Georgia Bulldogs: Austyn Carta-Samuels
Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.
That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.
The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.
Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.
You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.
And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.
Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.
That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.
Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.
Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.
So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.
- Missouri senior defensive lineman Marvin Foster has never started and injuries have repeatedly interrupted his college career. That hasn't stopped "Big Marv" from becoming the heartbeat of the Tigers, someone receiver L'Damian Washington called "the spirit of this team."
- In case you missed it, it's official: Florida has found its next offensive coordinator and it's Duke's Kurt Roper.
- Counting down the top plays from LSU's season, NOLA.com ranks Anthony Jennings' game-winning touchdown pass to Travis Dural against Arkansas as No. 2.
- A Q&A with Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who is coming off a difficult first season in Fayetteville, Ark., where the Razorbacks went 3-9.
- A look at four-star quarterback David Cornwell, who played his final high school season in Norman, Okla. (home of the Oklahoma Sooners) but is committed to the Sooners' opponent in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Alabama.
- The top moment in SEC champion Auburn's 2013 season? Easy. It's the "Kick Six."
- Ranking South Carolina's five best bowl wins and five worst bowl losses.
- With senior Austyn Carta-Samuels undergoing knee surgery and expected to miss the BBVA Compass Bowl, the transition to freshman quarterback Patton Robinette -- who played in place of an injured Carta-Samuels several times this season -- is officially underway.
Here are five things we learned around the league:
Division races going down to the wire: Both the Eastern and Western Division races will go down to the final weekend. Missouri's 24-10 win over Ole Miss means the Tigers can clinch the East -- in its second season in the conference -- by beating Texas A&M Saturday in Columbia. If the Tigers lose, South Carolina will win the division by virtue of its head-to-head win against Mizzou. In the West, Saturday's Iron Bowl will settle the division when Alabama visits Auburn. Right now the unbeaten Crimson Tide have the edge, but the one-loss Tigers would win the tiebreaker if they can upset the Tide.
Vandy's rabbit's foot still working: Vanderbilt backup quarterback Patton Robinette faked a jump pass to freeze a defender and ran for the game-winning touchdown against rival Tennessee with 16 seconds to play. This after Tennessee nearly stopped Commodores quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on fourth-and-inches, only to have the initial call that he was stopped short overturned on replay. Vandy now has back-to-back wins over its in-state rival for the first time since a run of six consecutive wins over the Volunteers from 1920 to '26. The Commodores (7-4, 4-4 SEC) have won four of their last five games after sitting at 3-3 early in the season.
Murray's starting streak could end: Georgia laid a vicious 59-17 beating on Kentucky a week after a devastating loss at Auburn, but an injury to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray put a damper on senior night. He injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return, and coach Mark Richt said afterward that the SEC's all-time leading passer is unlikely to play Saturday against Georgia Tech. Murray has started every game of his college career so far -- he matched David Greene's school record for career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- but the Bulldogs might have to rely on backup Hutson Mason against the rival Yellow Jackets.
More mayhem for Florida: Will Muschamp's job status at Florida already seemed to be in jeopardy -- despite recent assurances to the contrary from his bosses -- even before Saturday's 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern. But the Gators fell to 4-7 with Saturday's defeat -- the program's first to a current FCS program since losing against Villanova in 1946 -- even though Georgia Southern didn't complete any of its three passes. The Eagles ran for 429 yards and held off a final Florida drive to pull the upset. That doesn't bode well for the embattled coaching staff. Florida will fail to play in a bowl game for the first time since 1990 -- Steve Spurrier's first season in Gainesville when the Gators were ineligible to go to a bowl because they were on probation.
- Alabama punter Cody Mandell, a key player for the Crimson Tide on Saturday in its win over Mississippi State, has come a long way during his four years in Tuscaloosa.
- Auburn is focused on the upcoming Iron Bowl, but not before focusing on itself first and correcting mistakes in the recent win over Georgia.
- Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk did an admirable job filling in for injured starter James Franklin, going 3-1 as a starter in Franklin's absence, but now he must go back to the bench, something that isn't easy for the freshman at the moment.
- South Carolina still has a shot at a BCS bowl, something the Gamecocks have never been to before. Coach Steve Spurrier said "Oh, it matters a little bit, I guess."
- Texas A&M has a tough test ahead, trying to go into Death Valley to beat LSU, which is pretty tough to do given the atmosphere the home crowd provides.
