Georgia Bulldogs: Derek Dooley
ATHENS, Ga. -- To this point, no decommitment has resonated more loudly during Mark Richt’s Georgia tenure than when Da’Rick Rogers flipped from the Bulldogs to Tennessee just before national signing day in 2010.
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So how does the rest of the SEC stack up? Well, we have our final power rankings of the year right here:
1. Alabama (13-1, 7-1 SEC): Total domination in the championship game and three titles in four years? A load of NFL talent on both sides of the ball? Alabama had it all (again), and even with a team that didn't exactly have the same sort of defensive talent as it did a year ago, the Crimson Tide still made it to the BCS title game and came away with a commanding 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in a game that was over when the Tide arrived on South Beach. With the talent Alabama has coming back, the Tide could once again be in the national championship picture.
2. Texas A&M (11-2, 6-2 SEC): Thanks to Johnny Football, the Aggies ended the season as one of the nation's hottest teams. There are some out there who think A&M might be the best team in the country, despite its two losses. Johnny Manziel was the nation's best player and even without Kliff Kingsbury helping him on the sideline against Oklahoma, he ran all over the Sooners for a bowl-record 516 total yards in a total rout. Imagine if both of those Aggies tackles return in 2013.
3. Georgia (12-2, 7-1 SEC): The Bulldogs capped off the 2012 season with a 45-31 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It wasn't exactly the bowl the Bulldogs wanted to be in, after coming up just yards short of making it to the BCS title game in Alabama's place, but you have to admire how this team came out and won like it did. Back-to-back SEC title game appearances is nothing for this team to be ashamed of.
4. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC): The Gamecocks had a legitimate shot at our No. 3 spot, but at the end of the day, Georgia's appearance in Atlanta, coupled with its 14-point bowl win, kept South Carolina behind the Bulldogs. Still, what a year for the Gamecocks. Behind the coaching of Steve Spurrier, South Carolina won 11 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Gamecocks also beat back-to-back ranked opponents to close out the season.
5. Florida (11-2, 7-1 SEC): After entering the postseason with arguably the country's best résumé, the Gators fell flat on their faces against Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Their 10-point loss didn't show just how bad the game was for Florida. The Gators might not have wanted to be there and Florida clearly didn't show up for its first BCS bowl since 2009. But you can't discount what Florida did during the regular season. It didn't have a pretty offense, but it defeated four top-10 teams, including ACC champ Florida State in Tallahassee in a year in which the Gators weren't expected to win nine games.
6. LSU (10-3, 6-2 SEC): The Tigers had a very up-and-down year, and it ended on a very down note with that last-second loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU was totally off its offensive game in the second half, turning to the pass more than the run. With that offense struggling in the fourth quarter, LSU's defense was left huffing and puffing as Tajh Boyd & Co. gutted it for three straight scoring drives. But LSU did win double-digit games for the third straight year, and it took Alabama down to the wire and beat Johnny Football.
7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 5-3 SEC): The Commodores ended the season in historic fashion, with a seven-game winning streak (the longest since 1948), and won five conference games for the first time since 1935 and nine total games for the first time since 1915. That ninth win came in dominating fashion with a 38-24 win over NC State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Commodores turned into the team that no one wanted to play at the end of the season, and they carry a ton of momentum into 2013.
8. Ole Miss (7-6, 3-5 SEC): The Rebels had quite the first year under new coach Hugh Freeze. For a program that won just six games in the two previous seasons, Ole Miss grabbed seven, including its first bowl win since 2009, this year. The depth was lacking all year, but the heart wasn't, as the Rebels were much more competitive and won three SEC games after entering the season on a 14-game conference losing streak. Freeze did a tremendous job of changing the culture in Oxford, but the players did a great job of responding to adversity all season.
9. Mississippi State (8-5, 4-4 SEC): A year that started with such promise after a 7-0 start imploded and led to a lot of criticism about the talent on both sides of the ball. The second half of the season proved the first seven games were a farce. A lot of the defensive deficiencies were masked until the month of November, as the Bulldogs went 1-5 to end the year, including a blowout loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
10. Missouri (5-7, 2-6 SEC): The Tigers would love to forget their first season in the SEC. This was supposed to be the Big 12 team that succeeded in its first year out of its comfort zone. This team returned too much not to win a few games in the SEC East. But injuries, most notably to quarterback James Franklin and that offensive line, and an offense that was constantly going in reverse made for a rough start in Missouri's new home. Offensive coordinator David Yost resigned at the end of the year, and this team has to find some sort of rhythm/chemistry on offense in 2013.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC): The Derek Dooley era ended with quite a whimper. For the second straight season, Tennessee missed out on the postseason because of a loss to one of its rivals. Last year, Kentucky ended the Vols' bowl hopes. This time around, Vandy's blowout win on Nov. 17 bounced Tennessee from a postseason appearance. For as much fun as the offense was to watch, the defense was awful for the majority of the season, finishing dead last in the SEC in total defense. New coach Butch Jones has some solid talent to work with, but a ton of questions surround this program.
