-and-12 against the reeling Bulldogs. Moore tracked down Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy and sacked him for a 14-yard loss at the Florida 43-yard line. That forced the Gators to punt, and Georgia's offense was able to run out the clock on the ensuing possession and protect its narrow advantage.

“I really almost said to Coach Grantham, 'Go sic em. Go get em,' ” Richt said. “When I'm saying that, I'm saying, 'Bring the house. Bring more than they can block. Play man coverage with no safety help and let's just see what the heck happens.' Something big's going to happen one way or the other and I held my tongue on it, and he called the blitz. And I'm like, 'I'm with you 100 percent,' and I really was.”

Maybe that was a glimmer of hope for Grantham's young defenders. Earlier in the season, maybe they would not have successfully made that play. He pointed to the overtime win against Tennessee, where the Bulldogs were unable to slow down the Volunteers as they mounted a second-half rally, as a time when his defense wasn't tough enough.

“The other team's going to make plays and they're going to do things,” Grantham said. “But when that happens, you've got to have the mental toughness and the maturity to go put the fire out, and we preach to our guys all the time about, 'This is what you live for. Seize the moment. Enjoy the opportunity. Go make a play.' ”

Believe it or not -- and the fourth-year coordinator's detractors within Georgia's fan base will likely be stunned by this revelation -- Georgia has held all but one opponent (Tennessee) below its season average for total offense. And after yielding 400-plus yards in four of the first five games, the Bulldogs have held their last three opponents below the 400-yard mark and to an average of 68.5 yards per game below their season averages.

They're dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (31.6 ppg), however, in part because of frequent special-teams meltdowns and offensive mistakes deep in Georgia territory.

Georgia ranks 112th nationally and last in the SEC in opponent yards per point -- a statistic that divides the number of points a team allows by the yardage its opponent covered to score. The five teams that rank immediately behind Georgia's average (12.1) on that list have a combined 7-35 record this season: Cal (1-8), Colorado (3-5), Idaho (1-8), UTEP (1-7) and Iowa State (1-7).

Of course, Georgia's defense could always have made more stops after being placed in those bad positions. And the Bulldogs certainly could stand to become more effective on third down (they're 12th in the SEC, allowing opponents to convert 42.5 percent of the time).

But little by little, Grantham's defense is beginning to show some promise -- and perhaps Moore's sack is another sign that the light is flipping on for Georgia's defenders who lacked on-field experience when the season began.

“Part of the job as a coordinator is you've got to be aggressive in those situations and let the players go win the game,” Grantham said. “Individual performance wins the game. We put them in one-on-one matchups on that. We were in one-on-one matchups in coverage, we were in one-on-one matchups up front and the guys executed the call and we stopped them. ... In my mind, you want to end the game. That's what I wanted to do was end the game right there."


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mark Richt hardly seemed to be in a celebratory mood after Georgia's 23-20 win over Florida gave him three straight victories against the Gators for the first time since he became the Bulldogs' coach in 2001.

He had just watched the Bulldogs (5-3, 4-2 SEC) nearly melt down in the second half for the second consecutive game only to be saved by a late defensive stand and a clock-eating drive that ran out the remaining time in the fourth quarter. So perhaps it's understandable that Richt felt far more relieved than jubilant.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/Stephen MortonGeorgia RB Todd Gurley ran for a pair of TDs and helped the Bulldogs win three straight over the Gators for the first time in 24 years.
“It's because we're winning 23-3 ... and then we about lost the doggone thing,” Richt said. “That's why I'm subdued right now -- because I'm trying to get over it.”

Imagine how Will Muschamp felt. Florida's coach saw his team claw back from a 20-0 deficit at the start of the first quarter, pull within three points at the start of the fourth and then ruin its comeback bid with regrettable penalties at the end of the game.

The Gators (4-4, 3-3) would have gotten the ball back for one final possession, but defensive lineman Darious Cummings was flagged for a personal foul -- illegal hands to Georgia center David Andrews' face -- to spoil a third-down stop with barely more than a minute remaining. Despite four personal foul calls between the two sides, the resulting first down after Cummings' penalty allowed Georgia to run out the clock and earn its first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-89.

“We did have Coach [Vince] Dooley come by and speak to our team this week,” Richt said, referring to the coach who led the UGA program from 1964-88. “That's one thing he mentioned. I didn't know the stat, but he said if we win, it would be the first time we got three in a row in like 30 years or something. I was frankly kind of embarrassed that was the truth. But that's where this series has gone. It's nice to at least, to this point, get it turned around a little bit.”