- When LSU hosts the Aggies, there will be a rivalry renewed between LSU offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and Texas A&M defensive end Gavin Stansbury, a pair that knows each other well.
- Ole Miss committed five false start penalties on Saturday against Troy, which didn't make Hugh Freeze happy, but he doesn't anticipate it being a problem moving forward.
- Vanderbilt's ability to take the football away has Tennessee's attention as the two prepare to meet.
- Aaron Murray didn't get the championship he wanted while at Georgia, but he seems to be leaving as one of the most respected players in the program's recent history.
- Though the Gators were defeated, offensive coordinator Brent Pease appeared to show more creativity on Saturday against South Carolina than Florida usually displays on offense.
- Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels returned to action Saturday against Kentucky after a leg injury and said there should be no lingering effects as the Commodores prepare for Tennessee.
- With zero SEC wins and a 3-3 record, Mississippi State calls tonight's game against Kentucky a "must win" game.
- It hasn't been an easy season in new head coach Mark Stoops' first year, as the Wildcats are 1-5, but even with the struggles, Kentucky is playing with a winning attitude.
- One byproduct of a blowout win such as the one Alabama had last week over Arkansas is empty seats in the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Head coach Nick Saban's message to fans: Stay the whole game or give the tickets to someone who will.
- Missouri's offensive line has been stellar this season. The secret? Staying healthy … and ice cream, oreos and other assorted junk food from running back Henry Josey.
- The zone read has been an effective weapon for the Auburn offense and quarterback Nick Marshall has been critical to that success.
- LSU fullback J.C. Copeland will likely miss Saturday's game against Furman because of a concussion.
- Texas A&M only committed five penalties last Saturday against Auburn, but some of them came at critical times. They're still trying to limit their infractions.
- What will Dylan Thompson's start at quarterback in place of the injured Connor Shaw mean for Shaw, the incumbent starter, on Saturday?
- Tennessee's improvement on the defensive line must continue.
- Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt, who had a key interception against LSU last week, is becoming a leader on the Rebels' defense.
- Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said no decision has been made about his starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Texas A&M and hasn't ruled out Austyn Carta-Samuels, but he praised Patton Robinette's play in relief last week.
1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.
3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.
4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.
6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.
7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.
8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.
9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.
10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.
The speed typically increases as a talented, capable player grows more comfortable with what he's doing -- and that's why Shaq Wiggins' interception for a 39-yard touchdown last Saturday against Vanderbilt is an encouraging sign for the freshman cornerback.
“I was sitting there and lining up and trying to figure out what we're going to do and if we were lined up right,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “When I saw it on film, Shaq read it in maybe two seconds. He saw that nobody was blocking him and they made a mistake and just left him unblocked. He saw the quarterback go back and he took off in front of the man and just picked it off. That's definitely something you don't see out of many young guys this early in their career.”
This has been far from a banner season for Georgia's beleagured defensive backfield, but Wiggins is quickly emerging as a bright spot. He gave up a couple of long passes against Missouri -- including one for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a double pass -- but has also made some big plays.
He started for the third straight game against Vanderbilt and recorded both an interception and a pass breakup that was nearly his second pick of the game. He said learning how to make better use of his study time has helped him become a more productive defender, as he said he had seen the trick play the Commodores attempted before on film.
“I was kind of confused when all those linemen came out, so I knew it was either going to be a screen or a pass to the other side, to the other receivers. … I just kind of read it before those big linemen got some hands on me and just made a play on the ball,” Wiggins said.
The truly impressive part is that Georgia hadn't worked on that play at all, Jenkins said. The freshman simply made a quick decision that allowed him to short circuit the play before the Commodores knew what hit them.
“I'd never seen an alignment like that before,” Jenkins said. “That wasn't in our dress rehearsal, anything, and you've got to credit Shaq for that.”
“That is the kind of play Georgia's players are beginning to expect from Wiggins. He has already shot into the backfield on screen passes to record three tackles for a loss and generally displayed the competitiveness and speed that helped make him the highest-rated prospect in Georgia's 2013 signing class according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.
I called it before the game in an interview I did. They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins.” Defensive end Garrison Smith on Wiggins' pick-six vs. Vanderbilt.
“I called it before the game in an interview I did,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins. Some guys are just gifted with different abilities and he's just one of the guys that I can tell he's got great ball skills. That's one of the things he's good at, so I wasn't surprised at all when he did that.”