12. Arkansas (4-8, 2-6 SEC): Many thought the Razorbacks' dreams of a championship season probably ended when Bobby Petrino took that infamous motorcycle ride in April. Boy, were they right. John L. Smith tried to bring some energy to the program, but he and his players fell flat in a 4-8 season that saw the Hogs give up 30 or more points in seven games. The offense lacked its usual explosion and the Hogs began the year 1-4, with a shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock, Ark.
13. Auburn (3-9, 0-8 SEC): On paper, the Tigers had a host of young talent, but on the field, they were outmanned just about every single weekend. Auburn roamed around the bottom of most offensive and defensive categories in the SEC all season long. Coach Gene Chizik was fired only two years removed from winning a national title after going winless in conference play and being outscored 129-21 in his final three SEC games, including a 38-0 loss to Georgia and a 49-0 loss to Alabama in the season finale.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC): Outside of blowing out a Kent State team that was a win away from making a BCS bowl, nothing went right for the Wildcats this year. Injuries ravaged this team, as it had to turn to two true freshman quarterbacks and never found a consistent playmaker to help out on offense. The offense hovered around the bottom of the SEC all year and the defense surrendered 31 points per game, and coach Joker Phillips was fired before the season even ended.
1. Alabama (12-1; last week: 1): No, Alabama wasn't perfect in its 32-28 victory against Georgia in the SEC title game, but talk about resolve. This team trailed by 11 in the second half, but fought back with a punishing running game and just wore down one of the most talented defenses around to throw itself into the Discover BCS National Championship against Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide will now play for their second national championship in a row, and third in four years.
2. Florida (11-1; LW: 3): The Gators didn't win their division and weren't in Atlanta, but it's hard to find a team with a better résumé. Florida finished the season with four wins against teams currently ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings. Three of them are in the top 10. Florida is headed to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009. The Gators will face Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.
Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?
In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?
The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.
If you think everybody else in college football is tired of seeing the SEC win all the time, try taking the temperature of fans in Baton Rouge, La., or Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., over how tired they are of seeing Alabama win all the time.
The Crimson Tide will be chasing history Jan. 7 in the Discover BCS National Championship game against Notre Dame when they go after their third national title in the past four years. The last team to win three outright national titles in a four-year span was Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
An Alabama victory in Miami would mark the seventh consecutive national championship for the SEC, which might have been as balanced and strong across the board this season as any of the seasons during its national championship run.
The final BCS standings looked more like the SEC standings. Six of the top 10 teams were from the SEC, and all six won at least 10 games.
And talk about beating up on each other.
Texas A&M, in its first season in the SEC, waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset Alabama 29-24 with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Georgia lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina back in October, but rebounded to make its second consecutive appearance in the SEC championship game. It wasn’t until the final play that Alabama’s 32-28 win over Georgia was decided last weekend in Atlanta.
Florida is headed back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009 thanks to a transformation in Will Muschamp’s second season that saw the Gators go from being soft at times in 2011 to one of the most physical teams in the league this season. Florida will meet Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl after collecting four victories over teams that finished in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina poised to win 11 games for the second straight season. It wasn’t until a year ago that the Gamecocks had ever won 11 games in a season.
The Aggies, who lost close games to Florida and LSU during the first part of the season, showed no signs of stage fright during their first season in the SEC.
So much for Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo, spread offense not being able to cut it in the SEC. The Aggies led the conference in just about every offensive category and scored 29 or more points in six of their eight league games.
It wasn’t just the old guard that made waves this season.
Ole Miss began the season shouldering a 14-game SEC losing streak, but first-year coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game, and probably more importantly, pinned a 41-24 whipping on rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.
The SEC has historically chewed up and spit out coaches, and this season was no exception.
Arkansas’ John L. Smith, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips and Tennessee’s Derek Dooley were all sent packing. In Chizik’s case, his ouster came just two years removed from winning a national championship, but the Tigers crashed this season with their first 0-8 SEC finish in school history.
It was also another gut-wrenching season for South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury in the Tennessee game and was lost for the season. He was already coming off a torn ACL in his other knee the season before.
On a more positive note, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will be in New York this weekend and has a great chance to become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Johnny Football may well become Johnny Heisman.
Offensive MVP: Manziel. While Manziel is admittedly a big video-game buff, his numbers this season weren’t from a video game. They just looked that way. He broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season and cranked out 4,600 yards while accounting for 43 touchdowns. He also saved his best game for the biggest stage by rolling up 345 yards in total offense against No. 1 Alabama in the Aggies’ 29-24 win.
Defensive MVP: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. This was an extremely tough call, and in any other year, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore would be runaway winners. But Clowney was the most explosive game-changer in the league this season defensively. He leads the SEC with 13 sacks and is second with 21.5 tackles for loss. Easily one of the best pass-rushers in college football, Clowney became a much more complete player this season as a sophomore.