Richt has been on Muschamp's side of this rivalry, too, however. The early days of Richt's tenure saw Georgia blow numerous winnable games, including a 2002 loss that might have cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS championship. Richt was 2-8 against Florida until the Bulldogs launched their three-game winning streak in 2011, but perhaps now they have permanently removed the Florida monkey off the program's back.

“Three in a row's awesome,” said Georgia senior Aaron Murray, who threw for 258 yards and a touchdown and became just the third UGA quarterback since the 1940s to beat the Gators three times. “It's a great feeling and this is just such a great game. The environment's unbelievable. To be in that stadium, it's a true blessing. It's a great feeling to win three in a row -- something that hasn't happened in 24 years, and hopefully next year we'll keep it up.”

Saturday's win wasn't pretty by any means. In fact it was symptomatic of Georgia's season thus far, with self-inflicted wounds, costly penalties and general breakdowns combining to place what looked to be an easy victory in jeopardy. Coming off a 31-27 loss to Vanderbilt, where similar problems allowed the Commodores to close the game with a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to feel as though it was experiencing deja vu against the Gators.

“We just shot ourselves in the foot. I've said that 100 times,” said Georgia receiver Michael Bennett, who had a team-high five catches for 59 yards. “It's just mental mistakes, I had a dropped pass. Stuff like that, you're going to end up having the other team start scoring points and giving them opportunities. You can't do that.”

Tailback Todd Gurley -- who scored Georgia's first two touchdowns and finished with 187 yards of total offense -- fell short on a fourth-down run at the Bulldogs' 39 in the fourth quarter, with Georgia clinging to a 23-20 lead.

Florida's Neiron Ball was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after stopping Gurley, however, pushing the Gators back 15 yards. Their ensuing drive pushed the ball to Georgia's 43 before Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sent a third-down blitz at Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy.

Safety Corey Moore tracked Murphy down in the backfield for a 14-yard loss, forcing a fourth-and-26 midway through the final period that removed even the possibility that Florida would go for it on fourth down.

“I thought it was the right time to do it,” Grantham said of the decision to blitz and leave his defensive backs vulnerable in one-on-one coverage. “We had to go end the game, and that's what we did.”

Georgia took over with 8:17 to play and drove 67 yards in 15 plays -- including a huge third-and-7 conversion pass for 7 yards from Murray to Rhett McGowan and the Cummings penalty that produced another key conversion -- running out the remaining time.

The loss drops Muschamp to 0-7 in the Florida-Georgia series -- 0-4 as a Georgia player and 0-3 as the Gators' coach -- which undoubtedly creates a lonesome feeling with which Richt can identify.

Richt's team somehow held on for a win on Saturday, however, although the Bulldogs' stumbling style of late seems to be taking a toll on their coach.

“They must like it,” Richt said of Georgia's numerous games that have been decided in the waning minutes. “I don't like it. It makes you wonder if this is really a good way to make a living.”

Five things: Georgia-Florida

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Unranked Florida and Georgia (both 4-3 overall and 3-2 in SEC play) meet today in Jacksonville in an SEC East race elimination game. Let's look at five key factors in today's game with some help from ESPN's Stats and Information group.

Making Murphy throw: Without question, Georgia's defensive game plan will center around slowing down running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor enough to force the Gators to put the ball in the air. LSU and Missouri were largely successful in that regard, with the Gators rushing for 111 and 59 yards in the last two games, respectively. The Gators are averaging an SEC-low 4.4 yards per carry this season on designed runs, down a full yard from last season, when their 5.5-ypc average on designed runs ranked fourth in the SEC. If Georgia can make Florida's offense one-dimensional, it would appear to be a big advantage even against the Bulldogs' mediocre secondary. Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy has been subpar in the last two games, including a 3.0 Total QBR in the Missouri game -- the lowest QBR by a Florida starting quarterback in the last decade. His QBR has declined in each game he has played this season.

The Gurley factor: All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley -- who rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown last season against Florida -- returns to Georgia's lineup today after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. The Bulldogs' offense fell into a major slump without Gurley and the assortment of other offensive weapons who have missed time lately with injuries. He's the most important piece, however, so his return is one of the most positive developments for the Bulldogs' offense in weeks. Georgia averaged 554 yards of total offense in the four games in which Gurley played this season. Without him in the lineup, Georgia averaged 370 yards.

