Georgia Bulldogs: Byron Moore

Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

Upon Further Review: UGA-Tennessee 

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
2:42
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ATHENS, Ga. -- If ever the old line “survive and advance” applied, it would have been after Georgia’s mistake-filled 51-44 victory over Tennessee. But the Bulldogs did survive -- and that keeps them undefeated entering Saturday’s SEC East showdown at South Carolina.

Let’s review some of what I learned from watching a recording of CBS’ broadcast of UGA-UT in this week’s “Upon Further Review.”

[+] EnlargeChristian Robinson
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireGeorgia linebacker Christian Robinson (45) celebrates after the Bulldogs' win over Tennessee on Saturday.
" I’m convinced that the biggest play in the game that didn’t involve a score or a turnover was when Malcolm Mitchell failed to field a Tennessee punt in the second quarter and it wound up rolling to the Georgia 1-yard line.

Georgia is up 27-10 at this point. Everything is working right. The offense is absolutely crushing Tennessee and the defense hasn’t given up a touchdown yet -- the Volunteers’ lone TD at this point is Byron Moore’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown -- but the train starts to veer off the tracks on this possession that could easily have started out near the Georgia 20 instead of up against the goal line.

The punt initially landed at the Georgia 17, and Mitchell was at the 11 at the time and clearly was indecisive about whether to try to field it. He thought about grabbing it at the 10 and again at the 5 (which would have been a really poor decision by that point), but opted to stay away.

Prophetically, CBS’ Gary Danielson said immediately afterward, “It might not pop up in this football game -- might not, but it could. But to beat the best, you’ve got to field those.”

Georgia’s offense went three-and-out -- and I should note here that on third-and-3, if Mitchell had done a better job blocking his man, Justin Coleman, on a Keith Marshall run to the right, perhaps Marshall could have picked up a first down instead of Coleman tackling him for a 1-yard gain and forcing a punt. Bad sequence there for Mitchell, who was later replaced by Rhett McGowan on punt returns.

" Georgia’s offensive balance has, in my opinion, been what makes the Bulldogs so difficult to defend. It’s tough for an opponent to give Aaron Murray and the passing game the attention it deserves when it has to focus on Marshall and Todd Gurley’s ability to make big things happen in the running game. The freshmen and the offensive line deserve a ton of credit again, as there were several runs in which they reached the secondary untouched -- seriously, I don’t think a single Tennessee player laid a hand on Marshall on either his 75- or 72-yard touchdown runs -- and that is obviously a bad sign for defenses, given their ability to make people miss in the open field.

Speaking of which, individual blocking credits on Marshall’s two long TD runs: 75 yards in the first quarter (Merritt Hall, Kenarious Gates, David Andrews), 72 yards in the third quarter (Jay Rome and Mark Beard cleared a huge hole and Andrews picked off linebacker A.J. Johnson to get Marshall loose).

That said, it will be interesting to see how well Georgia moves the ball when it’s obvious to everyone that they want to move it on the ground. The Bulldogs were completely ineffective in such a situation in the fourth quarter against Tennessee. They had three different opportunities to mount drives that would run some clock after Tennessee’s final touchdown made it a one-score game with 8:56 to play. Georgia’s final three drives: four plays, 12 yards, 1:25 time of possession; three plays, 4 yards, 1:49; three plays, minus-2 yards, 1:07. They’re fortunate that the defense bowed its neck and UT quarterback Tyler Bray made some big errors, because that was really bad.

At the end of three quarters, Georgia had 538 yards of total offense. In the fourth quarter alone, the Bulldogs picked up one first down and ran 13 plays for 22 yards (20 passing, eight carries for 2 yards). I will say that Murray made a great third-down pass over a leaping Curt Maggitt -- I mean a picture-perfect throw against a blitz that would have gone for a huge gain, if not a touchdown -- but it went straight through Rantavious Wooten’s hands at the 50 and Georgia was forced to punt. A completion there probably ices the game.

" Conversely, It was interesting to see how easily Tennessee moved the ball on the ground late in the game. At one point between the Volunteers’ last touchdown drive and the one that followed, they ran the ball on eight straight plays for 41 yards and three first downs and a touchdown. Every play went for positive yardage.

I’m sure Georgia was trying to respect the passing game in that situation -- and it didn’t help that defensive end Abry Jones was clearly not healthy yet -- but Todd Grantham’s guys are obviously not taking away the run first like they did a year ago. There was a 218-yard difference between Tennessee’s output on the ground in this game (197 rushing yards, right at 5 yards per carry) vs. its performance against Georgia last year (minus-21).

With South Carolina’s running game and an improving Marcus Lattimore ahead, that’s a huge red flag for Georgia’s defense.

" It would be unfair to describe Bray’s performance as awful, but it definitely left a lot to be desired. He passed for 281 yards and two touchdowns and made some crazy-good throws -- including a deep ball where a wide-open Cordarrelle Patterson had beaten Branden Smith and probably would have scored a touchdown, but he dropped the ball.

But Bray also made some horrendous mistakes, and not just by turning the ball over on each of the Vols’ last three possessions. Those were all bad plays, though. Both passes that Sanders Commings intercepted were poor throws -- one to the inside instead of outside to the sideline where Commings couldn’t have picked it; one was behind Zach Rogers, who tipped it up into the air and allowed Commings to make the interception; and he let Jordan Jenkins slap the ball from his hands after the pocket collapsed, causing a fumble that John Jenkins recovered.