Newcomer of the Year: Manziel. He was a redshirt freshman by classification, but played liked a seasoned veteran. One of the most impressive things about Manziel is that he learned from earlier losses against Florida and LSU, when he didn’t play as well, then proceeded to carve everybody apart down the stretch. He’s the first freshman in FBS history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The award for the top true freshman goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who leads the SEC with 1,260 rushing yards.
Biggest surprise: Ole Miss. Florida certainly deserves mention here. Not many people had the Gators winning 11 games and going to a BCS bowl back in August, which is a tribute to Muschamp and his staff. But nobody had the Rebels getting to a bowl game in Freeze’s first season. They’d lost 14 straight SEC games when he arrived. Not only that, but they were way down in scholarship numbers and forced to play a ton of first-year players. They scrapped their way to six wins, and it could have easily been eight or nine wins if they could have held on to a few fourth-quarter leads.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas. The Hogs went from No. 8 in the country and talking about a national championship in the preseason to sitting at home for the postseason. It was a disaster from the outset, and the team simply didn’t respond to Smith, who stepped in during the spring as interim coach after Bobby Petrino was fired. The Hogs finished 4-8 (2-6 in the SEC). They lost to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock the second week of the season, and it was all downhill from there.
Best game: Alabama 32, Georgia 28, Dec. 1, SEC championship game. The previous few SEC championship games had been blowouts, but this one went down to the final play when the clock ran out on the Bulldogs after Aaron Murray’s tipped pass was caught by Chris Conley at the Alabama 5. Georgia, which led 21-10 midway through the third quarter, drove from its own 15 with 68 seconds to play and no timeouts. But when Conley gathered in the deflected pass and was tackled inbounds, the Bulldogs had no way to stop the clock. Alabama rushed for an SEC championship game-record 350 yards, as the Crimson Tide’s offensive line took matters into its own hands in the second half.
1. Alabama (10-1; last week: 1): The Tide didn't have much competition lining up opposition over the weekend, but Alabama took care of business in dominating fashion. Then the team watched as Kansas State and Oregon lost, propelling the Tide back into the BCS title game hunt. Beat Auburn and Georgia, and Alabama is headed back to the national championship. Well played, Nick Saban.
2. Georgia (10-1; LW: 2): Georgia Southern and its triple-option offense really wasn't much of a threat to the Bulldogs, who are right in the thick of the national championship picture. Georgia is playing its best football of the year and it couldn't have come at a better time. A win over Georgia Tech this weekend, and the Bulldogs will be playing for a national championship berth when they face Alabama in the SEC championship game. Remember when all those Georgia "fans" were calling for Mark Richt's job? Yeah, you can sit down now.
3. Florida (10-1; LW: 3): The Gators don't win pretty, but somehow they are 10-1. Two FCS foes really challenged the Gators, but what's even crazier is that with a win over Florida State this weekend, Florida will be headed to a BCS bowl game and if Notre Dame loses, the Gators could be headed to the national championship. The Gators are where they are thanks to a fabulous defense and tremendous special teams. But if Florida wants to have a chance against the Noles, the offense has to be much, much better and it will really help if quarterback Jeff Driskel can come back healthy this week.
4. Texas A&M (9-2; LW: 4): Even without a bye week, the Aggies haven't lost any steam. The offense rolled over Sam Houston State on Saturday and now A&M takes on a banged-up Missouri team that is coming off of a very tough home loss to Syracuse. Johnny Manziel is now at the top of the Heisman charts and the Aggies really are playing for a chance to go to a BCS bowl game. This is the hottest team in the country.
5. LSU (9-2; LW: 5): If you haven't seen Les Miles' meltdown from the weekend, I highly recommend that you do. His team really doesn't look like it has any flops on it right now. The Tigers had a very close game with Ole Miss over the weekend, but that game always seems to be competitive. The offense has picked up in the past few weeks and while the defense stumbled some against the Rebels, it's still one of the best around. Like the teams in front of it in the power rankings, LSU is a win away from being in consideration for a BCS bowl game. If the Sugar Bowl is available, it'll be tough to keep the Tigers out of New Orleans.
6. South Carolina (9-2; LW: 6): Quietly, the Gamecocks have reached nine wins. South Carolina had early troubles with Wofford, which threw the ball only three times Saturday. But Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks have struggled against Wofford in the past. South Carolina was without star Jadeveon Clowney (sprained foot), but he should be back for the Clemson game this week. Don't be surprised if the Gamecocks were looking ahead a little bit to the Tigers. South Carolina is looking for its fourth straight win against archrival Clemson.
7. Vanderbilt (7-4; LW: 7): With a 41-18 drubbing of Tennessee, the Commodores have now won five straight games and have seven wins for the first time since 2007. One more win and Vandy will have eight for the first time since 1982. James Franklin has proved to be the real deal for the Commodores. This team is getting it done in all phases of the game and completely dismantled Tennessee in the second half Saturday. Wake Forest is in need of a win to become bowl eligible, but the Commodores roll in with a load of momentum.