Three is the magic number: Winners of the last two in the series, the Bulldogs have the chance to build their first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89 -- with 1989 representing the final season before Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville as head coach and launched Florida's two decades of dominance in Jacksonville. Georgia has six winning streaks of at least three games against Florida, but the Gators had won 18 of the last 21 meetings before Georgia launched its current winning streak with a 24-20 victory in 2011.

Turnover troubles: Georgia's last two wins in this series were punctuated by the eight turnovers the Bulldogs generated -- six last season and two in 2011. All-American Jarvis Jones was the driving force behind that turnover trend, but he's now in the NFL and the Bulldogs have struggled mightily at generating takeaways in his absence. With seven turnovers, Georgia is tied with Kentucky for last in the SEC, and only Arkansas (minus-six) has a worse turnover margin than Georgia's minus-five. The lone positive sign in this category for Georgia is that it posted its first multiple-takeaway game in its last outing, when both Shaq Wiggins and Corey Moore intercepted Vanderbilt passes and Wiggins returned his for a touchdown.

Florida's blitz: With some impressive edge rushers at its disposal and tenacious cornerbacks known for playing tight coverage, Florida's defense has been largely successful when it utilized the blitz this season. The Gators have sent five or more rushers on 25 percent of their opponents' dropback passes, with opponents completing just 38 percent of those passes and averaging 3.0 yards per play. Both numbers rank in the nation's top three among defenses from AQ conferences.
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.

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."

Injury impact: SEC

October, 24, 2013
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The injury bug has been sucking the life out of teams in the SEC this season. The SEC East has been hit especially hard this season, and here are the three teams in the league that have been affected the most:

1. Florida: Not exactly what the Gators want to be ranked first in, but Florida runs away with this one. The 4-3 Gators lost starting right tackle Chaz Green (shoulder) and wide receiver Andre Debose (knee) for the season during fall camp and have seen six more season-ending injuries since, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Matt Jones and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. They dressed only 13 healthy defenders in the loss to Missouri. Quarterback Tyler Murphy is still dealing with a lingering shoulder injury.

2. Georgia: The 4-3 Bulldogs lost top receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the year to a freak ACL injury in the season opener and then lost running back Keith Marshall and Justin-Scott Wesley to ACL injuries against Tennessee. Starting running back Todd Gurley (ankle) has been out since the LSU game (Sept. 28) and receiver Michael Bennett hasn't played since the Tennessee game (Oct. 5) due to a knee injury. Receiver Chris Conley (ankle) and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons (foot) and Tray Matthews are questionable for next week's Florida game.

3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks, who have lost five straight, felt the injury bug before the season when top receiver Demetrius Wilson was lost for the year with a preseason ACL injury while linebacker Otha Peters has played in only five games after breaking his arm during fall camp. Coach Bret Bielema estimated that 10-12 players went down with injuries during fall camp. Quarterback Brandon Allen suffered a shoulder injury early this season and starting defensive tackle Robert Thomas is out for the season with a broken leg.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
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The SEC East is like the Wild West, while Alabama is still in control of the West. Also, eight teams from the SEC are ranked in the AP poll. What a fun conference:

1. Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC; last week: 1): Twitter was ablaze with tweets concerning Alabama's slow start at Kentucky. That worry quickly left after the Crimson Tide scored 31 consecutive points in the first half and cruised to a 48-7 win. Alabama isn't perfect, but it still has a hold on the SEC and is still the country's top team.

2. Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Aggies certainly don't have much of a defense, but it doesn't really matter with Johnny Manziel running the show. For the second consecutive year, Manziel led a come-from-behind, game-winning drive against Ole Miss in Oxford. Not even a freak knee injury could slow him down. As long as he's making defenses look silly, the Aggies are a title contender.

3. LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 4): So there's that LSU defense we know and love. After some questionable early play, the Tigers defense held Florida to six points and just 240 yards of offense. With relentless pressure from the LSU defense, Florida's offense wilted inside of Tiger Stadium. LSU's offense wasn't great, but running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 121 yards against the nation's No. 1 rush defense.

4. Missouri (6-0, 2-0 SEC; LW: 7): Yeah, we all saw this one coming. These Tigers are undefeated and have the SEC's second-hottest offense behind Texas A&M. Mizzou strutted into Athens over the weekend and walked out with a win and their chests puffed out after a 41-26 win. The question now is if the Tigers can keep their momentum with quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury. It's Maty Mauk time in Columbia.

5. Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Bulldogs defense struggled in the first half against Mizzou, but offensive mistakes really cost Georgia against the Tigers. Georgia was banged up on both sides of the ball and just didn't have the offensive star power around Aaron Murray to make a run late. It has been a rough week for the state of Georgia in the world of sports, and an unhealthy Bulldogs team is really hurting heading into its trip to Vanderbilt.

6. South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 6): Like LSU, we finally saw a balanced, solid defensive performance in a big game from the Gamecocks. Arkansas' running game churned out more than 200 yards, but the Gamecocks shut down the Hogs passing game, allowing just 30 yards on 4-of-13 passing. Connor Shaw continues to prove that he's made out of titanium and Mike Davis has rushed for 100-plus yards in five of six games.

7. Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Gators just couldn't get anything going on offense in Baton Rouge. Quarterback Tyler Murphy looked bewildered against LSU's blitz, and the offensive line crumbled under pressure. The offense averaged just 3.5 yards per play. The defense gave up some big plays, but held Zach Mettenberger to just 152 yards and a QBR of 46.7. No one would have blamed Florida's defense if it didn't allow the offense on the plane home Saturday.

8. Auburn (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 8): No, the Tigers weren't playing hefty competition over the weekend, but this team is getting pretty fun to watch. Even without starting quarterback Nick Marshall, the Tigers registered 712 yards behind Jeremy Johnson in their 62-3 win over Western Carolina. Also, 511 of those yards came on the ground. Watch out for these Tigers.

9. Ole Miss (3-3, 1-3 SEC; LW: 9): How do you not run the ball on your final possession with Johnny Football standing on the other sideline? You can't give Manziel time to work with, and after the Rebels threw three straight incomplete passes on their last drive, Manziel was given 2:33 seconds to drive and win the game. He did, and the Rebels, who had their defense gashed, lost their third straight game.

10. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC; LW: 10): The Commodores were off this weekend, so this team got an extra week to work out some of those defensive kinks. They'll need everything to be ironed out with a frustrated Georgia team heading to town. Keep an eye on receiver Jordan Matthews. He has had a stellar start to the year and leads the SEC with 47 receptions and is third with 709 yards.

11. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): The Vols were off, but they moved up because of what happened while they were hanging out on the couch this weekend. Plus, almost beating Georgia two weeks ago was pretty impressive. This team still has a long way to go before it's truly competitive in the SEC, but the performance against Georgia might give the Vols some nice momentum for the rest of the season.

12. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 13): The Bulldogs got quite the scare at home against Bowling Green. With a two-headed quarterback attack of Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott, Mississippi State slipped by the Falcons 21-20. It certainly wasn't pretty, but it was a must-win for the Bulldogs as they look to make it to the postseason. The Bulldogs are off this week, which is probably a good thing, as this team looks to regroup after an up-and-down first half of the season.

13. Arkansas (3-4, 0-3 SEC; LW: 11): Picking the Razorbacks to pull the upset over South Carolina was a major mental lapse on my part. The passing game was nonexistent against the Gamecocks and the defense was trampled on. This team can run the ball, but it just doesn't have an adequate passing game right now to make a real push in Bret Bielema's first season.

14. Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats had some fight early against Alabama, but then the talent difference put the Wildcats back in their place. Coach Mark Stoops said his team doesn't plan to cave and will be competitive from here on out. It has been a rough first year for Stoops, but attitude is everything when it comes to building.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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It was just another day in the SEC on Saturday. It got started with Missouri's upset win at Georgia and finished with Texas A&M's game-winning field goal to hold off Ole Miss. Now it's time to hand out the helmet stickers for Week 7's top performers.

L'Damian Washington, WR, Missouri: If it hadn't been for the injury, Missouri's James Franklin might have been the one on this list, but it was Washington who stepped up when his quarterback went out. With the lead cut to two and the Tigers in need of a big play, coach Gary Pinkel called on a trick play. Backup quarterback Maty Mauk threw a lateral to wide receiver Bud Sasser who then heaved it toward the end zone. Who was waiting on the other end? Washington. The 6-foot-4 receiver outfought the defender and hauled in the 40-yard touchdown pass. He finished with seven catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns on the day.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks had struggled in recent weeks, not putting teams away, but that wasn't the case Saturday against Arkansas. They thrashed the Razorbacks to the tune of 52-7, and Shaw played his best game of the season. The South Carolina quarterback finished 19-of-28 for 219 yards and three touchdowns through the air and tallied his fourth score on a 10-yard run in the third quarter. Shaw has been lights out since returning from a recent shoulder injury. He now has 10 touchdown passes on the season, but more importantly, he has yet to throw an interception after throwing seven a year ago.