Like secondary mates Brendan Langley, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews, Wiggins is a freshman who was thrown into the fire because of the Bulldogs' lack of veteran depth at their positions.
They have all experienced their struggles, but a play like his pick-six confirms that the light is clicking on for Wiggins. The big plays he surrendered against Missouri were a painful learning experience, too, but the freshman believes difficult matchups against such high-caliber receivers as Vandy's Jordan Matthews and Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham will only help accelerate his development.
Even for a player so small that Jenkins joked with him that Wiggins “looked like a JV high school player playing up in college.”
“I look at myself every day in the mirror and it's always obvious that I'm probably the smallest guy on the field. I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Wiggins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10. “Like a lot of fans and other people say, 'He's too small, can't guard so-and-so receiver,' so I just kind of take that, keep that in the back of my head and make plays. The more plays you make, the more people will start believing in you and feeling comfortable with you on the field. I think I'm kind of proving that.”
Shaq Wiggins: A lack of turnovers has been a major issue for Georgia's defense this season, but freshman cornerback Wiggins provided an enormous boost when he quickly diagnosed a Vanderbilt trick play, intercepted an Austyn Carta-Samuels pass and returned the pick 39 yards for a touchdown. That gave Georgia a 17-14 lead and an enormous shot in the arm when Vandy seemed to have momentum on its side. Wiggins nearly had another interception in the second half, but settled for a key pass breakup. He finished the day with one tackle, one PBU and the first interception of his career.
Jordan Jenkins: Jenkins predicted before the season that he would record double-digit sacks this fall, but had only one at the season's midway point. He jump started his pursuit of that total against Vanderbilt, however, notching two sacks along with three tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and five tackles. Jenkins joked this week that he can't allow Ray Drew (who has a team-high five sacks) to lead the Bulldogs this season, and he finally took some steps toward catching his teammate on Saturday.
Ramik Wilson: By far the biggest play of the game involving Wilson actually went for a penalty against the Georgia linebacker. But it's not his fault that the officials completely dropped the ball on the play, when he broke up a fourth-down pass with a big hit on Jonathan Krause. The referees initially flagged Wilson for targeting, a 15-yard penalty that carries an automatic ejection, although the ejection was overturned upon further review. The 15-yard penalty remained, however, and Vandy got a free first down at Georgia's 15-yard line, which it turned into a touchdown to make it 27-21. The Commodores drove to Georgia's 13-yard line on their next drive before Wilson's 13-yard sack forced a third-and-extra-long and an eventual field goal to make it 27-24 Bulldogs. Wilson also recorded eight tackles on top of his sack and TFL.
But the Bulldogs have to win today first, and that has been more difficult for recent Georgia teams than one might expect. In two of Georgia's last three trips to Vandy, the outcome hung in the balance up to the very last play of the game. Considering how every Georgia game this season was up for grabs well into the second half, today's contest in Nashville could very possibly give Bulldogs fans further heart palpitations.
Record watch: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews could both claim SEC career records before today's game is over. Murray will almost certainly break former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's career record for total offense, as Murray's career total of 12,203 yards is just 29 behind Tebow's mark. Murray is also two touchdown passes behind ex-Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel's SEC-high mark of 114. Meanwhile, Matthews trails former Georgia wideout Terrence Edwards' SEC career record of 3,093 receiving yards by 97. He had 119 receiving yards in the Commodores' blowout loss to Georgia last season.
Offense losing power: It's no secret that Georgia's offense lost some of its effectiveness when tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett dropped out of the lineup with an array of injuries. Georgia might get Gurley and Bennett back for the Florida game, but the rest are out for the season, forcing the Bulldogs to identify new skill players to fill their spots. But it's still a work in progress. Georgia has 37 touchdowns of at least 20 yards since the start of last season -- the most in the SEC and third most in the FBS. The Bulldogs had at least one such touchdown in each of the first four games this season, but none in the last two since the injuries hit the lineup. Among the candidates to pick up the big-play slack: tailback J.J. Green, who had a 57-yard run last week against Missouri; wideout Rantavious Wooten -- who had a 48-yard catch last week -- receiver Reggie Davis, who hauled in a program-record 98-yard touchdown pass against North Texas, and Chris Conley, who has five career touchdown catches that covered 25 yards or more.