8. Mississippi State (8-3; LW: 8): The Bulldogs regained some of the swagger they lost with three straight blowout losses in SEC play. Now, Arkansas has fallen on some real hard times in Fayetteville, but this was a win that Mississippi State absolutely had to have and it's a performance the Bulldogs needed as well. Mississippi State played arguably its most complete game of the season and quarterback Tyler Russell was about as efficient as ever. When this offense is clicking it's very hard to stop and it heads into the Egg Bowl with its confidence back.
9. Ole Miss (5-6; LW: 9): What an effort by the Rebels down in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss took LSU right down to the wire and became the first team to put up 30-plus points on LSU's defense. Ole Miss' 463 offensive yards are the most the Tigers have given up all season. But when the Rebels needed their defense to stand tall at the end of the game, it just couldn't stop LSU from finding the end zone and putting the game away. This makes three straight very tough losses for the Rebels, who still need one more win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. And they get a much more confident Mississippi State team Saturday at home.
10. Missouri (5-6; LW: 10): How the Tigers couldn't figure out a way to keep the ball away from Syracuse wide receiver Alec Lemon on the Orange's game-winning drive is beyond me. He abused Missouri's defense all night and then somehow was wide-open for Syracuse's game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left. Mizzou blew an early 14-3 lead and might have blown its bowl chances with the Aggies next on the schedule. The Tigers had to have that win over Syracuse and will now need to contain Johnny Football in order to make it to the postseason. Quarterback James Franklin was banged up again over the weekend, so the Tigers will yet again be monitoring his health this week.
11. Arkansas (4-7; LW: 11): The Hogs' long nightmare of a season is almost over. With the loss to Mississippi State, Arkansas lost its bowl hopes and will play its final game of the 2012 season at home against LSU. We saw some fight from the Hogs down the stretch after a horrible September, but this team was playing catch-up all season. Now, the program can turn its attention to finding a new head coach and starting fresh. No one in Fayetteville is happy about how the season will end, but they have to be relieved to get to the next chapter.
12. Tennessee (4-7; LW: 12): It was only a matter of time before Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart dismissed Derek Dooley, and there was no escaping it after the Vols were embarrassed by Vanderbilt. This was Dooley's most talented team, but it was probably his most disappointing season. The Vols are 0-7 in league play and own the SEC's worst defense. The writing might have been on the wall when all of those assistants left before spring practice. Like Arkansas, Tennessee's fan base has to be ready to get to the next stage of this program's life.
13. Auburn (3-8; LW: 13): Well, the Tigers left the Plains winners. It wasn't against a very challenging opponent, but at least the seniors could smile on senior day after such an ugly season that probably won't bring the Tigers a conference win. Now, Auburn will have to deal with all of the talk surrounding Gene Chizik and his future with the program. This is the fourth time Auburn has gone 0-7 in league play and it's overshadowing Chizik's national championship season in 2010. Auburn has one last chance of getting a conference win. Unfortunately, it will have to come against Alabama.
14. Kentucky (2-9; LW: 14): Like Auburn, the Wildcats left their home stadium with a win. Joker Phillips has one last game as Kentucky's head coach, but he'll finish his time in Lexington with a win on senior day, and you know that had to mean a lot to him. Kentucky has resembled an infirmary this fall with all the injuries, but the youngsters who came on in relief duty just weren't getting better week in and week out. The Wildcats, who are at the bottom of the SEC in major offensive and defensive categories, will end the season at Tennessee.
1. SEC championship matchup: By late Saturday night, we could know exactly who will be playing for the SEC title in Atlanta. Alabama kicks things off with its game against red-hot Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, while Georgia heads to the Plains on Saturday night to take on struggling Auburn. Neither of these games are gimmies, but Alabama and Georgia are favored and have the more complete teams. If the Bulldogs win, it'll be their second straight SEC East title, while Alabama would be winning the West for the first time since 2009. A loss by Georgia and Florida takes the East. A loss for Alabama, and it could come down to next week's game with Auburn to see who takes the West.
2. Tennessee's defensive changes: After so many bad defensive performances by the Vols, Derek Dooley said this week that he'll be much more involved with the defense going forward. That starts this weekend against a very banged-up Missouri team that has literally limped along on offense all season. But will Dooley's extra help make this defense that much better? He promised "major changes" but understands that he can't have a complete overhaul of things in just one week, and this unit might need exactly that. Still, taking on a struggling offense such as Missouri's could give this unit the confidence it needs to make some real positive strides this weekend.