The LSU defense: It has been only two weeks since LSU gave up 44 points in a loss to Georgia, but coach Les Miles never gave up on his defense. That confidence paid off Saturday. The Tigers defeated Florida, 17-6, in a good, old-fashioned slugfest, rare for the SEC this season. LSU didn't force a single turnover, but the Tigers held the Gators to just 240 yards of total offense. Tyler Murphy had looked impressive since taking over as Florida's quarterback, but he could get nothing going in Death Valley. The Tigers finished with four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Linebacker Lamin Barrow led the team with 13 tackles.

T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama: It wasn't much of a start for Yeldon or Drake. Both running backs fumbled early, and the Crimson Tide failed to score in the first quarter against Kentucky as a result of the miscues. However, instead of dwelling on the fumbles, they both redeemed themselves in a big way Saturday night. Yeldon led the way with 124 yards on 16 carries, while Drake gained 106 on 14 carries. They each scored two touchdowns. As a team, Alabama rushed for 299 yards against the Wildcats. Freshman running back Altee Tenpenny got into the mix late with a 7-yard touchdown run, the first of his career.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: It wasn't pretty at times. It was downright ugly with the two second-half turnovers, but in the end, Johnny did what he always does. He made just enough plays to win the football game. The Aggies gave up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but Manziel led them back and answered with a 6-yard touchdown run. After Ole Miss went three-and-out, Manziel orchestrated a flawless two-minute drill that resulted in the game-winning field goal. The Texas A&M quarterback finished 31-of-39 for 346 yards through the air and rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

SEC Week 7: Did you know?

October, 11, 2013
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We've reached Week 7 in the SEC. Here are some random tidbits you might not have known.

• The matchup between Florida's stellar defense and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger should be highly intriguing. The Gators lead the nation in Total QBR allowed, with opposing quarterbacks rating just a 13.0 against Florida and completing just 21.1 percent of their passes of 15 yards or longer. Meanwhile, Mettenberger has completed 60 percent of his throws of 15-plus for eight touchdowns, no interceptions and an average of 15.8 yards per attempt.

• Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy has led an offensive revival since taking over for Jeff Driskel as the Gators' signal-caller. He hasn't played enough snaps to qualify for ESPN's Total QBR rankings, but only Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Baylor's Bryce Petty have higher QBRs than Murphy's 93.7 among QBs who have participated in at least 80 action plays.

• South Carolina expects star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to start this week after missing last week's game with a much-debated injury. ESPN Stats and Information reports that Clowney has played 63 percent of South Carolina's defensive snaps this season. Opponents are averaging 5.9 yards per play with Clowney on the field versus 4.8 ypp when he's off.

• Georgia enters Saturday's game against Missouri riding a 15-game winning streak. That's the longest active home winning streak in the conference and the third-longest such streak in school history. The Bulldogs last lost at home against South Carolina on Sept. 10, 2011.

• Expect Alabama to look to establish the run against Kentucky on Saturday. The Crimson Tide are averaging an SEC-high 6.6 yards per designed run in SEC games. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are allowing 5.2 yards per designed run -- second-most in the league. Kentucky has allowed an SEC-high 629 yards before contact on such runs.

• Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray claimed the SEC's career passing yards lead last week against Tennessee. He's closing in on two more career marks. With 11,908 yards of career total offense, Murray is 324 yards behind Tim Tebow's SEC record (12,232). And with 109 career touchdown passes, he's five behind Danny Wuerffel's SEC record of 114.

• Ole Miss' no-huddle offense has been a mess of late after a strong start. The Rebels averaged just 1.6 yards per play last week against Auburn when employing the no-huddle after averaging 7.6 yards per play through the first four games when operating out of the no-huddle. Quarterback Bo Wallace was 2-for-10 on passes out of the no-huddle against Auburn after going 19-for-23 in the first four games.