Matthews going long: Matthews leads the SEC in receptions per game (7.8) and trails only Texas A&M's Mike Evans with his average of 118.2 receiving yards per game. Most troubling for a Georgia secondary that is 12th in the league in pass defense (259.3 ypg) and 13th in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.0) is Matthews' ability to haul in catches for big gains. Since the start of last season, the Vandy receiver has 51 receptions that covered at least 15 yards -- the most for any wideout in the FBS.
Third-down trouble: It's no secret among Georgia fans that the Bulldogs' young defense has struggled on third down this season. The Bulldogs rank 13th in the SEC and 97th nationally, allowing opponents to convert 43.7 percent (38 of 87) of such opportunities. Georgia has forced a three-and-out 30.1 percent of the time (22 in 73 opponent drives), which ranks 94th nationally. What might make the issue seem even worse among Georgia fans is that the Bulldogs had been so effective in that department over the previous two seasons. Between 2011 and 2012, Georgia forced three-and-outs on 43.9 percent of opponent drives (161 of 367), which ranked fourth nationally. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the Commodores haven't been much better. They're 10th in the SEC and 82nd nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 41.4 percent (36 of 87). Making matters even worse for both teams is that their offenses haven't been particularly effective on third down, either. Georgia is 12th in the league in third-down conversions (37.3 percent) and Vandy is eighth (42.1 percent). Whichever team finds a way to be more efficient in those situations today might very well wind up as the winner.
Fun with QBR: Here's a somewhat bizarre stat for Georgia's maligned secondary. It has actually held the last four opposing quarterbacks below their season average in ESPN's new Total Quarterback Rating metric. Last week, Missouri's James Franklin posted a 70.6 adjusted QBR, his lowest in any game this season. In previous weeks, Tennessee's Justin Worley scored a 59.0, LSU's Zach Mettenberger a 90.2 and North Texas' Derek Thompson a 36.3. QBR rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale where 50 is average. Top quarterbacks are in the upper 80s and 90s, and the adjusted QBR accounts for the strength of opposing defenses faced. Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels ranks 88th nationally with a 50.2 adjusted QBR. He has struggled over the last four games, with his 48.1 adjusted QBR in a loss to Missouri ranking as his highest score in that stretch. Murray posted his lowest adjusted QBR of the season (82.9) last week against Missouri. He ranks third nationally with a 93.3 adjusted QBR this season.
- When playing teams not named Texas A&M this season, Alabama's defense has been dominant. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 5.2 points per game, 208.2 yards per game and one passing touchdown total to their other five opponents (the Aggies scored 42 points, had 628 yards and five passing touchdowns against Alabama). Also, the Tide are good about beating teams they're supposed to beat: they have won 43 consecutive games against unranked teams (last loss came Nov. 17, 2007 to Louisiana-Monroe).
- Arkansas is in the third game of a five-game stretch that has the Razorbacks playing teams currently ranked in the Top 25. That portion of the schedule has been a challenge: after a 3-0 start, the Razorbacks have lost four straight. During the 3-0 start, Arkansas allowed just 12.7 points per game and outgained those opponents by a total of 548 yards. Since then, the Razorbacks are allowing 38.8 points per game and have been outgained by 526 total yards in four games. They lost six consecutive games to ranked teams.
- How explosive has LSU’s new offense been? Consider this: LSU is second in the nation in total plays of 20 yards or more. The Tigers have 50 such plays through their first seven games, second only to Oregon (56). Compare that to 2012, when the Tigers had 59 plays of 20 or more yards all last season (13 games).
- Ole Miss has 73 missed tackles this season, which is the highest total among AQ-conference teams so far this season.
- Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is money on third downs. His Total QBR of 99.6 on third downs is best in the FBS and on pace to be the best by any player in the last 10 years. The highest third-down Total QBR for an entire season belongs to former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who posted a mark of 98.9 on third downs in 2010.
- Auburn makes the most out of turnovers it forces and has a knack for keeping its own turnovers from significantly hurting the team. The Tigers have a negative turnover ratio (minus-2), but they are plus-32 in points-off-turnover margin. Of the 11 turnovers Auburn has committed, opponents have only scored 10 points off of them, while the Tigers have scored 42 points off of their opponents' nine turnovers.