4. Alabama's D vs. Johnny Football: We saw some holes open up in Alabama's defense last week against LSU. The players insist that things will get cleaned up this week, but the Aggies have an high-octane offense that could exploit Alabama's weaknesses, especially with a quarterback like Johnny Manziel. He has been the SEC's most exciting player and could pose quite a problem for this defense with his ability to run and throw. He's second in the SEC in passing and first in rushing. It comes down to being very sound and balanced on defense to contain him. Alabama's secondary gave up some big plays last week, and Texas A&M has a better passer and receivers for the Tide to handle.
5. Tide and Tigers fatigue: Last week's epic showdown between Alabama and LSU was great for TV, but it had to be very hard on all those bodies on the field. Both teams are a little nicked up this week, but expect to be relatively healthy for the weekend. Still, you have to think that these squads won't have the same amount of energy they had last week -- mentally or physically. That's a lot to ask after such a physical game. The Tide will need a lot of stamina to contain the Aggies, and LSU is dealing with a Mississippi State team that is looking to find its dignity after back-to-back blowouts. We'll find out a lot more about the character of both of these teams Saturday.
6. Bowl hopes: A handful of SEC teams are still looking to get to six wins, and could take crucial steps forward this weekend. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are both a win away, and the Rebels are essentially in must-win mode with LSU and Mississippi State looming. Vandy has had the Rebels' number recently and has all the momentum going into Saturday's game. Missouri and Tennessee are both sitting at four wins and the Tigers really can't afford to lose, because they end the season at Texas A&M. The Vols still have Vandy and Kentucky on the schedule. Arkansas is also fighting for its bowl life, but has to take on South Carolina in Columbia. However, the Razorbacks have had a lot of success against the Gamecocks recently.
7. Playing without Lattimore: It's life after Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. The true heart of the Gamecocks' team was lost for the season two weeks ago after suffering a devastating knee injury. Now, it's time for this team to proceed with the rest of its schedule without him. While he won't be on the field for the Gamecocks, he'll certainly be a part of this team and he'll provide major motivation. But how this team responds without Lattimore against Arkansas will say a lot about where it is mentally. South Carolina has running back options in Kenny Miles and Mike Davis, so the Gamecocks should still be able to run the ball. But can they stay focused?
8. Someone is going bowling in Oxford: Regardless of the outcome between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, someone will leave Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with a postseason berth. If the Rebels win, they will be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009, after combining to win only six games in the prior two seasons. A Vanderbilt win, and the Commodores will be bowl-eligible for the second straight season, and will have a chance to play in a bowl in consecutive years for the first time in school history. Talk about major turnarounds for both programs. Ole Miss has lost three of its past four to Vandy, including two at home, so it's not as though the Commodores will be intimidated by entering the Rebels' home.
9. Rediscovering that swag: After back-to-back blowout losses to Alabama and Texas A&M, the Bulldogs have lost all of the swagger they had for the first seven weeks. You can point to that soft early schedule and say that it masked a lot of the issues this team has on both sides of the ball. But Saturday is a chance for some redemption for the Bulldogs. They'll take on a tired LSU team that just missed out on taking the SEC West. Their spirits could be low, and if the Bulldogs are going to pounce and generate some momentum for the rest of November, Saturday is the time to do it. It has the secondary to really frustrate quarterback Zach Mettenberger, but does it have the offense to put up points?
10. James Franklin's confidence: Missouri's quarterback has been beaten up all season. Two shoulder injuries and a sprained knee have made him a shell of his former Big 12 self. Franklin has shown his toughness all season, but he was visibly shaken after throwing four interceptions in an ugly 14-7 loss to Florida last weekend. You can tell some of his confidence is gone, and if the Tigers are going to have a chance at making a bowl in their first season in the SEC, they need Franklin to rediscover his confidence. He's hurting, but he still has the ability to make plays, and Tennessee's defense gives him the opportunity to find some of those big plays he's used to making.
Arkansas (4-5, 2-3 SEC) at No. 8 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2SEC), Noon ET, CBS: The Gamecocks are rested from the bye and the hope is the emotions from Marcus Lattimore's season-ending injury won't hurt this team's mindset. Arkansas escaped Tulsa over the weekend and will have to play its most complete game to top South Carolina. Both have a lot to play for, as a BCS bowl is still in the cards for the Gamecocks, while Arkansas needs two more wins to grab a bowl berth.
Missouri (4-5, 1-5 SEC) at Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 SEC), 12:21 p.m. ET, SECNetwork: Both of these teams are in desperate need of a win. Missouri's offense has sputtered along in SEC play, while Tennessee's defense has been sliced and diced by its opponents all season. Something has to give on Saturday. With Texas A&M still on the schedule, the Tigers might have to get this win if they are going to go bowling, while another Vols win will help take a little heat off of coach Derek Dooley.
Louisiana-Lafayette (5-3) at No. 6 Florida (8-1, 7-1 SEC), 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network: The Gators begin two weeks of cupcake play with the Ragin' Cajuns. The next two weeks should be devoted to figuring things out in the passing game for the Gators. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is getting little help outside of tight end Jordan Reed. The good news for Florida is that Louisiana-Lafayette is 118th nationally in pass defense, so if the Gators are going to get some confidence back in its passing game, Saturday should be a good start.