• Arkansas freshman Alex Collins leads the SEC with 651 rushing yards, but his workload has decreased in his first two conference games. Collins was averaging 21.5 carries against nonconference opponents, but that average dipped to 13.5 in SEC play. His average yards per game dipped from 120.3 to 85.0 and his yards after contact per game have dropped steeply, from 73.0 to 27.5.

• Aside from its shaky performance in a win against Texas A&M, Alabama's defense has been impressive. Following a shutout against Ole Miss and a 45-3 win last week against Georgia State, the Crimson Tide are now tied with Florida for the SEC lead in scoring defense at 12.2 ppg. Alabama is second in rushing defense (85.8 ypg), second in total defense (299.8) and fifth in pass defense (214.0). The Tide have an SEC-low 25 missed tackles according to ESPN Stats and Information.

• Missouri is first in the SEC in rushing (258.8 ypg) and fourth in passing (285.0). The Tigers rank among only five FBS teams averaging at least 255 yards on the ground and 285 through the air alongside Baylor, Oregon, Washington and UCLA.

• Auburn will hold its 100th observance and 87th homecoming game on Saturday against Western Carolina. The Tigers are 74-8-4 in their previous homecomings. They own a 2-0 all-time record against the Catamounts, winning by a combined 111-6 margin.

• It's also homecoming at Mississippi State and a reunion between three Bulldogs coaches with a program where they once worked: Bowling Green. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and assistants Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy coached at Bowling Green in 2001-02. Mullen also met his wife Megan while coaching there.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC lunchtime links

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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Check out some of today's headlines from around the SEC.

" Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin committed an 'inadvertent secondary NCAA infraction' for tweeting at a recruit.

" South Carolina's Steve Spurrier said he's unsure whether the Gamecocks can fix their fourth-quarter defensive woes.

" Tyler Murphy aims to join a group of Florida quarterbacks who have found success against LSU.

" Coming off a big win at Vanderbilt, Missouri has a chance to shake up the SEC East race.

" A strong second half against Mississippi State helped LSU's shaky defense gain confidence.

" Chad Lindsay has made a smooth transition at center for Alabama.

" Georgia has been exceptional in its ability to overcome adversity.

" Auburn is closing in on bowl eligibility, but the Tigers want more.

" Alabama game closes out Kentucky's string of four consecutive top-20 opponents.

" Arkansas tries to keep spirits high after losses.

" Fourth-quarter troubles dog Mississippi State.

" Ole Miss leads the nation in fourth-down attempts, thanks to Hugh Freeze's aggressive nature.

Collision course: SEC

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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Sometimes you can see the matchups coming. In college football, every so often you know when the big games, the ones that will determine conference and national championships, will be. In the SEC, we're only halfway through the season and already we can look ahead to two key games that should determine who travels to Atlanta to compete for the conference championship:

Games: Florida-Georgia and LSU-Alabama.

What’s at stake: In a word, "everything," seeing as the winner of these two games will likely represent their divisions in the SEC title game. Whether it's Florida or Georgia from the East or LSU or Alabama out of the West, the two teams that make it to Atlanta will be playing for not just a conference title come December, but likely a shot at the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., as well. All four teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, with only top-ranked Alabama remaining undefeated. But one loss (so long as it doesn't come in the Georgia Dome) won't keep an SEC team out of the national title picture, as seven consecutive seasons with an SEC team hoisting the crystal football can attest.

Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Alabama needs only to avoid the proverbial banana peel in the road with three more games against unranked opponents (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before it hosts LSU. Star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and starting center Ryan Kelly should be back with the Tide by then, and an extra week to rest and prepare always helps. But for LSU, the road to Tuscaloosa, Ala., is not so simple, as it must first deal with No. 6 Florida at home on Saturday and then a trip to Ole Miss the following week. The way LSU's defense has played of late, neither game seems like a cinch victory.

Obviously, Florida's biggest obstacle is this weekend as well. The Gators are still breaking in a young, inexperienced quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and while the defense has played well, it has not faced an offense like LSU's yet. Past LSU, Florida will go on the road to face a surprisingly unbeaten Missouri team that has momentum squarely on its side. Georgia, though, will get Missouri first this weekend. And after the litany of injuries the Bulldogs have experienced in recent weeks, it will be a wonder if Mark Richt's team can hobble its way to Jacksonville without another loss.