- South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw has been one of the more underrated performers in the SEC this season. One thing he has done well this season is take care of the football. He has the third-most pass attempts without an interception. Shaw has thrown for 10 scores and zero picks in 124 attempts, behind only Oregon's Marcus Mariota (165) and Nevada's Cody Fajardo (158).
- Tennessee has lost 19 consecutive games to opponents ranked in the Top 25. The last win the Volunteers have recorded over a ranked team came over their opponent on Saturday, South Carolina, back in 2009 when the Gamecocks were ranked 21st.
- Missouri is one of only two FBS teams in the country to win every game by at least 15 points this season (Oregon is the other). The Tigers have done it six times. The previous two seasons combined, Missouri only had five such wins.
- Florida's opponents have completed only 26.8 percent of their passes thrown 10 yards or longer against the Gators. That's the lowest rate allowed by an AQ-conference team.
- Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who earlier this season became the SEC's all-time leader in career passing yardage, is 30 yards away from passing former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow for the career total offense record. Tebow's total was 12,232; Murray currently has 12,203.
- Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels threw for more than 300 yards in each of the Commodores' last two games. The last Vanderbilt quarterback to do that was Jay Cutler in 2005.
On Huard's list, he had four players from the SEC. Alabama's AJ McCarron checks in at No. 4, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is fifth, Georgia's Aaron Murray ranks seventh and LSU's Zach Mettenberger is 10th. Huard bases his rankings on two factors:
1. Productivity at the collegiate level.
2. Pro skills.
Well, if Huard can look at the 10 best quarterbacks, why not cause a stir and rank the SEC's top 10 quarterbacks through the first four weeks? I'm looking at production and importance to his team.
Here's my top 10:
1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Well, Johnny Football looks focused as ever and leads the SEC with 1,228 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. He passed for a school-record 464 yards with five touchdowns in the loss to Alabama and has 255 rushing yards with five more scores on the season.
2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: He might have that loss to Clemson standing out on his 2013 resume, but Murray has been on fire with his right arm this season. He's averaging 346.7 yards per game and has seven touchdowns to two interceptions. Against South Carolina, he threw for 309 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
3. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: After a very up-and-down 2012, Mettenberger has found quite the rhythm. He's second in the SEC with 10 touchdowns and threw his first interception last week against Auburn. After barely averaging 200 yards per game last year, Mettenberger is throwing for 256.5 yards per game and has a QBR of 88.3 in 2013.
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: While McCarron could still be a Heisman candidate because of the Tide's current national championship quest, his numbers don't exactly jump out at you. But in the biggest game of the year -- the 49-42 win at Texas A&M -- McCarron threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns. On the season, McCarron has 702 passing yards with six touchdowns to two interceptions.
5. James Franklin, Missouri: After a year filled with nagging injuries, Franklin is healthy and is directing Mizzou's offense like he did back in the Big 12. The competition hasn't been great, but Franklin has, as he's averaging 291 passing yards and 60.7 rushing yards per game. Franklin has thrown six touchdown passes and has nearly 200 yards rushing yards with another score.
7. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: You could flip-flop Shaw and Wallace here, but Wallace gets the slight edge because of his importance to the team. Shaw's backup, Dylan Thompson, fills in nicely when Shaw is out. Still, Shaw has had a heck of a season, throwing for 661 yards and six touchdowns and rushing for 202 yards.
8. Austyn Carta-Samuels, Vanderbilt: Quietly, Carta-Samuels is fourth in the SEC in passing (889 yards). He has rushed for 63 yards and three touchdowns. But what kept him from being higher on the list are his turnovers. Vandy's new quarterback has thrown four interceptions, including two in the heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss.
9. Nick Marshall, Auburn: The former athlete/defensive back is starting to grow with every new snap he takes. He orchestrated a beautiful last-minute, game-winning drive two weeks ago against Mississippi State and has 809 passing yards. However, he has to cut down on his carelessness with the football. He has as many interceptions as touchdowns (four).
10. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He might have started the year as Tyler Russell's backup, but Prescott has been impressive since Russell was sidelined with a concussion in Week 1. It might be hard to take him out with the numbers he has put up so far. Prescott has thrown for 709 yards with three touchdowns and one interception and has a team-high 215 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Where: Hoover, Ala.