No. 15 Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2 SEC)at No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS: With the Crimson Tide coming off of a very physical and a very emotional win over LSU, the Aggies don't give Alabama the best matchup this weekend. LSU provided a bit of a blueprint on how to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M's high-flying offense is capable of generating some yards and points on this Tide defense. Containing Johnny Manziel will be Alabama's top objective, while the Aggies will be looking to stop the Tide's bullish running game.
No. 5 Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) at Auburn (2-7, 0-6 SEC), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: A win for Georgia and the Bulldogs are heading to the SEC championship game for the second straight year. After being counted out (again), Georgia is in complete control of the East and is a win away from silencing a lot of those critics in Athens. Auburn finally got its second win of the year last weekend and has a new quarterback in Jonathan Wallace. The offense made strides against New Mexico State and this is a game that the Bulldogs can't overlook. It's a rivalry game and it's a night game in one of college football's best venues.
Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3 SEC) at Ole Miss (5-4, 2-3 SEC), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: When it comes to the postseason, this is a must-win for both teams. Vandy is cruising along on a three-game winning streak, while the Rebels are coming off of a blowout loss to Georgia. Ole Miss has dropped two straight to the Commodores and with LSU and Mississippi State remaining, this might be Ole Miss' best chance to get that sixth win. Things are really clicking for the Commodores, and they'll enter Saturday's game with a lot more momentum than the Rebels.
No. 21 Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 SEC) at No. 7 LSU(7-2, 3-2 SEC), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Tigers will likely feel quite the hangover from that tough loss to Alabama, but the Bulldogs are coming off of an embarrassing loss to Texas A&M. This will be another night game in Death Valley and the Tigers know they are still in line to reach the Allstate Sugar Bowl if they win out. LSU played its best offensive game of the season, while the Bulldogs have taken plenty of steps back on both sides of the ball in the past two weeks.
1. The East is Georgia's to lose: After being counted out heading into their big matchup with Florida, the Bulldogs are now atop the East again. That brutal loss to South Carolina appears to be nothing more than a distant memory in Athens. All those "for sale" signs fans gathered for Mark Richt's house will have to be used for more constructive means after Georgia topped Florida 17-9. The win didn't clinch the East for the Bulldogs, but they are firmly in the driver's seat with Ole Miss and Auburn as their only remaining SEC opponents. The Rebels are much better than they've been in two years, but Georgia likely will be a heavy favorite in that game, while Auburn continues to stumble along this season. House money is on Georgia to take the East, and if the defense feeds off its performance Saturday, the Bulldogs should cruise into Atlanta.
3. Florida needs more playmakers: The Gators have lived and died by running and smothering. But Saturday proved that if Florida is really going to rub elbows with the elites in college football, it has to find more offensive playmakers. Running back Mike Gillislee has been good, but he needs help from the passing game because teams are starting to crowd the box to key on him. Right now, tight end Jordan Reed is the only real reliable receiving target. Ironically, his fourth-quarter fumble sealed the Gators' fate against Georgia, but at least he was there to make some sort of play happen. Wide receivers Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond Jr. have been wildly inconsistent, while utility man Trey Burton just hasn't been very effective since the Tennessee game. Jeff Driskel will take a lot of heat for his critical errors and turnovers on Saturday, but he wasn't getting much help. Someone has to emerge to take the pressure off Driskel and Gillislee.
4. Hugh Freeze was the right choice: Some weren't sure whether Ole Miss got it right with Freeze. He wasn't a sexy name in the coaching world, and many thought the Rebels could do better. Well, after Ole Miss' 30-27 win over Arkansas, the Rebels are one win from being bowl-eligible for the first time in two years and matching their win total from the past two years combined. Freeze has totally changed the culture at Ole Miss and has made the Rebels relevant again. The offense has been fun to watch, and this team has real fight in it. Players admitted to giving up during games last year, but this year's team has really bought in to playing for four quarters. This team wasn't supposed to be remotely close to the bowl picture. Now, it's a win from the postseason, and Freeze is a major reason. He deserves to be considered for SEC Coach of the Year.
5. Another loss could seal Dooley's fate: If the magic number for wins for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is eight, the Vols will have to win out to get there. That means getting through November unscathed. It's manageable, with Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky left, but it isn't close to a guarantee. The Vols have to really be hurting after that three-point loss to South Carolina. The defense was abused again, and two Tyler Bray turnovers were costly. This team hasn't won a game in October under Dooley and now has to have a perfect November to reach a bowl game. This team swept November in Dooley's first year and has to do it again if it is to have a chance at eight victories.