Plus he missed open receivers on a couple of crucial throws that could have altered the course of the game. Early in the third quarter when Georgia was reclaiming control, Bray twice threw inaccurately on third-down passes that could have extended drives. On Tennessee’s first drive of the second half, he threw behind a wide-open Justin Hunter, who had beaten Smith, and the ball fell incomplete.

On the next drive, he nearly threw an interception to Alec Ogletree on back-to-back plays and whistled a pass to Hunter that barely missed him. Commings had fallen down in coverage and Hunter was open. Marc Deas blocked the ensuing punt and Georgia capitalized by driving for another touchdown and going up by two scores. Huge momentum change there.

" Speaking of that play, credit Deas for recognizing a tendency by Tennessee wingback Moore on the play and taking advantage of it. He told me after the game that Moore had been overstepping on his drop as he blocked and that left a crease for Deas to attack the punter. Sure enough, Deas started out on the far left on this punt, Moore dropped too deep and Deas cut inside him toward punter Matt Darr. Moore got a piece of Deas’ left shoulder, but he was still able to get his right arm free to block the kick. Very well done.

" Commings had a nice game. I think that SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week award he won today was well-deserved. Damian Swann had Georgia’s third interception and it was also highly impressive. Ogletree deflected a pass across the middle, tipping it high in the air, and Swann absolutely skied over Smith and Patterson and caught the ball with one hand at midfield. Tremendous athleticism there.

" Danielson saw Murray’s first touchdown pass to Michael Bennett coming even before Tennessee did. Bennett was lined up in the slot and Tennessee safety Moore had given him about an 8-yard cushion, prompting Danielson to draw a circle on Bennett on the screen just before the snap. Sure enough, he was able to cut in front of the UT safety and Murray whistled a TD pass to him for an easy score that helped Georgia go up 37-30. Good recognition there by Murray -- and by Danielson.

" The final score and the way things played out makes this an obvious statement, but this was a really sloppy game by Georgia. It seemed like I was consistently writing down about so-and-so blowing a blocking assignment or covering the wrong receiver or dropping a pass or not making an interception that was there for the taking. They can’t afford to make this many errors at South Carolina or it won’t work out so well.

A few examples:

  1. Bacarri Rambo tried to jump a pass route and went for an interception in first quarter. He doesn’t get to the ball in time and Tennessee’s Rogers makes a catch at the Georgia 35. He probably would have scored a touchdown there, except that he fell down. Rambo did come back with a big third-down stop to end that drive and force a field goal, however.

Georgia Top 10: Week 5 

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
7:00
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Tennessee nearly upset a sloppy Georgia club Saturday, but Mark Richt's Bulldogs survived to win 51-44 and remain undefeated entering Saturday’s SEC East showdown at South Carolina.

It’s somewhat hard to believe, given the considerable experience on Georgia’s roster, but two true freshmen -- tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- are near the top of this week’s UGA Power Rankings. The backfield duo combined for 294 rushing yards and five touchdowns in Saturday’s win against the Volunteers, which helped them surge past the team’s many veterans in the rankings.

Here is the full list after five games (last week’s rank in parentheses):

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Random thoughts from UGA-Tennessee 

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
7:00
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia survived on Saturday, but its 51-44 win against Tennessee was hardly a textbook victory.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
Jeff Vest/Icon SMIKeith Marshall and Georgia racked up the yards against UT.
Let’s recap some of the history we witnessed at Sanford Stadium and go over some other key points from the Bulldogs’ (5-0, 3-0 SEC) win that keeps them undefeated going into an enormous SEC East showdown against South Carolina (also 5-0, 3-0 after a 38-17 win against Kentucky on Saturday) next Saturday.

And by the way, if you didn't know already, ESPN College GameDay will be in Columbia for the occasion.

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Halftime Analysis: UGA 30, Tennessee 30

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
5:56
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Stat of the half: 20-0. Georgia seemed to be on the way to a blowout win when it went up 27-10 early in the second quarter, but Tennessee mounted a 20-0 run and actually took the lead before Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan’s 50-yard field goal at the buzzer made it 30-all at the break. The Volunteers capitalized on a pair of Bulldogs turnovers deep in Georgia territory to score touchdowns that gave them a brief lead.

Player of the half: Todd Gurley. Although he made a crucial mistake on a kickoff return that forced the Bulldogs to start a drive at their own 1, Gurley had an outstanding half otherwise. He went to halftime with 11 carries for 90 yards and scored touchdowns of 2, 1 and 51 yards.

What’s working for Georgia: Georgia outgained Tennessee 234 yards to 68 in the first quarter as the Bulldogs’ red-hot offense staked them to another big early lead. A week after jumping out to an early 27-0 lead against Vanderbilt, Georgia led Tennessee 27-10 within the first few minutes of the second quarter after Gurley’s 51-yard touchdown run.

What’s not working for Georgia: The Bulldogs’ offense has practically given away 20 points. Quarterback Aaron Murray had a first-quarter pass deflected by Corey Miller and intercepted by Byron Moore, who then returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. And late in the second quarter, Murray lost a fumble at Georgia’s 8 after being sacked, setting up a Tyler Bray touchdown pass to Zach Rogers that made it 27-23. Finally Keith Marshall lost a fumble at the Georgia 18, setting up a Bray touchdown pass to Rajion Neal that gave the Vols a shocking 30-27 lead.

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