Big names in attendance: QB AJ McCarron, Alabama; QB Jeff Driskel, Florida; QB Aaron Murray, Georgia; QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU; WR Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss; QB Tyler Russell, Mississippi State; QB James Franklin, Missouri; DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Five biggest topics:
1. What's to be done about Johnny Football? There's no question that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has all of the talent to own the college football landscape in what likely will be his final season in College Station, but his off-field social media persona has drawn too much attention. Manziel is allowed to have as much fun as he wants. He's in college and he's young. But he's also one of the best college athletes around, and his team can't repeat what it did last season if he's not 100 percent focused. He, coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive lineman Jake Matthews will get bombarded with questions about controlling Johnny Football away from the field. What will Manziel's take be, and how will he handle the media circus?
2. This hasn't been the best summer for the SEC. Outside all of the Manziel social media drama, the SEC faced some embarrassing arrests during the offseason. The biggest scandal revolves around Vanderbilt's football program, which suspended and then dismissed four players during an investigation by the Nashville Metro Police sex crimes unit. The police and coach James Franklin have been quiet about the situation, but Franklin will have to address it. The earlier he does, the better. He might not have to give too many details, but meeting the incident head-on will save him from further scrutiny and questions. Sumlin also will be asked about the recent arrests of defensive backs Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven and the status of suspended defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. LSU coach Les Miles has been very quiet about running back Jeremy Hill's recent arrest and is letting it play out in the legal system, but chances are Miles will field plenty of questions about Hill and the effect on the team.
3. Four coaches are making their first trips to SEC media days: Arkansas' Bret Bielema, Auburn's Gus Malzahn (first as head coach), Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Tennessee's Butch Jones. All have made early splashes in their own ways, but it's time to deal with the circus that is SEC media days. We'll ask them all about their quarterbacks, offenses and early recruiting success, especially of Jones and Stoops. Bielema likely will field questions about comparing the Big Ten to the SEC ... and his Twitter account. Malzahn will be asked about getting Auburn's offense back to where it was when he was the offensive coordinator. These guys should have "fun" answering every single one of these, too.
4. Will Alabama make it three in a row? And which teams from the SEC can stop the Tide? We know that it's Alabama's world and we are all just trying to figure out the "process." Coach Nick Saban has all of the parts in place to win his third straight national championship and fourth at Alabama in five years. Saban & Co. will continue to talk about avoiding complacency and "fixing" whatever they deem isn't working at 100 percent. But what the country wants to know is who is ready to end the Bama dynasty? Can A&M tackle the Tide for a second straight year? Is LSU tough enough? Can Georgia's defense grow up fast enough? Can Florida's offense figure it out? Does Steve Spurrier have something up his sleeve? The people want to know!
5. There are a lot of unsettled quarterback spots. Auburn had a two-man battle this spring between veteran Kiehl Frazier and rising sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Both left the spring pretty even. Kentucky had three vying for the No. 1 spot in Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith. Whitlow has the slight edge. Missouri had James Franklin, Maty Mauk and Corbin Berkstresser fight it out. It looks like it's down to Franklin and Mauk, but coach Gary Pinkel has been quiet about it. Tennessee has Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman competing. Worley has the edge but little experience. And Vanderbilt watched Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette compete. Carta-Samuels has the lead, but Robinette isn't out of it.
Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.
Spring start: March 13
Spring game: April 6
What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.
2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.
3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.
-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation
Spring start: March 2
Spring game: April 6
What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.
2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.
3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.
-- David Ching, DawgNation
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 13
What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.
2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.
3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.
Spring start: March 12
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.
2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.
3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 13
What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.
2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.
3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.
Spring start: March 9
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.
2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.
3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 13
What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.
2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.
3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.
Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET
Sanford Stadium/Athens, Ga.
Records: Georgia 3-0 (1-0 SEC), Vanderbilt 1-2 (0-1)
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“We’re all competitive people and things happen and you learn from it and you move on. You know, make sure we keep our focus on the game and get ready to play a game on Saturday.” -- Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on his postgame argument with Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin last season.
“It kind of seems like these past three games it’s always someone going down. It presents some adversity, but I think Mark came in and did a very good job. I think he played very well. He had one play where he got Murray hit, but so did I and I’ve been starting for three games and I about got [Aaron] Murray decapitated.” -- Center David Andrews on how Mark Beard fared while filling in at left tackle last week against Florida Atlantic and how Andrews surrendered a second-quarter sack that resulted in a 15-yard facemask penalty against the Owls.
Recruit Comparison: Murray to Allen
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35