2. South Carolina quarterback controversy: Sometimes you’d swear that Steve Spurrier almost likes controversy at the quarterback position. Then again, maybe he’s just such a perfectionist that his patience with his signal-callers is razor-thin. Either way, Spurrier is clearly down on Connor Shaw after the Gamecocks struggled on offense for the second straight week Saturday in a 44-11 loss to Florida. Afterward, Spurrier said South Carolina “stunk from the get go” and called it a “pitiful performance.” He didn’t place all of the blame on Shaw but noted that the quarterback missed several open receivers and was “still running all over the place.” Shaw was benched at halftime in favor of backup Dylan Thompson, and Spurrier said he didn’t know which way he would go at quarterback this coming weekend against Tennessee. Shaw has committed three turnovers in the past two games and been sacked six times, but the Gamecocks’ problems on offense run a lot deeper than just Shaw. They haven’t been able to run the ball effectively the past two weeks. Marcus Lattimore got just three carries against Florida, and the receivers aren’t making any big plays down the field. Shaw certainly hasn’t played his best football the past two games, but he is the same guy the South Carolina coaches were lauding earlier this month for being such a winner and the same guy who’s been playing through a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder.
1. Alabama (6-0; last week: 1): After a week off, the Crimson Tide ran right over Missouri in the first half before bad weather delayed the game. At that point, it seemed weather was the only thing that could stop Alabama. It pretty much proved true as the Tide dismantled the Tigers, holding them to a special-teams score and 129 yards of offense. Alabama outrushed Mizzou 362-3. Yeah, this team is pretty good.
2. Florida (6-0; LW: 3): Saturday set up like a trap game, and the Gators were pretty sloppy against Vanderbilt but again came alive in the second half. Jeff Driskel couldn't be stopped on the ground, rushing for 177 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-sealing 70-yard touchdown scamper. Florida still doesn't have much of a passing game, but the Gators can run and play defense. That goes a long way in the SEC.
3. LSU (6-1; LW: 4): The Tigers aren't done just yet. After stumbling out of the Swamp last week, LSU was the tougher team over the weekend against South Carolina. What was most impressive was how well that makeshift offensive line played. Three underclassmen started and pushed the Gamecocks' vaunted defensive line around. Like Florida, this team isn't a threat to pass, but it showed again that it can run with the best of them, registering 258 rushing yards Saturday. This team is still very much in the hunt for the SEC.
4. South Carolina (6-1; LW: 2): The Gamecocks were outplayed and dominated in the stats book by LSU, but lost by only two points ... in Death Valley. That's impressive. South Carolina did the little things for as long as it could to keep the Tigers at bay, but costly turnovers from Connor Shaw doomed the Gamecocks. Steve Spurrier and Jadeveon Clowney wondered whether some players were scared of the Tigers. That fear had better dissolve before the Gamecocks take on Florida this weekend.
5. Georgia (5-1; LW: 5): The Bulldogs were off, and the hope is that the defense received some major attention over the break. The good news for Georgia is that its second-half schedule isn't daunting. Florida is the toughest matchup, and the Gators could be a little sore after taking on South Carolina this weekend. If you think the Bulldogs are out of the East race after that extremely sloppy showing against South Carolina, you're sadly mistaken.
6. Mississippi State (6-0; LW: 6): The Bulldogs wanted to leave the weekend with more respect, and that happened after they should some resiliency against a Vols team that came charging back. While Tennessee put up some points, Mississippi State's incredibly talented secondary shut down Tyler Bray, holding him to just 148 passing yards. Quarterback Tyler Russell looks better and better each week. On the season, he has 1,382 yards with 12 touchdowns to one interception.
7. Texas A&M (5-1; LW: 7): Johnny Manziel is pretty good, wouldn't you say? I'm convinced he isn't a freshman. He might make his coaches nervous sometimes with his gunslinger mentality, but when a play needs to be made, he'll make it. Now, for as explosive as that offense is, the defense has had some holes in it this year. In the past three games, the Aggies have given up an average of 531 yards and surrendered 57 points to Louisiana Tech in Saturday's shootout win. Now, we'll see what Johnny Football can do against that nasty LSU defense.
8. Ole Miss (4-3; LW: 10): The Rebels finally did it. Nearly two years to the day, Ole Miss finally grabbed another SEC win. The Rebels' 41-20 win over Auburn stopped a 16-game conference losing streak, and it's obvious things are changing in Oxford. Coach Hugh Freeze really has changed the culture of that program, and players are buying in for the first time in a very long while. This offense has been very fun to watch, and if this team can cut down on turnovers, it could be a bigger threat to better competition.
9. Arkansas (3-4; LW: 11): After a miserable first month of the season, the Razorbacks have some life after two straight SEC wins. This team is back in the bowl hunt and is starting to see more consistency on offense. The Hogs might have hung 60 on Kentucky if not for a weather-shortened evening in Fayetteville. Arkansas enters its bye week with more confidence, and there's still a lot of pride flowing throughout this team.