How it unfolds: There's no easy way to determine how the Georgia-Florida game will go, as both teams have serious concerns to address in the short term before they make it to Week 9. The Bulldogs aren't getting many of their injured stars back until next season, and the Gators are stuck with Murphy and an inconsistent offense for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Florida seems like a precarious contender after losing to Miami, but at the same time those Gators beat Tennessee by two touchdowns. Georgia, meanwhile, needed overtime to edge out the Vols by 3 points.

Like their counterparts in the East, neither Alabama nor LSU are without their fair share of flaws. The Tide has been inconsistent thus far, failing to put together a truly complete game until this past weekend against lowly Georgia State. The passing game has shown flashes, but the rebuilt offensive line has been disappointing at times. And LSU, which struggled to score points in recent years, is suddenly an offensive powerhouse. But an up-and-down defense, one that allowed nearly 500 total yards to Mississippi State this past weekend, needs work. With the game at home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama likely will be favored, but the way this series has unfolded in recent years we're likely looking at a toss-up.


Welcome to Missouri's world, SEC East. It isn't so pretty, is it?

A year ago, the Tigers were wrapped in bandages and chugging Robitussin every week of their debut season in the SEC. Now, it seems like the top teams in the SEC East are doing the same thing as we head into the sixth week of the 2013 season.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are dealing with injuries, and it looks like Missouri is actually the healthiest team and is starting to make some noise in the conference after its 51-28 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville over the weekend.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesGeorgia sophomore running back Keith Marshall is out for the season with a torn ACL.
It literally looks like the last man standing will win the SEC East this year, as injuries continue to pile up.

Just look at the Georgia Bulldogs. Heavy favorites to win the division after their 44-41 win against LSU two Saturdays ago, the Bulldogs are now in the realm of the unknown after losing three key offensive players to knee injuries in a thrilling overtime win over Tennessee. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are out for the rest of the season with ACL injuries, while receiver Michael Bennett will have to undergo surgery to find out the extent of his knee injury and will miss Saturday's game against Missouri.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was already lost for the season with an ACL injury, and running back Todd Gurley is sidelined with an ankle injury. Punter Collin Barber left Saturday's game early with a concussion, and Georgia was without receiver Jonathon Rumph (hamstring) and safeties Tray Matthews (hamstring) and Connor Norman (concussion) for the entire game.

So, Mark Richt, have you ever seen that many injuries in a game before?

“Not like that," he said following Saturday's game. "It's just such a shame."

It really is for the Bulldogs, and now Georgia's lead in the East doesn't look so insurmountable.

Florida came away from the weekend with quite the performance in its 30-10 win over Arkansas. What was so impressive, other than another dominating defensive performance? Well, the passing game stepped up when the Hogs buried Florida's running game.

Yes, you read that correctly. Florida's passing game stepped up and quarterback Tyler Murphy, who just so happens to be in for the injured Jeff Driskel (broken leg), threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Arkansas certainly doesn't have the most intimidating defense, but Florida has to be feeling pretty good about last Saturday. Can the Gators sustain that? This team is down Driskel and its best overall player in defensive tackle Dominique Easley (ACL). Another big injury could cost the Gators a shot at Atlanta. Murphy has to stay upright if this team is even going to have a chance.

South Carolina watched quarterback Connor Shaw go down with a shoulder sprain against Central Florida only to bounce back and play well against Kentucky Saturday. Do injuries even affect this kid anymore? Still, his aggressive style makes him very susceptible to injuries.

It's become clear that injuries are affecting Jadeveon Clowney, who has played well below average this season. He's dealt with illness, a toe injury and now ribs. His coaches didn't even know he wasn't playing against Kentucky until right before the game.

"[If Clowney] wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier said after the game. "But if he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play. Simple as that."

The problem is that having him on the field -- even if he isn't playing close to 100 percent -- creates an issue for offenses. They've directed plays away from him and now they don't have to. Against the Wildcats, South Carolina's defense surrendered a 21-point lead. This defense has struggled, and it absolutely cannot afford anymore injuries at this point.

Then there's healthy, confident Mizzou. This was the team that couldn't get out of the infirmary last year. Now it's second in the SEC in total offense (543.8 yards per game), scoring (46.6) and sacks (15).

Mizzou has a chance to take a mighty step forward this weekend with a trip to Athens. The Dawgs beat up on the Tigers last year, but it's Georgia that enters Saturday's game battered and bruised. Mizzou should already be considered a threat in the East, but if the Tigers can keep bandages off their stripes, it'll be an exciting four-team race to Atlanta in the East.

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