10. Tennessee (3-3; LW: 8): The Vols had another valiant comeback effort but just couldn't get it done in the end. After racing back in the second quarter against Georgia two weeks ago, Tennessee battled back from a 13-point halftime deficit to Mississippi State. But that defense can't get off the field in the second half. This team has shown a lot of fight in its past two games, but it just hasn't been enough. Derek Dooley's seat is only getting hotter and hotter in Knoxville, and he's dangerously close to not reaching eight wins.
11. Vanderbilt (2-4; LW: 9): The Commodores had some really good moments against Florida, then had some old Vandy moments as well. This team couldn't stop the run to save its life Saturday, as the Gators racked up 326 rushing yards. You have to love the attitude this team plays with, but you need more than just attitude to win games. The Commodores have to finish drives and get more big plays out of the offense.
12. Missouri (3-4; LW: 12): The Tigers ran into a well-rested buzz saw over the weekend when Alabama came to town. The offense had no answers for Alabama's defense, and the only points the Tigers mustered came on special teams. Right now, punt returner Marcus Murphy is the best scoring threat this team has, as the offense continues to have major issues across the board. One bright spot has been defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. He leads the team in tackles and has been Mizzou's best player. But he can't do it by himself.
13. Auburn (1-5; LW: 13): Things are just getting worse and worse on the Plains. The Tigers made a change at quarterback, but the offense generated just 213 yards and turned it over twice after having the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than Ole Miss. The defense was again walked on by its opponent, and you can tell that not everyone is all in at Auburn. When you look at how far this team has fallen, it's hard to comprehend that it won the national championship in 2010.
14. Kentucky (1-6; LW: 14): If not for Mother Nature, the Wildcats might have surrendered 40 more points to Arkansas. The Hogs did whatever they wanted to a Kentucky team that has just been ravaged by injuries this season. That young talent has had to mature quickly, but growing pains are holding this team back. The silver lining for the Wildcats is that all of those youngsters are getting valuable playing time for the future.
And by the way, if you didn't know already, ESPN College GameDay will be in Columbia for the occasion.
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“I think Derek’s an excellent coach. I think he’s a guy that, given the opportunity, will turn that thing around because if you compare the players that they have there now to before, it’s really night and day. I think he’s cleaned up a lot that was left over and I think offensively, they’ve got a really good system. They’ve got some skill guys that are going to play in the league. They’ve got a tight end that can play in the league. Their quarterback will be in the league. They’ve got NFL players and they’ve got some talent. We’ll have to prepare and be ready to play because I think they’ve done a good job.” -- Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on facing Derek Dooley and Tennessee on Saturday
“Two years ago I wasn’t even looking at the defense. I was just so focused on getting the snap and going through my progressions. Now I’m able to see the defense and start picking up tendencies during the week, during the game and able to focus in on exactly what I’m doing and I think that’s why my decisions have been faster. I know where I’m going and making more plays.” -- Third-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray on how experience has helped him settle down and read defenses before taking a snap
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The Volunteers (3-1, 0-1 SEC) -- who visit Richt’s Georgia club (4-0, 2-0) on Saturday afternoon -- have one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks in Tyler Bray, some of the most explosive receivers in Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers, and one of the most productive tight ends in Mychal Rivera. And that volume of talent lets Richt know what he’d do if here were Dooley.
“If I had those receivers and that quarterback, I’d have a hard time trying to stay balanced,” Richt said. “I like throwing the ball. ... I don’t know if I would sit there and say, ‘Gosh, I’ve got to be totally balanced.’ ”
Tennessee probably presents the greatest offensive challenge that Georgia has faced to this point, ranking second in the SEC in total offense with 513.8 yards per game -- trailing only Georgia’s 530 ypg. The bulk of that yardage has come through the air, as the Vols are first in the league and eighth nationally in passing offense at 341.2 yards per game.
The trigger man, Bray, is tied for first nationally with 12 touchdown passes and is ninth with 325.2 passing yards per game. But he has struggled at times against the blitz -- he completed just 23 percent of his passes when Florida brought five or more rushers in the Vols’ lone loss -- and Georgia knows it must pressure and confuse Bray to effectively defend the pass.
“Some of the errors that he’s made recently had to do with him not seeing guys dropping out of coverage,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We are going to have to bait him into throwing some passes sometimes. If we can change it up while keeping sound coverage and don’t give up any big plays, then I think we’ll have a good shot at limiting them through the air.”
That is a highly similar scenario to one that derailed Mark Richt’s 2004 Bulldogs, who were undefeated, harbored national title hopes and walloped defending BCS champ LSU one week only to fall to 12.5-point underdog Tennessee the next. Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) can’t afford such a flat effort Saturday and look past an improving Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) club.
1. The gang’s back together
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Arkansas tried to steal the show Wednesday, as Knile Davis anointed himself as the conference's best running back for the second straight year and interim coach John L. Smith sent a barrage of one-liners through the main ballroom.
But get ready for the crowd Friday. That's when Alabama comes to town, meaning a cluster of Crimson Tide faithful will be packing into the Wynfrey and drowning out every bit of noise with a never-ending series of "Roll Tide."